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

Advertisements

28 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. markrmorris2
    Feb 28, 2007 @ 10:58:51

    One might also note that it is historically proven that Paul, along with more than half of Jesus most intimate followers met their deaths defending this mythology of which you speak. Maybe they knew something.

    Reply

  2. JewishAtheist
    Feb 28, 2007 @ 12:51:10

    In other words:

    “I wish there to be objective morality; therefore God exists. I wish there to be objective meaning; therefore God exists.”

    Reply

  3. Stephen
    Feb 28, 2007 @ 13:18:26

    • JA:
    Sometimes I really appreciate your perspective. Other times, as here, you don’t make the slightest effort to grapple with real issues.

    I haven’t argued that Christianity is true in this post. I have argued that atheism does not provide an adequate ground for meaning. I’d like to hear you speak to that point, instead of a straw man.

    Reply

  4. JewishAtheist
    Feb 28, 2007 @ 13:45:28

    I have argued that atheism does not provide an adequate ground for meaning. I’d like to hear you speak to that point, instead of a straw man.

    Sorry, I guess I’m just tired of this old thing. 🙂 Philosophers have been dealing with this question at least since the Existentialists.

    My short version:

    1) There is no objective meaning.
    2) Atheists can live (subjectively) meaningful lives.

    Essay questions:

    1) Is a rose objectively beautiful? If not, is it less appealing?
    2) What’s the meaning of a Sunday afternoon?
    3) If Shakespeare was not objectively a great writer, was he not still a great writer?

    Reply

  5. Stephen
    Feb 28, 2007 @ 13:50:49

    Thanks, JA, that’s a much more substantive response.

    Sorry, I guess I’m just tired of this old thing.

    Perhaps one day I’ll stop posting on this topic … about the same time as you quit writing anti-religion posts.

    Reply

  6. JewishAtheist
    Feb 28, 2007 @ 14:32:43

    Perhaps one day I’ll stop posting on this topic … about the same time as you quit writing anti-religion posts.

    🙂 Fair enough. There are some questions I just get sick of answering. Like, “How can you be Jewish and an atheist?” Or, “Why don’t you just rape and murder if you don’t believe in objective morality?”

    Reply

  7. Simen
    Feb 28, 2007 @ 15:47:44

    I don’t follow. You say that life is meaningless unless there is an afterlife, or am I misinterpreting something? Can’t you see that a life can be meaningful even though it will end some day? (Note: I’m talking about subjective meaning here, the feeling we have that something is meaningful). For instance, it’s highly likely that I’ll outlive my parents. Does that mean that when they’re dead, my relationship with them is voided? I don’t buy it. I find comfort in the thought that I can myself choose a meaning. Perhaps it’s just me, but I have no desire for an objective meaning.

    Anyway, if life is nothing but a trial before the afterlife, wouldn’t that render life ultimately meaningless?

    Reply

  8. whig
    Feb 28, 2007 @ 23:45:06

    I think the confusion is over the idea of self, personal consciousness. When you understand that we are colony organisms, made up of living creatures each of whom live a time and pass on their memories and function to replacements, then the idea of transformation by death becomes a bit less of a stopping point. Nothing ever really dies.

    Reply

  9. juggling mother
    Mar 01, 2007 @ 18:39:16

    I’m with JA here. There is no objective morality – which is why morality has changed so drastically over the years – even within a single religion!

    And life is meaningful to the person living it – even if they are living it in suffering, they will percieve meaning to their life, an objective to living it. if not they would commit suicide:-)

    Reply

  10. M. Pengo
    Mar 01, 2007 @ 20:21:31

    I do believe in an objective morality, and I have an idea of where the original poster is coming from.

    First, morality within Christianity has changed surprisingly little – if anything it’s been a personal, and therefore cultural struggle to meet the standards originally laid out by Christ and his apostles. ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’ and ‘Love God above all’ are extraordinarily simple rules that have unbelievably complex ways of expression and application in individual circumstances. Has Christian behavior changed drastically? Oh yes. We’re fallible creatures – don’t be surprised at our fallible results.

