How to Create (Not Find) the Meaning of Your Life

Guest post by Samantha Eliza Benten

A friend recently paraphrased a statement from The Nature of Existence (the documentary, I believe, though I haven’t seen it) as follows: “People should spend more time thinking about the meaning of their own lives, than the meaning of life in general.” This strikes a chord with a notion I’ve held since at least my senior year of high school. (That was when I came up with the BLT theory of the purpose of life, which is to say that a purpose is a goal that’s chosen and striven toward and that most people strive toward some combination of beauty, love, and truth. … More on that in another post, perhaps.) I’m very happy that the statement got me musing, and I’d love to get feedback on my initial reaction.

I suspect that people often prefer contemplating “big picture, god-given meaning” because 1) it doesn’t require them to critically examine their lives or change their behavior, 2) if their lives feel unimportant, it helps them to think of themselves as being part of an important “big picture,” and 3) the natural state of the world being coincidence, it’s pretty easy to come up with incidental “meaning” in any given event.

Regardless, this is actually a huge pet peeve of mine: people claiming that everything in life “means something.” There isn’t inherent “meaning” in anything. Meaning itself is a function of perception and reaction. If you pay attention to something, and especially if what you learn by paying attention to it causes you to change an opinion or a behavior, then that observation is meaningful to you. The very “meaningfulness” of a person’s life can actually be increased if they are willing to scrutinize the causes and effects of their own feelings and behavior — and if they’re willing to use that knowledge to guide their future thoughts and actions, that creates not only a more meaningful life, but a life of more focused and purposeful meaning. And then, if you manage to affect the thoughts and actions of others through your conscious behavior, that’s yet another layer of meaning. But without at least an effort toward self-awareness, life isn’t “meaningful” at all — it’s just a series of actions and reactions. So the only way to create a truly meaningful life, imho, is to live the most self-aware life possible.

Now, am I saying that people who “just live their lives” without thinking about the causes and effects of their actions have a “meaningless” existence? No — at least, not if we’re treating the word “meaningless” as a synonym for “worthless,” which is how I think a statement like that could easily be misinterpreted. I do not in any way mean that people have to be philosophers in order for their lives to be worth existing. (Though I do side with Socrates on that issue myself, I get that it’s not the most important thing to the vast majority of people.) I’m simply pointing out that without conscious interpretation, there isn’t any such thing as “meaning.” Meaning itself IS interpretation and reaction. How can something have “meaning” if no one is aware of it AND no one is affected by it?

It bothers me how many people treat the phrase “everything has a meaning” as something passive, as a given. Frequently, they treat it as a god-given. They figure every moment of existence, no matter how trivial or how horrible, must be part of the “bigger plan” that God has for everything. To some extent, I understand the desire to be part of a bigger picture — to feel like your day-to-day existence is key to the unfolding of human history. And yes, I can understand why some people wish to “find meaning” in tragic events. If that consoles them about the loss of their loved ones, I would never try to take that away from them. But for me, the idea that the death of a loved one is “justified” by its role in the “big picture” is to see God (if he/she/it exists) as a chess master — willing to sacrifice the happiness and safety of billions upon billions of people in human history in order to … what? Give the final generation of humanity a utopia? I’m not one who believes in the “end times,” so what in the world would a deity be “working toward”? And if he is building toward something, why are we so much less important than those who’d come after us? Or, why are we supposedly more important than so many who suffered and died, for example, in the Black Plague? If I genuinely thought that human tragedy was compelled in order to flesh out some grand scheme, I wouldn’t be consoled — I’d be furious. But hey, that’s just me, and obviously there are uncountable numbers of people who’d disagree. So, what do I know?

Still, I feel like it would be more liberating if people focused not on “finding meaning” in tragedy, but on “creating meaning” out of tragedy. Instead of looking for signs of the person who’s passed on or simply assuming they were a pawn whose sacrifice was necessary (again, not something I see as consoling, though they obviously don’t interpret their view in these terms anyway), what about making a beloved’s death meaningful by talking to those who knew them, honoring them by changing our lives in ways inspired by them, or even doing good deeds in their honor? What about bringing their memory and their feelings into our own lives and the lives of others in any way we can? Isn’t doing something to honor someone who’s died a fitting way to keep them in our hearts? Isn’t that “meaning” enough?

