The Meaning of Life: Part II of II

August 17, 2007 at 10:00 am 24 comments

The fallacy that we all abide by one paradigm (or at least that we should) has led many Christians, both those of the conservative typology as well of the “floundering liberal” (Falwell’s words, not mine), to believe that non-believers have no ultimate purpose or meaning in life. Yet they do not realize that this unfair accusation is no different than the atheist who would also unfairly place his or her paradigm on the Christian and proclaim that a worship of an imaginary being and the subsequent false hope for a life after this one is foolishly nihilistic and deters the “believer” from living a purposeful life.

In my previous post I expressed my wariness with the so-called meaningful Christian purpose. I stopped short, however, of offering my own “secular” meaning of life. The conservative pundit I quoted in the previous part recognized, more or less, that a non-believer is fully capable of living of meaningful life. This meaning, however, is limited to the ontological realm. The pundit could not see an ultimate, or teleological meaning for a secularist’s life. To many Christians, the atheist’s view is that we are born, we live for ourselves, we die by ourselves. Finito. Apparently, if their god is added to the equation, even if the only purpose is to bow before him, at least it is something. I believe that this has led Christians to adhere to a false dualism that is so present in gnostic paradigms: the material is empty, the spirit is where life is found. Yet everything in observable reality tells us otherwise. The lack of evidence for either a god or heaven leads one to wonder how it is that a theist can have such a pessimistic view of the material realm.

223-126-guggenheim-large.jpgLet me offer a different perspective of the secularist’s lot in life. When you walk into the Guggenheim in New York or the Louvre in Paris, do you say that it has no purpose? From the outside, they are merely buildings – beautiful buildings in this case, but buildings nonetheless. While the architecture may well be a masterpiece itself, it is the art inside that gives purpose to the museum – without the art, it is no longer a museum, although it may still be a work of art itself. It may be that not everyone is a piece of art themselves, such as these grand museums, but the most beautiful pieces of art can still fill an average museum and, more importantly, give a humble museum a grand purpose.

The teleological and ontological purposes of humanity are one in the same: to live, and to create life. The contemporary Christian paradigm may have a hard time recognizing this due to its continual move away from life and focus on death, but even the Judaic tradition, complete with a view of worshiping a god, saw life as a teleological purpose. The Abrahamic covenant itself was not a promise of some vague heavenly locale, in fact, the view of heaven is so insignificant in the “Old” covenant that some sects of Judaism reject the notion altogether. They recognized that the artwork of life lives on through generations, or put more crudely, through the “Darwinian” perpetuation of the species. As Dawkins and numerous other atheists have pointed out, the stress on living only one life inadvertently places more emphasis on “life-making.” The addition of afterlife, put into perspective, only cheapens this life.

Part of our current generation’s issue with “life-making” in the secular sense is that we don’t really do too much of it anymore – or that when we do, it is overshadowed by our lust for things will very little substance. Jay R. Jones writes,

When I was younger I dreamed of adventure. I would watch Jacques Cousteau documentaries with my dad and we would stay up late into the night putting together scrapbooks of submarines, airplanes and ships – all the necessary tools of a good explorer. He would tell me that, one day, I too could travel like Cousteau, unlocking the world’s secrets.
Now, at age 28, I am trapped.
I pay for a car so that I can drive to work so that I can pay for my car.
I paid for education so that I can have a career that will pay for my education.
I paid for a house so that I have a place to live while I work to pay for the house.
I picked a good neighbourhood so that I could get to know my neighbours, but all my neighbours have fences.
I own clocks so that I can see how little time I have in a day.
I own a TV so that I can watch documentaries about people who are unlocking the world’s secrets – my secrets.

