Putting a value on life

It is a universal law that actions beget reactions, that every action has a consequence of some kind. To say that any life is without any kind of value, or that life itself is without value, is to say that an action can occur without a consequence. It is how we interpret the consequences of actions that determines the value those actions have, even if those consequences are unforeseen or, in large part, unforeseeable.

Atheism says nothing of the value of life, because to say anything of the value of life is to say we have the ability to ascribe value to life. But to say nothing of the value of life is not to say life is without value. Yet that how many Christians appear to interpret that point of view. When atheists say there is no afterlife, we are not saying it is okay to rape, steal, pillage and kill, yet that is how Christians interpret our words, using Christianity itself to twist those words into such an abhorrent notion.

While some atheists take the absolute position – inappropriately dubbed the “strong atheist” position – that there is no supreme being or deity, most atheists likely do not take such an absolute position. I certainly do not. Instead many take the agnostic position that if there is a deity, it is impossible to really know anything about that deity, and any proclamations of knowledge regarding that deity are to be dismissed if nothing concrete is presented affirming that claim.

As such atheism means not possessing any belief in a supreme being, and all the trimmings that seem to come with it, because of no reason to possess such belief.

If there is a deity, there isn’t anything concretely known about it. There’s a lot that has been assumed and proclaimed as true, but nothing concretely known and demonstrable. If a being exists that we can properly refer to as a deity, or if even multiple such beings exist, and they are interacting with our world and our lives, they are not doing so in such a way that is easily detectable, nor are they doing so in such a way that gives our lives or any particular person’s life any discernably additional value or meaning.

To say that life is without value unless there is a deity, to say that life is without value unless there is a specific deity, most typically the God of Abraham, is to say plainly that life is without value. Life either has meaning and value unconditionally, or it has no value or meaning because of the conditions applied.

You will be hard-pressed to find a person, atheist or otherwise, who genuinely holds the claim that life does not have meaning or value. No atheist says such. In fact, we say the exact opposite: that the idea of an afterlife actually degrades and devalues the life and time that we actually have. This is especially true given that it appears to be the typical Christian point of view that the afterlife is reserved just for us, the species Homo sapiens sapiens, and is not for our companion pets, or any of the other animals in the world.

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Ashley Paramore said, “The universe is absolutely massive, and we are virtually insignificant in it.” Contrary to the common belief, this universe was not created for us. It is supremely arrogant to assert such. But to say we are insignificant within the totality of the universe is to not say we cannot be significant in some other way. But we do not need validation from anyone else, not from any person or even any deity, for our lives to be significant or to have meaning.

And saying we were not specially created by a deity in his image is not to say we are utterly worthless, that the time we do have is without value or meaning. But that again seems to be the point of view of many Christians, and if you don’t believe as they do, then you must believe that life is meaningless and worthless.

But there’s one problem: your life does not have value or meaning simply because someone else says it does, regardless of whether that person opining on the matter is another person or a deity. Your life only has whatever meaning you can and do give it, through your interactions with others and society at large. Your life could be significant in ways you don’t immediately realize, but not immediately realizing your significance is not to say you are without significance.

What does not seem meaningful or valuable to one person may be meaningful or valuable to someone else. An example of this comes from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, chapter 23 called “Christmas on the Closed Ward”, toward the end of the chapter:

[Neville’s mother] did not seem to want to speak, or perhaps she was not able to, but she made timid motions toward Neville, holding something in her outstretched hand.

“Again?” said Mrs Longbottom, sounding slightly weary. “Very well, Alice dear, very well – Neville, take it, whatever it is…”

But Neville had already stretched out his hand, into which his mother dropped an empty Droobles Blowing Gum wrapper.

“Very nice, dear,” said Neville’s grandmother in a falsely cheery voice, patting his mother on the shoulder. But Neville said quietly, “Thanks Mum.”

His mother tottered away, back up the ward, humming to herself. Neville looked around at the others, his expression defiant, as though daring them to laugh, but Harry did not think he’d ever found anything less funny in his life.

“Well, we’d better get back,” sighed Mrs Longbottom, drawing on long green gloves. “Very nice to have met you all. Neville put that wrapper in the bin, she must have given you enough of them to paper your bedroom by now…”

But as they left, Harry was sure he saw Neville slip the wrapper into his pocket.

Where Neville’s grandmother saw a practically worthless gum wrapper, Neville saw something else. And as Neville’s grandmother’s comment as they left noted, that wasn’t the first time he’d been given a gum wrapper by his mother. But each time he likely treated it as the first, and valued it because it was his mother giving it to him, even if to the rest of us it just looked like a piece of refuse.

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In some respects we never die. Our lives are entangled with those who come after us, just as our lives are entangled with those who came before us. I mean there is scarcely a living soul on this planet that doesn’t go to bed at night without their lives in some way being effected by the work of the hands and minds of folks like Faraday, Newton and Pasteur.

But these entanglements go way beyond the vulgarly obvious main ones, for similarly almost everyone’s life is intertwined with the people who grew the grain and made the bread that these men ate.

So it becomes clear that death is not “the end”. We are intertwined with both lesser and greater things.

– Phil Mason, PhD, a.k.a. “Thuderf00t”

This past Thursday morning, Thanksgiving morning, a short time after the clock passed 8am, one of my two beloved feline companions died in my arms at just 8 years old. While we don’t entirely know what caused his end, his life had great significance, great value and great meaning.

His life was intertwined with mine in ways that at first did not seem significant. Now that he is gone, I am aware in great detail how significant those entanglements actually are and were.

When we all inevitably meet our end, there will not be a heaven or hell waiting, no eternal reward or punishment. Instead it’ll be just like flipping a switch on your consciousness, and the lights will just go out. That is what I saw with Charlie as I watched him die, felt his body go silent while he was in my arms. There is no heaven that welcomed him, no “rainbow bridge” on which he’ll be waiting the decades it’ll hopefully be until I and my wife pass on.

But does that mean Charlie’s life was somehow worthless, his existence meaningless? Absolutely not.

His life had meaning, his life had value because of the impact his life had on me, my wife, his surviving brother, and my parents for the several months they cared for him after he was born. His life likely also had an impact on the veterinarians and veterinary technicians that assisted in his care during his brief years.

Even in death his life will continue to have value and meaning as my wife and I look back at the pictures we have of him and remember the time we had with him – all the little things he used to do that seemed insignificant at the time, but we now realize were very significant parts of our day as we’ve looked around expecting Charlie to be there.

His life most certainly had value and meaning, regardless of whether there actually is a deity or not.