The Meaning of Life: Part I of II

August 16, 2007 at 1:51 pm 18 comments

alpha2.gifI’m going to be honest. I think that there is one thing that scares humans so much that we make fantasy worlds that flow with milk and honey, worlds that are controlled by perfected beings of enlightened wisdom and ultimate power: the meaninglessness of life. Amongst the fury of passionate arguments in the responses to one of The de-Convert’s posts, one commenter (#42) randomly proclaimed,

“You are confused yourself Mr. Ape…
Try to understand. Why do you exist? What is your purpose in life? Do you exist to eat, work and sleep? Think again Mr. Ape…”

I shrugged off the comment along with the brutally useless dialogue I had gotten myself into. Yet I have come to understand that this seems to be a core issue whenever religionists of any sort proselytize to secularists, so I bookmarked the comment in my mind and promised myself to get around to it. We all know that the question itself is quite poor from an apologetic standpoint. Christianity, on any level, does not really offer any more “meaning” than any other religious movement. It is, rather, a purely rhetorical device that plays on an individual’s insecurity with who or what they are in the universe. It is used by almost every major religion, almost universally as a evangelical tool, or, at best, an apologetic for belief itself.

Dennis Prager, of the uber-conservative Townhall.com site, writes,

“there are three values systems competing for world dominance: Islam, European style secularism/socialism and Judeo-Christian values… Perhaps the most significant difference between them, though one rarely acknowledged by secularists, is the presence or absence of ultimate meaning in life… If there is no God who designed the universe and who cares about His creations, life is ultimately purposeless.”

Prager later rightly recognizes that the usual secular defense of living a meaningful life is not the same as having some ultimate teleological purpose. Those words were written over two years ago, although I am sure he would still say the same thing today. I am not going to pick on Prager. I am merely pointing out that the respondent in The de-Convert’s aforementioned article is in good company with this psychological attack on the god-forsaken materialist heathens of the world. Yet, there appears to be an enthymeme involved in Pragar and Chito’s confrontation, which is that a belief in God gives meaning and purpose. This statement is assumed by both believers, and is probably a universal assumption among all believers. But is it true?

If we are to follow Prager’s line of thought, which dismisses the, at worst, day-to-day, or, at best, ontological meaning in our lives, we must seek this ultimate purpose that religionists assume is involved with a belief in God. I remember at the age of 11 or 12 wondering this same question. What is the meaning of life? It wasn’t that I doubted life had meaning – that would come during my brief nihilist stage while in Bible college – since I knew life had meaning, I just wasn’t sure what it was exactly. As a keen evangelical child, I went straight to my NIV Teen Study Bible and looked for God’s purpose, not just for my life, but for life itself.

The first thing I found out was that there isn’t much on the subject. I mean, there of talking around the subject, quotes that there is a purpose, but it definitely wasn’t an obvious one. It almost appeared as though it was simply good enough to know that there was a purpose rather than there actually being a purpose. But that couldn’t be it, could it. No good Christian could accept such an answer – I just wasn’t looking hard enough. So I looked harder. I can say that when I finally found the only solid answer in the whole Bible, I wasn’t exactly impressed. I justified it somehow, probably humbling my immature childish mind and promising myself to figure it out later in life – I wasn’t impressed, but there it was.

“The LORD has made all things for himself: even so, even the wicked for the day of evil.” (Proverbs 16:4)
“For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to who be glory for ever. Amen.” (Romans 11:36)
“…you are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for you have created all things, and for your pleasure they are and were created.” (Revelation 4:11)

Three different books, three different authors, one message. It was clear – God’s purpose for my life was to serve him. It was the common thread, so it seemed, for all three “religions of the book”. So what is the heathen to say to this? On the surface, if we are not living by this teleological purpose, it is implied, we must be merely living for ourselves. If we are living for ourselves, what is to stop us from succumbing to the worst of human nature? And so we come full circle. Meaninglessness of life is hence equated once again to fear. Not only then is it a fear of our own psychological insecurity, but also a fear of “the other” – the uncontrollable elements.

