Category Archives: Meaning of Life – Religion

Religion and the Meaning of Life: The Problem (Part 2)

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, November 12, 2015.)

1) Is Life Meaningful Even If Religion Is True?

Yesterday’s post discussed some problems with grounding the meaning of life on religious beliefs. However, there is another argument which severs the connection between religious truth and the meaning of life. And that argument is that the truth of religion is irrelevant to the question of life’s meaning. In other words, even if some religion is true, it does not matter for our concerns. We can see this if we try to state exactly how it is that religion gives life meaning, something surprisingly hard to formulate.

It does not take much thought to see the problem. For instance, if you are told that your meaning is to be part of a divine being’s plan you might reasonably ask, how does being a part of someone else’s plan give my life meaning? Being a part of your parent’s or employer’s or country’s plan does not necessarily do so. And if you are told that the gods are such that they just emanate meaning, you might reasonably ask, how do they do that? If you cannot be the source of your own meaning, how can something else be? Or if you are told that the gods’ love gives your life meaning, you might reasonably wonder why the love of people around you cannot do that. Or if you are told that life is meaningful because you will live forever, you might reasonably wonder how an infinite amount of time makes life meaningful. The point is not that it is impossible for the gods to give life meaning, but that it is not clear how they could do it. They may be irrelevant. If valid these objections completely undermine religious answers. Even if we became convinced there were gods we would still want to know if life had meaning.

In response one might claim that religious belief gives life meaning by positing a benevolent universe that is structured so as to provide meaning at its end or omega point. Perhaps it is eschatology—the branch of theology concerned with the end of the world or of humankind—more than anything else that most persons think of when they relate religion to meaning. So a believer might advance the following argument:

  1. Life is fully meaningful if there is a heaven;
  2. There is a heaven;
  3. Thus life is fully meaningful.

The problem with this argument is that it is circular; it assumes what it is trying to demonstrate. The argument reduces to life is meaningful because it is meaningful. For the argument to work, we need an assurance that premise 2 is true. However we have no such assurance. Moreover, as we have already noted, it is not clear that premise 1 is true either. Alternatively we might try this argument:

  1. Life cannot be fully meaningful without a (single?) god;
  2. There is a god
  3. Thus life is fully meaningful.

This is a valid deductive argument but again both premises are questionable. Moreover, the argument is blatantly question-begging, reducing roughly to the following: life cannot be fully meaningful unless something exists to make it fully meaningful. The upshot of both arguments and ones like them lands us back where we started in our discussion of religion. If religion is true, it may not provide meaning; if it is not true, it cannot ground meaning.

2) Why We Make No Religious Assumptions

For the foregoing reasons, I search for meaning in life without appealing to invisible, hidden, supernatural entities or other religious provisos. This is a natural starting point for those for whom religious answers are unavailable, but there are also reasons to adopt a neutral starting point even if one is a religious believer. That way, if we do find evidence and reasons for life’s meaningfulness, these reasons can appeal to believers and non-believers alike. Religious believers can always add gods to the equation if they think that makes life more meaningful; or they can invoke their gods to save meaning, if it appears life would otherwise be meaningless. But by starting with a thin set of assumptions, rather than with more philosophically problematic ones that includes gods, souls, and afterlives, we will be more assured of our conclusions and they will have broader appeal.

To better understand this, consider the parallels between our investigation of meaning in life without gods, and the search for a non-theistic, rational basis for morality. One might hold that morality, like meaning, is completely dependent on the gods’ existence or commands. In that case there could be no such thing as morality without a supernatural basis. However, this view has been rejected by most philosophers and theologians, who maintain instead that right and wrong are in some sense independent of the gods. The gods cannot make the right wrong or the wrong right. The advantage of this approach—as in natural law theory for example—is that all rational beings have access to morality simply by virtue of being rational beings, i.e., everyone has access to understanding the basis of morality.

