The Darker Side of Artificial Meaning and Purpose

The forecast is, we’re all going to die and there’ll be no one left to remember our stories.

Brad Pitt as “The Weatherman” on The Jim Jefferies Show

We’ve been talking lately about the meaning of life and finding purpose in life, especially as touching how Christianity handles these two ideas. Indeed, religions co-opt what is a very natural human need and drive to make it into a tool they can use to coerce adherents–and make sales. Christians have an entire mythology built around their supposed monopoly on finding meaning and purpose in life, and it’s easy to see the appeal of having those big questions answered so quickly and smoothly. But there’s another (and much darker) payoff for the followers who accept these artificial constructs in place of genuine meaning and purpose that they’ve figured out for themselves.

We’ve been talking lately more about why leaders in the religion perpetuate this teaching, but today we’ll be talking more about the followers who accept it.

Georges Seurat, "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte". (Wikipedia.)
Georges Seurat, “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte”. (Wikipedia.)

The Fear of Life.

One of humanity’s biggest fears may well be the fear of death: of inevitable endings and completely inexorable last breaths. Religion–most religions, anyway–offer a quick, cheap, and easy way out of ever having to come to grips with that fear.

When you hear a Christian go on and on about the Rapture, you’re really hearing that person express their desperate hope that their faith in Christianity will save them from the terrifying experience of death–and their smugness at the fact that their fellow human beings don’t have that same hope of escape. When you hear a Christian engage with the death of one of their friends or loved ones, often they focus on the idea that they haven’t really lost that person because they’ll see them again one day. So most of us are well aware that Christianity offers an easy slide away from the looming specter of the ending that everyone must one day face–and away from the horror of knowing that once someone is gone, that person is gone forever and ever.

We’re not usually as familiar with the notion of Christianity being a quick, cheap, and easy way out of coming to grips with the fear of life.

Meaning and purpose don’t ultimately matter in the Christian afterlife. The usual conceptualizations of existence there make people sound more like robots carrying out their programming. Literally all that will happen is stuff that “Jesus” wants to see happening: feasting at his table and singing his praises forever. There’ll be no petty squabbles, no bickering, no learning and growing, and definitely no cable TV series to talk about and obsess over.

Whatever purpose someone had in life before reaching Heaven, they certainly won’t have after getting there: there’ll be nobody to convert; people won’t have children, nor will they fall in love with or marry each other; and there’ll be no more battles to fight against all the dark forces Christians imagine oppose them on this planet. So having a purpose is a uniquely earthly concern to Christians, since it amounts to the stuff they’re supposed to get done before they die. It is their task, their appointed little part of the divine plan, their tiny thread in the tapestry that their god wove at the beginning of time: a small part but an irreplaceable one, a little contribution perhaps but one that their god decided he needed. When the world ends and everybody goes to their final judgment, the tapestry will be complete, the plan fulfilled, and the fight ended at last to the Christian’s victory.

In much the same way, meaning in life can be considered the summation of a person’s perception of having added something of value to their chosen group. It’s the sum total of one’s own significance as a person. It’s the answer to the biggest questions we have about our own existence: our particular answers to the questions of why we were born and what we’re living for. So the response of Christianity’s adherents and leaders is really a response to the normal anxieties that anybody would feel about living in this life on this world now.

As it happens, those can be questions just as scary and dread-inducing for some folks as the idea of death being the final ending.

The Fear of Irrelevance.

Perhaps even more pressing than the fear of death is the fear of irrelevance in this life: of being useless, not respected, and powerless. It’s a fear of a life that is not spent on that person’s own terms, of circumstances that often cannot be controlled or even changed.

It’s worse than death itself in some ways.

The fear of death can be assuaged by the offering-up of any one of a thousand-thousand different afterlife realms. All of those offerings are based on fantasies, but they are safe fantasies to offer since literally nobody knows any different, nor ever shall. By contrast, the fear of irrelevance is a purely earthly concern and it’s one we think we can visualize very clearly. We see lives spent in ways that many would regard as meaningless, and we have enough descriptions of that reality that none of us are under any illusions about how dreadful it’d be to live that way. Irrelevance not only can happen but does happen–all the time. So whatever fantasy a religion’s adherents come up with had better be really good–as well as flattering and at least a little plausible, like all the best lies are.

Well, the Christian fantasy about divinely-granted meaning and purpose fits the bill by a wide margin. Plus, it lets Christians look down on non-Christians–so what’s not to like about it? (Nothing! comes the resounding response from many millions of Christian throats.)

No Matter How Lowly.