This life looks familiar to a lot of us. There is so little life. It feels dead. That’s probably because it is. There is very little “life-making” involved. At the end of one’s life, the cliche goes, no one says they wished they spent more time at the office. Since this is the way so many of us, including Christians, live, it is difficult for many religionists to see that life-making itself is a purpose. A positive life-maker brings meaningful joy to the human race and, by extension, to our natural surroundings (because, they are, after all, living as well). We love and make love. We laugh and make laughter. These are the artworks that fill the museum of the individual and humanity. And the propagation of our species is never a “just”, as in, “we are only put on this planet just to perpetuate our species?” The propagation of our species is one of the greatest life-making experiences this life has to offer: procreation, housing in the womb, pain of birth, and child-rearing are all incredible features of life. Quite honestly, I find more truth of a teleological purpose in my daughter than in a emotionally distant being that I could pretend is always around me.

Now, if it were the truth that this life is the cheaper one, as I mentioned earlier, then we would have a different story – but that isn’t what this is about, is it? Christians rarely use their ultimate purpose as an evangelical selling point, they only state that there is a purpose for your life and for some reason this is suppose to give credibility to their position. I have yet to see a tract with fine print stating that this purpose for life is to solely be the obedient slave of some cosmic being (who, if you are being good, is your “buddy” – just don’t peeve him off). The accusation that non-believers have no teleological purpose is an emotional argument, but one with very little substance.

Note: Is has been argued by essentialist religious theorists that the creation of sexual taboos encroaches on universality, and the majority of anthropologists recognize that this feature of religion almost always begins with limiting the sexuality of the female. The reproductive power of the feminine, one might argue, threatens men by uplifting the “life-making” role of the female, and men, as we all know, were the one’s who created the religions we have today. Hmmm…

-The Apostatethinks that italics makes one seem pensive.

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The Meaning of Life: Part I of II Take THAT, God of the Gaps!

24 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Shannon Lewis  |  August 17, 2007 at 12:07 pm

    Personally, I think I’d tie the meaning of life ultimately to the act of glorifying God (which equals ‘displaying His greatness’), however the thought that someone cannot have a meaningful life apart from faith in God (which I guess helps us make sense of ourselves ‘in the bigger picture’) is bunk. The person I’d be quickest to call my ‘best friend’ is an atheist, and lives quite a meaningful life, and even a very moral one. Though within his world-view he may not be able to ground all of his actions in objective concepts, subjectively he enjoys his life, he helps others, and is even having an impact on the world (he’s very kind, and generous) that will effect others in a way that is lasting. That, to me, sounds pretty significant.

  • 2. tribalchurch  |  August 17, 2007 at 6:42 pm

    I agree with so much in this post. I’m concerned that Christianity is more focused on death (crucifixion) than life (creation, birth), and I wonder if this due to its patriarchal nature.

    I am concerned, however, about limiting life’s purpose to reproduction (I’m not sure that you’re doing this, I just know that it has been done). I have been a pastor and a friend to many, many people who cannot have children, and it’s such a source of pain….

    Yet, it has been my goal to re-define the term “born-again.” How did it go from being a beautiful description of a spiritual experience to a manipulative tool for pressuring people to ask Jesus into their hearts?

    As a mom, who’s been through birth, I want to reclaim that one. It definitely shows us that Jesus also thought of God as a Mother.

  • 3. Thinking Ape  |  August 17, 2007 at 6:54 pm

    tribalchurch pointed out,

    I am concerned, however, about limiting life’s purpose to reproduction (I’m not sure that you’re doing this, I just know that it has been done). I have been a pastor and a friend to many, many people who cannot have children, and it’s such a source of pain….

    Yes, I tried to stay away from too much focus on the perpetuation of the species sort of mentality. I do, however, believe it is a central part of what it means to be human which is why it is so painful for those that cannot. Yet as I tried to show, it is only one of the most beautiful purposes of life, making life is only one of the “life-making” aspects of our life. First and foremost in importance are those that are living in the present and the “future presents”, It is here that those who can not “propagate the species” enjoy just as much as often more “life-making” than those who do. Also remember, not everyone who “makes life” really engages in “life-making” as Jay Jones is evidence.

