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

The head shaman of the religious community Altan Serge in Buryatia.

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 views.

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 are 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 provide 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.


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

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