Finding meaning without God

Most of you quit reading the post, Is religion more bad than good?, a long time ago. But these discussions sometimes take on a life of their own, and several of us have been hammering away at the question of morality: “Is there an objective right and wrong?”

I believe morality is objective, contra Simen. Contra Michael, I don’t see how it is possible to defend an objective morality without appealing to God.

A similar issue arises when we discuss whether life has meaning. I maintain that life is meaningless if there is nothing beyond death and, ultimately, the disintegration of the cosmos.

Atheists insist that life is meaningful without God. Each one of us makes her or his own meaning. Reading philosophy may give meaning to your life, or making sexual conquests; doing research to seek a cure for cancer or flying kites. Each of us finds meaning in whatever is meaningful to us.

That is not an objective definition of meaning. In light of our earlier discussion about morality I think it’s important to point that out. If the meaning of life is not objective, is it possible to maintain that morality is objective?

I follow the atheist’s logic to a point, because it is true to my own experience. I find meaning in studying theology, history, science, and other disciplines; in my relationship with MaryP; in my work as a policy analyst; in listening to music and in taking photographs. Other people would not find meaning in those pursuits, but would substitute others that hold no significance for me.

At a certain point, the logic of the atheist’s position breaks down. The problem arises when we include infirmity, suffering and death in the equation.

age, infirmityInfirmity, suffering and ultimately death are the final chapters in every human life. Yes, some people stay relatively healthy right up to the end — but the emphasis is on the word “relatively”. Elite athletes provide a convenient measure: by age forty their talents are already noticeably diminished, no matter how hard they practice and work out. It’s tragic how young we still are when age begins to bend us toward the grave.

Intellectually, humans seem to fare much better. Many scientists, philosophers and theologians continue to be productive and profound far beyond the traditional retirement age. On the other hand, their deepest insights typically occur to them in relative youth — not unlike elite athletes. And there are no guarantees: if physical disease doesn’t shorten your productive years, senility or dementia might.

In the face of these depressing realities, people turn to religion — mythology, if you prefer — for meaning.

The Buddha confronted this issue courageously. His quest for enlightenment began when he left his sheltered life in a palace and he encountered poverty, age, and infirmity for the first time. Similarly, a great part of Christianity’s appeal lies precisely here: it speaks powerfully to the question, “Does suffering negate life’s meaning?”

At least, I think it speaks powerfully to that question. Other people mock the idea:

In many respects, Muhammad’s career as a prophet was more impressive than Jesus’ was. At the very least, he escaped crucifixion. Of course, Christians have managed to make even the crucifixion of their Savior into a success story. It would seem that faith can rationalize anything.

That’s Sam Harris writing in his latest missive to Andrew Sullivan. They have been debating whether God exists, and whether moderate religion is any better than fundamentalism.

Harris’s argument may be irreverent, but it isolates a core issue. Jesus’ crucifixion is either Christianity’s greatest liability or its greatest asset. This was already understood in the first century:

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1Co. 1:22-24)

A crucified Messiah was an oxymoron to Jews then, and it remains so today. St. Paul defended Christianity against this objection by developing an elaborate mythology to derive meaning from Jesus’ death.

(Note to the Christians among my readers: I’m not implying that Paul’s explanation is false; merely that the meaning he ascribes to Jesus’ death does not arise from the raw historical facts.)

Whatever one may think of St. Paul’s interpretation, it has been a source of great comfort to Christians ever since. In the face of poverty, powerlessness, disenfranchisement, slavery, physical infirmity, pain, misery, and death, Christians find solace in Christ’s crucifixion. There they find meaning: not despite suffering, but in it.

The atheist says life is meaningful. I don’t buy it. Unless your worldview can find meaning in infirmity, suffering, and death, the claim is contingent on favourable circumstances. Since suffering is universal, life is ultimately absurd.

three crosses

A tale of two conservatives

Here in Canada, we often distinguish between fiscal conservatives and social conservatives.