  • 4. dean  |  August 17, 2007 at 7:13 pm

    the apostle paul exhorts believers on at least 2 different occasions: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 cor 10:31) and…
    “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (col. 3:17)

    so even though the motivation for the Christian is spiritual, the life lived is to please God, and also to serve our fellow human being. Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God with all you have, but then He went on to say that the second is like it… to love your neighbor as yourself. Christians very much value creation (in particular fellow humans) and we find meaning in being a part of creation and interacting with and being good stewards of creation.

    therefore, the comparison of Christianity to gnostic beliefs that the material world is evil and inferior don’t wash in light of what Jesus described as the second greatest commandment.

  • 5. Epiphanist  |  August 17, 2007 at 7:24 pm

    “And the dust returns to the earth as it once was, and the life breath returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, all things are vanity!”
    I don’t think that you have got very far with the meaning of life. It looks like Hedonism is concealed behind the ontology and teleology.

  • 6. Mike  |  August 17, 2007 at 7:36 pm

    Thinking Ape, i like this post for many reasons, especially for your diagnostic of the gnostic attitudes many take in Christianity. The Jews certainly knew the value of this life and the joys that it has for us to experience, something that Christ picked up on in John 10:10 “The thief has come to kill and steal and destroy, but I have come that you may have life and have it to the full.” It has only been because of a blending of Christianity with this western dualism that we get people saying that some things are holier than others (think here about the medieval Catholic church saying that the only holy vocation was the priesthood, contra 1 Peter 2:9).

    I noticed that you neglected to comment on the book of Ecclesiastes though. Even while the Jews knew full well that we were created for pleasure in this life, ultimately it was all vainity without God. What are your thoughts on that specifically?

  • 7. Eric  |  August 17, 2007 at 7:54 pm

    My response to theists who make the “believing in god gives life a purpose” is to point out that their beliefs or desires place no burden on the universe and what it actually is.

  • 8. Thinking Ape  |  August 17, 2007 at 8:58 pm

    Vanity (noun): Expressive pride in or admiration of one’s own appearence or achievements.

    Epiphanist, I can think of more gods, one in particular, that fit this description.

    Hedonism (noun): The pursuit of pleasure; sensual self-indulgence.

    Epiphanist, could you maybe back up what you say.

    Mike, I don’t deny that what was written in Ecclesiastes was a common assertion among those of the so-called “Old” covenant. I only mentioned the Judaic traditions because they were able to live their lives with dignity and self-respect and not conditional upon their rewards of an afterlife.

    Dean, I would encourage you to study your gnostic traditions outside of the criticisms made by early church fathers. You will note that I did not associate the material world with evil. Nor did most gnostics. I stated only that like gnostics, Christians often refer to or treat this world as an empty shell, only worthy to be called a creation of their creator.
    I also never said that Christians do not respect their fellow humans nor did I argue that Christianity does not value the things of this world – they just don’t find purpose in it. If we want to go this route, I could argue that Christians only respect their fellow humans because they are commanded to. As an ex-Christian, however, I know this is completely bunk. Just be careful with your straw men.

  • 9. Epiphanist  |  August 17, 2007 at 10:58 pm

    “We love and make love. We laugh and make laughter. These are the artworks that fill the museum of the individual and humanity.”
    It still looks like the pursuit of pleasure! Which part did you want to back up? Are you a Gemini? LOL

  • 10. writerdd  |  August 17, 2007 at 11:20 pm

    So, what’s wrong with pleasure?

    If you don’t believe in an afterlife (and even if you do believe, there’s absolutely no proof of an afterlife), then this life is all there is. We should live life to the fullest, and suck every moment of pleasure we can out of our short existence. The basis of morality should be to reduce suffering and to increase the pleasure that all people experience during life.

