The search for meaning without religion

There are a few questions that every human seems to ask: “why are we here?”, “what is humankind’s purpose?”, “what is the meaning of life?” Naturalism (a flavor of atheism for those unfamiliar) provides a very concrete, science-based answer to these questions: “big bang, formation of universe, evolution, etc”, “there is none/the question is invalid”, “there is none/the question is invalid.” Of course, this isn’t a very satisfying answer to people who ask these questions. It’s not that the answers are wrong, but people already have an idea of what they want the answer to look like, even if they don’t know what it is specifically.

First, let’s consider the question “why are we here?” Responding with the answer above will undoubtedly be met with “that’s not what I meant,” assuming they don’t respond with “you blasphemer, you’re going to hell” that is. So what, then, do people mean when they ask this question? I think that there are generally two different questions people are asking. The first is “for what purpose are we here?”, which is really just another way of asking “what is humankind’s purpose?”. The second is “what are the circumstances which led to us being here?” and is the question that naturalism provides an answer to. There is an assumption though that the answer needs to be grand, inspiring, and gives a reason why our lives are not meaningless. The answer that naturalism provides does not satisfy these criteria, regardless of how accurate it is, and so it is rejected because it’s not “The Answerâ„¢”.

So what about the question “what is humankind’s purpose?” This question itself is a logical fallacy (begging the question) because it presumes that humankind has a purpose. There is no greater purpose to our existence as a species. We are the just result of random chance (more or less). Any purpose attributed to our existence is attributed by us and, thus, isn’t binding.

Picasso's Girl Before Mirror(1)

The final question “what is the meaning of life?” is much the same as the previous question: a logical fallacy because it presumes an answer. In fact, when you think about it, what does the question even mean? The question is very vague. I suspect that people tend to want some grand explanation for why we exist, e.g. “God’s master plan.” It could also be that people want there to be a reason for all the suffering and misery in the world (i.e. so things make sense and seem just). Either way, I think this question comes out of a desire for there to be a plan for everything, not just haphazard events, and is spurred by the fear of the unknown.

Leaving religion can be tough for many people because religion does offer an “answer” to these questions. Without religion, many people feel that without a universal meaning of life, and a universal purpose for humankind, then there is no point in living. This is absurd though. Just because there isn’t universal meaning and purpose doesn’t mean there isn’t individual meaning and purpose; it’s just a matter of finding it. For me, I find meaning through my relationships with others and through art. Although I am a nerd at heart and I love programming, art, literature, film, etc are what truly inspire me.

Dmitri Shostakovich(2)

When I first saw Picasso’s “Girl Before a Mirror” at the MoMA in New York, I immediately fell in love with the piece and it has since become one of my favorite paintings. It has so much depth and emotion to it! The subject fails to see her own beauty, and instead sees herself as this ugly monster. It’s so sad; very telling of society, the expectations thrust on women, and people who fail to see the positive aspects of one’s self.

Perhaps my favorite piece by my favorite composer, Shostakovich’s 5th symphony is another one of those pieces that draws you in and doesn’t let go. It’s an emotional experience like none I’ve ever heard before. The 3rd movement alone embodies the word “despair” more than any other artistic piece I have ever witnessed (personal opinion, of course). When I hear it, I can’t help but picture Shostakovich sleeping outside of his apartment on the stairs so that he wouldn’t wake his family if/when the Soviet authorities finally came to take him away. The final movement is so (intentionally) forced, I am reminded of Winston’s “capitulation” at the end of 1984.

American Beauty(3)

American Beauty introduced me to the world of real films when I first saw it in high school. It showed me that great movies are about more than just “fun” or “entertainment.” To this day, American Beauty is still one of my favorite films. The ending scene with Lester contemplating his family is one of the greatest, most beautiful scenes of all time.

Art, in my opinion, is positioned better than anything else to fully understand and appreciate the human condition. Art teaches us to understand one another and to appreciate the beauty in this world. It makes me want to better myself and, in short, gives me meaning.

(1) Picasso, Pablo. “Girl Before a Mirror.” MoMA. http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=78311
(2) Office of War Information. “File:Dmitri1.jpg.” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Dmitri1.jpg
(3) “Photos from American Beauty.” IMDB http://www.imdb.com/media/rm561217792/tt0169547

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2 thoughts on “The search for meaning without religion

  1. Followed your link from Greta on freethughtblog (thank you)
    I have no qualms with any of the points you bring up here, I’m just wondering now (at this point in my life) whether dispelling/arguing religious myths is an efficient way to try and bring believers around to a more rational thinking mode.
    If anything, I think that those who are prepared to argue with atheists are the least likely to let go. Your statement about the quest for meaning being “spurred by the fear of the unknown” pretty much sums it up, insofar as the most fearful would be the better arguers for having spent more time mulling over the questions.

    I too find American Beauty to be an unforgettable film. My favourite scene is the video in it of the twirling leaves (or was it paper?)

  2. Thanks for visiting!

    I think that being more confrontational is an effect means of getting people to let go of their beliefs…sometimes. Everyone is different, and different people tend to respond to different tactics. There was an article on Pharyngula (I think) where someone wrote in to PZ and said that a debate PZ held with some crack creationist got him to let go of religion. The person PZ was debating against directly didn’t change his mind, but the mere presence of the argument actually did chance someone else’s mind.

    I do think that sometimes people change their mind when they are challenged directly by these tactics, although it’s important to note that we would never see that change immediately; human pride is a stubborn thing :). Unfortunately we will never know the effectiveness rate of these tactics since we don’t personally see the results, but we do have some evidence that the conversion rate is non-zero.

    That said, there is a time and place for all tactics. Some people definitely respond better to diplomatic efforts…and indeed I am mostly the type of diplomatic atheist myself…and some people, such as the most fearful who are prepared to argue, are just lost causes. Time is on our side though.

    P.S. It was a plastic bag :)

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