But what of this so-called “meaningful” life assumed by believers? The reason you were created was for one reason. It was so that God had someone (or someone else?) to worship him. A god without worshipers, it could be argued, is hardly a god at all, wouldn’t you say? Georg W.F. Hegel pointed out in his historical philosophy that there is a paradoxical relationship between master and slave: a master is not a master without any slaves, and slaves actually become masters due to their master’s dependence on them. If the believers are correct, are we not really any more than slaves? Is this really a purpose? Is that a meaningful life? Once again it appears that we are at the whim of the gods: they sit on their thrones on Mount Olympus – we are no more than their entertainment and occasional victims of their cruel wagers.

-The Apostate

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Announcing our new Community Site The Meaning of Life: Part II of II

18 Comments Add your own

  • 1. HeIsSailing  |  August 16, 2007 at 2:16 pm

    The first thing I found out was that there isn’t much on the subject.

    Funny. I found out the same thing when searching the Bible during marraige counseling. This is also why, I believe, Rick Warren must use a variety of loose Biblical paraphrases when he describes his ‘Purpose’ in his Mega Best Seller. He claims that the purpose of life, not just for you and I, Thinking Ape, but for every human on the planet is a balance of five things:

    Ministry, Fellowship, Worship, Discipleship and … something else that I cannot remember off the top of my head.

    That is it. We were created soley for the pleasure of God. Yikes. It appears that our ultimate purpose in life in Rick Warren’s world is to be unpaid church staff.

    a master is not a master without any slaves, and slaves actually become masters due to their master’s dependence on them.

    I was just thinking about this on my drive into work this morning. God, all-knowing and all-powerful being that he is, actually must react to our human actions if he is to have any personality at all. If God is pleased with us, angered by us, or reacts in any other way to us, it is a reflection that he does not know our future actions, and his actions are dependent on ours. But how can a trancendant and all-knowing being do this?

    OH… this is just a headache inducing circular conundrum that renders God into just a hypothetical puzzle with too many loose ends for me to take seriously any more.

  • 2. Shannon Lewis  |  August 16, 2007 at 2:17 pm

    If a ‘god’ ceases to be a ‘god’ without worshipers, do people, likewise, cease to be somehow human without a ‘god’? Silly question, but if God ‘is’, then he/she/it still ‘is’ apart from anyone worship, or affirmation of existence. Just as we continue to be even apart from an objective observer (ie – God).

  • 3. Thinking Ape  |  August 16, 2007 at 2:54 pm

    Shannon, good question. By saying that something is not something, does not negate its existence, it only negates whatever that thing is. The ‘god being’ then can still be a ‘being’ of some type without being a ‘god’ (the alien conspiracy theorists ought to love that). The clue is in the terms – what is a ‘god’, what is a ‘human’? A god is, no matter how much faith you have, always a hypothetical being. In the long history of hypothetical gods, a common attribute has been their mastery of the universe and our lives. By referencing Hegel, I was only pointing out that for a god to be worthy of worship, it must have worshipers and without worshipers, the god has no real authority – a king, one could say, without a country.

  • 4. Mike  |  August 16, 2007 at 4:26 pm

    This is a very interesting conversation, and one that will continue as a “headache inducing circular conundrum” if questions are asked on top of questions without waiting for the answers.

    Thinking Ape, your handle on what the Bible says regarding our purpose is right on, and you make several conclusions that are really solid. But you ask a primary question that goes unanswered: “If we are living for ourselves, what is to stop us from succumbing to the worst of human nature?”

    You move on to comment that this logic is simply pandering to a fear motivation, but you neglect to offer another possibility for the outcome. So, lets start here and focus on this part of the discourse. Is there any other possible outcome than the worst of human nature? Nietzsche didnt think there was. William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies, certainly didnt think there was. What do you envision being the other outcome(s)?