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.noforbiddenquestions.com/ NFQ

    Great post, Samantha! This is very well-written and insightful … good thoughts to occupy me on my commute this morning. :)

    I’ve always been annoyed by people who ask about the “meaning of life” as though that’s obviously, well, a thing. I’ve been known to reply by asking them if they are similarly plagued by questions about the “meaning of purple.” Way to take that snark and turn it into a more productive attitude.

  • http://fromwinetowater.wordpress.com/ Ivan

    I agree with you that “there isn’t inherent ‘meaning’ in anything.” Or to put it another way, there is no ultimate or transcendent meaning to life. But I think you misjudge at least some aspects of belief in such a meaning. First, you seem to me to assume a sort of parity between belief in an ultimate or inherent meaning, and belief only in meanings that we humans ascribe or “create.” But there is actually an enormous gulf between the two. It’s an obvious, and rather moot, fact that humans ascribe meaning. Both positions acknowledge this. But if in addition there were actually a God who imparted some ultimate and objective meaning to life, this would be change everything.

    Second, I strongly disagree with your statement that belief in a God-given meaning doesn’t require people to critically examine their lives or change their behavior. I definitely understand why you would say this, because this is how most religious people appear to actually respond. But I contend that this is irrational and inconsistent. If you actually believe that life has an ultimate meaning imparted by a God who is Ultimate Reality, then if you are acting rationally, you’ll care greatly about what that meaning is, and about what this God might desire or command you to do, and you will strive to conform your behavior to God’s will. This is how I responded to such beliefs, when I held them.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    But if in addition there were actually a God who imparted some ultimate and objective meaning to life, this would be change everything.

    How does a god go about doing this and how does it change everything?

  • S. E. Benten

    NFQ: Thank you! I’m so glad you like it!

    Ivan: I think you’re misunderstanding my point about whether or not looking at the “big picture” requires one to examine one’s life. I’m not saying it *disallows* one to examine one’s life. Also, it’s entirely possible to consider one’s life in the context of “Is this occurrence due to the will of a deity?” However, thinking about the “big picture” does not *inherently* force one to consider the meaning of one’s life in context or change one’s behavior.

    For example, I remember when the two towers fell, some people claimed they saw the image of a demon in the smoke that emerged. If you saw that picture and truly believe it’s evidence that a demon was involved in that tragedy, you might have two basic responses”:

    1) One might simply see it as evidence that the hijackers (or, at least, the actions they took) were evil. This is the response, I think, that most people who believe that idea take. This makes their emotional response not much different from that of nonbelievers (who, of course, equally condemn the behavior as heinous). More problematically, believing that the hijackers were the evil minions of the devil provides no incentive to figure out what caused this group of people to commit this awful deed. Because they already have their explanation, someone with that point of view might not look for the psychological, social, political, and security problems which led to or allowed the tragedy.

    2) If one truly believes that demons are real and that they are responsible for 9-11, then someone might take up praying demons away or becoming involved in exorcisms. That is someone actually making their belief relevant to their self-interpretation and behavior. Taking option two bothers me more than option one since, in effect, all it does is heighten the smell of the red herring distracting us from dealing with the real social and political causes of terrorism. But that *is* someone integrating their beliefs with their personal life.

    To address your earlier point, that “if in addition there were actually a God who imparted some ultimate and objective meaning to life, this would be change everything,” I would chime in with OMGF and ask you, why? Most people who shift from belief to non-belief end up keeping the same basic behavior and moral structure. In fact, most people who are “believers” don’t base their moral structure on what their holy book says so much as they do their own reason. They moderate or rationalize their belief system to fit who they already are anyway. … I want to go more into this but don’t have time at the moment. Thanks so much for the response!

  • Lynet

    Your thoughts are very much in line with ideas I’ve thought about before, but I enjoyed this unique take. I’ve thought before about meaning being something we create, but I hadn’t thought, so much, about how this changes the appropriate responses to events, compared to believing that there’s a meaning out there that we should find. Thank you!