To be regarded as socially conservative is a political liability here. The Canadian Alliance Party (now defunct) could not make inroads in Ontario and Quebec, mostly because the party was committed to socially conservative positions: e.g., opposition to abortion and gay marriage.

On the other hand, to be fiscally conservative is an asset. The Government of Canada ran up huge deficits from the 1970s through the mid-1990s. Now every party pays lip service to balanced budgets (even the socialist-leaning NDP), because voters won’t have it any other way.

In this post, I will argue that social conservatism and fiscal conservatism are antithetical to one another. That wasn’t the case in previous generations. But changes in our culture have now driven a wedge between social and fiscal conservatives.

Let’s begin by defining our terms. A social conservative aims to preserve traditional institutions and mores. Opposition to gay marriage is a clear, current example. Expressed positively, it is an attempt to preserve the traditional understanding of marriage and family. This resistance to change is rightly labelled conservative.

Fiscal conservatism is something quite different. Fiscal conservatives are committed to “small” government: lower spending and less regulation of institutions and individuals. In the political domain, this would seem to be the core meaning of conservative. Consider the following two quotes:

In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.

This is a classic expression of a conservative approach to government. Solutions will come from individuals, not government, if government grants individuals the freedom to seize the initiative. On the other hand:

We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government has got to move.

The second quote opens the door to a very different approach to government: “bigger”, more costly: government that is more of a presence in people’s lives.

The first quote is from Ronald Reagan’s inaugural address in 1981; the second, from a speech by George W. Bush in September 2003. Two Republican presidents; two different ideas about the role of government.

President Bush was articulating a vision that he describes as “compassionate conservatism”. He failed to act when compassion was actually at issue, in New Orleans. But he has followed through on his interventionist inclinations in other circumstances, which we will consider below.

What happened over the course of this generation, from 1981 to 2003, to effect such a significant change in the orientation of the Republican party? The balance of power tilted away from traditional institutions and mores toward alternative models.

Social conservatives in the USA were first stunned by the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. Since then, they have been mobilizing against a further advance of what they perceive as immorality. But social mores have continued to drift to the “left”. They have reached a new high point (or low point, depending on your perspective) in court decisions allowing same sex marriage.

Back in the 1960s, people who favoured women’s rights, black rights, gay rights, etc. had to actively fight to achieve gains. Now such causes seem to have a momentum of their own.

Conservatives rail against “activist” courts. I understand the way they are using this word, from a legal perspective. (I have an undergraduate degree in law.) But, from a social perspective, I think “activist” is a misnomer.

Courts are responding to changes in society. This is “activism” only from a conservative perspective. One could argue that the courts were slow to recognize women’s rights, and slow to recognize black rights. Whenever change comes, it will be too hasty for some people, if too tardy for others.

The point is this. Once upon a time, conservatives could afford to be passive. Various activists demanded that society change; conservatives responded by sitting on their hands. Public officials could preserve the status quo by doing nothing. “Small” government was adequate means to achieve a conservative end.

But this isn’t an adequate response any more! The balance of power has shifted, to the point where conservatives must actively resist the swelling tide. In this context, “big” government is called for. Government must loom large in people’s private lives: the coercive powers of the state must be mobilized to keep people in their designated boxes.

Same sex marriage is the clearest example. Court decisions allowed it; President Bush solemnly promised to amend the Constitution to preclude it.

Most Canadians believe that marriage is primarily a private matter. As Prime Minister Trudeau famously said, “the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation.” When the state dictates that I am not free to marry the person of my choosing, the state is morphing into Big Brother.

This is big, interventionist government on a grand scale. Not when human suffering is at issue (“compassionate conservatism”), but when traditional mores are at issue (social conservatism).

(Update. Here’s another example: the state using its coercive powers to ban the sale of “any device … useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs”. For a trenchant comment, see here.)

I am spinning a tale of two conservatives: Ronald Reagan, with his philosophical commitment to small government; and George W. Bush, with his commitment to big government.

Once upon a time, fiscal and social conservatism were compatible. Fiscal conservatism necessarily entails small government. Social conservatism used to entail small government, too.