    P.S. Forgive me if i sound rude in the asking, i just think this is an important part of the discourse and would like to focus in here.

  • 5. karen  |  August 16, 2007 at 5:13 pm

    In terms of purpose in the theist’s world view, I go back to the very beginning of the Westminster Catechism, which defines it quite succinctly:

    Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?
    A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

    So I think you got it right, T.A.

    If there is no god, there is no overriding purpose to life. Some people find that so overwhelmingly depressing that they cling to belief in god because they simply can’t face the alternative. To me, part of growing up and being an adult is rejecting fantasies that feel good but don’t hold up to logical scrutiny.

    I think we bring our own meaning to life and we have the responsibility to our fellow human beings to make our lives matter in the greater scheme of things. How? Loving our families, raising healthy, civic-minded children, promoting education, helping others, making art or music or literature, contributing to new discoveries that improve something in the world – there are myriad possibilities.

    The existentialists had it right when they recognized the paradox that humanity has developed the brain power to want to know “why” and also the sophistication to understand that the question is unanswerable. I find that accepting that paradox is not depressing but ultimately liberating. Besides, it’s the only way to be truly honest with myself.

  • 6. Slapdash  |  August 16, 2007 at 5:25 pm

    Back in my heady evangelical high school and college days, I was regularly invited to articulate my life’s mission statement – because, you know, you need to have one to make sure you don’t squander your life away. Anyway, various church/parachurch leaders, with no reference to the westminster catechism, offered their version of it: “to know, love and serve God, and to enjoy Him forever.” I never got comfortable with that language because it sounded so foreign, so out there, so focused on…not ME. It’s like I was irrelevant to the question at hand.

  • 7. Thinking Ape  |  August 16, 2007 at 5:32 pm

    Mike inquires,

    But you ask a primary question that goes unanswered: “If we are living for ourselves, what is to stop us from succumbing to the worst of human nature?”… What do you envision being the other outcome(s)?

    P.S. Forgive me if i sound rude in the asking, i just think this is an important part of the discourse and would like to focus in here.

    Not rude at all and it is more than a valid and a, might I add, blatantly obvious missing detail in this article. In this post I really only dealt with the positive Christian claim that their is actually meaning and purpose with hints that I agree, but that the Christian claim is vague and leaves much to be desired (I would say most of the contributors here would have felt this way). Tomorrow I will post “part ii” in which I focus more on the question of “okay… what then?”.

    I am purposely, for the sake of this discussion, sticking to positive claims. The issue that I hinted at with “succumbing to the worst of human nature” I believe, in short, is a non-issue – I think it is what we are living today and have always lived, whether one believed in a Judeo-Christian god or not. I do not believe that we are genetically built to “live for ourselves” – Golding’s story was a story, a story that he believed could happen, but one that goes against many contemporary moral theories within an evolutionary framework. We all seem to remember the “survival of the fittest” without realizing that in order for the individual to survive, so must the society. We don’t succumb to a Christian hell on earth because it goes against our evolutionary propensity to continue life. Again, more on that tomorrow :D

  • 8. Mike  |  August 16, 2007 at 6:06 pm

    That’s a good thought, and i think Nash’s Game Theory would support it quite nicely.

    Forgive me if i am getting ahead of your next post, but then how do we handle the examples from our history where great damage has been done by men who link the survival of their society to the extinction of another. In the last century, we can look to Nazi Germany, Communist Russia (particularly under Stalin), Mao’s Cultural Revolution, all the way up to the last decade with ethnic cleansing in Africa. These examples we would necessarily label as “evil,” but why is that? Is it because we would say it “goes against our evolutionary propensity to continue life?”

