Friday, January 8, 2016

The Absurdity of Life With or Without God: A Reply to William Lane Craig

Introduction: The Human Need for Meaning

The annals of human history tell a familiar story. Were sentient extraterrestrial beings to read our histories, they would surely take note of our persistent labor to find our place in this world. Questions litter the pages of human history, pondering our identity, our reason for being, and our future. The struggle for survival seems to have birthed the struggle for meaning, for something more to the life we fight for than the mere hope of continued existence. Awakened into greater awareness with the development of human cognition, we find ourselves repeatedly asking, "Why?" - a characteristic which has been regarded by many as unique to our species.

Innumerable men and women have sought answers to these questions, and some claim to have found them, in religion. What we are is children of God. Our reason for being is that we were created by God, and, for some believers, our future is determined by the relationship we have with our creator. Life has meaning because God has given it meaning. We have a purpose because God, who created us, created us with purpose.

Yet the postmodernist wants to live without God, and without faith, as we hear from many a pulpit today. The man of the world and the woman of the world think they have moved beyond the need for God, beyond reliance on antiquated religious doctrines and dogmas. But without God, life ends at the grave, and if all concludes in death, what point is there to any of it? Dostoevsky is often cited for saying, "Without God, everything is permitted."

Christian philosopher William Lane Craig paints a vivid picture of this harrowing outlook in his essay, "The Absurdity of Life Without God." Setting aside the issue of whether or not Christianity is true, Craig attempts to show that the alternative - which he considers to be atheism, or naturalism - is untenable, unlivable, and awful. Life without God is absurd, he says, too absurd to be a rational decision about how one should live. "It seems to me positively irrational," writes Craig, "to prefer death, futility, and destruction to life, meaningfulness, and happiness."

Indeed, if this tremendous sense of decay and despair is actually what is entailed by living without God, perhaps we ought to rethink our doubts. One way in which Craig tries to underscore that a consistently godless life is absurd is by reference to atheists such as Nietzsche, Sartre, and Camus. The message is that these non-believers recognized the meaninglessness of their own worldview, and therefore serve as something like 'eyewitness testimony' in support of Craig's thesis.

However, the absurdity that Professor Craig shoulders atheism with in his essay is absurd primarily because it eschews certain theological notions of meaning, purpose, and value. Although part of the hopelessness is allegedly that life ends at death, even immortality would not count for anything unless it was God-given immortality. Thus, it all rests on God in Craig's argument, and life without God is absurd because, essentially, it's life without God. God is the only thing able to make life meaningful.

This is quite a contention, requiring more than just the supposed lack of objective value and cosmic purpose on a naturalistic worldview. Can meaning just be created into life, and the absurd vanquished, by the hand of a deity? In this article, I will contend that Craig under-appreciates the weight of absurdity - namely that he neglects a full treatment of the subject as it has been articulated in Camus, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard. I suggest that his criteria for absurdity are weighty only insofar as they reflect this fuller understanding of the absurd. I will likewise argue that absurdity of this sort does not undermine atheism, but recommends it, in that it reveals the absurdity of even life with God.

My aim here will not be a comprehensive defense of Camus; specifically, I will not be diving far into the deeper aspects of his philosophy, such as his ethics. All I intend to show is that absurdity, it might be said, is a two-way street concerning theism and atheism. I begin with a summation of Craig's central claims, followed by a discussion of Camus' conception of absurdity, as well as the absurd in Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. From there, I proceed to a critique of Craig's position, and then some final comment on living the absurd life.

I. Godless to Absurdity

If there is no God, then man and the universe are doomed. Like prisoners condemned to death, we await our unavoidable execution. There is no God, and there is no immortality. And what is the consequence of this? It means that life itself is absurd. It means that the life we have is without ultimate significance, value, or purpose.1

For Craig, absurdity arises out of the absence of ultimate meaning, purpose, and value. Call these latter the Big Three. Throughout his essay, Craig has two main points to drive home: first, that life needs the Big Three to avoid being absurd, and second, that life can only have the Big Three with reference to God. A life that terminates in us passing out of existence, with no immortality and no God, is an absurd life.