But society has changed. Social conservatism now entails big government — interventionist government — government that does not balk at overruling courts, installing conservative judges, and (directly or indirectly) enforcing the norms of a bygone era.

Not least when it comes to sexual mores. Sexuality looms large in this culture war, precisely because sex is a private activity. Does the state dare to intervene in people’s private lives? Sex is the inevitable battle ground, the likeliest place for that question of political philosophy to arise. Welcome to the brave new conservative world.


• p.s.

The Conservative SoulI must give credit to Andrew Sullivan’s book, The Conservative Soul, for providing the seminal thought on which this post is based. The two quotes (of Reagan and Bush) come from Sullivan’s book.

Sullivan self-identifies as a conservative, even though he is gay and an outspoken critic of the Bush administration. He argues that he is a true conservative whereas the Republican Party, in its current incarnation, is not conservative.

I don’t share Sullivan’s commitment to conservatism, but I think this is an important subject. American politics affect people globally: not least, here in Canada. I will have further thoughts on Sullivan’s book in subsequent posts.

• p.p.s.

I should note that I personally support same sex marriage, but I continue to regard abortion as a social evil.

I doubt that recriminalizing abortion is the right solution. Nonetheless, I do not believe the status quo is defensible, since it provides no legal recognition whatsoever to the unborn. (That’s the situation in Canada; I’m not clear on the US context.)

Point balance

John Félice Ceprano has been making sculptures of natural rock since 1986.

(My photos were taken during the summers of 2005 and 2006.)

point balance 1

Ceprano particularly enjoys this setting on the Ottawa River. Here the boundaries between nature and art blur, and each enhances the other. Ceprano believes the earth is sacred and the setting has an elemental spiritual power.

point balance 2

The sculptures are destroyed by the forces of nature each winter. Ceprano creates new sculptures each summer, with support from the municipality (the National Capital Commission).

point balance 3
point balance 4

The "art" of balance and basic masonry skills provide structural integrity. ("Point balance" is an engineering term that Ceprano used as a title for one of his sculptures.)

The sculptures are stabilized with small amounts of glue to make them safer for public enjoyment.

point balance 5

The sculptures are constructed entirely by hand, as you can see from the condition of the artist’s fingers and arms. Check out that third finger!

Ceprano (detail)
Ceprano 2

Art that enhances your recreational experience! (I’m referring to the photo below this one — lest there be any misunderstanding.)

point balance 6

Ceprano has a Web site where (among other things) you can build your own virtual sculpture or purchase a cloth print of Ceprano’s art.

UPDATE, Sunday morning:
One of my photos has been picked up by Bill Dan, who has a blog devoted to rock stacking. Here’s a sample image, from Matt’s Perspective:

Bill Dan’s blog illustrates that rock stacking is a worldwide phenomenon, with images from India, Germany, Bolivia, Switzerland, and elsewhere.

Peruvian frog

Not much activity on my blog lately, because I’ve been focussed on organizing my site. I came across this photo today:

peruvian frog

I believe the photographer lives in Peru. (Click on the photo to go to his flickr site.) Here’s the wee sticky-toed froggy again, with a little girl to put it into perspective:

frog with girl

And here’s a less exotic — but still impressive! — Canadian cousin, from my own files:


UPDATE, Friday morning:
I found a second bullfrog photo in my files.

bullfrog 2

Even an antichrist deserves a hug

He’s not the Antichrist, of course … or we’re headed for some serious tribulation!

I happened across this photo on by chance, and naturally I got a chuckle out of it. These two men are complete strangers drawn to one another by their complementary taste in T-shirts.

It’s cute that Mr. “I heart Jesus” was happy to give Mr. “666” a hug, and smile for the camera. He’s practising what the subtext of his T-shirt says: “Jesus heart you”.

And there are a couple of other amusing details.

First, “I heart Jesus” was ascending the hill, and “666” was descending. How perfect is that?!

Second, this happened at Wreck Beach (Vancouver, BC) — a nude beach. Whatever convictions “I heart Jesus” espouses, he certainly upends the fundamentalist stereotype!

