(this article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, January 11, 2015.)
Some defend the idea that the meaning of life depends on religion. In the next few days I will summarize what a few of these thinkers have to say. My brief responses are in [brackets.] For more thorough replies see my recent book.
Louis Pojman (1935-2005) was an American philosopher and ordained minister who received a D. Phil from Oxford University and a PhD from Union Seminary. He was a particularly prolific author of numerous philosophy texts and anthologies used at many universities in the United States. In his 2002 essay “Religion Gives Meaning to Life,” he argued that if classical theism is true then:
- “We have a satisfying explanation of the origins and sustenance of the universe.”[i] Furthermore, if theism is true, then the universe cares about us, the problem of evil is answered, and the universe is imbued by its creator with meaning. In contrast, the naturalist view starts and ends without value and meaning. From such despair comes further despair. [Creation myths are not intellectually satisfying, theism is almost certainly false, the problem of evil is devastating for classical theism, and how the gods might imbue reality with meaning is problematic. Naturalism doesn’t end in despair.]
- “Theism holds that the universe is suffused with goodness, that good will win out over evil.”[ii] We have help in the battle of good over evil, and justice over injustice, which gives us the confidence to carry on the fight. We know that good will ultimately triumph. In contrast, in a meaningless universe, nothing matters. [The universe doesn’t seem filled with goodness and there is no reason to think good will triumph over evil without human beings. And meaninglessness doesn’t follow from anti-theism.]
- “God loves and cares for us.”[iii] Our gratitude for this love motivates us to live moral lives. In contrast, secularism does not recognize this cosmic love and does not produce moral saints. “From a secular point of view, morality is not only stupid, it is anti-life, for it gives up the only thing we have, our little ego in an impersonal, indifferent world.”[iv] [There is no reason to believe the gods exist or that they love and care for us. Humanism is not anti-life and has produced its own saints.]
- “Theists have an answer to the question, “Why be Moral?”[v] Since god loves you and justice is guaranteed, you will get what you deserve. Thus you have a reason to be moral; doing good deeds is in your self-interest. In contrast, a non-theist has a hard time answering this question since it is so tempting to be an egoist. [The religious seem plenty tempted by immorality, as history shows. Morality doesn’t have its foundations in religion.]
- “Cosmic Justice reigns in the universe.”[vi] There is moral merit and no moral luck. You will be judged as you deserve to be. [I just don’t believe this.]
- “All persons are of equal worth.”[vii] This follows from being created in the image of god. In contrast, secularism has no justification for this belief, since it is obvious that individuals are not created equal without the god hypothesis. Why should the superior not then dominate the inferior? [This is just silly.]
- “Grace and forgiveness—a happy ending for all.”[viii] We can be forgiven by divine power. [This is great, but it’s not true unless we make it so.]
- “There is life after death.”[ix] We will all live forever in a blissful state. [This is great, but it’s not true unless we make it so.]
Given the above, and given that we are just as free in a theistic world, “it seems clear that the world of the theist is far better and more satisfying to us than one in which God does not exist.”[x] Of course, as Pojman admits, the problem is that we don’t know if theism is true. He responds that unless one thinks that theism is almost certainly false, one might as well live as if it is true, since it is superior to the alternatives. “It is good to gamble on God. Religion gives us a purpose to life and a basis for morality that is too valuable to dismiss lightly. It is a heritage that we may use to build a better civilization and one which we neglect at our own peril.”[xi]
[I don’t accept that theism is more satisfying and it is almost certainly not true. Pascal’s wager is not convincing, and religion has not in the past nor will it in the future build a better civilization. Humans and their post-human descendants will need new narratives of meaning to replace outdated religious ones.]
[i] Louis Pojman, “Religion Gives Meaning to Life,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke and Steven Cahn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 27.
[ii] Pojman, “Religion Gives Meaning to Life,” 28,
[iii] Pojman, “Religion Gives Meaning to Life,” 28.
[iv] Pojman, “Religion Gives Meaning to Life,” 28.
[v] Pojman, “Religion Gives Meaning to Life,” 28.
[vi] Pojman, “Religion Gives Meaning to Life,” 29.
[vii] Pojman, “Religion Gives Meaning to Life,” 29.
[viii] Pojman, “Religion Gives Meaning to Life,” 29.
[ix] Pojman, “Religion Gives Meaning to Life,” 29.
[x] Pojman, “Religion Gives Meaning to Life,” 30.
[xi] Pojman, “Religion Gives Meaning to Life,” 30.