  • http://religiousatrocities.wordpress.com Jon Jermey

    Words have meanings; lives don’t. Asking for ‘the meaning of life’ or even ‘the meaning of A life’ is just a great big category mistake.

    Most of my life entails biological processes occurring below the level of consciousness. The effect of those is to keep me alive and functioning, although that is not their purpose, or ‘meaning’. On top of that we have all the small everyday decisions that involve food, clothing, earning an income and raising a family, and then the larger decisions relating to our long-term welfare, including community engagement and active citizenship. That’s quite enough to keep any human mind occupied.

    Pretending to recognise and acknowledge some greater purpose — which of course never actually affects one’s behaviour in any way — is merely an attempt to seize the moral high ground. “I am better than you: MY life has a meaning!”

  • colluvial

    I find it difficult to acknowledge any meaning at all. In the face of the fiery end of the Earth or the eventual heat death of the universe, what meaning could there be in this particular arrangement of elements? That being said, however, I am an enthusiastic relisher of the natural world. That is, at least until I try to assign a meaning or purpose. Isn’t the universe good enough unless there’s something else?

  • http://fromwinetowater.wordpress.com/ Ivan

    Thank you for your reply, Ms. Benten! I completely agree with you that people can look at the big picture, and look for meaning, without ultimately examining their lives or changing their behaviors. Sadly, this appears to be standard practice for most religious people. And you’ve sketched a few ways in which it can happen.

    My only contention is this: at least in the case of my former faith Christianity, this particular fault lies with religious individuals and not with religious doctrine. Most nonbelievers can find plenty of fault with the Bible, but we cannot fault it for enabling Christians’ shabby moral lives. Christians only fail to examine their lives or change their behaviors inasmuch as they disobey their Bibles. For the only coherent way to understand the Bible is to give the New Testament, and that Christ guy in it, some interpretive priority. And whatever faults may still lie in interpretations which do so, broad moral laxity is certainly not one of them.

    Back in your initial discussion in terms of the big picture, you wrote that thinking about the big picture does not inherently force one to consider the meaning of one’s life in context or change one’s behavior. While that may be true in general, I’m arguing that thinking about a specific big picture in which a holy God created all things; has an extraordinary interest in you and your fellow humans, collectively and individually; commands you to love all people, forgive anyone who wrongs you, give to the poor, etc; and will justly judge you, with eternal implication – this does force a rational person to consider the meaning of her own life, and change her behavior as needed.

    This begins to address the question that both you and OMGF raised. Obviously, none of us believe that this account I so briefly sketched is true. But if it were true, that would quite obviously make a difference. There is certainly a difference between a godless universe and a divinely created and ruled universe. Is this something I need to argue for more systematically, or would you both agree? (The fact that most Christians don’t actually live up to their stated morality, and that most atheists live just as morally as most Christians do, is interesting, and we can go into it. But it’s more an issue of human psychology than of metaphysics. It doesn’t directly weigh upon the question of whether it would make a difference if God existed. Current human reaction to relevant human beliefs are one sort of difference which may or may not be made, but they are definitely not the only sort.)

    Lastly, as for OMGF’s question of how God goes about imparting some ultimate and objective meaning to life, I intentionally left this open in the my phrasing. But now being asked, I would say that if a God really exists, and is really eternal (i.e. outside of time), and really created the universe and did all the God sorts of things that people ascribe to God, then we might justifiably speak of this God as Ultimate Reality, or the Seat of Reality, or the Ground of Being. So if God values something, then it is ultimately and eternally valued. If God commands something, then it is ultimately and eternally commanded. There is no justifiable appeal to some higher value system, or ethical system. Again, none of us actually believes that such a God exists. But if He does, then His word is law, it’s His way or the highway, etc. And we would not be justified in any intellectual or moral critique we might be tempted to mount. One can of course deny that such a state of affairs is possible. But then one is simply assuming that the claims are false, and refusing to interact with them. I believe that these claims are perfectly intelligible, and logically possible – and just extremely unlikely to be true.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    There is certainly a difference between a godless universe and a divinely created and ruled universe.

    Of course there’s a difference. One universe has an entity that created it the other doesn’t. How this impacts meaning, I’m not sure still.

