Andrew Sullivan recently linked to an article by Jennifer Fulwiler in which she argues that her atheism and her belief that life is meaningful were in irreconcilable conflict and that the only way to resolve the conflict was to renounce atheism (she converted  to Catholicism). The best criticism of her implicit argument, that atheism implies that life is meaningless, that I have come across is from Will Wilkinson. Sullivan also published some of his readers’ comments, a few of which took the opportunity to express disagreement with Fulwiler about what makes life meaningful. In response to one reader’s comment, Sullivan said something that I found rather odd. I’ll quote the relevant portion of the reader response, followed by Sullivan’s rejoinder:

“We have a constant explosion of love and sadness through the enormous sweep of the cosmos and it makes us feel without meaning? If the Universe is anything, it is proof that meaning can be found in the smallest of existence, from atoms to neutrinos and down beneath it. It can be found in a virus if one has to look. The lesson of the Universe is not insignificance, the lesson of it is our mutual enormity. The Universe is loud with it.”

But this is God. It is certainly what I understand as God. Nonbelievers need to let go of anthropocentric, grey-bearded beings in the sky for God itself, the highest consciousness of all, and the force that gives this staggering beauty, available to us all, love.

It is very odd that nonbelievers are being admonished to let go of something that they explicitly don’t believe in. But what Sullivan thinks he means is that nonbelievers are confused about the real nature of God and that if they understood what God really is, then they (or at least many of them) would realize that they do believe in God. But this is deeply confused. Atheists have let go of the anthropomorphic sky deity because that is what an atheist is: someone who thinks that there is no such thing. Whatever else he may believe about the source of meaning, and whatever he may want to call that source, what the disbeliever disbelieves in is a personal creator.

Theism is the belief that there is an almighty person who created and sustains the universe. And thus atheism is the belief that there is no such almighty person.

Now, if Sullivan himself has let go of the anthropomorphic conception of God, and if he means by “letting go of” that he believes that this conception is false, then Sullivan is an atheist. Atheism is just the rejection of theism, and theism, to repeat, really is the belief that the world was created by an almighty person.  And so if Sullivan thinks there is no such almighty person, then he is an atheist (despite his repeated assertions that he is a Catholic). If he does believe that there is an almighty person, then it is very peculiar that he is admonishing atheists to give up the anthropocentric being.

But actually the above quote suggests that Sullivan has not completely let go of the anthropocentric being, for he tells us that God is “the highest consciousness of all.” This is an enigmatic phrase, to say the least, and its occurrence in this sentence is highly ambiguous. Is he saying that God is that consciousness that is highest of all, that is, higher than any other consciousness? Or is he saying that God is the highest consciousness of everyone; asserting that there is some kind of collective consciousness? Well, he doesn’t make this clear. But if he is claiming that there is some kind of highest consciousness, higher than any other, then it is pretty obvious that he has not completely let go of the anthropocentric bearded guy. For Sullivan is, on this interpretation, asserting that there is some kind of greatest conscious being, which is really not far from claiming that there is an almighty person.

But suppose he really does want to assert the proposition that there is some kind of collective or underlying consciousness of all of us. It is not at all clear why Sullivan would call that God. Did this consciousness create the universe? Did it send its only son to die for the sins of humanity? Did it die on the cross? And if he does want to say that this consciousness did all of these things, then he is most definitely conceiving of it as a kind of person.

Here is the upshot: Atheists deny that there is an almighty conscious creator. (They also, by the way, generally want to add that the supposition that there is such a conscious being does not at all help us account for any of the important aspects of life, including that life is meaningful). Theists assert that there is such a being. I don’t really know whether Sullivan is an atheist or a theist, and it doesn’t really matter. But when anyone asks questions such as, “Can life be meaningful on the assumption that there is no God?” or “Can atheism account for the fact that life has meaning?” we need to be clear about what we are talking about. When an atheist claims that life is meaningful even if there is no God, what this means is that the existence of an almighty person is not required for life to have meaning.

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