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 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 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 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—the God of 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 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 those beliefs on others. I understand the deep desire to believe in truth, beauty, goodness, justice, the end of suffering and death, 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 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 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. I should also note that many people evidently derive social and health benefits when surrounded by like-minded believers. Religion also provides a sense of community to many, especially in a culture like America where isolation is such a big problem. Moreover, religion has promoted good things like education and healthcare for which I commend it. (And, of course, many non-religious persons have done terrible things.) But secularists promote good things too without relying on supernatural justification. Consider that in today’s world the best places to live 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 the 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 living forever doesn’t do that by itself?

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. Surely 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 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 evil to build our souls 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 suspect. As 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 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 generally a good guide.

Part 3 – Philosophy, Science, and Meaning

19 thoughts on “A Philosopher’s Lifelong Search for Meaning – Part 2 – Religion and Meaning

  1. Nice piece. I have gone through all that myself and struggled for decades with the indoctrination of Christianity. I’m finally free of that mostly negative programming. For now I’ll stick with Schopenhauer (reality is an evil mess) and the Stoics( the door is always open). One day I hope to walk though it as peacefully as possible. In the mean time I try to understand as much as possible. Fortunately I’ve left religions and moved on.

  2. and of course, Schopenhauer was a big fan of Buddhism. The first western philosopher to really incorporate it into his thought as far as I know. JGM

  3. Have been fascinated by Japan, since spending a month in Hawaii.
    Was going to travel there, but something inside said it was not a good idea. Reincarnation is puzzling. Could a person be reincarnated as an insect? it would be as if the person never existed in the first place.. only the insect. Yet faith is considered an antidote to reason: “why do you love your spouse?”; and the answer is, “we were meant for each other.”
    A metaphysical reply. Thus science and religion talk at cross purposes concerning intangibles.

    “the evidence of an afterlife almost nil”

    Transhumanism/posthumanism conceivably hold a prospect for some sort of what could be termed afterlife. I don’t want to categorically reject the notion of ‘afterlife’. Don’t even reject eschatology as being self-fulfilling prophecy– as it may be a kind of simulation. As an aside, all prophecy, including scientifically based prediction, may be self-fulfilling.

    “popular religious beliefs are almost certainly false.”

    The very fact of popularity makes the spiritual content suspect. Spirituality is (or would be) individualist; popularity is collectivist.

  4. “To put it simply religion is, in my view, an enemy of the future.”

    I especially liked this. Religion too often replaces our focus on an evolutionary future, with views focused on a supernatural future. All of the knowledge and constraints of nature are therefore discarded, yielding a much greater risk of extinction. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Is the extinction of life what any god would want? A world with fewer souls to worship him? I wish we could use this line of reasoning to get religious believers to join is in focusing on our natural future together.

  5. Pope Francis deserves credit for trying to change the tone of the Catholic Church to be more inclusive, more compassionate of those in need and less ruled by dogma and materialism. Of course, he has an impossibly hard job trying to placate all factions, deal with abuse scandals and financial corruption, etc. But he seems to be trying to move the Catholic Church in the right direction. Even an outsider, like me, can admire his effort and hope he succeeds.

  6. A just/virtuous secular future is also to be doubted. Not rejected, but dubious. Concerning peace and justice, peace is attainable.
    Justice, being relative to time and place, has no distinct parameters– whereas peace has the real parameter of guns ceasing their firing, bombs no longer dropped.
    So both our religious and secular visions of the future are flawed. High tech is Real, however all the rest of the factors for the future are extremely fuzzy. Or shall we write that the future of virtue and justice is fuzzy, to say the least. Virtue and justice are intangible, high tech is more tangible.
    One definition of religion is cheap psychology. A psychologist in the 21st century is not going to be able to give competent advice regarding adjusting to the massive dislocation coming. That is where religion comes in.
    Jim Rogers is right on how Pope Francis is making the Church less dogmatic. Yet Francis will ultimately make the Church more materialistic: the benefits of high tech will be too hard to resist as the Church is liberalized. For better and worse.
    Religion is for better and worse and so is high tech.

  7. Clearly religion has done and continues to do much harm. And most of the everyday religious dogmas should be taken no more seriously than the idea that Athena sprang from the head of Zeus. But beyond providing individual consolation, which you note, religions also provide much more. They often provide impetus for social justice, provide individuals a strong sense of belonging, and through spiritual direction offer something akin to analytic counseling.

    Major social justice movements of the 20th century and of the present have had strong religious impulses. We can look to the movements of which Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were leaders as examples. In Miami, through obligations associated with the Catholic University where I originally worked, I became involved with a Social Justice organization that works on local (progressive) politics that is comprised almost exclusively of Justice committees of local churches, synagogues and mosques. These congregations do provide an infrastructure for social coordination at the local (and national) level. And it appears to me that many of the adherents are adherents largely for the sense of purpose that they derive from that work “being their brothers keeper” and from the sense of community that the organizations and the collective work provide.

