If God does not exist, then life loses objective value. This can be stated in various ways, such as that life has no meaning or no purpose without God or that life has no value without God. First of all, we must define our terms. What is value? What is meaning? What is purpose?
What is Purpose, Meaning and Value?
Something has value insofar as it serves a particular purpose. For example, a mug is valuable because it serves the purpose of being drunk out of. That is the meaning of its existence. That is why it was made. And it becomes worthless when it no longer serves that function. If a hole opens up in its bottom, and it is no longer possible to drink hot beverages out of it, then it no longer has any value. Unless you close up the hole, or repurpose it for some other function, it no longer has any value. If someone makes mugs with holes at the bottom, that’s absurd and it would be comical to us ( which I guess would give it a different purpose of being comical). So the meaning, purpose and value of the existence of things are all closely related. Something’s existence has value if it has a purpose, and its existence has meaning insofar as it serves a purpose.
Purpose, Meaning and Value Without God?
So let’s apply what we’ve learnt to human beings. Do human beings have a purpose? We saw with the mug that the purpose of it ( and therefore its value) is implied in the nature of the mug, imposed on it from the outside. So you can see how human beings no longer have a purpose ( and therefore no value) when they have no creator who gives human beings a particular nature with a particular purpose. Realize that the purpose of a thing’s existence also has implications for morality. If something has a particular purpose, then it must behave in ways that fulfill that purpose, which means that this purpose determines the content of morality. If we have to behave morally, then our objective purpose is to behave in certain ways. But where does this purpose come from? As we saw with the analogy of the mug, the purpose of the mug is assigned from the outside. It’s purpose does not “just exist.” To say that our purpose to behave morally “just exists” doesn’t make sense. Unless you want to accept that the purpose of human beings is assigned by blind biological processes, such as evolution, then you must admit that human beings have no purpose without God. If evolution assigns purpose to humanity, then the purpose of our existence is the same as any other living organism – to survive and pass on our genes. Bear in mind that if this is our purpose, then we are justified in behaving in whatever way would bring this about, even if that means behaving in ways that are normally regarded as unethical. If you are an unattractive man who cannot secure a mate, it would be justified for you to rape. If survival and genetic fitness required you to kill others, step on them or otherwise use them, then you would be justified in doing that. So, we know that this is an untenable position. The purpose of human beings cannot be assigned by biology. But, on a naturalistic worldview, if it is not biology that assigns our purpose, then what is it? Perhaps you will say that we can assign a purpose for ourselves. We can choose a purpose and live for it. Notice that this purpose is then subjective, not objective. The subjectivity of “selection” of purposes becomes very clear, when we again consider the impact that our purpose has on morality. If human beings can simply choose whatever purpose they want, then this is tantamount to nihilism. Someone can then choose the purpose of destroying human life, and you cannot say that he is wrong to do so. Since our purpose determines our morality, you cannot say that his purpose is immoral, because you would then be imposing the morality of your chosen purpose on his chosen purpose, and why would your chosen purpose be more authoritative than his? In addition, based on what are they going to choose their purpose? Impulse? Desire? Whatever they happen to regard as important based on their life experience? So to say that people can choose their own life purpose is tantamount to the admission that humanity has no objective purpose without a Creator, and therefore is tantamount to an admission of nihilism. If people can choose their own purpose then human purpose is not an objective reality in the same way that if people can choose their own morality then morality is not an objective reality.
One way to conceive of it is if God and God’s love is the basis for human value, then human value has an “anchor” in something that is metaphysically necessary. That is to say, it has an anchor in something which is unchanging, constant and couldn’t be different. On atheism, however, human beings are just contingent entities who change all the time. Your body changes constantly. Your personality changes throughout your life. You cannot be valuable in yourself, because there is nothing really constant about you. You are contingent and dependent in every sense. Even if there were something constant about you, it could not confer you with any sort of necessary value. This is why moral theorists have to appeal to increasingly mystical or semi-religious and seemingly supernatural concepts in order to get to the conclusion that human value is metaphysically necessary. They will do this by appeal to platonic ideals or intrinsic value.
Infinite Regress of Purpose?