    So if God values something, then it is ultimately and eternally valued.

    Are you familiar with Euthyphro’s dilemma or divine command theory? If you are, then I believe you already know my objections. Secondly, I’m still not sure how this imparts meaning upon things. If god values X, that doesn’t necessarily give any sort of meaning to my life. I still have to make the conscious decision to ascribe that meaning.

  • http://fromwinetowater.wordpress.com/ Ivan

    Yes, I am quite familiar with both the Euthyphro dilemma and divine command theory. My position regarding the Euthyphro dilemma is that (if there is a God, and there is some sort of ultimate morality) that which is good is good because God commands it. What I consider to be the two biggest objections to this position are that 1) then God could have commanded other sorts of things, and murder could be good, for example, and 2) then religious believers can mean nothing substantive when they call God good, since if God determines or defines goodness, then calling God good is circular. Neither of these are conclusive, and I had no theological problems with them as a Christian, nor do I have any philosophical problems with them now.

    The idea of God defining or determining goodness is very similar to the idea of God defining or determining ultimate meaning. Without God, I see no way to establish ultimate morality or ultimate meaning. Humans ascribe meaning, and experience feelings of conscience, and devise ethical codes – but that’s it. That’s the end of the matter, and there are no relevant objective fact beyond our subjective preferences. But in contrast, if there is a God who defines or determines some sort of ultimate or transcendent or objective meaning and morality, then these things exist beyond our human consciousness. They consist of more – perhaps much, much more – than our human thoughts. We do not decide them or define them or change them.

    Just to be sure that I’m addressing your points, let me quote them, and reply a little more directly. You wrote that of course there is a difference between a godless universe and a divinely created and ruled universe. “One universe has an entity that created it the other doesn’t. How this impacts meaning, I’m not sure still.” In mentioning divine creation and ruling, I was alluding to all the sorts of things which God is believed to do. This would include not only creation, but also interest in and knowledge of every individual, giving moral commands and prohibitions, judging all individuals after death, communing with some individuals in bliss for eternity, and condemning others to hell for eternity. There are indeed differences between the two universes. There may not be observable differences now, but there are observable – and enormous – differences in the past and the future.

    Now for how this impacts meaning. You also wrote that you are still not sure how God valuing things “imparts meaning upon things. If god values X, that doesn’t necessarily give any sort of meaning to my life. I still have to make the conscious decision to ascribe that meaning.” First, we need to notice the difference between objective truth and subjective experience. The laws of physics are objective truths. I may be ignorant of them, or I may misunderstand them – but that does not change or undermine them in any way. Similarly, if God values X, and this then means that X is ultimately and eternally valued (as I am arguing), then X is ultimately and eternally valued, period. The fact that you do not consciously value it, or ascribe meaning to it, is not strictly relevant.

    Now, I want you to imagine something with me. Imagine that God exists, and only God exists. There is no space-time, no matter, no moral standards – nothing. Then this God creates the universe, and creates time. This God desires certain things, and according to His own desires, His own will, He freely brings human beings into existence, and values their existence, and decrees a moral code for them. He chooses to let the universe run according to the laws He built into it for a time, and humans live out their lives in this natural universe. But after death, God judges each individual, and some then enjoy eternal blissful union with God, while others suffer eternal torment.

    Whether this picture is true or not, we both know that individuals have thoughts and feelings about values and morality – there is no difference on this count. But an enormous difference lies in the picture itself, and its corollaries. This picture is a logical possibility; it could possibly be true. It’s also possible that the picture is false, and there is in fact no supernatural reality whatsoever, there is no ultimate morality or ultimate meaning. My point is that that second picture (which you and I believe, or at least approximate) is quite different from the first. If you don’t want to call what the first picture has “meaning,” that’s fine with me. The difference is my point, regardless of its label.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Without God, I see no way to establish ultimate morality or ultimate meaning.

    You’ve missed the point of Euthyphro then. With a god, how does one establish ultimate morality (or ultimate meaning)? Divine commands do not do so. Divine commands lead us to relative morality, not ultimate morality, just as divine commands would lead us to relative meaning, not meaning that was…well, meaningful.

