Sullivan's Meaninglessness about Meaningfulness

Andrew Sullivan publishes an intelligent letter from a reader on how Sullivan and Sam Harris are talking past each other — Harris talking about truth, Sullivan talking about meaning — and suggesting that they refocus and take this issues head on.

I, personally, as an atheist, find meaning in my own possibility and will to act in this world. I have the opportunity to interact with others and to create things. I have the chance to leave this world a bit better than when I came into it… for my children and for the rest of humanity. I don't do this because a particular flying spaghetti monster ordained that I do it and will punish me with his noodly appendage if I don't. I do it because I have the power and I believe that it is better for me if I help those around me. What else would give my life more meaning than that?

Sullivan replies:

But why is that more meaningful than flying a plane into the World Trade Center?

The obvious retort is: how is Catholicism more meaningful than flying a plane into the World Trade Center? Does Sullivan really mean to lob a meatball for Harris to hit out of the park?
The 9/11 terrorists were religiously motivated, and no doubt did what they did not out of a sense of secular nihilism, but out of deep and no doubt meaningful religious conviction. I think part of Harris' point is: what's so meaningful about a system of beliefs for which there is no evidence? Well, there's no doubt that people find meaning in all sorts of false things, and those false things don't have to be true to find meaning in them. If Sullivan is a Catholic, then he believes that all other religions are false. Does he deny that they are meaningful? Is his point just that you have to believe that the false thing you believe is true in order to find meaning it? But Muslim suicide bombers, and suicide pilots, believe, too. More importantly, if you believe that something is true, and it is, then why can't you find meaning in that? It almost seems like Sullivan thinks that you have to believe something that is false is true, and also sort of believe it is false, but beautiful or good, at the same time, in order to draw meaning from it, which makes no sense.
It's totally mysterious why something that is true and beautiful and good can't be equally meaningful. Indeed, it's mysterious why the commitment to something beautiful and good, like truth, can't be exceedingly meaningful in its own right. Obviously, the problem with running a plane into the WTC doesn't turn on whether or not it was meaningful. It turns on whether it was morally monstrous, which it was–and you don't need Jesus to see that. And, the fact is, many of the most morally monstrous things people have ever done were meaningful to them–and often for religious reasons.
Anyway, what a totally stupid and disgusting thing for Sullivan to say.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

7 thoughts

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