Sunday, August 19, 2007

Does God Give Meaning To Life?

I was cruising the internet the other evening, recklessly swerving my way from one blog to another, happily dashing down the electron road, when I crashed into a notion. The notion I crashed into -- on blog after blog that evening -- was that unless God exists, life is meaningless. Several people were saying they had lost their faith in God and now felt "empty", "hollow", "full of angst", or "devoid of meaning". I checked, and none of them were teenagers. Teenagers typically mistake horniness for existential despair. But these folks were adults and it can be presumed they were not simply mistaking the emotional effects of testosterone for a crisis of meaning.

What all the bloggers shared was having been raised as Christians in churches where it is common to teach people the meaning of their life comes from God.

That is, the idea seems to be that without God, our lives are meaningless because after a few decades at most they end in oblivion, rather than continuing on in some fashion. Thus, it is argued the meaning of life depends on whether we -- that is, our soul, metaphysical spirit, or true self -- endures for all of eternity.

Yet, is it actually true that life has no meaning unless we continue on in some fashion after death?

I sometimes feel fortunate that I mostly escaped ever harboring the notion my life was meaningless without eternity. As a child, I attended church because my then agnostic mother believed it was important to expose me to the dominant religion of my culture -- Christianity (She also believed it was vitally important to get me out of the house Sunday mornings so she could stay home and indulge herself in the wonder of a few hours without having me under her feet). My exposure to Christianity led me to think quite a bit about it, but my exposure failed to make me a Christian -- except for a single month while I was in middle school. Other than that one month, I grew up agnostic like my mother. So, it was quite some long time ago that I examined the question of whether eternal life made temporal life meaningful and somehow I never bought into the notion that it did. Thus, I did not feel "empty", "hollow", and so forth upon leaving Christianity after my one month gig with it. But the bloggers I swerved into the other evening at one time certainly bought into that notion because giving up God and eternity for them has resulted in their feeling life is meaningless.

Our assumptions and expectations have much more to do with whether we feel life is meaningless than we might at first suppose. If we are successfully taught at a young enough age that life is meaningful if and only if we last forever, then we will feel life is meaningless as soon as we give up our belief we last forever. Yet, if we do not assume the meaning of life depends on how long we endure it in some form or another, then we look elsewhere for the meaning of our lives -- and many of us will succeed in finding a meaning (or meanings) for our lives that satisfy us.

16 comments:

Priyank said...

As a side comment, I just realized that all major religions of the world have a religion school - you mentioned the Church, there's Saturday for Jews, usually a couple of years at Madarsa for Muslims and ditto for Buddhists in monasteries. Strangely, Hindus don't have religion schooling, atleast I haven't heard of it.

David Rochester said...

One would think that life would in fact be more meaningful if it didn't continue after death; if this is the only shot we have, it seems reasonable to take the attitude that we'd better make the most of it.

I always think it's a bit of a shame when people who are raised Christian don't take the opportunity to rebel against authority and figure out what they themselves think. The process of doing that is, in my opinion, a crucial step to intellectual and spiritual maturity. If the force-fed belief falters and you're too lazy to delve deeper to find something else . . . well heck, you've missed a great opportunity.

(And by "you," of course I don't mean "you." How I wish we had a good English equivalent for the Romance language nonspecific subject. But we don't, and must blunder along as best we may.)

Paul said...

Hi Priyank! Fascinating! I wonder why Hindus never found a need to have religion schooling? Do you have any ideas about that?

Hi David! An excellent comment! Of the active Christians I've known, many do indeed think for themselves. It seems to me they have the deepest spirituality of all the active Christians I've known. But I don't get quite the same impression of Christians in general these days, and I think that might be because my impression of Christians in general is too heavily influenced by the loud mouths like James Dobson who get all the press and pretend to speak for all "True Christians".

Kenneth said...

You are so absolutely correct! I am one of those people who was raised Christian, believed in it for some time, and have now given it up only to find that life is pretty much meaningless. At least, there's no meaning that I can see.

I'm not sure that life would be any more meaningful if it lasted forever; Captain Kirk said it best in one of the "classic Trek" episodes: "The problem with immortality is that it is boring."

I think most of us are depressed because, even though we would like to take David Rochester's advice and "make the most" of our lives, we know we can't. Many of us don't know how, and circumstances often work against us. I, for example, have faced financial difficulties in recent years, and though I've managed to avoid bankruptcy so far, that may yet be in my future. And that's just one small example of the many, many things that can go wrong with our lives. Far worse off are those who are struck down by disease or even death at the very age when they should be "living life to its fullest."