    But in contrast, if there is a God who defines or determines some sort of ultimate or transcendent or objective meaning and morality, then these things exist beyond our human consciousness. They consist of more – perhaps much, much more – than our human thoughts. We do not decide them or define them or change them.

    But, you’re not telling us how this actually happens. I don’t take it for granted that this is the case. I also don’t think that extra-human is equivalent to ultimate or objective simply by virtue of not being human formed. There may be aliens, for instance, that are much more advanced than humans and have their own ideas about meaning, but that doesn’t mean that their concepts of meaning are more objective or ultimate than ours.

    Similarly, if God values X, and this then means that X is ultimately and eternally valued (as I am arguing), then X is ultimately and eternally valued, period.

    How does god valuing something automatically make it “ultimately and eternally valued?” If god values rape, does that mean that it’s ultimately and eternally of value? I’m sure that people who are raped would not think so. This is why I mentioned Euthyphro.

    The fact that you do not consciously value it, or ascribe meaning to it, is not strictly relevant.

    It’s certainly relevant to me.

    My point is that that second picture (which you and I believe, or at least approximate) is quite different from the first.

    If that’s truly all you’re saying, that a universe with god is different from a universe without god, then I’ve already said I’m in agreement. But, you seem to want to take a further step, which is what I’ve disagreed with. The presence of a god is assumed to automatically confer some sort of ultimate meaning. That’s an assumption that rarely goes challenged, but perhaps it should, and it’s what I’m doing here.

  • http://fromwinetowater.wordpress.com/ Ivan

    That’s hardly understood by most people to be the point of the Euthyphro dilemma. Rather, that part of what I said relates closely to Hume’s is-ought problem – which is quite difficult to argue against.

    Divine commands lead to a divine morality. Divine valuing leads to divine values. I’m not sure exactly how one can avoid calling those things ultimate, if the deity producing them is the very most ultimate entity having ever existed. But if you have some sort of aversion to the word “ultimate,” having seemingly defined it as inherently impossible, then by all means, drop it.

    It seems you may be making the same move with objectivity. So again, if you’re defining the word in such a way that it inherently applies to nothing, then I guess we’ll have to do without it. But the point I was making still stands: morality and meaning might be purely subjective things, only inhering in human thoughts. If they instead come from God, then you may still not want to call them objective, but they are coming from a source other than human thought, and are not determined or changed by human thought. Human disagreement or ignorance could no more critique or change them than it can critique or change the laws of physics.

    I’m arguing that a universe with a God is different from a universe without a God, and one way in which the two differ is in regard to meaning, along the lines which I’ve described above. But again, if you don’t want to use the word “meaning” for this sort of difference, that’s obviously up to you.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Ivan:

    If they instead come from God, then you may still not want to call them objective, but they are coming from a source other than human thought, and are not determined or changed by human thought.

    Yes, but so what? My value judgments aren’t determined or changed by what you think about them, and the opposite is also true. Even if there was a god, why would its value judgments be anything other than another opinion to throw on the pile?

    I don’t understand your emphasis on something being “ultimately and eternally valued”, or why that should imbue it with any quality that human value judgments lack. But maybe I can suggest a thought experiment that will clarify the issue. Let’s say the universe was created not by a single deity but by a pantheon of gods, as many ancient religions believed. Let’s also say that those gods disagreed with each other and each chose to value different things in the universe, with some of them disliking the things that others preferred. Which of those conflicting divine value judgments would be the objective ones, and why?

  • http://fromwinetowater.wordpress.com/ Ivan

    Thanks for weighing in! And… sorry to hijack your comment thread, ha ha.

    I like your thought experiment about a pantheon of gods. And in that case, I suppose none of the conflicting divine value systems would qualify as ultimate or objective, although some or all of them might be in some ways “superior” to competing non-divine value systems.

    But the monotheistic picture I was discussing is significantly different. If there is one God, having the sorts of qualities I’ve described and doing the sorts of things I’ve described, then this God’s value system is supreme in at least two very concrete ways. First, this God’s value system existed before any others and will exist after any others. Second, this God has the power to enforce, reward, punish, coerce, etc. all other beings in accordance with His value system. On these two counts, at least, we’re talking about a value system very different from human value systems.