If it is true that morality has a non-theistic basis—say in reason, sympathy, evolution, or a social contract—then by analogy meaning might similarly have a non-theistic basis. In that case the existence of gods would not make any difference for meaning, since the gods could not make a meaningful situation meaningless or the reverse. Meaning would exist, or not exist, independent of whether gods exist or not, and all individuals could seek meaning by using their rational, emotional, or aesthetic faculties.

In the same way that we all benefit when persons accept reasons to be moral that do not depend on problematic philosophical assumptions like the existence of gods, we would all benefit if persons believed that life was worth living without making extraordinary metaphysical claims. Of course the danger is that our investigation will reveal that there is no meaning, and this may have dire consequences for humanity.

But we can by no means be certain of this, especially when persons convinced that they know the meaning of life create all kinds of havoc in the world. For all we know the discovery of meaninglessness might propel human beings to create meaning, or it might not make any difference at all. People might just go along as they did before not being sure what life means. Since we cannot know what consequences will ensue from the conclusions we reach, I suggest we go forward seeking truth, making as few controversial philosophical assumptions as possible, and hoping that the truth will make us free.

Religion and the Meaning of Life: The Problem (Part 1)

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, November 6, 2015.)

For the past few days we have been discussing various views about how religion gives meaning to life. Now we offer a general critique of those view.

1) Are Religious Claims True?

The main problem with any proposed religious answer to the question of the meaning of life is that, in general, religious beliefs are probably false. After all, there is no convincing evidence for the gods, an afterlife, or other supernatural phenomena that persuades most philosophers. (Only a small minority of professional philosophers are theists.) Moreover, much of the available evidence suggests the opposite—as the gods and the afterlife are unseen and miracles suspect. It does us no good to imagine that the meaning of life is to know, love, and serve the gods in this life, and to be with them forever in heaven, if there are no gods or heaven. Of course we could imagine a world in which there was evidence for gods or an afterlife. If the gods normally talked to us or answered prayers, or if dead persons regularly appeared and told us about post-mortem existence. But we don’t live in such a world; the objective evidence contradicts all this. When people pray to the gods there is no effect in the world, the sky and the dead are silent. Religious beliefs is probably just wishful thinking.

Still, any religious story or belief could be true. A god could have dictated the Koran to Mohammed or given commandments to Moses. Persons long ago may have risen from the dead, walked on water, or ascended into heaven being pulled by winged horses and flown over Jerusalem accompanied by the angel Gabriel. An angel may have dictated sacred texts to a known charlatan in an ancient language onto gold plates which were subsequently dug up in New York in the 1800s—and then translated by that man putting his face into a hat containing magic stones. Any of these stories could be true and their explanation of the meaning of life might then follow. But there seems a good chance that such stories are fictional.

We might make such stories more palatable to the intellect if we insist that they are to be understood, not literally, but allegorically or mythological. Interpreting religious stories and beliefs in this fashion makes religion more defensible—since taking them literally often conflicts with science and history. For example, we might develop theologies that incorporate modern science, such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s view of god-directed evolution as the meaning of life. Nevertheless, such attempts are problematic, as they remain tethered to dubious philosophical claims about gods, souls, afterlives, and the like. Thus religious beliefs might solve the question of life’s meaning if they are true, but if untrue they are of no help.

2) Should We Live As If Religious Claims Are True?

Some might reply that even if religious claims are false, we ought to live as if they are true. After all, what does it hurt to believe comforting stories that might be true if they seem to give our lives meaning? There may be something to this argument—life is hard so why not find comfort where you can as long as you do not force others to accept your beliefs. But there are many replies to this line of reasoning—that religious belief is basically a docile and good thing—that do not need to appeal to inquisitions, religious wars, human sacrifice, or other examples of religious cruelty over all of recorded history. Nor do they need to appeal to the anti-democratic, anti-progressive, misogynistic, authoritarian, medieval nature of many religious institutions, or to the personal guilt, shame, and fear that often result from those beliefs.