    Second, ‘I don’t need God to find meaning in life’ is the rallying cry of atheism, just as ‘I don’t need God to live morally!’ is. The problem is, theists don’t really deny either. They just think subjective meaning is a paltry, small concept compared to objective meaning, and that ‘living morally’ means nothing when absolutely anything can be moral (It’s all subjective, remember.)

    Think of it in terms of math. Can 2 + 2 = 72? If you really want it to, sure. But the person who believes that it’s an objective truth that 2 + 2 = 4, if they’re right, has the better truth. And if they’re wrong, their truth isn’t any better than the person who believes 2 + 2 = 72 – so why do they insist on arguing?

    Maybe they don’t believe it’s all so subjective after all.

    Reply

  11. whig
    Mar 01, 2007 @ 23:11:55

    M Pengo, I’m sorry but as a Christian I find your argument incoherent. What is your objective standard of measure?

    Reply

  12. Stephen
    Mar 02, 2007 @ 09:03:44

    • Simen:
    Can’t you see that a life can be meaningful even though it will end some day?

    I can see that a given moment in a person’s life may be meaningful, from the subjective perspective you maintain. I cannot see that a person’s life, overall, can be described as meaningful if it concludes in infirmity, suffering, death, and the loss of everything s/he valued over the decades.

    I also maintain that it’s relatively easy for us in the west to glibly assume that life is meaningful, because we are drowning in disposable income, big houses, easy transportation, good health care, etc. For example, if travel makes your life meaningful, you can probably manage to visit other countries from time to time.

    People in other parts of the world — i.e., the majority of the human race! — live a hardscrabble, subsistence-level existence. From an atheistic perspective, how meaningful are those lives … particularly as they, too, end in suffering, loss, and death?

    Reply

  13. Stephen
    Mar 02, 2007 @ 09:22:00

    • Whig:
    When you understand that we are colony organisms, made up of living creatures each of whom live a time and pass on their memories and function to replacements, then the idea of transformation by death becomes a bit less of a stopping point.

    I wouldn’t put it in those terms, but I’ll say this by way of agreement. The Bible (both Testaments) regards people from the perspective of community. There is no individualism of the modern, Western sort. Even salvation is not depicted primarily as a matter of individual choice: it’s a matter of membership in the community of God’s people.

    The Bible uses “community”, “people”, “church” — not colony. But your focus beyond the individual is sound.

    • Juggling Mother:
    Life is meaningful to the person living it … if not they would commit suicide.

    Perhaps I reflect seriously on these issues because a half dozen people in my immediate family have committed suicide.

    I’m glad that you find life meaningful, despite your atheism. I’m looking for a philosophy that can provide meaning for people who don’t find it so easy when times are tough. Suicide is always an option, to be sure: but I’d like to offer folks a reason to keep living.

    • M. Pengo:
    [Theists] just think subjective meaning is a paltry, small concept compared to objective meaning.

    Thanks for that observation — that’s helpful. I tried to say in the post that theists understand subjective meaning, when I listed a few things that make life subjectively meaningful for me.

    But you’ve put it more clearly: theists can embrace both levels of meaning (subjective and objective), but we understand that objective meaning is what ultimately counts.

    Reply

  14. Simen
    Mar 02, 2007 @ 09:31:18

    I cannot see that a person’s life, overall, can be described as meaningful if it concludes in infirmity, suffering, death, and the loss of everything s/he valued over the decades.

    Well, there are always light points. Loss is bad, but ultimately one must seek for meaning not in the losses but the gains, whatever those may be.

    I regard it as my own responsibility to make my life meaningful. At times, this can be a bit depressing, since I’m not always sure what I want to do or what my life should be, but I don’t search for a ready-made meaning for me. In the end, the freedom one has to decide weighs up for the difficulty in deciding. If there was an objective meaning, I would most likely fail, since the requirements were made by someone or something who doesn’t know me at all.

    Reply

  15. M. Pengo
    Mar 02, 2007 @ 11:33:04

    “M Pengo, I’m sorry but as a Christian I find your argument incoherent. What is your objective standard of measure?”