    With those two points established, I think we can also read a little more nuanced import into the fact that they are (putatively) each true of only one and the same being. Add to that the (putative) facts that God created everything that exists (including any being who can form competing value systems), God knows everything, etc., and I think we have a value system which is very unique, and which is substantially different from each of the millions of roughly equal human value systems.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    That’s hardly understood by most people to be the point of the Euthyphro dilemma.

    I was explaining how it impacts the current discussion. And, yes, it does point out the problems of absolute morality given a god. If what is good is good simply because god says so, then it’s not absolute. If it is absolute and god is simply reporting to us that which is absolute, then absolute morality would exist independently of god. Do you not see how that impacts your arguments?

    I’m not sure exactly how one can avoid calling those things ultimate, if the deity producing them is the very most ultimate entity having ever existed.

    Because, as Ebon also points out, they are just another opinion to throw on the heap.

    So again, if you’re defining the word in such a way that it inherently applies to nothing, then I guess we’ll have to do without it.

    Not at all. I’m objecting to the fact that you seem to simply ascribe it to actions/thoughts/morals of god without showing how it is applicable.

    If they instead come from God, then you may still not want to call them objective, but they are coming from a source other than human thought, and are not determined or changed by human thought. Human disagreement or ignorance could no more critique or change them than it can critique or change the laws of physics.

    This is a rather narrow idea of what “objective” means. Aliens would certainly not be included, so their ideas of morality would be from a source other than human thought and not changed by human thought. Ergo, alien morality would be objective, regardless of how they arrived at their morals.

    I’m arguing that a universe with a God is different from a universe without a God, and one way in which the two differ is in regard to meaning, along the lines which I’ve described above. But again, if you don’t want to use the word “meaning” for this sort of difference, that’s obviously up to you.

    The brute fact of a god’s existence or non-existence is not the same as the imparting of meaning upon the universe. You keep saying the opposite without saying how a universe with a god has inherent meaning. You can’t simply chide me for not seeing the obvious when you can’t show that it’s the case at all.

    First, this God’s value system existed before any others and will exist after any others.

    Length of time does not make right, nor does it make inherent meaning.

    Second, this God has the power to enforce, reward, punish, coerce, etc. all other beings in accordance with His value system.

    Might does not make right, nor does it make inherent meaning.

    …I think we have a value system which is very unique, and which is substantially different from each of the millions of roughly equal human value systems.

    Uniqueness does not make right, nor does it make inherent meaning. Further, human value systems may be roughly equal, but are not equal. Each value system of a human is unique as I’m sure you’ll not find an exactly identical system in any other human.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    So, Ivan, where is this God you speak of?

    Your first mistake was presuming God. Any discussion that precedes from this premise without demonstrating it is useless. All this philosophy of imposed and eternal values is but stale and repugnant air.

    Of course, if there was a God, then he could dictate value systems and priorities. That God was made omnipotent by definition. This is simple tautology; give it up.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    Ahem, -precedes +proceeds. (Bring on the AI; spelling and grammar checks aren’t going to find that one.)

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Of course, if there was a God, then he could dictate value systems and priorities.

    To be fair, your argument may be with me. god could dictate value systems and priorities, but they don’t automatically have ultimate meaning or value simply because some powerful being says they do. If god commands that rape is good and has value, I think we’d all be hard pressed to agree to that.

  • Samantha E. Benten

    JON JERMEY: I’m inclined to agree with you. Excellent points, especially the part about how claiming that a certain belief “gives your life meaning” can be a way to snub those who don’t hold the same beliefs. It’s especially arrogant, of course, to claim someone’s life holds *no* meaning (but that yours does) purely due to a difference in religious opinion. I actually heard a minister say that at a wedding once and it soured me on the whole ceremony. Bleh.

    IVAN: Fair point about Christianity as a whole. The doctrine is different than the believers. My original point was about the believers, but it’s true that the gospels describe Jesus as calling people to live self-aware lives. I don’t always agree with his precepts or behavior, but he was definitely advocating a life of self awareness and what he believed to be moral thought and behavior.