Religious belief may be just harmful in general. There is a strong correlation between religious belief and various measures of social dysfunction including homicides, the proportion of people incarcerated, infant mortality, sexually transmitted diseases, teenage births and abortions, corruption, income inequality, and more. While no causal relationship has been established, the 2009 United Nations list of the twenty best countries to live in shows the least religious nations of the world generally at the top. Only of the United States, which is ranked as the 13th, would we say that religious belief is strong relative to other countries. Moreover, virtually all the countries with comparatively little religious belief ranked comparatively high on the list of best countries to live in, while the majority of countries with much religious belief ranked comparatively low on the list. In fact often the overlap is striking. While correlation does not equal causation, such considerations should give pause to those who claim religious belief is beneficial. There is good reason to doubt that religious belief makes people’s lives go better, and some powerful reasons to believe it makes their lives go worse.

Again none of the foregoing discussion shows that any particular religion is false. But at the very least it is debatable whether religious belief benefits humanity, or that we are better off living as if these stories are true. One could even maintain that religious beliefs are the most damaging kind of beliefs that humans can hold. Consider that Christianity rose in power as the Roman Empire declined in the 4th century, resulting in the marginalization of the Greek science the Romans had inherited. Had the scientific achievements of the Greeks been built upon throughout the Middle Ages, it is possible that we might live in an unimaginably better world today. Carl Sagan made this same point some thirty years ago:

Something akin to laws of Nature was once glimpsed in a determinedly polytheistic society, in which some scholars toyed with a form of atheism. This approach of the pre-Socratics was, beginning in about the fourth century B.C., [quelled] by Plato, Aristotle, and the Christian theologians. If the skein of historical causality had been different—if the brilliant guesses of the atomists on the nature of matter, the plurality of worlds, the vastness of space and time had been treasured and built upon, if the innovative technology of Archimedes had been taught and emulated, if the notion of invariable laws of Nature that humans must seek out and understand had been widely propagated—I wonder what kind of world we would live in now.[i]

It is conceivable then that had science continued to advance for those thousand years we would now live longer and better lives, or perhaps science might have conquered death altogether by now. It is conceivable we are not now immortal today because of the rise of religion. Granted such conjecture is speculative, but certainly the rise of religion was a major factor impeding scientific advance throughout the Middle Ages, and its stifling effect on scientific advance may still be felt today.

The point is that religious belief is not innocuous. Religion may cause less harm today than it did in the medieval period, but this is probably more a function of religion having less power than it had previously. If that power were regained, we should not be surprised if the effect were again disastrous. (Anyone familiar with the Middle Ages does not long to go back.) We all may have paid, and could continue to pay, a heavy price for the consolation that religious beliefs provides to so many.

In sum, religious beliefs are problematic and living as if religion is true may be ill-advised. For these reasons it does not seem prudent to ground meaning in religious beliefs. Although any religious story, especially in their more sophisticated versions, could be true, religious answers to the question of life’s meaning are suspect because the truth of religion and its usefulness are suspect. And if we are to ground meaning on a stable foundation, it is problematic to start with dubious religious claims.

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[i] Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (New York: Ballantine Books, 1997).

John Hick: “The Religious Meaning of Life”

John Hick

John Hick (1922 – 2012) is a world-renowned authority and an advocate of religious pluralism. He is often described as the most significant philosopher of religion in the 20th century.  He has taught at Cambridge, Birmingham, Princeton, Cornell, and Claremont Graduate School, and is the author of more than twenty five books.

His article “The Religious Meaning of Life” (2000) claims that religious meaning concerns itself with the question of the nature of the universe and our part in it, as well as whether the universe is ultimately hostile, benign, or indifferent to our concerns. His hypothesis is that the great world religions are characterized by cosmic optimism. “That is to say, the meaning of life is such that we can have an ultimate trust and confidence, even in life’s darkest moments of suffering and sorrow.”[i]

This cosmic optimism means that our current state can be replaced by a better one and in the limitless good of nirvana, for example, meaning is found. Similar claims can be made for other great religions. The Christian gospels present the good news (the notion of eternal punishment undermines cosmic optimism but is not a biblical doctrine according to Hick), Judaism’s optimism derives from the special relationship between god and his people, Islam affirms that the universe is benign and our lives will be fulfilled in paradise, and Hinduism teaches that we move toward liberation. Cosmic optimism provides the means by which various religions answer the question of life’s meaning. Hick concludes:

the meaning for us of our human life depends upon what we believe to be the nature of the universe in which we find ourselves. The great world religions teach that the process of the universe is good from our human point of view because its ultimate principle…or its governor…is benign…This is basically a very simple and indeed…obvious suggestion—though not necessarily any the worse for that.[ii] 

Summary – The world’s religions advocate a cosmic optimism which is characterized by the belief that the universe is benign and thusly meaningful. 