    Well, my objective standard of measure doesn’t really matter, at least not in the context of this discussion (Subjective meaning/truth v objective meaning/truth.) I’m illustrating why, to theists, ‘I personally think lying is wrong’ is less than ‘Lying is objectively wrong’. In the former, the argument extends from the person – lying is wrong because they’re saying it’s wrong, and it doesn’t go much further. In the latter, it’s a recognition that right and wrong goes beyond them individually, possibly beyond all people, period. It’s like recognizing 2 + 2 = 4. There’s more going on there than subjective belief, even collective belief.

    On the flipside, I don’t believe in objective perfection, especially when related to moral truths. So it’s no surprise to me that even among theists and the religious, moral truths have changed – specifically, gotten better (I’d debate on specifics – but as a whole, I’d still argue ‘better’.) Again, take it back to math. There’s objective truth there, but do we have a complete set of rules and boundaries for it? Our best mathematicians tried hard for decades – and then Godel said, ‘No.’ Does the fact that Godel apparently proved that there’s no such thing as a closed and complete system of math mean that there’s no objective truths? I don’t think so. He just illustrated that there’s always going to be something new to learn.

    Which is why I both welcome, hope for, and in a way expect everlasting life and life beyond death to be true: Because the prospect of an infinity’s worth of improvement and discovery strikes me as downright plausible for humanity, both collectively and individually. But, that’s another subject.

    Reply

  16. whig
    Mar 02, 2007 @ 13:25:21

    Stephen, you misunderstood. I do not say merely that we are part of a colony, which we are in a biologic sense, that colony is ultimately God. But I was referring in the opposite direction, as to your own body and its composition, a universe of living cellular organisms cooperating to make up your various function and matter. All of them are conscious in their limited way, all of them have your genetic code, and God’s.

    Reply

  17. whig
    Mar 02, 2007 @ 13:27:15

    Here is Wikipedia’s entry on the biological meaning of colony.

    Reply

  18. whig
    Mar 02, 2007 @ 13:32:42

    M Pengo, it seems to me you are saying that if you say, “X is objectively bad” that makes it so, and more strongly so than to say “From my perspective, X seems bad.”

    The first statement would be unprovable and possibly false notwithstanding your assertion. The second statement would be unnecessary to prove, as it can be weighed and valued according to the value you might give my perspective and probity.

    Reply

  19. M. Pengo
    Mar 02, 2007 @ 14:22:12

    “M Pengo, it seems to me you are saying that if you say, “X is objectively bad” that makes it so, and more strongly so than to say “From my perspective, X seems bad.”

    The first statement would be unprovable and possibly false notwithstanding your assertion. The second statement would be unnecessary to prove, as it can be weighed and valued according to the value you might give my perspective and probity.”

    Not in the least, regarding the first. It’s not conditional on what I say, but on what the actual case is. If X is truly objectively bad, it’s… objectively bad. And the person who subjectively argues that X is good, is wrong. Is it provable? Possibly not. Can a person believe in objective values, be correct in their general belief (objective values exist), and still hold ‘wrong’ values? Sure. But if objective values do exist, those two observations don’t do much other than advance the idea that it’s difficult to truly define true objective values. Which I’d agree with – hence the Godel example.

    And sure, the second statement is unnecessary to prove. I’d go further – it would be pointless to try, because it’s all wind anyway. Very important wind to that individual. Maybe wind most of us can all nod our heads in agreement over. But nevertheless, wind.

    Personally, I believe the subjective experience is incredibly important – even part of what we’re meant for. I also believe part of the goal of the subjective experience is to struggle to find, understand, and yield to objective truths. (Theist here.) It’s a neverending journey and effort, but subjectively I’m fine with that.

    Reply

  20. juggling mother
    Mar 02, 2007 @ 18:38:22

    “morality within Christianity has changed surprisingly little “

    really? In the evolution of christianity from 300 ish AD to the current liberal protestant churches many of us the West know & understand I can think of a few changes of morality: Slavery. Subjugation of women. homosexuality. These are all still pretty big issues in the world today, but in 300AD they were normal & therefore moral. Divorce. Age of consent. The church has evolved it’s morality on these issues as society changed. Only a few hundred years ago o christian church would have batted an eyelid at marrying a 12 year old girl off to a 60 year old man, or insisting that two people stay married despite a long histoy of abuse. Now these things tend to only happen in the USA (well, some bits of it anyway). even something as simple as murder is variable from a moral point of view. It all depends on your definition of unjustfied killing. War has always been exempt, but it used to be not only not a sin, but an actual bonus in Gods yes (according to the christian church) to kill an unbeliever.