    I would still argue, however, as others here have, that God commanding people to love one another *does not* make loving behavior *more* meaningful. Whatever meaning exists, is in the act of love itself — NOT in any command to do so. In fact, loving others only because you were commanded to rather than of your own free will is, imho, a lie. No person can compel themselves to love someone when they don’t. They can imitate loving behavior, they can try to find and admire the good qualities of the person, they can contemplate how all human beings share this experience of life and the wonders that fact creates. But the actual emotion of love — of deep caring, whether as a family member, friend, or lover — *cannot* be forced. It’s like the saying, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”

    As an example, consider a significant other: a girlfriend, boyfriend, or spouse. What if you were in a relationship with someone and found out they were only “in love with you” because their parents commanded them to? Going a step further, what if those parents were threatening your significant other with a lifetime of brutal torture if they *didn’t* love you? How would you feel about their “love” knowing this? Would you regard it as genuine? Would that love be more or less meaningful than if they’d done so without any compulsion at all — without even the slightest authority telling them it’s what they should do? It’s when you love *without* ulterior motives that you love truly. If you “love” in order to get into heaven, to avoid hell, or even because it supposedly makes God happy, you’re enacting that love with an extraneous goal. You have, in short, something else to gain from your love. It’s love given *without* the motivation of any other benefit than experiencing that love for oneself (not loving to make others happy, not loving to make yourself happy, not even loving in order to be loved in return — but loving for the pure act of being in love itself) that is the most pure and true. No god’s decree can change that.

    I can’t say there’s much difference between a god created universe and a godless one. If there was, then there wouldn’t have ever been deists (those folk who believed God created everything, but has let it run along undisturbed ever since). Also, if there was such an obvious difference, then there wouldn’t be so many people who disagree about the existence of God (or so much difference in opinion about the nature of God among believers). Or, perhaps it’s simply that the wide range of opinions is *due to* the absence of a God. After all, if a single deity existed, paganism wouldn’t have been maintained for so long, and his/her/its revelation would be easier to interpret and more consistent. So no, I don’t think there’s much difference between a world with a god and world without one, particularly a world in which said god doesn’t ever objectively appear to intervene.

    You suggested that if an eternal, omnipotent god exists, then “His word is law, it’s His way or the highway, etc.” This brings up the question, as others have mentioned, “What if God commanded stealing/torture/murder/rape and so on to be a moral imperative?” Would that make his decree good, or something that should be followed? What if it was known without a doubt that God said, and everybody on the planet heard his decree, that anyone who wanted to get into heaven would have to murder 30 innocent people in order to get into heaven, and if you didn’t do this then you would go to hell? Would that make mass murder a moral good? Should the inhabitants of such a world follow a decree? Or would it, in fact, be more noble to ignore this decree and defend innocents against being murder, knowing with 100% certainty that your reward would be an eternity of torture? … I would, of course, argue that the person sacrificing their eternal pleasure and safety for the sake of protecting others would be in the moral right, and that such a “might makes right” sort of god would be a moral abomination. As such, I would argue that no deity can ever decree ultimate meaning or moral authority. Morality comes only from the union of logic and compassion.

    I want to respond to the remaining posts, but wanted to end here so that my responses don’t get too huge. :-)

  • Samantha E. Benten

    IVAN: You seem to be arguing that God is two very different things: 1) the embodiment of objective morality, making god more like a force of nature that is observed without understanding its origins, and 2) an eternally sentient being who, because she/he/it perceives all, is able to ascribe ultimate “meaning” upon everything — since being all-perceiving makes God the “mightiest” of the perceivers, and therefore right. Would you agree that this is an accurate description? If not, then feel free to ignore the following.

    If so, then I would argue that these two ideas are mutually exclusive. You cannot have a god whose importance depends on being a perceiver (a subjective entity, no matter how mighty of one) *and* an objective establisher of morality. Most religious believers would dismiss this problem by claiming it as a paradox, but I think it’s a legitimate issue — as evidenced by the problem discussed several times of, “what if God decreed as good something we as humans know to be bad?” This gets at the heart of whether a real god would be an objective or subjective entity. I would argue, as many here have, that god’s view of morality and meaning would, in truth, be as subjective as anyone else’s. Whether God is eternal or omnipotent doesn’t matter: as long as he is a separate entity, his perception is just as subjective and has the same amount of meaning as everyone else’s.