  • 11. Mike  |  August 18, 2007 at 1:51 am

    “The basis of morality should be to reduce suffering and to increase the pleasure that all people experience during life.”

    Writerdd, the difficulty with this position Thinking Ape and i already dialogued about on Part 1 of this discussion. There are always men who will lead either themselves or others to believe that their happiness and pleasure must come at the cost of someone elses. Our history provides no example to the contrary and also tells us that this condition is the exclusive province of mankind. So to address your question “what’s wrong with pleasure?” you now have your answer.

  • 12. Thinking Ape  |  August 18, 2007 at 3:56 am

    Writerdd, on top of what Mike said, but as a response to Epiphanist – we are speaking of two different things when we speak of “pleasure”. Pleasure may either be “a feeling of happy satisfaction and joy” or “enjoyment and entertainment, especially in contrast with things done out of necessity”.

    Epiphanist, I am not into your superstitious nonsense so I have no clue what you are talking about with your astrology rubbish. However, I have to say I feel for your spouse and non-existent children in their loveless and laughterless life. Do you see how straw men work now? “Life-making” is certainly not all pleasentries – grief, hard work, duty, and ethics are all factors that come into play and one, I would argue, that inevitably allow us to enjoy life.

    Take a look at those two definitions of pleasure. Do I seek satisfaction and joy? Yes. A joyous life is a rich one. Do I seek unnecessarily and “epicurean” foolishness? No – I will leave that to the gods. But I now must ask you, what do you get out of your worship of your god? Certainly if I was a true hedonist, I would surely pick a belief system that allowed me to continue in eternity in streets of gold or be able to nail 99 virgins until the viagra ran out. So please, tell me what hedonistic system you prefer?

  • 13. econ grad stud  |  August 18, 2007 at 7:33 am

    This is slightly ridiculous. Life is a small scale self perpetuating process. It has no more intrinsic “meaning” than the water cycle. It is simply an outworking of forces of energy and matter that began billions of years ago and will end billions of years in the future.

    The word “meaning” when applied philosophically suggests a continuation of purpose. That is this has meaning because it causes this which causes that. Or this has meaning because it leads to that. If there’s a break in the chain (the end of the universe) then any meaning ends there. This is clouded by the many uses we have for the word “meaning.

    Life is a finite process. It will self perpetuate until conditions in the universe make this impossible. Billions of years later the universe will end. Now in a human timeframe I suppose we could squint and pretend the process we call life wasn’t an interlude between the non-existence of our universe.

    That’s rather dishonest though since meaning suggests this existence has purpose that continues on. Well, a universe that dies leaving no trace and never interacting with anything else (as ours is limited to) simply is an exercise in filling up time, there’s no meaning there.

  • 14. writerdd  |  August 18, 2007 at 8:42 am

    Mike said: There are always men who will lead either themselves or others to believe that their happiness and pleasure must come at the cost of someone elses.

    Hence the “reduce suffering” portion. If your pleasure comes “at the cost of someone elses” then you are causing suffering for that person and (in my definition), acting in an immoral fashion.

    Please don’t ignore half of what I’ve said to refute the other half as if it were a stand-alone statement.

  • 15. dean  |  August 18, 2007 at 9:16 am

    TA

    Christians who only refer to this world and/or treat it as merely an empty shell dont know their scripture or their God very well then. we are to be stewards of God’s creation. everything i’ve read about gnosticism (and i’m by no means an expert here) says that they view the material world as inferior, and furthermore, that it is inferior due to a flawed creator, rather than what sinful man has done to it. any professing Christian that holds to THAT viewpoint (a flawed creator), better step back and reevaluate the foundations of their beliefs.

    as for Christians not finding purpose in this life, that would pretty much negate what Jesus said about being salt and light in the world. i’m having a hard time with the distinction you’re trying to draw between not valuing the things of this world, and not finding purpose in it.

    basically, it seems to me that you believe, by your comparison of Christianity to gnosticism, that Christians ignore some basic tenets of the faith… a perfect creator God, and affecting change in the world by our actions and our deeds. it’s hard for me to fathom that someone could call themselves Christian and deny these things.