    Morality is subjective, and subject to the predominent society. It also explains why different christian churches around the word argue so passionately about specific “moral” issues. God does not give a moral stance on homosexulaity, abortion, women vicars etc. That come from the society the religion is based in.

    Stephen. the suicide comment was not about individual people, but about people as a whole. If we, as a race, felt that life was meaningless, we would not have survived very long! Individuals obviously vary in their “belief” in meaning as much as they do in their belief about anything. I do not have a solution to those who can not find meaning in their lives. i have always felt I was terribly important:-)

    Reply

  21. whig
    Mar 02, 2007 @ 18:43:00

    M Pengo, nothing is objectively good or bad, both are relative to some starting case, or measured by some index.

    Reply

  22. Stephen
    Mar 02, 2007 @ 19:10:15

    • Juggling Mother:
    No worries, I didn’t take any personal offence. You sometimes come across flippantly, but I know you’re a more caring person than that.

    Reply

  23. M. Pengo
    Mar 02, 2007 @ 19:25:54

    juggling mother,

    I say the Church and christianity in general has evolved (ascended, gotten better at) on issues of morality – you say that the Church has changed because society has changed. My response is that the situation isn’t so cut and dry: Christianity is part of society. Christianity affects society, but society is greater in sum than simply christianity, and always has been. Which may well be why Christ’s teachings and rationale were extraordinarily simple (Love thy neighbor as thyself, and love God. By the way, everyone is your neighbor, including your enemies) yet complex in application (Does this mean giving a crack addict more crack? Is that truly a generous act?) Complicating matters, not everything people justified was actually believed in by those same people – Joseph Brown (abolitionist) had an interesting view of that.

    So no, I still don’t see ‘morality is subjective’ in history. ‘Many people treat morality in subjective ways’, perhaps – but I’d never disagree with that.

    whig,

    If you want to put it that way, that’s fine. I’d just reply that I believe the index(es) to be objective. You can disagree; again, also fine. These are philosophical subjects, and subject to some limitations. I hopped into this thread to add another voice to why theists don’t find the prospect of a universe devoid of anything but subjective value to be all that enticing, while they do find value in the concept of and believe in objective truths (and by their association, God.) Otherwise, ‘There are objective values’, ‘No there aren’t’. And it ends at that impasse.

    Reply

  24. whig
    Mar 02, 2007 @ 22:01:20

    M Pengo, if the indexes are objective, what is your index?

    Reply

  25. M. Pengo
    Mar 02, 2007 @ 22:27:23

    whig,

    Though it’d be a pleasure to discuss it, I’ll have to decline – I’ve already let myself off my chain enough, and went off-topic. 🙂 Maybe another time. In the meantime I’d just mention it’s an ongoing debate in philosophy (And it crosses atheist/theist borders, no less, though theists tend to weigh in particularly heavy on one side for obvious reasons.)

    Reply

  26. whig
    Mar 02, 2007 @ 23:43:42

    M Pengo, you are of course free to decline to express anything objectively meaningful.

    Reply

  27. Stephen
    Mar 03, 2007 @ 11:34:44

    • M. Pengo:
    To confirm your point: in the earlier dialogue, there was an atheist defending objective morality. In fact, I think that’s the majority position even among atheists.

    As for theists, Whig self-identifies as one (i.e., a panentheist) and yet s/he’s arguing against objective morality.

    God is a great lover of diversity. Variety is the spice of life, etc., etc.

    Reply

  28. addofio
    Mar 03, 2007 @ 15:47:27

    Stephen, thought you’d enjoy the following joke. While it’s hardly directly germane to the topic, it’s not entirely irrelevant to the various discussions we’ve been having on your blog, either (at least in my head.)

    —–

    Paddy was driving down the street in a sweat because he had an important meeting and couldn’t find a parking place.   Looking up to heaven he said, “Lord take pity on me.   If you find me a parking place I will go to Mass every Sunday for the rest of me life and give up me Irish Whiskey!”

    Miraculously, a parking place appeared.

    Paddy looked up again and said, “Never mind, I found one.”

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: