In season two of Julian Fellowes' British period drama Downton Abbey, a young and earnest footman named William is sent to the front to fight the Germans. Sadly, he returns mortally wounded. William has an incurable crush on Daisy -- the scullery maid at Downton. Sadly again, Daisy does not return William's affections as she has a crush on another man. Nonetheless, Daisy, against her true wishes but with a sense of duty and mercy, allows herself to be convinced to marry William in the waning moments of his life. To the viewer, it's clear that this is an act of great benevolence. The rites are performed and poor William dies a happy man.
Acts of this sort have long stirred curiosity in me -- specifically as to how such actions would be perceived by someone who embraces a purely materialist worldview -- one that posits that the physical world and its properties are all that exist. Given that William will soon be dead, what difference would it make if Daisy instead chose to cruelly break his heart -- would it matter, and if so, how? Perhaps it could be suggested that Daisy's act of self-sacrifice served as an inspiration to those around her and in some sense improved the lives of those who were there. But, at the end of the day, isn't the reality that we are all creeping towards William's destination? He just got there a few minutes before the rest of us. Knowing that, why does it make sense for any of us to act kindly towards each other at any point, particularly when in opposition to our own desires? If we're all dead men walking, who gives a hang?
It's in this light that I find many conversations I have with materialists to be so odd. After bantering around the usually litany of grievances they have with theology I ask them what moves them to even care about what I'm saying and why they seem to possess such a cheerful attitude to (what I view as) their mirthless circumstances. The conversation might go something like this:
Me: Does it bother you that not one thought, word or deed that you ever have or ever will think, say or perform can make the slightest difference to anyone?
Materialist: What on earth are you talking about? I can write a book or feed a homeless person or tell my children that I love them. I can leave the world a better place than I found it!
Me: But the universe will eventually reach heat death. There will be no life and all that you did will long be forgotten. What tangible value does any of it really have?
Materialist: By that time we will have figured out how to preserve our consciousness in other dimensions. The heat death will not be an issue.
Me: Now you sound like a theist.
Why is it that materialists frequently have such a tough time acknowledging this point? If there is no governing consciousness in the Universe -- if there is no arbiter of good and bad -- then such terms simply lose their meaning. One has no basis to declare something "good" if one sees the very concept of goodness as being arbitrary, self-invented and subject to revision according to circumstance. Nonetheless, a materialist will argue, yes, we did indeed create these concepts out of whole cloth -- and what, pray-tell, is wrong with that?
There are several answers. One is that it implies that the most heinous imaginable crimes - for example, child abuse -- are not objectively "wrong," but, rather, distasteful because of artificial social conventions. As Dr. Will Provine has said, without an "ultimate foundation for ethics," atheists "give up hope that there is an imminent morality ... you can't hope for there being any free will." Precious few materialists seem to be emotionally prepared to live with the consequences of this world view -- one that by all reason should produce only nihilism and despondence. Most parents, for instance, when confronted with the horrific prospect of having to say "goodbye" to a dying child would be wrought with indescribable pain. Yet I see newly minted materialists online making comments like "I used to be a theist but I hated it. Now I love being an atheist!" Yeah, what fun! Now everyone you know is on permanent death-watch. Your consciousness and those of everyone you know will soon and forever be irrevocably snuffed out -- and you're happy? It's one thing to stoically accept your fate and quite another to celebrate it.
One person who did seem to "get it" was Sigmund Freud. He correctly noted that "The moment a man questions the meaning and value of life, he is sick, since objectively neither has any existence." Sickness, not glee, is the logical response to meaninglessness, and make no mistake about it, the materialists peddle only a strange, happy-faced brand of despair - oddly immune to the inescapable negativity they promote.
What then to make of the odd reaction of the materialists to their materialism? It's clear that they don't believe themselves. If they did they would be have Freud's reaction. Inasmuch as so few of them can accept the truth of their own world view -- that, in theDownton Abbey scenario described above, spitting on William or marrying him are equally meaningless -- it implies that they really do, deep down, believe that there is, in some form, a true basis for good and evil. To be outraged at injustice (or even to recognize injustice), to care for the downtrodden and to oppose evil are inherently acts of belief that make zero sense in any other context. If we are nothing more than a random collection of electrons that (somehow) managed to crawl out the primordial ooze -- please spare us all the moralizing, because there is no morality, meaning, justice, beauty, hope or freedom in the absence of a Creator. A random universe means no Creator and no Creator means no purpose. No purpose means no meaning, and meaninglessness is only to be mourned.