Friday, October 08, 2010

Life Has No Need of Ultimate Meaning

 [Woody knows what makes life worth living.]

The following comparison of religious belief and atheism comes from the opening of the “Atheism and Meaning” article on Investigating Atheism, a project site by members of the faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge and at the University of Oxford:
Religious belief has traditionally provided human beings with a reason to think that their individual lives have a purpose, and that the existence of humanity as such has a purpose. Atheism, on the contrary, has generally taught that both individual human beings and (eventually) humanity as a whole have no purpose in the universe, and that they will be definitively annihilated in the course of time (human beings after their short spans of life, humanity - at latest - when the earth finally becomes uninhabitable). In the light of this prima facie deeply depressing prospect, the question of life's meaning or purpose within atheism has posed a peculiarly difficult challenge to atheists since the origins of modern atheism in the seventeenth century.
For an investigation of atheism, the concern of the writers seems to be how much more "uplifting" religious belief is than atheism. Clearly, this article at least is about defending religion on emotional grounds: believing makes person X feel better; therefore, believing is better.

I'm more surprised that actual academics could put together such a lame article as "Atheism and Meaning." The writers ignore the most direct and obvious points on the subject, such as those I had asked in the last installment: whether we should care if our lives, and humanity as such, have "ultimate" purpose and meaning in the universe.

Think about this: Are you really less happy with the fact of being alive if there are no gods? Do you really despair if a supreme being doesn’t acknowledge the spare change you donate to charity? Are we actually prepared to kill and maim one another except for the belief that a god is watching?

Clearly, the answer must be no to all of these questions. Most of us today are very happy to be alive. Some of us may be happier (or unhappier) if we believe a personal god is interested in all our individual thoughts and actions. But let’s be mature: who really lives life with the constant sense of being watched and judged? Who really wants to live this way? No one, I dare say.

Now think about this: Are you happier with the fact of being alive when your family and friends acknowledge you and give you positive feedback? Do you feel better than before when you donate money to people and they give you a sincere thank you? Are you better behaved when you know your relatives are around?

None of the questions above necessarily have answers that are one and the same always and everywhere, but the discernible point is sure: we don’t need the existence or the supervision of any gods for our lives to have meaning, purpose, value, and worth.

All people die. We know this. The world can seem cruel and events can appear to conspire against us. People especially can be jerks. However, we don’t need to despair that our lives are empty simply because there are no eternal souls and no heaven. We don’t need to give up on decency because there is no hellfire for sinners. We don't need to reject love for the sake of ancient stories and irrelevant rituals.

We all have reasons—good reasons, not reasons of imaginary beings—to think our lives are meaningful, and that humanity is pretty interesting. These reasons include our senses of individuality, our understanding of the world’s needs, our capacity to learn and to articulate, our ability to find and to give love, our desire to put our minds and bodies to work, and our predilection to imagine.

I understand some people think their religion gives their lives meaning. I don’t understand that some think their lives have no meaning without religion and gods.

* * * * *

This post concludes, for now, my exploration of the idea of “ultimate meaning,” especially as it relates to materialism. Ultimate meaning is a silly concept, in my opinion. It represents both human yearning and human egotism. We want so badly to understand ourselves as intrinsically special and universally important. We express these wants at the levels of community, state, nationality, culture, and species—and it’s generally been destructive to the world and to ourselves.

A person arguing for ultimate meaning and holding onto the idea has, I imagine, emotional reasons for doing so. A person bringing in this concept may very well be impervious to reason on the matter. Those of us dealing with such people are better off to move to different subjects of discussion.

1 comment:

  1. There was quite a long thread over at Jerry Coyne's recently on Free Will, and as I read through that tangled discussion, a little voice whispered "what if you don't need free will? what if you just tossed that idea right out?". And, lo and behold, 5 comments later, somebody says just that:)) I'm here from KK's Blessed Atheist blog, and very much enjoying the clear thinking in your posts. As I read through your Ultimate Meaning series (you see where I'm going with this), a little voice began to whisper, "what if you don't need ultimate meaning?"

    And then a big smile when I got to the last post in your series--thanks for saying something that should have been said long ago! And the Woody "How do I know why there are Nazis in the world? I don't even know how the electric can opener works!"-Allen header photo made my day. So chuck the God thing for a while--off to read one of your refreshing posts on Walt Whitman:))


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