    The non-religious often lack the social bonds, outside of family, that religious organizations can provide, and they often lack the organizational infrastructure for collective social justice work. You’re probably familiar with Robert Putnam’s writing on “Bowling Alone.” He reflects on the lack of community in contemporary life and problems of social belonging and so on related to this. We can of course join Green Peace or the Sierra Club or various organizations and work together for good purposes. But it appears that there is a bit of a vacuum often left by those who leave their churches.

    But these are a couple of the roles that religions also fulfill that can be important for a meaningful life. It was of course this social function of religion that Durkheim focused on more than the question of individual comfort or of religious experience (such as William James writes about). Those without religion (or those who hope that religion will fade) will likely do well to find other ways to facilitate community. This, I’m sure, is part of what is behind the efforts like Alain Botton’s School of Life, which has meetings in London and other places, or the various Atheist churches. Some of them couple that with some other functions of religion, such as philosophical counseling as a stand in for spiritual direction.

    Mostly what I’m getting at here is that there is more that religion is providing people than the individual comfort of a supernatural belief system. Many of those things are vitally needed for many people to have a good life and are benefits of a caring community. Maybe that last phrase should be highlighted, since I think that a lot of the appeal of religion comes down to that. For all the sicknesses of any religion I’ve encountered, you can often find in the midst of that elements of a caring community — at least some group of people who are focused on a moral life and who find meaning in acts of kindness toward individuals and in work for social causes greater than themselves.

  8. I’d like to quibble a little bit with Ed’s comments regarding our “evolutionary future”, where the “knowledge and constraints of nature” cause us to progress toward “our natural future together”. Perhaps I’m just arguing semantics, but it sounds like Ed is referring to the algorithm of natural selection in biological evolution. My view is that the process that will generate future humans will be decidedly non-natural.

    It took millions years for “natural” biological evolution to result in our species originating. But now that we are here, our intelligence and our ability to record and transmit knowledge have led us to rapidly develop a complex, technological civilization. We have now become the “cranes” (agents of change) in our own evolutionary process, which will not be the exceedingly slow, natural selection algorithm of biological evolution. Rather, genetic engineering, AI and other technologies will be increasingly deployed for human enhancement. Groups of “enhanced” humans will increasingly segregate themselves from the masses of unenhanced humans and will be the spawn of a new species. Compared to “natural” evolution, it will happen very fast. Maybe that future will be good, maybe it will be bad. Who knows? But it will not be “natural”.

    (sorry that this comment veered off the topic of religion)

  9. To return to the subject of Eastern faiths, one can wholeheartedly embrace the tenets. Eastern faiths are fairly elastic. For example, Buddhism is about as elastic as can be.. can mean pretty much whatever the bodhisattva wants Buddhism to mean.
    A Hindu can eat meat on occasion without feeling that one might go to Hell for doing so. Being vegetarian is a Standard, not absolute Commandment. Everyone knows today that religious people are going to eat meat, engage in illicit sex, and do other things that they are supposedly not supposed to do.
    The Abrahamic faiths, as the article discusses at length, are more problematic. Yet still, one can attend a house of worship without Believing (High case ‘B’.)
    What I do is believe without practicing. One can Believe in forgiving one’s enemies, being loyal/faithful, loving one’s neighbors, etc. And to be self sacrificing is common to all faiths…
    but No Thanks, please!
    In the modern world, only a fool would be self-sacrificing. The Amish have found a way round this by partially withdrawing from modern life. The Amish practice a more well-balanced subject-object dualism: they are truly “in this world but not of this world.”
    Religion can be thought of as popular psychology, which is not to denigrate religion but, rather, to allude to the reason religion remains so popular over a century and a half after Marx called religion the opiate of the masses. The continuing popularity of religion (collectivist religion, not individualist spirituality) is not difficult to fathom.
    By improving our lives, we radically dislocate the world around us– resulting in declining conventional ethics and aesthetics. That religion can improve ethics is in doubt– but that religion does offer aesthetic comfort is in no doubt.

  10. “Maybe that future will be good, maybe it will be bad. Who knows?”

    It will be both good and bad. Dr. Messerly and I were born the same year, both of us remember 1968 well. Have good and bad changed much since ’68? Perhaps not at all. Now the techno-future is upon us! And Trump is possibly divine punishment or karma… we are getting our comeuppance. Technoligarchs have been sent to us as a punishment and warning. As it were.
    What I gradually realized during the last two years is how moving on to the future means rejection of the past. Are we prepared to abandon the past? Are we prepared to– just for starters– abandon nationalism; provincialism; filial pity, marital piety? Avarice?