You might object that in order for something’s existence to be valuable, the purpose for which it is created must be valuable as well. Here we see a distinction between value and purpose. So if human beings’ purpose is to serve God, then why is serving God valuable? So the atheist might say that this has only moved the problem back one level, without actually solving anything. But this is not necessarily the case. Is it valuable to be able to drink hot beverages? It’s a activity of leisure and people can live without doing it. But regardless of how valuable it is, that doesn’t change that the mug serves a purpose, and that it’s purpose is objective, being assigned by its creator. Its value is determined by the use there is for it. People clearly do find use for it, which makes it valuable. That is the extent of its value. It is not necessary to ask the question of whether it is valuable for people to drink hot beverages in order for the existence of the mug to be valuable. All that’s required is to observe that people clearly do drink hot beverages, regardless of why they do this, and the mug has value given that fact. The value of the mug is not constituted by the reason they drink hot beverages, but by the fact that they do. If people had good reason to drink hot beverages but never actually drunk hot beverages, a mug would be worthless all the same. Also, if God is a perfectly good being who knows exactly what is best for human beings, then his purpose for human beings should be the most valuable available.
An atheist might respond to the idea that God’s purpose makes our lives valuable, by asking what purpose God has to make his life valuable. Doesn’t the same problem apply to God’s existence? It may be all very well and good to say that God knows best for human beings, but what about God himself? God’s life doesn’t need to have objective purpose in order for our lives to have objective purpose in light of his. As long as we’ve established that he provides objective purpose, and that this purpose is valuable ( since he is our Creator and knows what’s best for us, indeed, that he knows everything) we don’t need anything else in order for it to be established that human beings have objective purpose, that this purpose is valuable, and that human lives therefore have objective meaning. Whether God’s existence has an objective purpose as well is irrelevant. Let’s use the mug example to illustrate this. The mugs are created by human beings for the purpose of drinking hot beverages. Do human beings need to have objective purpose in order for the mugs to have objective purpose? No. The purpose of the mugs has nothing to do with the purpose of human lives. The only meaning the existence of the mugs has is in the drinking of hot beverages. Anything outside of that scope is irrelevant to its existence. But God’s existence can have objective purpose because he can assign this purpose himself. But wait a second! Didn’t I just say that humans can’t assign their own purpose? So why can God do it? For two reasons. Human beings are contingent and temporary. Any purpose that they assign to themselves will also be contingent and temporary. Secondly, and probably more importantly, human beings are not perfectly good and not omniscient. This means that the purpose they assign to themselves will probably not be the best purpose ( and will be very far from the best purpose their lives could have). God’s nature is metaphysically necessary, which means that he exists in all possible worlds and is exactly the same in all possible worlds. God is also perfectly good and omniscient. This means that the purpose God assigns to his own existence is the best purpose he could have. God’s purpose then is to be true to his metaphysically necessary nature.
We’ve addressed the idea that the purpose itself needs to be valuable in order for there to be an objective purpose. We saw that the purpose is objective and it has value if it fills its purpose regardless of what one thinks of the value of that activity as a whole. The mug has a purpose and has value regardless of what value one places on drinking hot beverages. All that’s required for the mug’s existence to be valuable is the fact that people do drink hot beverages. If drinking hot beverages is itself an insignificant thing, that lessens the value of the mug’s existence, but it does not destroy that value.
Aren’t People Intrinsically Valuable?
Another possible objection is to say that human beings are intrinsically valuable. Their value does not depend on anything else. There are two problems with this idea. The first and most damning problem is that the notion of “intrinsic value” cannot be rationally defended. Why are humans intrinsically valuable? The very concept of intrinsic value prevents you from answering this, because as soon as you try to explain why human beings are intrinsically valuable you will have to appeal to things that are not human beings in order to explain it, which would mean that human beings are not intrinsically valuable. In short, intrinsic value defies any explanation. It is just a statement that cannot be defended. You may say that humans are intrinsically valuable because they are self-conscious or are rational or whatnot. These things may make you valuable in certain contexts, but there is no reason why it makes you intrinsically valuable. Notice once again that saying that humans are intrinsically valuable by virtue of self-consciousness or rationality by definition means that human beings are not intrinsically valuable, because then they are valuable by virtue of certain characteristics and not intrinsically. You will be able to find human beings who are mentally retarded to the degree where they are incapable of rational thought and perhaps not self-conscious either. So the notion that human beings are intrinsically valuable is literally indefensible, and the concept itself rules out any attempt to rationally justify it. Secondly, almost everybody recognizes that there are some circumstances where it is justified to destroy human life. If human life were intrinsically valuable, it could never be morally justified to end it. The fact that we recognize that human life can be justifiably ended, means that we recognize that the value of human life is contingent in at least some respects and that the value of a particular human life depends to some degree on their actions.