  • 9. Thinking Ape  |  August 16, 2007 at 6:06 pm

    I’m not sure if anyone is familiar with the “Alpha Course” (that thumbnail is their logo), but has anyone been to it? I know my grandparent’s hosted one and that the canadian version of their website has a bunch of really sexy people dancing at a bar with a ripped out “Is there more to life than this?” title. I’m kind of tempted to check it out to see what their take on this is (especially if all those really hot people are there :P)

    http://www.alphacanada.org/

  • 10. Thinking Ape  |  August 16, 2007 at 6:16 pm

    Mike is a philosophical hound dog,

    … but then how do we handle the examples from our history where great damage has been done by men who link the survival of their society to the extinction of another…. These examples we would necessarily label as “evil,” but why is that? Is it because we would say it “goes against our evolutionary propensity to continue life?”

    Perhaps. Why is it that the majority of the human population finds such acts so revolting? What then do we say about the sociopaths – are they genetic abnormalities or has circumstance shifted their mindset to be able to separate our singular human species into many? Or even on a small scale, is their something to be said about those who are so detached from their own kind that makes them able to kill another human? Isn’t that how soldiers – otherwise normal, decent humans – are trained? This century has been full of horrific events, which is accentuated mainly because we have become so efficient in our killing – could you imagine what some of the Chinese warlords or the feudal kings of Europe would have done if they had access to our technology!?

    This all leads me to wonder – do animals have their own sociopaths, or is it something innate in human consciousness?

    All good questions, none that I will touch in my more uplifting post tomorrow :P

  • 11. writerdd  |  August 16, 2007 at 7:05 pm

    As an atheist, I don’t believe in an afterlife, so every second of my time on earth is precious. The years remaining in my life provide the only chance I will have to fulfill my potential and make a difference. The people I love are to be cherished in the here and now for there will be no reunions in another realm. The suffering and pain on earth must be alleviated today because there is no happy ever after in the sky. Beauty is to be admired and appreciated now because tomorrow it will fade away. I must make meaning in life every day, because there is no-one providing a purpose for me to fulfill.

    If the universe has no ultimate purpose, does that render our individual lives meaningless? I must answer with a resounding “NO!” Although meaning is not provided to us, we humans are uniquely qualified to make our own meaning and to find fulfillment through the act of living purposefully.

    There are many worthy causes and many ways to find meaning in life. Eventually each one of us must come to recognize those causes that are closest to our own hearts and those issues that arouse our strongest passions. These may change many times over the course of a lifetime. Some people find meaning in raising a family, others in pursuing a career, and still others in charity work, volunteering, creating art, public service, and many other spheres. Every day we must search our hearts to find out what it is that gives us meaning and to find a way to fulfill our purpose while we attend to the needs of our families, work to make a living, struggle to keep up with our daily responsibilities, and are bombarded with negative news.

    The path may not be easy, and the goal may sometimes seem impossible to reach, but regardless of what we call it, mystery and meaning are available to all who seek to live a spiritual life–and belief in the supernatural is not required.

    (This is excerpted from an article I wrote for Skepchick a year or so ago.)

  • 12. 1st-Circle  |  August 16, 2007 at 8:15 pm

    ** It doesn’t “mean” anything **

    Ah yes, the nonsense about “meaning.” (Or, it you prefer means-ends, “purpose.”) Don’t let theists beg the question — what meaning?

    Once Western religious myths, like xianity, are rejected — moralized pairs of opposites, like purpose/accident, meaningful/meaningless, being/nothingness — no longer apply to the cosmos.

    Those of us lucky enough to have become godless see a bit better what is unclear. Removing “God” from legitimate explanations of natural phenomena can cause intense mental distress.

    (There’s cognitive dissonance as well, but “meaning” is not a wholly cognitive concept. Distress, depression, even malaise penetrate the affects.)

    To what extent a post-modern culture can create incomprehensible shock can be gauged by the fierce resistance to every threat real or imagined by xian fundamentalists. The U.S. suffers greatly from being among the last Western nations to make a successful transition to a truly secular state.

