John Cottingham: Can Life Have Meaning Without Gods?

(this article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, January 14, 2015.)

John Cottingham was born in London in 1943 and received his PhD from Oxford University. He is presently Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Reading and an Honorary Fellow of St John’s College, Oxford. He is a proponent today of the view that life is meaningless without a god.

In his recent book, On the Meaning of Life (Thinking in Action)Cottingham defends a supernatural conception of meaning. He maintains that being moral is necessary for meaning in life, but denies that it is sufficient—something else is needed for a life to be meaningful. Cottingham provides two reasons for thinking that a moral life is not sufficient for a meaningful life.

First, Cottingham argues that our endeavors must be successful in order to be meaningful. But only the god of traditional theism could order reality in such a way that our efforts will truly be successful, presumably because of the existence of an afterlife where justice reigns. Second, he argues that morality must be grounded in a god who issues moral rules that are eternal and absolute, in order for our lives to really have significance. Together these two claims serve as a reply to those who would advance a naturalistic account of meaning. Our moral ends are often thwarted in this world, thus we need another world to confer full significance on our actions. In brief, morality must have an objective basis in a god for morality to really matter.

But it is not only the existence of a god and a soul as necessary to confer meaning that interests Cottingham. He also argues that belief in their existence is necessary in order to encourage us to engage in moral projects; that is, the promise of eternal justice and eternal life inspires us to be moral. Thus Cottingham claims both that life cannot be meaningful without a god or a soul, and that such beliefs themselves motivate us to be moral. How do we maintain beliefs in gods and souls in the absence of sufficient evidence? This is where the religious life comes in; it encourages the moral actions and religious beliefs that give life meaning. As Cottingham puts it:

… because of the fragility of our human condition, we need more than a rational determination to orient ourselves towards the good. We need to be sustained by a faith in the ultimate resilience of the good; we need to live in the light of hope. Such faith and hope, like the love that inspires both, is not established within the domain of scientifically determinate knowledge, but there is good reason to believe it is available to us through cultivating the disciplines of spirituality. Nothing in life is guaranteed, but if the path we follow is integrally linked, as good spiritual paths are, to right action and self-discovery and respect for others, then we have little to lose; and if the claims of religion are true, then we have everything to gain. For in acting as if life has meaning, we will find, thank God, that it does.[i]

To summarize, without a god there would be no objective moral principles and without those principles life is meaningless. Furthermore, without a god we could not achieve moral ends and without doing so life is meaningless. Finally, without a belief in a god we would not be sufficiently inspired to be moral, and thereby not able to find meaning.

Brief Rejoinder – The biological and social basis for morality are well-known—morality is not supernatural. The claim that people aren’t motivated to be moral without believing in gods is too silly to merit reply. In my experience virtually all the worst people I’ve ever known claimed to be religious while the atheists and agnostics were almost always morally superior. Around the world,  the best places to live are the least religious and vice versa. Perhaps I just don’t understand him, but if I do the weakness of his arguments amazes me.

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[i] John Cottingham, On the Meaning of Life (London: Routledge, 2003).

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