  • http://ntrygg.wordpress.com random ntrygg

    I agree – the meaning of life is nothing less than life

    it’s what we do with our individual lives that matter

    to us and those around us

    meaning is within a human scale of understanding – not capitol M meaning for the ages

    after all, our lives are within the context of the civilization in which we live – and civilizations, rise and fall

  • http://fromwinetowater.wordpress.com/ Ivan

    Samantha, as for the difference between a God-created universe and a godless one, you may have missed what I wrote earlier: “There are indeed differences between the two universes. There may not be observable differences now, but there are observable – and enormous – differences in the past and the future.” Our present universe can be reconciled with the existence of a God on the one hand, or with the existence of no gods on the other. And while I think that ultimately this does become problematic for religious belief along lines of falsifiability, you and I were instead addressing the issue of difference, on which I must reiterate: there is an enormous difference.

    Consider a religious account which claims that God big-banged the universe into existence with all its natural laws that we observe, does not supernaturally intervene in the natural order presently, judges each individual after death and then doles out eternal conscious consequences, and will one day take supernatural actions on the earth to create a new order in which God is very present and immediate and observable. There are certainly problems with this account, with one being that it is not at all testable or falsifiable. But nonetheless, real and substantial differences are described. Observable (and testable, and falsifiable) differences are posited for the past and the future. It sure makes a difference whether death ends me, or I face a God for judgment, and some eternal fate. It sure makes a difference whether life on earth continues according to the natural order, or one day there comes a fiery divine judgment.

    Just to clarify, for less thorough readers like kagerato – I DON’T BELIEVE THIS IS TRUE. But that is not the point at issue. The point is whether it would make a difference if it were true.

    As for your second comment, Samantha, I actually would not agree that that is an accurate description. (Thanks for asking!) So let me clarify what would be more accurate. While some relevant arguments could perhaps be based on a God’s perception, I was actually not building anything upon that idea. I based my arguments upon God being powerful, God being eternal, and God having created everything that exists. These qualities – and not some different and contradictory qualities of a nonpersonal force of nature – make God’s value system different from ours. We can try to trace this out in different ways. Perhaps it’s simply that God’s values are the oldest, will last the longest, and can be universally imposed by force. (Maybe this doesn’t make them “right” or “ultimate” or “objective” or “better” – but it absolutely does make them different. My values are not eternal, and I cannot enforce them with heaven and hell!) Or perhaps the God who created everything, including human beings, can similarly “create” moral or evaluative absolutes in a way which humans simply cannot. But my point was the raw difference, regardless of how one wants to parse it or label it.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    [Ivan]: Just to clarify, for less thorough readers like kagerato – I DON’T BELIEVE THIS IS TRUE. But that is not the point at issue. The point is whether it would make a difference if it were true.

    I didn’t say you believed it. You seem to think it would be less valuable to me if you honestly held the position you are supporting; precisely the contrary is the case.

    Nice veiled insult, though.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    While some relevant arguments could perhaps be based on a God’s perception, I was actually not building anything upon that idea. I based my arguments upon God being powerful, God being eternal, and God having created everything that exists. These qualities – and not some different and contradictory qualities of a nonpersonal force of nature – make God’s value system different from ours. We can try to trace this out in different ways. Perhaps it’s simply that God’s values are the oldest, will last the longest, and can be universally imposed by force. (Maybe this doesn’t make them “right” or “ultimate” or “objective” or “better” – but it absolutely does make them different. My values are not eternal, and I cannot enforce them with heaven and hell!) Or perhaps the God who created everything, including human beings, can similarly “create” moral or evaluative absolutes in a way which humans simply cannot. But my point was the raw difference, regardless of how one wants to parse it or label it.

    That a god would have a different set of priorities/values/etc. than a human seems beyond obvious to the point that I’m wondering why you would even comment to say such a thing. It seems to me that you were trying to go a step further. If you are no longer trying to do so, then we have nothing left to talk about, just say so. But, you originally claimed that this difference led to ultimate values and meanings coming magically from god.