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[i] John Hick, “The Religious Meaning of Life,” in The Meaning of Life in the World Religions, eds. Joseph Runzo and Nancy M. Martin, (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2000), 275.

[ii] John Hick, “The Religious Meaning of Life,” 285-86.

Huston Smith: “The Meaning of Life in the World’s Religions”

Huston Smith (1919 – ) is one of the world’s foremost scholars on world religions and his book The World’s Religions is the best-selling book in its field, having sold over 2 million copies! He has served on the faculties of Washington University in St. Louis, MIT, Syracuse, and the University of California-Berkeley.

In his article, “The Meaning of Life in the World’s Religions,” (2000) Smith specifically addresses the question of how the generic religious standpoint supplies an answer to the question of meaning. He begins by asserting: “That life is meaningful is religion’s basic posit, and the claim can be elucidated both subjectively and objectively, the difference being whether we are thinking primarily of life’s meaning for us or, alternatively, trying to determine its meaning in the total scheme of things.”[i] Human life is objectively meaningful because it expresses god’s infinity; that is, without us god would not be god.

Smith explains this cryptic notion by saying that we are part of a great chain of being which extends down from the heavenly world to the physical world. The distinction between these two worlds is an essential element of the world’s religions. We encounter the physical world with our senses aided by our technological instruments while we encounter the heavenly world with our intuition, thoughts and feelings. We begin with our human traits and elevate and extend them far enough and we encounter gods. This archetype of human beings is more real than actual humans, ultimately being transpersonal and ineffable. Our purpose from god’s perspective is to complete god’s infinity by including us, creatures who can flesh out that infinity. And what could be more meaningful than making god, god? And if such an answer is too esoteric, one can meditate or serve god to experience meaning.

Smith asks whether the basic posit of religion is true, but he grants that there is no way to decisively know. Life and the world come to us ambiguously, so we have no conclusive ground on which to assert its meaning. Nonetheless, there are some considerations that weigh in favor of religions’ basic posit. They are that the phenomena of life typically present themselves as problems in hope of solutions which call for human effort and the support of others. Religion corresponds well to this with the concepts of suffering, hope, effort, and grace. Thus, while the religious view cannot be shown to be true, its vision describes the phenomena of life quite well. It maps categories of reality that appear imbedded in our experience of that reality.

Summary – Religion posits that there is a meaning to life and there are good reasons to think that the religious posit is true.

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[i] Huston Smith, “The Meaning of Life in the World’s Religions,” in The Meaning of Life in the World Religions, eds. Joseph Runzo and Nancy Martin (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2000), 255.

William James: “Is Life Worth Living?”

William James (1842 – 1910) was trained as a medical doctor, was one of the most important figures in the history of American philosophy, and was a pioneering psychologist. He is the brother of the novelist Henry James, and friend of numerous intellectuals including: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Sanders Peirce, Bertrand Russell, Josiah Royce, Ernst Mach, John Dewey, Mark Twain, Henri Bergson and Sigmund Freud.  He spent his entire academic career at Harvard. The following is a summary of an address James gave to the Harvard YMCA in 1895 entitled: “Is Life Worth Living?”

James began by noting that some answer this question with a temperamental optimism that denies the existence of evil—for example the poet Walt Whitman and philosopher Rousseau. For both of them to breathe, to walk, or to sleep is joy or felicity itself. According to James, the problem with this approach is that such moods are impermanent, and the personalities that experience them are not universal; if they were, the question of whether life is worth living would not arise. Instead most of us oscillate between joy and sadness, between ecstasy and despair, and therefore for most of us the thought that life is not worth living occasionally arises. Almost anyone in the midst of some merriment and suddenly confronted with death, disease, and suffering, would find that their unabated exuberance about life quickly dispelled.

