Daily Archives: October 28, 2018

A Philosopher’s Lifelong Search for Meaning – Part 2 – Religion and Meaning

… continued from a previous entry

  1. Western Religions: Are They True?

Western monotheistic religions try to answer both the meaning of life and the meaning in life questions with an overarching worldview. However, religions consist of multifarious beliefs, expressions, and experiences making them difficult to characterize. We could even plausibly say there are as many religions as there are religious practitioners. But western religious answers to questions of meaning typically involve narratives and beliefs about gods, souls, and an afterlife.

Here are two examples from Christianity. The Westminster Shorter Catechism answers the question: “What is the chief end of Man?” with “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and enjoy him forever.” The Baltimore Catechism answers, “Why did God make you?” with “God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.” Similar ideas can be found in Judaism and Islam.

But such answers are highly problematic. The philosophical arguments for the existence of a God or Gods are notoriously weak, the concept of soul scientifically irrelevant, the evidence of an afterlife almost nil and contravened by experience. Religious beliefs are often superstitious and implausible, both an affront to the intellect and an insult of our best scientific knowledge. The gods that people believe in are almost certainly imaginary and science convincingly explains our tendency to believe in them. In other words, popular religious beliefs are almost certainly false.

Allegorical and less literal interpretations of religious beliefs are more intellectually palatable, but they are often still tethered to dubious claims about supernatural realities, miraculous divine intervention and the like. Sometimes these more sophisticated interpretations reject supernaturalism, but then they often cease to be what most people mean by religion—pantheism, panentheism, process theology or death of god theology aren’t recognizable to most believers. Such obscure metaphysical speculations might provide insight if grounded in scientific knowledge, but usually, they are not.

Philosophical theologians conversant with and appreciative of modern science often posit a “god of the philosophers” using the word God to mean a cause, reason, explanation, designer, or necessary being. I can’t rehash all the arguments for these various conceptions of gods except to say that the vast majority of contemporary philosophers don’t find those arguments convincing. I count myself among this majority. In my view, defenders of these arguments generally deceive themselves through motivated reasoning. They base their beliefs on what they want to believe, not on what is most likely to be true.

Still, I grant that many persons derive meaning in life from their fervently held, emotionally satisfying religious beliefs, which is fine as long as they don’t try to impose them on others. I understand the desire to believe in truth, beauty, goodness, justice, immortality, and the meaning of life. I realize that religious beliefs provide comfort to some people, and that is probably the best argument for accepting them. Life is hard, tranquility elusive, and living without appeal to gods, souls, and an afterlife takes courage. But wanting something to be true doesn’t make it so. As for me, I don’t want to believe, I want to know.

  1. Western Religions: Are They Good?

Nonetheless, we pay a hefty price for this religious consolation—theocracy, fanaticism, hatred, war, etc.  Moreover, religious institutions typically are anti-scientific, anti-democratic, anti-progressive, misogynistic, authoritarian, and medieval. Religion has opposed or still opposes free speech, the eradication of slavery, sex education, reproductive technologies, stem cell research, women’s and civil rights, and the advancement of science. It also encourages credulity and blind faith, which stand in opposition to the critical thinking I so fervently revere and which we so desperately need.

Furthermore, many measures of social dysfunction strongly correlate with greater religiosity including homicides, large prison populations, infant mortality, sexually transmitted diseases, teenage births, political corruption, income inequality, and more. Perhaps all this is worth the comfort religious beliefs provide, or maybe this correlation doesn’t imply causation. But to the extent that religion causes much of this suffering, its consolations probably aren’t worth the price.

Consider that the cultural domination by Christianity during the Middle Ages resulted in some of the worst conditions in human history. Much the same could be said of religious hegemony in other times and places including the present day. And, if religion causes less harm today than it once did, that’s because its power has been reduced. Were that strength regained, the result would surely be disastrous, as anyone who studies history or lives in a theocracy will confirm.