  • 16. Scavella  |  August 18, 2007 at 11:26 am

    The teleological and ontological purposes of humanity are one in the same: to live, and to create life.

    Yes. And in my paradigm (which I define to be Christian, without the tagged-on insults designed by the late Jerry Falwell to denigrate people who don’t believe what he believed), this is a fundamentally religious exercise. The process of creation is, in my worldview, an expression of the divine.

    On another point.

    It has been argued by essentialist religious theorists that the creation of sexual taboos encroaches on universality, and the majority of anthropologists recognize that this feature of religion almost always begins with limiting the sexuality of the female.

    Just curious. Of which anthropologists would that majority consist?

  • 17. Mike  |  August 18, 2007 at 1:28 pm

    Well Writerdd, the reason the other half of your argument was ignored is because in order to consider it you would have to concede that this is a universal truth that all must abide by. The simple fact of the matter is that many people simply dont care about the well being of others. So for you to say that they are wrong by seeking pleasure at someone elses expence, you are necessarily stating the presence of an objective truth that someone is violating. Since i didnt want to accuse you of being an objectivist, i didnt press the point.

    I feel that Thinking Ape has understood this fact the entire way through his discourse, which is why he has avoided your definition of pleasure.

    Ultimately Writerdd, you cant maintain your definition of pleasure and be a subjectivist, so i will let you choose which you prefer.

  • 18. writerdd  |  August 18, 2007 at 2:22 pm

    It is objectively better not to suffer and to experience pleasure.

  • 19. Louise Lewis  |  August 19, 2007 at 3:03 pm

    A Google Search on ‘meaning of life’ served you up, but I just had to say that I enjoyed reading your article and posts.

    I would like to extend an invitation to all…Please visit the Contact page of my website — http://www.noexpertsneeded.com –and share your answer to: what is the meaning of life?

    …my pen is never filled with judgement…

    take care,
    Louise
    Author, “No Experts Needed: The Meaning of Llife According to You!”
    http://www.noexpertsneeded.com

  • 20. bipolar2  |  August 23, 2007 at 2:47 pm

    ** We godless, immoralists . . . deny purpose and meaning **

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

    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 by xian fundamentalists to every secular threat real or imagined. The U.S. suffers greatly from being among the last Western nations to make a difficult transition to a truly secular state.

    Starting 150 years ago, only the intelligentsia were disturbed. Most people in the U.S. are stuck somewhere between 1850 and 1925 in their cultural backwardness. Where are you along the timeline:

    Darwin knew exactly how he would be treated by Society — he was after all a bona fide “gentleman” quite aware of the perks of his class and his freedom from laboring for any man save himself. T. H. Huxley, who had no fortune to inherit, felt himself socially inferior, certainly he was socially 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. His coinage slyly renders both unto Caesar and God.

    Someone like Matthew Arnold who seems to have been 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 tax-dodging political 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.

    Just stop trying to get “more” out of the universe than is actually there. You give yourself your own meaning, purpose.

    bipolar2
    copyright asserted 2007

  • 21. Why Do You Believe What You Believe? « de-conversion  |  September 25, 2007 at 9:53 pm

    [...] 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 articles), [...]

  • 22. numerology and the Kabbalah | Kabbalah For The People  |  February 2, 2008 at 7:52 am

    [...] another post about Christians that become atheists the question of the meaning of life without religion is [...]

  • 23. m460  |  May 15, 2008 at 12:29 pm

    The Guggenheim picture you have uploaded is not in New York, is the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum in Spain.

    Nice article, congratulations

  • 24. Rob  |  March 10, 2010 at 10:48 pm

    de-conversion.com, how do you do it?

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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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