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 and in Church and State.)

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).

Tom Morris: Blaise Pascal and the Meaning of Life

Tom Morris (1952 – ) is a former Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and founder of the Morris Institute of Human Values.  His 1992 book, Making Sense of It All: Pascal and the Meaning of Life, puts forth the case for a Christian answer to the question of life’s meaning based on the philosophy of Blaise Pascal (1623-1662).[i]

Morris begins by summarizing Tolstoy’s argument, which he also finds used by many characters in Woody Allen films: 1) Everything in the world, including my life, will end; so 2) All the consequences of my life will end; thus 3) my life and everything else is meaningless. Morris immediately wonders about the connection drawn here between finitude and meaninglessness. Immortality does not render the question of meaning irrelevant, as we can still ask the meaning of immortal lives. Thus no necessary connection between finitude and meaning should be drawn.

To understand the connection between death and meaning we need not then suppose that the absence of death implies the existence of meaning. To better understand this connection between death and meaning, Morris proposes a general thesis of meaning he calls “the endowment thesis.” It states that: “something has meaning if and only if it is endowed with meaning or significance by a purposive agent or group of agents.”[ii] For example, consider human language. Words do not have intrinsic or essential meaning; the word water does not intrinsically mean liquid H20 anymore than the words “aqua” or “wasser” do. Rather, words are endowed with meaning by linguistic convention, they get their meaning extrinsically. Thus meaning is derivative, it is never intrinsic.

At this point, many philosophers conclude that life has subjective meaning—the subjective endowment thesis—meaning that derives from activities we value and enjoy. Morris grants this argument may block one from committing suicide, but it does little else. One problem, if meaning is entirely subjective, is that we can find meaning from compulsive stamp collecting or by being the world’s best torturer of innocent children. But don’t the goals or purposes around which we center our lives matter? Doesn’t it make some difference what activities we orient our lives around? Surely the answer to both questions is yes, and yet a subjective theory of meaning seems to have to answer no to both questions.

Another problem with the endowment thesis is that we must have control over things to endow them with meaning. Morris calls this the control thesis: “we can endow with meaning only those things over which we have the requisite control.”[iii] The problem is that we have little or no control over those things most significant to meaning like our birth, life, suffering, or death. And without this control we cannot, at least to a large extent, make our lives meaningful.

Morris concludes that if meaning is a matter of endowment, then either there is no objective meaning or some purposive agent, power or plan gives our lives meaning. The failure of subjective endowment combined with the endowment thesis of meaning leads to objective endowment as the only answer. And that is why Morris says that Tolstoy turned to faith in God, and why so many characters in Woody Allen’s films talk about god. Death then does not eliminate meaning, rather it is a sign of our ultimate lack of control over our lives. Thus questions about meaning lead to the search for some ultimate, objective reality to make sense out of them.

The remainder of Morris’ book attempts to repudiate skepticism, explain the hiddenness of God, defend Pascal’s wager, and shield Christian belief against the skeptics. In the end, Morris’ analysis relies on the notion of grace, that we have freely received the favor of God. “It is only by the grace of God that faith, reason, and the meaning of life can finally come together in mutual fulfillment.”[iv] (I disagree wholeheartedly.) As for the relationship between reason and faith, perhaps Pascal said it best: “the heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.”

Summary – Meaning must be endowed. But we cannot endow our own lives with meaning because we do not have control over our lives and deaths. Meaning must, therefore, be endowed by an external purposive agent like a god.

___________________________________________________________________

[i] Thomas V. Morris, Making Sense of it All: Pascal and the Meaning of Life (Grand Rapids: William E. Eardman’s Publishing Company, 1992).
[ii] Morris, Making Sense of it all: Pascal and the Meaning of Life, 56.
[iii] Morris, Making Sense of it all: Pascal and the Meaning of Life, 59.
[iv] Morris, Making Sense of it all: Pascal and the Meaning of Life, 212.

William Lane Craig: Can You Be an Atheist?

[For five days now I have given religious thinkers a chance to make their case that the meaning of life derives from their god. This is the last one I will do.]

William Lane Craig (1949 – ) is an American Evangelical Christian apologist  known primarily for his work in the philosophy of religion. He is a critic of: evolution, atheism, metaphysical naturalism, logical positivism, postmodernism, moral relativism, Catholicism, Mormonism, Islam, homosexuality, and non-fundamentalist Christian theology. (What does he like?) He is a fellow of the Discovery Institute, whose goal is to force public high schools in the United States to teach creationist ideas in their science classes alongside of accepted scientific theories. (Ok. He’s for make-believe stories! But why not teach other stories besides your preferred one? And who would give this guy a job in an intellectual institution?) He is currently a Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, an evangelical Christian university. (Oh, they would.)

Craig’s piece “The Absurdity of Life Without God”[i] argues that life is absurd without a god. The fundamental reason for this is that without a god both the individual and the entire universe will end without a proper resolution. In that case there would be no hope of escaping our fate and life would lack significance, value, or purpose.