Still, I admit religion isn’t the only anti-progressive force in the world—conservatives, plutocrats, and despots hate change too, especially if it affects their wealth and power. And, I should also note, many people evidently derive social and health benefits when surrounded by like-minded believers; religion provides a sense of community to many, especially in a culture like America where social isolation is rampant. Moreover, religion has promoted good things like education and healthcare for which I commend it. But secularists promote many good things too without relying on supernatural justification. Consider that today the best places to live in the world like the Scandinavian countries and Western Europe are also the least religious, while the worst places to live are generally the most overtly religious. I doubt this is coincidental.

As for me, I believe that western religions are as harmful as they are untrue. We will be better off when we outgrow them. Put simply religion is, in my view, an enemy of a better future.

  1. Western Religions: Do They Reveal Meaning?

Moreover, even if religious claims are literally true it’s not clear how they answer questions about life’s meaning. How does being a part of your God’s plan give your life meaning if being a part of your parent’s or country’s plan doesn’t? How does your God give your life meaning, if you can’t do that yourself? How can your God’s love give your life meaning if other people’s love doesn’t? How does living with your God forever provide meaning if just living forever doesn’t?

I’m not saying the above questions are unanswerable, just that their solutions aren’t obvious. We can imagine that some God makes sense of everything, but this article of faith doesn’t explain anything; it’s just a placeholder for our ignorance. Just as easy to imagine that this God enjoys watching our suffering, laughs at our efforts, and is entertained by our foibles—life may be the cruel joke of an immature, malevolent, or capricious God. Thus, the mere existence of a God or gods doesn’t necessarily make life meaningful.

And, even if your God is real, do you really want to live forever with a being or beings apparently responsible for so much evil? Consider for a moment the innocent who are starving, homeless, incarcerated, and otherwise suffering unimaginably—as you read this now. Consider too what fate has in store for all us. Given all this misery are the machinations of theologians about free will, the devil, or the necessity of soul-building really satisfactory? No, they are not.

Thus Western religious answers to the questions of meaning are suspect because: 1) the supernatural realm is probably imaginary; 2) religion causes much harm; and 3) it isn’t clear how gods make life meaningful. If the truth, usefulness, and relevance of religion are suspect then its answers to questions about life’s meaning are too. For me, Western religious answers to questions about meaning are non-starters; they simply aren’t available. 

  1. Eastern Religions and Meaning in Life

However, other religions concern themselves more with right action than right belief, with humility and compassion instead of creed and dogma. While this emphasis on right action rather than right belief can be found in the West, it is more prevalent in the self-salvation traditions of the East.

Of course, Eastern religions make use of metaphysically dubious notions like reincarnation, karma, lila, samsara, moksha, etc. and their practitioners can be as superstitious and spiteful as Western religious believers. Still, Eastern religions are typically less concerned with literal or historical truth and more accepting of and reconcilable with modern science than Western religions. So our previous criticisms of Western religious beliefs don’t apply straightforwardly to Eastern religions.

Put differently, eastern religions typically focus less the meaning of life and more on finding meaning in life through activities such as searching for truth, being compassionate, reducing desires, or experiencing self-realization, bliss, liberation, or oneness with reality. Even to the extent there is a stated meaning of life—for example escaping the cycle of birth and rebirth in Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism—the emphasis is on how to achieve this goal. In other words, eastern religions generally place more emphasis on acting to find enlightenment rather than believing that salvation depends on accepting certain propositions.

While all eastern religions largely share these traits, Buddhism is especially anti-dogmatic, anti-metaphysical, and practical. It provides instructions for good living, ending suffering, understanding reality, cultivating compassion and achieving mindfulness. Moreover its central tenets—that reality is radically impermanent and that we lack a core self—are consistent with findings in modern science. To the extent that it can be called a religion, as opposed to a philosophy of life, Buddhism is the best one that humans have created. For insight into finding meaning in life, Eastern wisdom devoid of supernaturalism is often a reasonable guide.

Part 3 – Philosophy, Science, and Meaning