When I was Christian, I marveled at the Bible verses that talked about how Christianity up-ended and reversed all the normal orders of things in human society: how the first in a society would become last; how the least would become greatest; how the servants would be “more than conquerors” and the rulers would prostrate themselves eventually before the King of Kings, who’d died a humiliating and ignominious death for humanity to rescue us from the wrath of himself his father. In a big way, Christianity could be considered almost a theater of the absurd.

Very few Christians I’ve encountered have taken that absurdity and run with it quite like the Pentecostals. I don’t think many people know about their longstanding tradition of foot washing, which is when the pastors and leaders of the church literally wash the feet of people in the congregation (some groups have errybody washing errybody’s feet–as with every other doctrine, there’s no real consistency about this one). The first time I saw it as a teenybopper Pentecostal, it freaked me out. I mean, it’s literally barefooted people sitting in chairs on the dais and the ministers going down the line with tubs of water and washcloths; there’s something distinctly archaic-feeling about the practice. Gradually I learned why we did it and what significance we thought it had–namely that Jesus was thought to like the idea, so obviously that meant everybody should do it forever.

The official explanation is that the practice isn’t done purely because Jesus liked it, but because it keeps the leaders modest and humble (“UM-bull,” a pronunciation that’ll never be not funny to me) as well as focused on service to the congregation. I’m not sure I’d agree that foot washing has that effect consistently enough to require its practice throughout the denomination. I can say for sure however that the practice celebrates and extends the Opposite Day thinking of people in the group doing it. It’s uncomfortable for me now to think about the perverse appeal that foot washing has for a group that is so completely laser-locked on power, authoritarianism, super-structured relationships, and control.

In the same way, the way that Christians–particularly the super-fanatical toxic variety–engage with the concept of meaningfulness and purpose in life speaks to their topsy-turvy view of relationships.

No matter how UM-bull a person’s station in life is or how lacking they are in every single resource, no matter how bleak their existence might look from the outside or how short of comforts, if that person converts to the correct group of Christians, their concerns about both meaning and purpose are now over. They receive both from their god just for the asking! No more having to hunt and peck for their own answers–no, indeed, because here they are!

Better still, the meaning and purpose that such a person receives as a gift from their god sends them soaring over the heads of even Fortune 500 CEOs in terms of status and meaningfulness. They’re no longer laboring just to get rich or to sell some gewgaw to someone who doesn’t really need it (and will probably use it to get further away from Christianity). They’re working for the advancement of their god’s kingdom on Earth, and earning for themselves a place at his table in the afterlife (for various values of “earning,” of course). They are now ambassadors of a real live god. The author of the entire universe has decided to make that person his emissary and his recruitment officer. That new convert now takes marching orders directly from the metaphorical hand of the supreme commander of absolutely everything. When they die, they’ll go to a glorious afterlife with mansions for everyone, golden streets, and a feast that never ends–as thanks for their service and devotion in this life.

You can all but hear the bellow now: Beat that, Bill Gates!

But if there isn’t a god behind the religion in the first place, much less a McMansion-filled afterlife with totally rutted and busted paving and an all-you-can-eat buffet, then all that grandiose self-importance vanishes.

Little wonder why the notion of deconverting and losing that status and privilege is so deeply distressing to these Christians! But even ones who don’t get into the oneupsmanship that their toxic brethren indulge in can get really distressed by losing even this poorly-functioning fantasy. Because as obviously shoddy as it is as a paradigm or worldview, as seldom as the fantasy works in reality for those who struggle to meet the illusion’s requirements, they don’t know that it’s even possible to figure it out for themselves.

Not yet, anyway.

Since almost nobody deconverts specifically over the falseness of the teachings about purpose and meaning, the general framework may take years to unpack and discard. Until then it just lurks in the background as this unidentified voice piping up that meaning should look like this and purpose should look like that.

The Artificiality of It All.

Quite a few religious people–of all religions, not just Christianity–would rather have the comfort of a lie than the cold stark reality of the truth. Hell, even people who aren’t religious at all can get like that about certain topics, which is why there’s only a 50/50 chance that any given MRA is Christian. It’s one of those less-savory parts of the human condition.

Our tendency to reach for easy answers instead of doing hard work for an uncertain payoff is another one of those less-savory parts of us. As we saw in a Lambchop comment last month:

If we accept the oftentimes reasonable proposition that most people seek the greatest benefit for the least cost, they will seek meaning and belonging with the least change possible. Thus, if they can go to either the Church of Meaning and Belonging, or the Church of Sacrifice for Meaning and Belonging, most people choose the former. It provides benefit for less cost.