The first point is a common intuition for many people. We like to think our lives have importance because of how they affect others, or because some of what we do can change history, but in the grand scheme of things, it appears to make no real difference. Craig is willing to grant that we partake in such "relative significance," while still emphasizing that none of it amounts to much. A lot of little meanings may satiate us for a time, but they are no substitute for Meaning with a capital M.

The threat of non-being looms large over every pleasure, every day, and every relationship. Science tells us the universe itself will one day become cold and lifeless, and so the fate of every creature is the same. What difference would it make if we had never existed, or if the universe had never existed? "This is the horror of modern man," Craig declares, "because he ends in nothing, he is nothing."

It would be a mistake to believe, however, that extending life indefinitely could suddenly make it mean something. If the short span of a lifetime is already without meaning, it is not clear how adding infinity to it would give it meaning. What is needed is a source of life's meaning, one capable of giving it a truly lasting significance. Nothing in this life seems able to fit that extraordinary bill. Most of us desire love and compassion in our lives, yet these come and go, and they end with death as well. If our fate is the same regardless of how we act, then why be loving or compassionate, anyway?

An uncreated universe, even if eternal, is a purposeless universe, according to Craig - a mere "cosmic accident," an absurdity. I said in the previous section that this view of absurdity is labeled as absurd primarily because it eschews theological notions about meaning, purpose, and value. Here we see this made most plain. Whatever meaning, value, and purpose might exist in this life, none of it can be of cosmic or ultimate significance if the universe is just the product of unintelligent, purposeless chance. Thus, Craig writes:

...if God exists, then there is hope for man. But if God does not exist, then all we are left with is despair. Do you understand why the question of God's existence is so vital to man? As one writer has aptly put it, "If God is dead, then man is dead, too."

God alone can make life meaningful in the sense demanded by apologists like William Lane Craig. To say life is absurd is not to say it lacks any meaning, purpose, and value whatsoever, but that it lacks the right kind of meaning, purpose, and value that could elevate it above absurdity. As noted already, it is a common intuition that some greater, larger picture of significance must exist in order for all the little treasures underneath to have import. This intuition is frequently defended as one defends the most cherished of desires, with passion and conviction and an overwhelming sense of need. It is certainly defended this way by Craig, who stresses the "gravity" of the alternatives in so desperate a statement that if God is dead, "man is dead, too."

Yet ambiguity remains. What exactly constitutes the right kind, or right recipe, of the Big Three is not as easily reasoned as it may be intuited. Particularly when we are talking about what may be a consistent and livable existential attitude - for any of us individually, or for humanity generally - it seems like there will be far too much speculation involved behind any black-and-white, one-size-fits-all answer. Though we all do share in something called the human condition, we also exist in relatively different and unique circumstances, and we are each accustomed to various modes of being in the world, which can change over a lifetime. To propose that there is one perfect cocktail of meaning, purpose, and value that suits all of us, in all the diversity of our positions, may in fact require the existence of an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good creator to orchestrate such a fantastic miracle!

If nothing else, though, we can surely say that Craig's favored recipe for meaning depends on his understanding of the absurd. For Craig, absurdity is more of a mindset than a reality. It is a problem to be cured. The life of the atheist is absurd only in that she does not acknowledge God, and so has no claim to ultimate significance, purpose, and value. Absurdity on this view is practically a placeholder for irrationality. Craig says of the godless perspective that it is "utterly without reason." The absurd life is living with the irrational belief that we inhabit a godless universe.

II. Divorced From Life

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus describes the absurd feeling as being divorced from one's life. We encounter a tragic divide between our desires for reality and reality as it really is, perhaps most of all in those humbling conscious moments of suffering and trauma. The desires we have for unity, purpose, and order clash with our experiences of a world that seems not to care about us, our dreams, or our plans. The absurdist finds herself a stranger adrift in a foreign world with no lights or illusions, unable to remember where she has come from and unaware of where she is heading. If she denies the absurd, she lives an inauthentic life, as if the world is so little different from her desires that the incongruities presented to her are not really incongruities at all.

For Camus, the absurd is fundamental to who we are. Our consciousness is what separates us from the world, what gives rise to absurdity.