Craig argues that there is no ultimate meaning without immortality because if everything dies it does not matter that previously the universe, the human race, or any individual had existed. Still, immortality is not enough for meaning, since an unending life could be meaningless. For full meaning we need a god, without which humans must accept the view of Beckett, Sartre, and Camus—that life is meaningless. In addition, without gods there is no objective morality and moral relativism reigns.

Craig claims that if we really think about the universe as rushing toward oblivion we should realize that there is no hope or purpose without a god. Without a god we are accidents of nature, and there is no reason or purpose for our existence. With a god there is hope; without a god there is only death and despair. The implications of atheism are strong indeed. The basic problem with an atheistic response is that one cannot live happily with such a view. Either the atheist is consistent and recognizes life is meaningless, or is inconsistent and assumes there can be meaning without gods.

All of this leads Craig to the conclusion that it is a practical impossibility to live as an atheist. Without a god life is objectively meaningless, so atheists pretend that life has meaning by saying it has subjective meaning. Without a god, there is no morality and everything is permissible, so atheists assume there is some other ground for an objective ethics. Without a god there is no immortality where justice will reign, where the wicked will be punished and the virtuous rewarded. Without a god there is no purpose in life, so atheists make up some purpose for it.

The despair of the atheistic view contrasts sharply with the Christian world view. In that view a god exists, we are eternal, and we can be with this god. Christianity thus provides the conditions for a meaningful, valuable, and purposeful life. We can thus live happily.

Rejoinder – Craig seems unaware that science and technology will probably give us the immortality he seeks—assuming his followers don’t take us back into the dark ages. They are trying their best though by making sure that children don’t learn modern biology. And if he’s troubled by evolutionary biology, just wait until he realizes what the computer scientists are up to. Eventually, when science defeats death, religion will end. For religion is based primarily on a fear of death. Craig would have been right at home in the Dark Ages. He is a true enemy of the Enlightenment, and of the future.

__________________________________________________________________________

[i] William Lane Craig, “The Absurdity of Life without God,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

Summary of John Cottingham’s “On the Meaning of Life”

(this article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, January 14, 2015.)

John Cottingham was born in London in 1943 and received his Ph.D. from Oxford University. He is presently Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Reading and an Honorary Fellow of St John’s College, Oxford. He is a proponent today of the view that life is meaningless without a god.

In his recent book, On the Meaning of Life (Thinking in Action) Cottingham defends a supernatural conception of meaning. He maintains that being moral is necessary for meaning in life, but denies that it is sufficient—something else is needed for a life to be meaningful. Cottingham provides two reasons for thinking that a moral life is not sufficient for a meaningful life.

First, Cottingham argues that our endeavors must be successful in order to be meaningful. But only the god of traditional theism could order reality in such a way that our efforts will truly be successful, presumably because of the existence of an afterlife where justice reigns. Second, he argues that morality must be grounded in a God who issues moral rules that are eternal and absolute, in order for our lives to really have significance. Together these two claims serve as a reply to those who would advance a naturalistic account of meaning. Our moral ends are often thwarted in this world, thus we need another world to confer full significance on our actions. In brief, morality must have an objective basis in a god for morality to really matter.

But it is not only the existence of a god and a soul as necessary to confer meaning that interests Cottingham. He also argues that belief in their existence is necessary in order to encourage us to engage in moral projects; that is, the promise of eternal justice and eternal life inspires us to be moral. Thus Cottingham claims both that life cannot be meaningful without a god or a soul, and that such beliefs themselves motivate us to be moral. How do we maintain beliefs in gods and souls in the absence of sufficient evidence? This is where the religious life comes in; it encourages the moral actions and religious beliefs that give life meaning. As Cottingham puts it:

… because of the fragility of our human condition, we need more than a rational determination to orient ourselves towards the good. We need to be sustained by a faith in the ultimate resilience of the good; we need to live in the light of hope. Such faith and hope, like the love that inspires both, is not established within the domain of scientifically determinate knowledge, but there is good reason to believe it is available to us through cultivating the disciplines of spirituality. Nothing in life is guaranteed, but if the path we follow is integrally linked, as good spiritual paths are, to right action and self-discovery and respect for others, then we have little to lose; and if the claims of religion are true, then we have everything to gain. For in acting as if life has meaning, we will find, thank God, that it does.[i]

To summarize, without a god there would be no objective moral principles and without those principles life is meaningless. Furthermore, without a god, we could not achieve moral ends and without doing so life is meaningless. Finally, without a belief in a god, we would not be sufficiently inspired to be moral, and thereby not able to find meaning.

Brief Rejoinder – The biological and social basis for morality are well-known—morality is not supernatural. The claim that people aren’t motivated to be moral without believing in gods is too silly to merit a reply. In my experience, virtually all the worst people I’ve ever known claimed to be religious while the atheists and agnostics were almost always morally superior. Around the world,  the best places to live are the least religious and vice versa. Perhaps I don’t understand him, but if I do his arguments are astonishingly weak.

___________________________________________________________________________

[i] John Cottingham, On the Meaning of Life (London: Routledge, 2003).