Suicide is evidence that not all individuals are temperamentally optimistic, and many more experience despondency after philosophical reflection. If such reflection about the ultimate nature of things breeds despair, how can reflection combat that gloom? James provides a preview to his answer: “Let me say, immediately, that my final appeal is to nothing more recondite than religious faith.”[i] The reason for this is that pessimism results from a religious demand that has not been satisfied. The chief source of this pessimism is our reflective grasp of the contradiction between the facts of nature and our desire to believe there is something good behind those facts. For the credulous such reflective pessimism does not surface, but for more scientific minded there are only two possible solutions to the apparent discord: 1) forgo a religious or poetic reading of reality and accept the bare facts of nature; or 2) adopt new beliefs or discover new facts to reconcile a religious reading of reality with the hard facts of science.

But what new religious beliefs might hasten this reconciliation? James claims that the essence of religious supernaturalism is the view that the natural order is part of a larger reality which in turn gives significance to our mundane existence and explains the world’s riddles. These are the kinds of belief that might aid us in our search for meaning. James now presents a preview of his conclusion: “that we have a right to believe the physical order to be only a partial order; that we have a right to supplement it by an unseen spiritual order which we assume on trust …”[ii]

To those who claim that his approach is mystical or unscientific, James responds that science and the scientifically minded should not be arrogant. Science gives us a glimpse of what is real, but its knowledge is miniscule compared to the vastness of our ignorance. Agnostics admit as much but will not use their ignorance to say anything positive about the unknown, counseling us to withhold assent in matters where the evidence is inconclusive. James accepts such a view in the abstract, but neutrality cannot be maintained practically. If I refrain from believing in the supernatural, I express my refrain by acting as if the supernatural is not real; by not acting as if religion were true, one effectively acts as if it were not true. But science has no authority to deny the existence of an invisible world that gives us what the visible world does not. Science can only say what is, it cannot speak of what is not; and the agnostic prescription to proportion assent to evidence is merely a matter of taste.

The benefits of believing in an unseen spiritual world are practical and if we remove this comfort from human beings, suicidal despair may result. As for the claim that such belief is just wishful thinking, James reminds us how little we know of reality relative to omniscience. While such belief is based on the possibility of something rather than its confirmed reality, human lives and actions are always undertaken with uncertainty. If the only way off a mountain is to leap, then you must trust yourself and leap—if you hesitate too long the outcome is certain death. Although we cannot be sure of much, it is best to believe in the practical, in that which helps us live.

For James the issue of whether life is worth living is similar. You can accept a pessimistic view of life and even commit suicide—you can make something true for yourself by believing it. But suppose instead you cling to the view that there is something good beyond this world? Suppose further that your subjectivity will not yield to gloom, that you find joy in life. Have you not then made life worth living? Yes, we can make our lives worth living with our optimism. So it is our faith in an unseen world, in a religious or spiritual world, that grounds our belief in this world’s worthiness. Courage means risking one’s life on mere possibility, and the faithful believe in that possibility. James concludes with the following exhortation:

These, then, are my last words to you: Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact. The ‘scientific proof’ that you are right may not be clear before the day of judgment … is reached. But the faithful fighters of this hour, or the beings that then and there will represent them, may then turn to the faint-hearted, who here decline to go on, with words like those with which Henry IV greeted the tardy Crillon after a great victory had been gained: “Hang yourself, brave Crillon! We fought at Arques, and you were not there.[iii] 

Summary – We need to be optimistic and have faith in an unseen spiritual world for life to be meaningful.

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[i] William James, “Is Life Worth Living? in The Search For Meaning In Life, ed. Robert F. Davidson (New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1962), 240.
[ii] William James, “Is Life Worth Living? 241.
[iii] William James, “Is Life Worth Living? 245.