Is religion more bad than good?

Atheists sometimes assert that the world would be a better place if people outgrew religion and it vanished into the dustbin of history.

scalesImplicit in the assertion is an extremely doubtful cost/benefit analysis. Ending religion would make the world a better place only if religion does more harm than good.

I say “extremely doubtful” because I don’t know how you would begin to dismantle history in such a way as to make an objective measurement. Nonetheless, atheists seem to know (there’s that word again) that religion does more harm than good. I frequently see claims to this effect on the internet.

I’m thinking about this topic after reading the latest exchange between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan in their ongoing debate over God’s existence. Harris writes:

Your determination to have your emotional and spiritual needs met within the tradition of Catholicism has kept you from discovering that there is a mode of spiritual and ethical inquiry that is not contingent upon culture in the way that all religions are. …

I’m asking you to imagine a world in which children are taught to investigate reality for themselves, not in conformity to the religious dogmatism of their parents, but by the lights of truly honest, fearless inquiry. Imagine a discourse about ethics and mystical experience that is as contingency-free as the discourse of science already is. …

Rather than pick over the carcass of Christianity (or any other traditional faith) looking for a few, uncontaminated morsels of wisdom, why not take a proper seat at the banquet of human understanding in the present? … There is new wine (slowly) being poured. Why not catch it with a clean glass?

Sullivan expresses amusement at Harris’s use of the passive tense. The children “are taught”:

By whom? You? Who is teaching these finally liberated children, and on whose authority? And where is this discourse they will enter that is “contingency-free”? I have never heard or read or engaged in one.

Later, Sullivan presses on in a direction that took me by surprise:  he sings the praises of Roman Catholic tradition:

Yes, you will cite the terrible parts of [the Church’s] history, parts I have not shied from myself. But you have missed so much more. …

The more I questioned and asked, the more history and theology I engaged in, the more I used reason to inquire into faith, the more remarkable the achievement of Christianity appeared to me. … I felt blessed to have been given this gift, amazed at my good fortune. The thought of throwing it away for a “clean glass” that is itself an illusion seems absurd to me.

Why would I want to forget all of that precious inheritance – the humility of Mary, the foolishness of Peter, the genius of Paul, the candor of Augustine, the genius of Francis, the glory of Chartres cathedral, the haunting music of Tallis, the art of Michelangelo, the ecstasies of Teresa, the rigor of Ignatius, the whole astonishing, ravishing panoply of ancient Christianity that suddenly arrived at my door, in a banal little town in an ordinary family in the grim nights of the 1970s in England?

You want to be contingency-free? Maybe you need a richer slice of contingency. There is more wisdom, depth, range, glory, nuance and truth in my tradition than can be dreamt of in your rationalism. In answer to your question, “why not leave all this behind?” my answer is simply: why on earth would I?

This is not the way I would have responded to Harris. Despite my commitment to theism and to Jesus Christ, I am not much of a church-goer. The church experience lost its most of its meaning for me a long time ago, I am sad to say.

Nonetheless, I am impressed by Sullivan’s appeal to the “astonishingly rich inheritance” of the Church. I have spent untold hours over many years investigating the “historical” Jesus. Thus I understand the power that history can exercise over the heart and mind:  how it can inform and enrich present experience.

And who can idly dismiss Sullivan’s point when he speaks of the candor of Augustine, the genius of Francis, the glory of Chartres cathedral, the art of Michelangelo, etc.? Only a very small-minded individual would deny that this is, indeed, an astonishingly rich inheritance.

Does such a rich inheritance prove that God exists? No. But I wish to address those folks who glibly assume that the world would be a better place without religion. Let’s have a full accounting; let’s take every debit and every credit into account in our cost/benefit analysis!

Yes, the Church has been responsible for some deplorable evils. Equally, the Church has been responsible for much great good.

Whether the good outweighs the harm is open to debate. But when Harris refers to Christianity’s “few, uncontaminated morsels of wisdom” he demonstrates appalling ignorance and insularity.

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