If I were a tree among trees, a cat among animals, this life would have a meaning, or rather this problem would not arise, for I should belong to this world. I should be this world to which I am now opposed by my whole consciousness and my whole insistence upon familiarity. This ridiculous reason is what sets me in opposition to all creation.2

The human condition is uniquely human in that we are consciously separated from the world in which we live. The same cognition that allows us to reason also isolates us from the rest of the universe. To be conscious is not just to think, it is to remember, to imagine, to desire, and, at certain times, to be aware of these things. We wish for much more than that our biological needs be met. We not only have a concept of the world, but we have the concept of what we need from the world, and what we need for our very existence to be meaningful.

Yet the world is silent to our pleas for this ultimate meaning, and no higher reality or perfect being can spare us from this fact. "What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me?" Camus asks. "I understand only in human terms. What I touch, what resists me – that is what I understand." Even if a god exists, and has endowed the universe with its purposes, there remains doubt that these purposes would matter to us. Thomas Nagel, in his own essay on the absurd, interprets Camus as saying that "the world might satisfy [our] demands if it were different." In opposition to this, Nagel claims absurdity derives "not from a collision between our expectations and the world, but from a collision within ourselves."3 However, Camus' point is not just that the world has no seemingly in-built meaning to it, but that we, as the conscious and reasoning creatures we are, do not even belong to this world.

For the world to meet our demands, we would have to be the world. Likewise, we would have to be God in order for God to rescue us from absurdity. Such radical alternatives seem almost unthinkable, though, in that they would undermine the human condition itself. Instead, we know and experience the world as alien - we find ourselves afloat in a universe that shows no concern for our ontological needs, desires, or hopes. But oh, how we still need, and desire, and hope! We long for ultimate meaning, that we might be reunited with God, the world, and the totality of it all. However, this is not the existence we have, and if some day it should be, it will mean the end of the self. At the depths of our being, we feel the weight of the absurd.

Many people have collapsed under the burden of absurdity. Camus wrote The Myth of Sisyphus to address the question of suicide, which is commonly seen as the end result of life losing its value and meaning. One way of responding to the absurd dilemma is to deny one of its components. It may seem as if those who commit suicide have done the only reasonable thing in light of meaninglessness (this, in fact, looks to be an undercurrent in Craig's essay). But suicide does not actually stem logically from nihilism, Camus points out, when the decision to end one's life is to make a value judgment that life is not worth living. Rather, suicide is a denial of the absurd in that it removes the self from the world, and so eliminates half of the dilemma.

The absurd can also be denied through what Camus calls philosophical suicide. This is when we trade in the real world for comforting illusions. Religion tells us our desires for purpose, order, and unity can be met by God, or by a world beyond this one. Certain belief systems even have it that such desires are instilled by God to show us our need for him and bring us closer to him. Camus sees existentialism as another philosophical suicide, since it deifies the absurd, and so merely mystifies capital-M Meaning. On both views, the world is not silent to us, but has just what it is we are looking for, whether we know it or not.

Camus finds significance only in accepting life on its own terms, which has everything to do with acknowledging its absurdity. This is best exemplified in Sisyphus, that figure of Greek myth condemned to roll a rock uphill for eternity. Despite laboring under an aimless fate, Sisyphus carries on and takes his actions and his labor into his consciousness. In doing so, he silences all the idols and his fate becomes his own. "In the universe suddenly restored to its silence," Camus writes, "the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up." The fragility of existence becomes clear to those who see life as it is and not as they wish for it to be. Sisyphus knows the whole extent of his condition, and yet that lucidity which threatens him also "crowns his victory."

Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth. They are inseparable. It would be a mistake to say that happiness necessarily springs from the absurd discovery. It also happens as well that the feeling of the absurd springs from happiness. "I conclude that all is well," says Oedipus, and that remark is sacred. It echoes in the wild and limited universe of man. It teaches that all is not, has not been, exhausted. It drives out of this world a god who had come into it with dissatisfaction and a preference for futile sufferings. It makes of fate a human matter, which must be settled among men.4

Our condition is absurd whether God exists or not. Happiness, taken in an important sense of well-being, knows this. The Greek word often translated as happiness, eudaimonia, comes from two separate words meaning "good" and "spirit." While this can mean having virtuous character, it also suggests a wellness of being, or put in a more familiar phrasing: it is well with my soul. Human nature is fundamental to Aristotle's conception of eudaimonia, and there is recognition of the need for modesty, to acknowledge our situation and our limitations. Seeing our condition as it is, seeing the absurdity of life, is not antithetical to happiness, it is, for Camus, paramount to happiness.

III. Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and the Absurd

Nearly a century before Camus, Kierkegaard wrote on the absurd. Of it, he says in the Journals:

What is the Absurd? It is, as may quite easily be seen, that I, a rational being, must act in a case where my reason, my powers of reflection, tell me: you can just as well do the one thing as the other, that is to say where my reason and reflection say: you cannot act and yet here is where I have to act ... The Absurd, or to act by virtue of the absurd, is to act upon faith ... I must act, but reflection has closed the road so I take one of the possibilities and say: This is what I do, I cannot do otherwise because I am brought to a standstill by my powers of reflection.5

This is one way of viewing the distance between the human being and the world. At some times, our mind pushes us towards what the world will not allow. We find reason retreats from decision, but we are unable to abstain from acting, and so we leap. We encounter the absurd in that interaction between our will and unyielding reality.

For Kierkegaard, the absurd demands faith. Truth, he writes in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, is "the daring venture of choosing the objective uncertainty with the passion of the infinite."6 If one can apprehend God objectively, one does not have faith. It is because one cannot do this that one must have faith. To maintain faith is to remain committed to objective uncertainty, according to Kierkegaard. Here, faith seems to be of first importance, not merely in a manner that keeps the absurd alive, but as a triumph of the believer. Faith brings hope. Thus, Camus says that by his "frantic adherence," Kierkegaard "is led to blind himself to the absurd which hitherto enlightened him and to deify the only certainty he henceforth possesses, the irrational."7 In short, "Kierkegaard wants to be cured."

Interestingly, Craig makes no mention of Kierkegaard in his essay, although he has elsewhere described him as "a bona fide fideist" who believed there is "ultimately no warrant for Christian belief."8 Of further intrigue is that Craig characterizes Kierkegaard's view as motivating the leap of faith by "showing how life lived apart from God ultimately degenerates into despair, boringness, and languishing in absurdity." As just pointed out, however, Kierkegaard's concept of the absurd actually seems closer to Camus' than Craig's. Camus may have criticized Kierkegaard for allegedly wanting a cure for this absurdity, but it appears clear that absurdity is not merely a life apart from God on Kierkegaard's account. This is even supported by Craig's own observation that the Danish philosopher thought Christianity itself absurd because of the incarnation. Why such Christian absurdity is not addressed or referenced at all in an article covering the absurd life and its relation to God is difficult to understand.

Craig does at least reference other absurdists in his essay, such as Nietzsche and Camus. In a few paragraphs, he draws on Nietzsche's famous tale of the madman who proclaims the death of God, and in another line he mentions the philosopher's break with Wagner over anti-Semitism. This is all the attention Nietzsche receives.

What does the death of God mean? Various commentators have contributed various thoughts on the declaration, but among them there has also been a good deal of general agreement. For Nietzsche, God's death meant the end of the systems of meaning and value that had sustained much of the world for centuries. When the madman says that, "We have killed [God] - you and I," the message is that our old ways of living and being in the world are now gone, and we are responsible for their destruction. Nietzsche does not say that their demise came about because people stopped believing in God. On the contrary, the madman realizes he has come too early; humanity is not yet ready to give up its obsolete evaluative traditions.

It should perhaps surprise no one that Nietzsche, author of The Antichrist, did not think the death of God could be solved by returning to the old faith and the old God. The madman's cry is not for the prodigal children to come home, for there is no going back. The 19th century saw advances in science, education, history, politics, religious criticism, and more, which helped escort humanity into a new age. With each new age and the changes it brings, we are forced to reconsider our place in this world, including where we stand in relation to our former structures of meaning. Like all traditions, Christianity continually turns to ask what its fundamental teachings mean today, in the modern world.
Nietzsche did not speak of the absurd as openly as Kierkegaard and Camus, but his works bear traces of it. Camus wrote of the absurd divorce between man and his world, and we see this divorce come from reason itself in Nietzsche. In the article, "Camus and Nihilism," Ashley Woodward explains as follows:

