The subject of meaning and purpose in life is something that has interested me as a thinker for some time. I wrote an essay concerning points about this post here and I included a chapter in my book The Little Book of Unholy Questions on meaning and purpose.
A good friend of mine, who has himself seen an interesting metamorphosis through belief systems, writes this guest post, originally found at his own blog here.
Over to him:
Point in common: many existentialist thinkers (and therapists) would share with religious believers the idea that it is impossible to reconcile the desire for objective meaning with the idea that the universe is a cold and indifferent place devoid of any ultimate purpose.
Point in conflict: existentialist thinkers (and therapists) would not believe that we cannot live a meaningful without God.
We’ll touch on existentialist approaches later (Camus) but let us first explore the idea that God is necessary in order to make life meaningful.
There are two types of meaning we need to delineate: Firstly there is what I’ll call ‘Objective Meaning’ (OM henceforth) and there is ‘Subjective Meaning’ (SM). The former means any meaning that is transcendant–that is, it describes what is a meaningful way of life independent of any one individual’s agreement or awareness of it. Such meaning would be grounded into the very fabric of existence to be discovered rather than created. Subjective meaning, however, is any meaning that is felt by the individual (or collective) and may or may not match any objective meaning. What is certain is that SM exists. We almost all experience some form of desire to live with meaning. No-one, however, can claim with utter certainty that OM exists.
This post explores the religious (theist) claim that we need God in order to live a meaningful life.
SCENARIO 1: PURPOSELESS CREATION OF HUMANITY
Imagine God (of whatever flavour you wish) exists but has not created the universe with any purpose in mind for humanity. We could even grant that the deity has created for its own purposes (perhaps as an artist might) but without any goals in mind for the creatures. It may be that they were merely a whim. On this scenario, what ought we to do about our desire for meaning? Has it vanished? No. Does the existence of the deity do anything to remove the desire? No. Does it in any way assist us with knowing what to do with it? No. Pragmatically, we are still left with the desire and we need make no reference to the deity with regard to it. Now, we might want to say it’s an objectively pointless desire and we are all ultimately doomed to exist in a nihilistic universe but note well: the existence of a deity per se does nothing to remove or validate any meaning. Pragmatically, if life is more happily lived in sync with our SM then the lack of OM is irrelevant.
SCENARIO 2: PURPOSEFUL-YET-ABSURD CREATION OF HUMANITY
Imagine now that God exists and yet in this scenario God’s purpose is utterly absurd from our point of view. Let’s imagine that the deity’s purpose for us is to have us fill and refill half-litre glasses with water 24/7. There would, clearly, be no way we could find such a purpose fulfilling or in any way meaningful. Such a scenario parallels that envisaged by the French existentialist Albert Camus in his book ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’. Sisyphus is condemned by the gods to push a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down in an endless repetition. The despair of the situation is located in it’s futility. Camus explores the idea that ‘we should imagine Sisyphus happy’–that the only response to such a situation would have to come from within the man himself–that he would only find some relief in his acceptance of his situation entailing therein some liberating defiance.
In our futile-creation scenario the existence of divinity provides no worthwhile OM and, in fact, as Camus shows us, presses the need for recourse to SM. The need to make meaning within the futility. The religious claim that God is necessary for meaning would not only be false but would show us that unless that meaning coheres with our existing possible subjective meaning it is at best useless, at worst terrifying. In other words, SM is our primary concern.
SCENARIO 3: SELF-AUTHORING CREATION
In this scenario imagine the Creator has a purpose but that purpose is that we should generate our own purposes and meaning for life. Here the deity wants its children to grow up and find their own way, author their own stories and has no agenda for them of its own: the OM is subjected to the SM. Now in this scenario we might want to argue that there’s moral grounding and validation for the duty to find meanings but there is no content grounded in the divinity. Maybe the divinity is also happy for the creature to write no story. Yet again we see a scenario in which divinity exists and yet meaning remains independent. SM cannot be found by the provision of OM, indeed here the OM is subject to SM. Would theists, in such a scenario deny the validity of the meanings found? Would they argue that since the deity has no overarching story with which they must conform therefore any life-story they do write is therefore invalid and pointless? Probably not because the whole point was to have meaning that was non-derivative.
This establishes a larger point however, namely that divinity’s existence and validation is unnecessary because if it is even conceivable that a God could do such a thing then valid meaning is possible without divine validation. If is possible to live by SM without it cohering with a divine content in a theistic possible world, what would be removed by subtracting the divine (in an atheistic possible world) since the divine provides no necessary derived meaning in a theistic world. If the theist will admit of even the conceptual possibility of this they will need to accept that meaning does not need to be derivative of OM.
SCENARIO 4: CO-AUTHORED MEANING
Another scenario is possible (assuming God’s existence) in which God has purpose and meaning to which we can subscribe which also allows us to find SM meaning, maybe with some variation, within its parameters. Let’s imagine fr’instance that the God of the Judeo-Christian traditions is the Creator and that the prime purpose of humans is found in loving God and in love of self alongside love of neighbour. Such a purpose may be broad enough to allow many possible trajectories within it that differ yet cohere with the overarching narrative arc God wishes humans to pursue. Interestingly love is a drive which offers a great deal by way of connection, transcendence of self and meaning to people psychologically–it is not hard to see how such SM goals would cohere very well with such an OM. However, notice, once again, how such an approach does not override the need for a SM. Without SM, without the individual being able to find purchase on the OM the OM is redundant.