Andy Bannister and Michael Ruse discuss how atheists find meaning in life

Two horses fight it out, may the best horse win!
Two horses fight it out, and may the best horse win!

I’m summarizing the most recent episode of the Unbelievable show.


Atheist philosopher Michael Ruse joins Justin as we spend a second week looking at Andy Bannister’s new book ‘The atheist who didn’t exist’.

Its amusingly titled chapters include ‘The Peculiar Case of the Postmodern Penguin (or: Why Life without God is Meaningless). Michael and Andy debate whether it’s a problem that atheists can’t have meaning with a ‘capital M’.

Here is a summary of the discussion between Ruse and Bannister, and my comments below the summary.

The MP3 file is here.


  • Ruse: ultimate questions are serious questions, and some religions are attempting to provide serious answers to those questions
  • Ruse: there is a psychological element to belief in God but it’s not a complete explanation, but it can apply to non-belief as well
  • Bannister: there are psychological reasons why people would prefer unbelief (quotes Thomas Nagel and Aldous Huxley)
  • Bannister: (to Ruse) what do you think would follow next if you got new information that caused you to believe in God?
  • Ruse: I’d feel scared, I’d think of all the reasons that God would dislike me, rather than any reasons why God would save me
  • Bannister: according to the Bible, God is not so much interested in mere belief, but in active trust in him
  • Ruse: without being smug, I just completed 50 years as a college professor of philosophy, and I have a sense of worth from that
  • Ruse: if God turns up, and says that 50 years of being a professor is not good enough, well, I don’t know God, I’m sorry, I did my best
  • Brierley: Andy, explain to us this story of how a penguin explained to you how he invented a subjective meaning in life for himself?
  • Brierley: (reads the story)
  • Bannister: when it comes to reading a book, the real meaning is the meaning the author intended the book to have
  • Bannister: readers can inject their own meaning into the book that has nothing to do with it, but the author gives the real meaning
  • Bannister: meaning in life is like reading a book – you can make up your own meaning, but the author’s meaning is the real meaning
  • Brierley: (to Ruse) on atheism, is there any objective meaning?
  • Ruse: “obviously, someone like myself cannot have meaning with a capital M in that sense”
  • Ruse: the real question is and atheist can find a sense of self-worth, “I find that I’m happier within myself, I can find meaning”
  • Bannister: what would you say to someone who drinks away the family inheritance and gets the same sense of happiness you have?
  • Bannister: what would you say to all the people who are unable to get “a sense of self-worth” from their career, because of where they are born, sickness, etc.
  • Ruse: I have nothing to offer them, some people are born into such awful situations that they are bound to be bad people
  • Ruse: these unfair accidents of birth, etc.,  fits with atheism better
  • Ruse: what we should do is change society so that more people can build a sense of self-worth through achievements
  • Ruse: that way, they can say to God “I used my talents” so they can create feelings of self-worth and happiness (apart from God)
  • Bannister: meaning in life cannot be answered without answering questions related to identity, value, which are rooted in the overall worldview
  • Bannister: on the Christian worldview, you have an infinite worth, your value isn’t determined by circumstances, earnings, friends, etc.
  • Bannister: your value comes from what Jesus was willing to pay to save you, namely, giving his own life for you
  • Bannister: when I travel to meet other Christians in other parts of the world, they have a happiness that should not be there if they are getting happiness from wealth, fame, achievements, etc.
  • Bannister: but when you come to the West, many people who have wealth, fame, achievement, etc. are unhappy
  • Ruse: well maybe who look after a flock of sheep every day may get a sense of self-worth from that, or from other jobs
  • Ruse: I do take Christianity very seriously, it is a grown-up proposal to answer grown-up questions – it works if it is true
  • Ruse: we don’t have to follow Nietzche’s statement that if there is no God, there is no meaning in life – we can find a middle way, we can achieve meaning in life by using our talents to achieve things
  • Bannister: I disagree with Michael, I don’t think that the meaning you invent for yourself is authentic meaning
  • Bannister: distracting yourself with amusing things and happiness is not an answer to the problem
  • Brierley: (to Ruse) are you saying that you have searched for ultimate meaning, and you are settling for subjective meaning?
  • Ruse: my subjective meaning is not second class to objective meaning, “I feel a real deep sense of achievement, of meaning, of self-worth, of having used my talents properly, and I don’t feel in any sense a sense of regret” (what matters to him is how he feels)
  • Bannister: notice how Michael keeps bringing in value judgments. e.g. – “use my talents well”, that implies that there is a right way and a wrong to use your talents, which assumes an objective scale of right and wrong, which makes no sense in atheism
  • Bannister: an atheist can sit in a sun room and enjoy the feelings of happiness generated by the light and heat of the Sun, without asking whether there is a Sun out there
  • Bannister: ultimately, at the end of the day, my concern is not whether something makes me happy or makes me feel fulfilled
  • Bannister: ultimately, at the end of the day, I think there is only one real reason to wrestle with these questions of meaning, and that is to find truth
  • Ruse: sometimes we reach a point where we cannot get to true answers to some questions, sometimes we look for truth, but then give up and confess “I cannot find it” and then move on from there

Is it possible to dispense with God’s advice on your decision-making and achieve something that affects a lot of people, or makes people like you, or makes you famous, etc., and then have that please God? “Look, God, I did something I liked that affected a lot of people, and made them feel happy as they were on their way to Hell because they rejected you”. Will rap musicians answer God by pointing to 50 years of leading people away from chastity with godless music? A lot of people went to see the “NWA” movie that celebrated musicians who have an anti-Christian view of women and violence. Can NWA present their “artistic work” to God and claim that God should be pleased with their successful efforts to get rich and famous? Having feelings of achievement doesn’t mean anything to God.

So what is the standard? How you imitate Jesus – self-control, self-denial and self-sacrifice to honor God – that is the standard. If I had to choose between giving up two hours of my life to summarize this discussion for my readers, and all the fame and fortune that people who make godless TV shows, movies and music have, I would choose to make this debate summary. My goal in life is not to have fun, thrills, travel and feel happy in this world. I have a Boss. Doing without fun, thrills, travel and happy feelings in order to put points on the board for my Boss is objectively meaningful. It’s may not seem like much compared to what James Bond does in million-dollar movies, but at least I am wearing the right uniform, and playing for the right team.

I was telling Dina recently, isn’t it remarkable how rarely in our culture that people actually talk about the big questions? If you look out at the culture, everything seems to be about feeling good, having fun, being liked by others. Not much about ultimate questions, and certainly not a truth-based assessment of the alternatives. .

One thought on “Andy Bannister and Michael Ruse discuss how atheists find meaning in life”

  1. Ruse: my subjective meaning is not second class to objective meaning, “I feel a real deep sense of achievement, of meaning, of self-worth, of having used my talents properly, and I don’t feel in any sense a sense of regret” (what matters to him is how he feels)

    He believes his subjective meaning is more important than objective meaning???? Where do they find these people??!?!

    Instead of Michael Ruse, maybe they should’ve invited someone who tried ‘grounding objective meaning/morality apart from God’:

    Richard Boyd, D. Brink, P. Railton, or even the theistic philosopher Richard Swinburne (claims to be a Christian?)…..

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