...for Nietzsche and Heidegger, the unity and existential meaningfulness of life depends upon continuity with an irrational background, a horizon of interconnected meanings and significances that orients our projects. For such thinkers it is precisely the turning of the light of analytic reason on every aspect of this background that has cut us off from it, diminished its significance, and set us adrift.9

It is not hard to take from this why an intellectual turn back towards God cannot resolve the absurdity Nietzsche finds in the death of God. He states in Twilight of the Idols, "One must reach out and try to grasp this astonishing finesse, that the value of life cannot be estimated. Not by a living man, because he is a party to the dispute, indeed its object, and not the judge of it; not by a dead one, for another reason."10 What of God? If God partakes of life, or if he is life - additionally, if he is being, as Tillich thought - then he is just as much party to the dispute, and object of it, as we are. On the other hand, if God is beyond life, or outside of it, then we are confronted again by Camus' question. What can meaning outside our condition mean to us?

IV. God and the Absurdity of Life

We have now seen that, according to three of the major thinkers on meaninglessness, absurdity is about more than the choice to live without God. The absurd is not a mindset, nor is it simply that the world itself is without a priori meaning. Life's absurdity comes from the relation of the mind to the world. Like all else, Camus says, "the absurd ends with death." As noted before, even if God has created the world with ultimate purpose, value, and significance, it cannot matter to us, since we are separated from the world by our condition, by our consciousness. Absurdity remains.

Camus insists that in attempting a solution, we remain faithful to the absurd, and do not simply negate one of its terms in our response. He, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard agree on where absurdity arises, and all seemingly also agree, in their own way, that the absurd requires revolt. What interests me at this point is their shared conception of absurdity - coming from two atheists and a Christian - and how it contrasts with Craig's concept of absurdity. Craig agrees that the world itself is not absurd, but he does not agree that the absurd is in us and the world taken together. He believes, perhaps unlike even Kierkegaard, that God is a definite cure for the absurd, indicated by the entire argument of his essay.

As mentioned, Craig has it that absurdity arises from living with the irrational belief that we inhabit a godless universe. The atheist's life is absurd in either being consistent with their beliefs and thus living mired in despair, or in living inconsistently. "If one lives consistently, he will not be happy," Craig writes, "if one lives happily, it is only because he is not consistent." Additionally, this implies that it is not just the existence or non-existence of God that matters, but whether or not one believes in God. An atheist living without God in a universe where God exists would still be living an absurd life, according to Craig. This is much like Nagel's take, referenced above, that were the world different (having God in it), the absurd would not arise.

Note where the tension lies on this view. The atheist thinks she can live meaningfully without appeal to God. The fact of it is, though, that the meaning she needs can only come from God. She is unable to obtain Meaning on her own for all the standard theological reasons: she is imperfect, she is separated from God by sin, she lacks the requisite power or the goodness needed to make an adequately meaningful life for herself. This is her condition, and it is the human condition. Romans 3:23 says that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," as Jeremiah 17:9 declares the heart is "deceitful above all things, and desperately sick." 1 John 1:8 warns that, "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us."

How are those who live meaningful lives with God able to do so? "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this is not from yourselves," states Ephesians 2:8-9. "[I]t is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast." All these passages appear to suggest that we possess a fallen nature that cannot be overcome by any effort on our part. Grace is what ultimately saves the day, grace that can come from God alone. The apostle Paul speaks in the New Testament of two alternatives: being a slave to sin or a slave to Christ. We are left with no third option of making our own way. Our will collides with an unyielding reality, for even our desires to be saved, to enter into eternal life, and to live morally cannot be achieved except by divine will.

I do not want to over-stretch the comparison here. The Christian view does seem to say our desires for significance can be met. Even so, something of a paradox exists in that while nothing we do really grants us salvation, somehow salvation is given, and not indiscriminately, but to those who 'call on the Lord.' Another way of emphasizing what Kierkegaard and Camus have said of the absurd is by observing that we are incomplete, we are not whole. The point of most spiritual or self transformation is to be at home again, to no longer feel separated from reality, the world, or God. Craig believes it is possible for that to happen, but what he calls the absurdity of life without God belies a deeper problem, one where we are all incomplete and sinful. In our earthly, fleshly, human condition, we bear witness to this separation.