Divided by Faith, Michael Emerson & Christian Smith, p. 164

Meaning and purpose work the same exact way. If someone can get those answers just handed to them without any effort on their part, and they’re indoctrinated to believe that these answers are superior to whatever they could get on their own, then obviously they’re going to do it that way.

The work involved when the answers don’t come as easily or as quickly or as intelligibly as the indoctrinated person believes can easily be ignored. And if the person kicks too much of a fuss up about the difficulties they’re encountering, that person can be victim-blamed for doing something wrong that’s interfering with their god’s distribution of magical answers.

People caught in broken systems are really good at self-policing even while they’re suffering.

The Cosmic Profit/Loss Statement.

To people trained from birth to think that it’s impossible in the first place to independently arrive at the big answers to life’s big questions, it’s easy to accept any number of falsehoods about the process and its benefits.

So Christians don’t even question their leaders when they assert–often and with absolutely no evidence–that non-Christians simply cannot arrive at these answers independently, and that if we say we do it all the time then we are either lying or struggling with a substandard, ineffective, lower-quality meaning and purpose than we’d receive from their god if we could only conquer our pride and sinfulness enough to bend knee like all the good little Christians who do so without reservations. (Don’t hold your breath for Christians to demonstrate objectively that anything in this paragraph is true. When we push back against this insulting notion, conspiracy-theorists in the religion just consider our disagreement to be PROOF YES PROOF of their doctrine’s truthfulness.)

And then they compartmentalize away all the times when they themselves struggled to receive their free gift of answers from their god, received answers that turned out to be “misheard,” or got instructions that turned out to be completely disastrous for the person receiving them. Typically the Christian doesn’t really think about these disasters until they’re close to their own deconversion. After deconversion, the newbie ex-Christian can finally look back on their life to see the long string of terrible decisions they made thinking that a god had handed them their marching-orders. (And it’s normal for the response there to be justifiable anger at the authority figures we trusted.)

Worse, these new ex-Christians can also judge whether or not the meaningfulness they arrive at on their own is better or worse than the fake meaningfulness they received through being Christian–and I don’t remember a single ex-Christian who’s ever said that their post-deconversion meaningfulness was worse. Yes, it was far grander and self-important back then–which is very easy to accomplish, it turns out, if someone flat-out lies or talks out of their ass about something. But it wasn’t real, and so all that grandness and importance were simply illusions. They were fake. And fakery just isn’t as satisfying as authenticity to someone who cares about the truth.

Who’d have thunk? It turns out that if a god isn’t out there handing out purposes and meaning, whatever ones Christians think they’re getting aren’t actually authentically their own. They’re just whatever their group and leaders think are appropriate, so an individual trying to follow that life-path laid out for them and find meaning in it all has a very tough time finding contentment in such a mess.

Nullifying Us.

Ex-Christians, more than anybody else alive, know just how artificial the entire Christian framework of meaning and purpose really are–and so we must be nullified somehow by Christians. This isn’t the only place where they leap with both feet to try to invalidate our experiences and hand-wave away what we have to say, but it’s one of the most important because in this case, we’re speaking the truth about something that Christian leaders, especially those leading really toxic groups, have striven for generations to hide from their followers. We’re raising a middle finger to the entire notion of god-given purposes and saying that actually, Christianity’s ideas about meaningfulness weren’t nearly as genuine as the meaningfulness we’ve discovered for ourselves. And we’re stepping on a bit of land that Christian leaders have staked out as their own exclusive territory.

So they declare that what we’ve found is substandard and childishly paltry compared to what they have. They insist that we’re just deluding ourselves. They sniff disdainfully at the entire idea that people can actually find great meaning in their own lives–and moreover can find meaning in a universe that doesn’t have any kind of afterlife in it or any sign that any super-beings in it really care anything about us.

While they thunderously denounce us, they hope that nobody notices that tinge of desperation in their condescension. And oh boy do they ever hope that someone doesn’t get so distraught about the talking points not working for them that they start edging close to forbidden thoughts.

We’re going to be talking next about a group of Christians who are living in exactly that miserable situation: trying to conform to a life path that simply doesn’t fit them because they think a god told them to do it, and trying to find meaning in a life assignment that is becoming more onerous for them by the day. It’s one of the most miserable and heartbreakings sights I’ve ever seen in Christianity–and gang, I’ve seen some shit in that miserable religion.

We’ll see you next time–and until then, here’s one of the best pieces of advice about life that I’ve ever heard, from someone who’d be the Grand Hierophant of whatever a true religion might look like:

Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

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