It's enough to make you wonder if there really IS a god, one who's seeking revenge. ("Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the lord.") The second-century gnostics believed the world was created by an evil god. (I know, that's a simplistic description of their beliefs, but who knows, maybe they were right.)

Paul said...

Hi Kenneth! Welcome! Those are very very interesting comments. I have to agree that such things as financial difficulties can be extremely distracting. Yet I think it is still of the utmost importance to realize that meaning comes from within us and not from outside of us -- as the churches would have us believe. I would suggest our lives have meaning only to the extent we can be true to ourselves. Does that make any sense?

Rambodoc said...

I have always maintained that the need to cling on to the concept of a God is essentially a lack of self and self-belief. In trying times, the theist relies on the rightness of God's will ("He will surely not let this happen to me/us!"). I suggest that those who are depressed or despairing in the face of a wilting belief in God, are in need of a philosophy that gives meaning to life, and to a sense of self.

woundedhart said...

Mmmm. Something new to consider. Yet another idea that my previously unquestioning mind never thought of before, but seems so obvious now. Why do I think life's meaning has to be wrapped up in what happens when I'm dead? How silly.

Paul said...

Hi Woundedhart! Welcome! One of my best friends was raised Catholic and tells me that even at age 56, he is still unlearning the lessons he was taught as a Catholic. So, I think it can be a long process to "deprogram" ourselves from religious indoctrination.

By the way, I enjoy your blog and am only waiting until you start posting regularly before adding you to my blogroll. You have a wonderful writing style and are very thoughtful and insightful.

woundedhart said...

Thank you so much, Paul. I took a little break because of a cross-country move, and no internet access, so I hope to be much more regular from now on. I haven't stopped thinking...

makita said...

I'm back!!
Anyway, your life is as meaningful as you make it regardless of what supernatural power you believe in. And whether or not you exist in any form after death, depends on how many lives you have touched. Because you live on in the memories of other and the legacy you leave behind (more about my own recent experiences regarding this subject here and here). It's all in your own hands. You have the power.

Paul said...

Hi Makita! Welcome back! I've read your thoughts on meaning and I personally benefited from your insights. I recommend that anyone who is at all interested in this subject follow the links in your comments and read for themselves what you have to say.

It's very good to hear from you again!

ordinarygirl said...

I've been fortunate enough that even when events in my life have been hard, they've eventually gotten better. I can understand how kenneth feels when life continues to be hard with no end in sight. Thinking of life continuing to be so difficult until it ends and then nothing else has to be depressing.

Even when I was a Christian, and even being raised to think that God should be put first, I never really thought that all meaning in life came from God. I always found meaning in the people around me and from sharing special moments with loved ones.

As far as dying one day, it doesn't bother me a bit. I don't like the thought of being ill or in pain for a long time, but death hasn't ever frightened me.

But losing the people I love, that's the tough one. Although there are times I wish it were true, I know I'll never reunite with them. But they remain in my memories and that somehow makes it easier.

I don't really feel the need to attribute meaning to anything, at least in a universal sense. Meaning is what it means to me, if that makes sense. It doesn't have to be significant to anyone else.

Mahendra said...

I couldn't help but connect this post with one of Enreal's poems:
http://enreal.wordpress.com/2007/08/03/my-time/

Nita said...

An interesting discussion and one close to my heart. I grew up in a religious atmosphere but am not religious. Guess I saw that religion is simply a crutch. And for that reason I feel it's great if people derive strength from prayer for example. I definitely respect religious people as much as atheists. But I was always proud that I didn't need religion to be happy. I think of myself a strong person.
About the question you asked Priyank, well, Hinduism is a religion well suited to those who are not fantatically involved in religion because there is space for all. Nothing is compulsory in Hinduism, absolutely nothing. Therefore people do not need to do anything but can still call themselves Hindus. Hinduism is a way of thinking. There is very little (maybe zero) indoctrination and there is a fundamental belief that you cannot convert anyone to hinduism. you are born a hindu...you see this prevents the fanatics from trying to convert people. Hinduism also has a history of co-existing peacefully with other religions. Thats why conceptually (only conceptually!)I love this religion.

Paul said...

Hi Nita! Those are quite interesting comments on Hinduism. I know very little about the practice of Hinduism, but conceptually, I've found many things to admire about it.

Mahendra said...

Nita explains very nicely why I believe Hinduism is the least evil of all the religions! :-)