The problem is that this is where we are now. We are not yet in eternity or united with God in celestial bodies. We exist in and struggle with a world that does not answer to our demands for unity, purpose, and order. We may believe the world shows these things in itself, or that God has bestowed meaning on life, but these are inferences, suppositions, and hopes. Absurdity comes to us not as belief, but as conscious experience, the lucid feeling of disconnection. Blake spoke of psychic disintegration, Marx of alienation, and Christian theology talks of a God-shaped void. Though these ideas have their differences, to be sure, they communicate a common, powerful sense of the awareness of our divorce from life. The very core of Craig's essay, arguing our need for God, tells of something important we are missing.

It might be tempting to ask, 'What if God made us differently, in a way that we would not be divorced from life?' This question is already a step towards illusion, as are all the imaginative ideas that come with it. It is to surmise that the human condition might be other than it is. Of course, one can worry that this is too quick, and begs the question against other positions. Still, we seem aware of our separation from the world, especially when we struggle and contemplate our existence. Craig himself cites the familiar observation in his essay that man is the only creature who asks, "Why?" The same impulse that moves us to count ourselves as a special creation calls attention to the loneliness, the isolation, of humanity in the universe.

If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. -John 15:19

The author of John expresses why Craig's account of absurdity is inadequate. In saying that God and immortality give us meaning, Craig places the cure for absurdity firmly outside this world, this life, and our condition. As such, it is presently unattainable. Explaining the "success" of biblical Christianity near the end of his essay, Craig remarks that on his view, "man's life does not end at the grave," and, "[i]n the resurrection body man may enjoy eternal life and fellowship with God." These are the conditions that make life meaningful for Craig. We are destined for another world, and yet we find ourselves in one where we do not belong, one which allegedly only has meaning in leaving it behind. Can that other world really matter much to where we are now?

No, say Nietzsche and Camus. If this life were to have meaning, it would be meaning that affirms this life, rather than meaning that negates it by turning existence itself into a means to some other end.

Conclusion: Living With the Absurd

Is it truly impossible to live consistently and happily with absurdity, as Craig has claimed? We have already seen the beginnings of one answer in Camus. Where happiness involves something like well-being, and an awareness of one's condition is implied in that, it is not so challenging to envision how recognition of the absurd can contribute to happiness. As Avi Sagi notes in Albert Camus and the Philosophy of the Absurd, Camus' call to picture Sisyphus as happy is "a notion close to the Aristotelian model, which approaches happiness as a by-product of self-realization. The individual who lives the absurd realizes human existence to the full, and is therefore happy."11

Craig's reason for denying one can live happily and consistently with the absurd appears to revolve exclusively around an analogy from Francis Schaeffer.

Modern man, says Schaeffer, resides in a two-story universe. In the lower story is the finite world without God; here life is absurd, as we have seen. In the upper story are meaning, value, and purpose. Now modern man lives in the lower story because he believes there is no God. But he cannot live happily in such an absurd world; therefore, he continually makes leaps of faith into the upper story to affirm meaning, value, and purpose, even though he has no right to, since he does not believe in God.

First, note the presumption behind where meaning, value, and purpose are located in this universe. Schaeffer locates them in only one story, conveniently the same story where God is located. More than this, though, there is no differentiation between different kinds of meaning, value, and purpose. In this respect, the analogy begs the question. Craig acknowledges that a world without God can still have "culturally and personally relative, subjective judgments" about meaning, value, and purpose. I have previously noted the common intuition that people have about the necessity of capital-M Meaning for grounding all the little meanings, and I have also noted the very daunting challenge this intuition invites for justifying any one 'perfect cocktail' of meaning above all others. It seems to me that placing meaning, value, and purpose solely on the upper story is an unwarranted assumption.

Second, Schaeffer's assertion that modern man "continually makes leaps of faith into the upper story," though he has no right to, is supported in Craig's essay by nothing else than accusations of inconsistency in the statements and behavior of select atheists, like Sartre and Camus. However, these allegations do not prove the stronger claim in Schaeffer's analogy. Even if some atheists have tried to have their cake and eat it too, it does not follow that this is the case across the board. Granted, Schaeffer's analogy is exactly that - an analogy - but since it is all Craig really brings against the possibility of living happily and consistently with absurdity, it deserves the scrutiny. It is also certainly debatable whether any of the examples Craig uses actually shows inconsistency.