    Starting 150 years ago, only the intelligensia were disturbed.

    Darwin knew exactly how he would be treated by Society — he was after all a bona fide “gentleman” quite aware of the perks of class and freedom from laboring for any man save himself. T. H. Huxley, who had no fortune to inherit, felt himself socially inferior, certainly he was ill-treated by Owen. It’s no surprise that Huxley coined the word ‘agnostic.’ He must have hated the ignoramuses of both class and cloth.

    Someone like Matthew Arnold who seems to have been a sincerely attracted to God’s good moralized natural universe, gives us ‘Dover Beach’ as testimony to a completely irrational, but widely felt depression. Science though true, negates meaning.

    Reactionary believers, however, would have none of this. If science negates meaning, then it is either mistaken, false, or lying.

    Today’s troglodytes, people like the late (unlamented) Falwell, have continued to abandon rationality while exalting increasingly shrill versions of God’s purpose and the meaning of your life, as defined by these demagogues.

    We “godless ones” as Nietzsche calls us realize that “the moral world order” does not exist. It never existed. There is not and never was any “meaning” in this cosmic sense. Our affects are to that extent unperturbed.

    1st-Circle
    copyright asserted 2007

  • 13. Brad  |  August 16, 2007 at 9:02 pm

    “We “godless ones” as Nietzsche calls us realize that “the moral world order” does not exist. It never existed.”

    Interesting you say this, since you make a normative and qualitative claim that you are “lucky enough” to be Godless. Nietzsche was never able to answer the problem of normativity though, so I don’t expect you to be able to work outside it either.

  • 14. The Meaning of Life: Part II of II « de-conversion  |  August 17, 2007 at 10:00 am

    [...] my previous post I expressed my wariness with the so-called meaningful Christian purpose. I stopped short, however, [...]

  • 15. karen  |  August 17, 2007 at 5:58 pm

    I’m not sure if anyone is familiar with the “Alpha Course” (that thumbnail is their logo), but has anyone been to it? I know my grandparent’s hosted one and that the canadian version of their website has a bunch of really sexy people dancing at a bar with a ripped out “Is there more to life than this?” title. I’m kind of tempted to check it out to see what their take on this is (especially if all those really hot people are there :P)

    Don’t get your hopes up too much! :-)

    Alpha Course is an evangelical outreach put on by many churches. It’s usually held over dinner in a couple’s home and attended by “seeker” couples as well as church couples. The idea is to get nonbelievers who are looking for meaning in life through the door and then try to get them to convert. Pure and simple “friendship evangelism.”

    The course has rather controversial beginnings in the U.K., however, and over there it’s aligned with a highly Pentecostal movement and charismatic pastor. That means it has a lot of critics over here in the U.S. – conservative evangelicals who disapprove of Pentecostals, of course.

    Google it and read some of the links. It’s pretty fascinating stuff.

  • 16. Thinking Ape  |  August 17, 2007 at 6:29 pm

    Interesting, most of the churches Alpha has connected to in Canada appear to be fairly mainstream evangelicals (Alliance, MB, non-denominational, etc.).

    I wonder, what exactly is a “seeker” couple?

  • 17. bry0000000  |  August 18, 2007 at 3:26 am

    Brad,

    That’s interesting. Can you please elaborate?

  • 18. Why Do You Believe What You Believe? « de-conversion  |  September 25, 2007 at 9:50 pm

    [...] The last time I wrote on this site I was concerned with the “meaning of life” (in parts one and two). The theme continues in this post (as well as a continuation from one of Simen’s [...]

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Attention Christian Readers

Just in case you were wondering who we are and why we de-converted.

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Whether or not you believe in God, you should live your life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will have made a positive impact on those around you. If there is a benevolent God reviewing your life, you will be judged on your actions and not just on your ability to blindly believe in creeds- when there is a significant lack of evidence on how to define God or if he/she even exists.

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