May 13, 2016

Dawkins and the meaning of life

How can life possibly have meaning when we’re just an accident of chemistry + physics + who-knows-what? Dawkins gave his answer, and it’s fascinating.

Many people have come face-to-face with the possibility that life is meaningless and have given up as a result. Others have said something along these lines: ‘Sure, life has no meaning. But so what? It’s about whatever meaning you give to it.’ Still others think life has significance, and that it’s found in some Greater Purpose, be it religious or otherwise.

I’m interested in the second group — those who think life has no meaning, but still live as though it does. And if you think about it, that’s probably most of the people you know.

Back in 2006, I had the opportunity to hear Richard Dawkins at an event at LSE [1] marking the 30th anniversary of his first book, The Selfish Gene. In his inaugural work, Dawkins gives us an explanation for life and the way we behave based on little more than the accident of our genes. Many who have read him have been forced to conclude that whatever meaning they thought life had, they were wrong.

As Dawkins gave his speech, he began to comment on this response to his work: ‘One of the oddest reactions to The Selfish Gene has been the desire expressed by more than one person to un-read it.’ He then went on to quote from a letter he’d received from a reader:

Fascinating, but at times I wish I could unread it […] On one level, I can share in the sense of wonder Dawkins so evidently sees in the workings-out of such complex processes […] But at the same time, I largely blame The Selfish Gene for a series of bouts of depression I suffered from for more than a decade […] Never sure of my spiritual outlook on life, but trying to find something deeper — trying to believe, but not quite being able to — I found that this book just about blew away any vague ideas I had along these lines, and prevented them from coalescing any further. This created quite a strong personal crisis for me some years ago.

When I heard him read the letter, I considered it a reasonable response from the reader. If Dawkins’ conclusions are correct, and your behaviour is effectively pre-programmed by your genes, then how can that be meaningful at all? In fact, why shouldn’t we feel depressed at this? But, bizarrely, when he finished reading the letter, the audience laughed. They actually laughed at someone experiencing a crisis of existence.

How does one answer this? How can life possibly have meaning when we’re just an accident of chemistry + physics + who-knows-what? Dawkins gave his answer, and it’s fascinating. First, he said, ‘If something is true, no amount of wishful thinking can undo it.’ In other words, there’s no point believing in some idea about life that you or someone else has made up. The truth is the truth, he says, so let’s face up to that.

I can agree with that. We’re not supposed to believe in nonsense, especially when we know it’s wrong.

But I wasn’t expecting what he said next: ‘There really never was any reason for these despairing reactions at all. It is a complete misunderstanding of what science can tell us about ourselves if we conclude from it that we are somehow diminished by it, by the truth. Our life is what we make of it.’

Hang on a second. Can you see the contradiction?

I absolutely agree that we don’t want to buy into wishful thinking about life; but how can we just invent the meaning, and then believe in it? Can we ever be truly (and lastingly) satisfied with a life that only has the meaning we invent? Is that really meaningful at all? Isn’t that the very essence of wishful thinking?

And yet, this is exactly the contradiction so many of us embrace in our day-to-day lives. We’re convinced that when we die, we rot, and in the end the whole universe is going to dissolve in heat. But then we act as if we’re doing stuff that’s meaningful, important, fulfilling, purposeful.

What if there was another way? What if we could rebel against the great narrative of our age that we are here by accident, and will vanish as quickly as we arrived? What if we could truly know what we’re here for, and why? I think that is exactly what Jesus Christ offers. The Christian faith is not wishful thinking, it is intellectually and emotionally satisfying. Come face-to-face with Jesus; his message and his claims, and you will find something utterly compelling. What hope can Dawkins offer people? None. Under the guise of self-defined truth and intellectual liberation, his conclusions have actually led many to despair. On the other hand, Jesus offers us the greatest hope we could ever have. In relationship with him, we no longer have to invent meaning, for infinite meaning is given to our existence. Isn’t that an explanation of life worth investigating?

[1] Darwin@LSE Public Lecture, The Selfish Gene: thirty years on, 16 March 2006. Transcript and audio available online:

Andrew Haslam

Andrew Haslam
Andrew is a church leader with a wife and three kids. He is a walking cliché in his enthusiasm for coffee and craft beer.

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