To take one such example, Craig alleges that "Camus has been rightly criticized for inconsistently holding both to the absurdity of life and the ethics of human love and brotherhood." If life is meaningless, how can you have values like love and brotherhood? Again, there may be a bit of a bait and switch going on, for it sounds as if Craig is dismissing those subjective judgments he elsewhere concedes to a godless world. If we take him as consistent in not dismissing them, then we might find reason to question his claim about Camus.

We must find a way to live with the terms of the human condition, rather than abandoning absurdity through denial, by philosophical or physical suicide. Camus saw that to live in the face of the absurd is to adopt a stance of metaphysical rebellion. Yet, perhaps paradoxically, a value also emerges from it. The absurd, he observes in The Rebel, "is contradictory in its content because, in wanting to uphold life, it excludes all value judgments, when to live is, in itself, a value judgment. To breathe is to judge".12 In Cartesian fashion, Camus takes the absurd as primary, as his starting point, since his project is to see if one can live "without appeal." Yet the value that emerges from his exclusion of value judgments is a value that comes from experience, from facing the absurd, and not from presupposition.

"The point is," Craig explains, "that if there is no God, then objective right and wrong cannot exist. As Dostoyevsky said, 'All things are permitted.'" Camus' valuation of life is personal rather than an eternal value. At the same time, it is tied to the core of his being, for not wanting to deny the absurd through suicide, he must continue to be, and continuing to be is to find value in living. If all things are permitted, why not this? But Camus objects to this reading of Dostoevsky:

The absurd does not liberate; it binds. It does not authorize all actions. "Everything is permitted" does not mean nothing is forbidden. The absurd merely confers an equivalence on the consequences of those actions. It does not recommend crime, for this would be childish, but it restores to remorse its futility. Likewise, if all experiences are indifferent, that of duty is as legitimate as any other. One can be virtuous through a whim.13

If one is worried about the license that meaninglessness and absurdity may give, then, as Camus further states, "The certainty of a God giving a meaning to life far surpasses in attractiveness the ability to behave badly with impunity."

Within that sense of divinely-ordained purpose, many throughout history have found ample justification for the most heinous bad behavior. It's all too easy for the stalwart believer to dismiss this point by saying justification was going in the wrong direction for those wolves of the faith, that they only sought sanction for the sin that was always in them. This can be agreed without sacrificing much. The absurdist knows we deeply desire meaning in our lives, to which the world is unreceptive, and the ways that we find, invent, and preserve our place in this world are frequently problematic, even destructive. This is why she turns inward, towards the absurd life and the lucidity it brings. It restores the universe to its silence, restores to her her joy, and causes her to say "yes" to life.
1. William Lane Craig, The Absurdity of Life Without God, Retrieved Aug. 10, 2017.
2. Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, trans. Justin O'Brien (Vintage Books, 1991), p. 51.
3. Thomas Nagel, "The Absurd," The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 68, No. 20.
4. Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, p. 122.
5. Soren Kierkegaard, The Journals of Søren Kierkegaard: A Selection Edited and Translated, trans. Alexander Dru (Oxford, 1938).
6. Soren Kierkegaard, The Essential Kierkegaard ed. Howard Hong and Edna Hong (Princeton, 2000), p. 207.
7. Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, p. 38.
8. William Lane Craig, Transcript: Existence of God (part 29), Retrieved Aug. 10, 2017.
9. Ashley Woodward, "Camus and Nihilism," Sophia (2011) 50:543–559.
10. Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols (Penguin, 1968), p. 40.
11. Avi Sagi, Albert Camus and the Philosophy of the Absurd (Value Inquiry Books, 2012), p. 2.
12. Albert Camus, The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt trans. Anthony Bower (Vintage Books, 1991), p. 8.
13. Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, p. 67.