    “(sorry that this comment veered off the topic of religion)”

    Not as far off as you think. Eschatology specifically refers to religious prophecies albeit can mean more. Am only familiar with the New Testament book of Revelation. Two cents worth adjusted for inflation:
    Revelation can be interpreted in many ways; and one can term Revelation (and other prophecies from the Bible) as ‘futurist’. That is, simply attempting to predict the future in certain ways. What could be more faith-based than trying to predict the future? An open question.
    Faith is complete trust or confidence in someone or something, that trust or confidence moving into the future. Expectations involve trust and confidence.
    Until recently, futurism was my main interest. Today I see that futurism is merely a secular version of clairvoyance: no better, no worse. It all appears to be self-fulfilling prophecy. People predict the future and then go about seeking to validate their predictions by words and deeds.
    The pure science going on today is not faith-based. However, projecting applied science into the distant future is no more than soothsaying.

  11. Maybe we’ve exhausted this meme. But to clarify: many do not comprehend religion because of archaic language involved. And the conditions of life way back when. When people lived an average of circa forty years, and surgeons and dentists were nowhere to be found, the allure of an afterlife was apparent.
    When one examines their obscure meanings, what scripture writers prescribed was an extremely high standard of thought and action. Hypocrisy is thoroughly predictable if the bar is set too high. As you’ve all noticed, religionists frequently look for scapegoats when they realize the bar is set impossibly up. Anthropic goats to place sins upon and cast into the wilderness.
    Subject-object dualism is unavoidable. However religionists take it way too far; they become hyper-materialistic, with a veneer of spirituality. Religionists attempt to jump up to grasp onto a lofty bar of spirituality– but fall back onto the ground. Then one had best get away from them.
    They cannot blame themselves, as such would entail a great loss of self-esteem. It is time to run as soon as they decide to hold us culpable. As a goat had sins cast upon it and was released into the wild, so we risk a similar fate. Enter separation of church and state to protect us. Thank God for separation of church and state!
    ‘Divine’ retribution/karma can simply be defined as mistakes piled on each other for years. Checks and balances became too delicate recently–and we wound up back in the ’80s. Devolution is so much easier than evolution. Ruination is easier than success.. destroying is easier than creating.
    ———————————————————-
    If one defines the deity as cause and effect/ying yang/karma, some sense might be made of religion. The deity would in this definition be karmic nemesis as a reply to widespread hubris.
    Thus if one could choose one word (which naturally one can’t) to describe religiosity, the word would be escapism. Alcohol and drugs are quick ‘n dirty ways to the escape of altered consciousness. The Arts are escape, and so forth. Religion might well be The escape. Marx had it wrong: alcohol and drugs are the opiates of the masses, religion is the Escapism of the masses. Sure, Marx was using a metaphor– at any rate opiates sedate one, whereas religion is escape without he lethargy of ‘opium’.
    ——————————————————————-
    But what I mostly think about regarding religion is life being a Simulation. Not only does the past influence the present, the future influences the present as well. A psychic travel backwards in time. Thinking beyond that, it is quite… dicey.

  12. Allow me to retract my 2nd comment where I quibbled with Ed over the word “natural”. My comment was hasty, not well-thought out and not articulated very well. Ed is probably right that humanity has a natural future in the Darwinian sense. Sorry about that!

  13. Ha ha, just seeing this Jim after your retraction. I don’t actually disagree that with your first post other than to call those futures of humanity “natural” too. I think I was talking about natural vs supernatural in my original comment, whereas you are talking about natural vs something like artificial (or whatever other term you want to use for the guided selection of domesticated animals for example).

  14. You have pretty much come to the same conclusions on religion I have although I have problems even with Buddhism as a religion rather than a philosophy. It seems most men struggle to let go of funny hats and robes and needing a priest or whatever to act as a go-between.

    I do find it interesting that the Gnostic Christians saw a Demiurge where most sheep saw a God. Especially now that we might have discovered we are in a simulation. If there is a creator it would have to be such a dysfunctional type IMO.

    Life will never really be satisfying for me. I see too much suffering and can see no reason why it should ever come to an end for humanity as long as we keep reproducing one dysfunction generation after hopeless generation. I am a firm believer in Antinatalism and not much else. Even the “goodness” I find in myself doesn’t mean it is a creation of my own “self”. It could easily have been determined without any consent from my conscious mind. I crave non-existence if this is the best existence has to offer. I’ve lost all my “friends” over these beliefs/realizations. The interesting thing is I find life quite a bit better without them and that came as a surprise until I actually considered it. Having been a dog trainer in my work past I have been able to create really deep and meaningful bonds with another species and vastly prefer their consciousness to that of my species. I live out my life sentence (I swear I’m innocent judge, I did nothing wrong) with two very fine canines for company.

  15. Albert Schweitzer said, to paraphrase:

    “There are two reliefs from the misery of life: cats and music.”

    Someone else said, “Hell is other people.”

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