  1. I would like to see if I can summarize what the main point of this article is, namely, life is absurd with or without God. In defense of this position, Kierkegaard is quoted. But upon reading the quote, it's not clear what the argument is that he is putting forth. He merely seems to state that the Absurd exists and that we encounter it. And when we do encounter it, we make a leap of faith. Forgive me, but this doesn't seem like much of an argument, more of a statement. K doesn't state *why* he believes that the Absurd is real or how we actually encounter it. He also does not clarify what he thinks faith actually is. There seems to be an assumption. Many people don't have a clear understanding of faith, and never bother to find out what Jesus says about faith. The most (in)famous rendering of faith is from Sam Clemens who claimed that faith was believing in things you know ain't so. Well, that's cute, but it's wrong. Jesus was asked to heal a Gentile centurion's servant. On the way to his house, the centurion's other servants met Jesus and relayed their master's message which was ""Lord, do not trouble Yourself further, for I am not worthy for You to come under my roof; for this reason I did not even consider myself worthy to come to You, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. "For I also am a man placed under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, 'Go!' and he goes, and to another, 'Come!' and he comes, and to my slave, 'Do this!' and he does it." Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled at him, and turned and said to the crowd that was following Him, "I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such great faith."

    To me, it does not look like to me that Camus or Kierkegaard proved/showed/demonstrated the Absurd life and God co-exists at the same time. It looks to me like they assume this.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Sean. Just like you think a lot of people misunderstand faith (on this, we may agree), I think a lot of people misunderstand what existentialists have claimed about the absurd. Craig's view actually seems closer to Sartre's, which is not surprising when you read in Craig's paper about how interested he used to be in Sartre. But Camus famously opposed Sartre's notion of the absurd, and, I think, with good reason.

      It's curious to me that you chose to focus on Kierkegaard in your comment when he isn't the essay's main focus. Is it because he's a Christian and the others are not? I don't think K's view is all that elusive, though he certainly didn't flesh out his ideas as thoroughly as Camus did. He mentions being brought to a "standstill" by his powers of reflection, reaching a point where he has to act even though none of the options appear to him more rational than the others. K is talking about those instances where reason reaches its limits. Another way of looking at this is as a collision of sorts between our will and the world. We want something, maybe even need it - to know the reasonable course of action, to not be forced into a decision, etc. - and yet reality prevents us from it. This isn't just the mundane fact that the world doesn't cater to our whims. It's also that the world we live in "denies" us things that might be called our epistemic and ontological needs.

      Camus makes this point in a clearer way than K does, which I believe I showed in the essay. We feel a deep and strong desire for unity, purpose, order, and meaning. In the example K gives, we want to know our actions have meaning and purpose to them, but when we act without the aid of reason, we act in a seemingly absurd fashion. K saw this place as where faith enters the picture. This doesn't mean that faith is anything like what Twain said of it; at least K would disagree. What K seems to be getting at is something a lot of religious epistemologists still note: that faith is more than merely propositional. There is also an affective or attitudinal component to it. If we bring Jesus into the picture, a passage like Matthew 21:21-22 underscores the importance of this. Would your reason tell you that you're able to move a mountain and cast it into the sea just by believing? The point here isn't just that Jesus was speaking in hyperbole, but that he's saying something about how faith is a commitment that allows one to accomplish... well, the absurd!

      (continued below)

    2. (continued from above)

      You say that K's argument for absurdity doesn't seem like much of an argument, but I wonder if you're somewhat confused when you ask if "the Absurd exists" or if it's "real" right after noting that K believes we encounter it. Going by Camus' view, the absurd isn't in the world itself or in human beings themselves, but in the two taken together. This means that it is a feeling, an experience, and not something you can prove with symbolic logic or the scientific method. I realize that may make some people shrug it off, but I submit that you have no more reason to reject the experience of the absurd than you do to accept any particular religious experience. I think there are many cases where we lucidly perceive the absurd, especially in times of suffering. We do not experience ourselves as one with the rest of the cosmos, we instead experience a separation or divorce from the world. Traditional Christianity has seen this experience as a characteristic of the Fall, as I note in the essay, but also in the "special" status of human beings made in the image of God. Even if you believe God will somehow redeem us from it, I don't see any reason to think our experience of the absurd is illusory.

      Camus actually thought an absurd Christian was not an oxymoron, although he took issue with K's response to absurdity. Camus thought this because his notion of the absurd, as just noted, doesn't endow the world with absurdity. So, he says, the world may have a purpose and meaning, and God may even exist and have given it one. But because we are divorced from the world, this has no significance for us. If we understand what the absurd is, I think we understand why a divinely given meaning can't resolve the problem.

  2. Excellent article making many salient points (nb. I am doing a PHD thesis on this issue)