The Meaning of Life

A while back I criticised dogmatism among atheists as well as an excess of certainty in belief. The question of theodicy, as I noted a few days ago, is popping up again and again in the wake of the Tsunami tragedy. To some degree, I think this debate now has a momentum of its own, which I regard as positive, though not the opportunity that some have taken of using it as a springboard for point-scoring.

Immanuel Rant blogs on Cardinal Pell’s entry into the lists. I find Dr Pell’s theology much more palatable than Philip Jensen’s, though I don’t subscribe to all of it. But I join with Irant in rejecting this assertion:

Atheists have no explanation. For them life is a fluke, with no purpose. Only a good God requires and gives sense to universal love and is able to balance out human suffering in the next life.

There is no doubt that atheists can have a deeply motivated sense of purpose in life, and that there are very good humanist motivations for meaning and social action. It’s highly pertinent to observe here that as I said in my original post on atheism and dogmatism, the terms of the theism vs. atheism argument are very much a product of the Abrahamic faith tradition, and arguably of European modernity. Just as it makes little sense to speak of a philosophical atheism in Hindu and Buddhist cultures, so too is the understanding of life’s meaning very different in the other World Religions. Very little is gained by casting stones. Religious leaders would do better, like Hans K¼ng, to engage seriously with atheism and the search for meaning that unites atheists and theists in Western culture.

About Mark Bahnisch

Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and is the founder of this blog. He has an undergraduate degree in history and politics from UQ, and postgraduate qualifications in sociology, industrial relations and political economy from Griffith and QUT. He has recently been awarded his PhD through the Humanities Program at QUT. Mark's full bio is on this page.
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yellowvinyl
2022 years ago

well said, Mark. Troppo is fast becoming the indispensable reference point for questions about politics and religion!

yellowvinyl
2022 years ago

and Immanuel Rant too, of course.

Amanda
2022 years ago

I watched the first part of Jonathon Miller’s doco series on atheism — A Brief History of Disbelief — on the weekend. I believe it was refered to sniffily in that John Gray article (still waiting for the evidence of a revival of atheism since 9/11.) Hoping to get a copy of it soon and watch the whole thing.

alphacoward
2022 years ago

I’m doubtful Atheism is going to stage a revival due to 9/11.

The most likely result is a revival in fundamentalist Christianity

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

alphacoward, I said this in response to a similar point made by Amanda on the previous thread:

“Yeah, Amanda, that struck me too – I’d also like to see some evidence. I think what Gray is on about is just using s11 as a hook for his argument (which he repeats in his recent books) about the problems of progress and the perils of secular ideologies. In his book Al Qaeda and What it Means to be Modern, he makes the claim – with which I’d agree – that Islamism is a product of modernisation, but there are certainly other authors who support that claim with more evidence and sustained argumentation. Gray’s call for an openness to mystery in politics is I think a slightly incoherent one (there’s a sense in which I’d agree with him but one very far from what I think he means) and I was really using his piece as a starting point for some reflections of my own on religion, atheism and politics – the real point of my post was in the last para. Gray has some interesting ideas and I find him a provocative thinker – but more for the thoughts he stimulates than the quality of his empirical analysis, which is certainly open to the critique you make.”

simon
simon
2022 years ago

I wonder Mark whether you would put in the dogmatic atheist class?

I aware of confirmation bias and file draw problem and seriously question my own stance. Try to balance that with other points of view and look to my underlying assumptions and their validity.

Even with that I’m a strong atheist secular humanist and while only having done a unit in phenomenology of religion and my own readings consider the pluralistic stance regarding religion intellectually weak.

The head of ABC TV’s Compass thought that the saying that all the worlds religions are just different paths to ‘God’ has fallen by the wayside and I think that there is a polite unacknowledged rule that you don’t question the validity/truth of other religions even though in the back of your mind you think they are false.

A serious study of religion will show that many of the largest world religions are mutually exclusive. Either Jesus -if he existed- was either the sun of ‘God’ or he wasn’t, Muhammad was either the last prophet or he wasn’t. There is no pussy footing around these points.

Not to mention the incompatibility of examples between the monotheistic faiths with salvation and other religious traditions like Karma. How many Christians would be honest and come out and say that religions like Hinduism or Buddhism are really a waste and totally socially constructed. The question should be pointed out though, that if these are elaborate human social constructs why cannot the same be said of theirs?

So am I being dogmatic or is it the case there is no middle ground? Are you dogmatic if you maintain that fairies don’t exist or that the Rainbow Serpent never existed?

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Simon, I don’t know – to some degree it’s probably a function of motivation. One could observe that the arguments for religious pluralism are weak (and that’s a legitimate observation) or one could make the same observation with an anti-religious agenda in mind. That’s what I have in mind – an attitude that’s too dismissive of faith or belief without an attempt to understand it. I’m sure that you don’t have that sort of attitude but it exists.

simon
simon
2022 years ago

It’s like the problem spin, when is a sincere valid appraisal or a biased rationalization? How can a person know that they aren’t suffering some sort of cognitive dissonance or other cognitive bias as the failure success luck attribution? If the unconscious and desires/motivations plays a big part in our thinking process the line between reasoning and rationalizations must be a vague one.

Critical thinking helps but it seems there are times people use and choose not to. And since it often rests on induction and unprovable assumptions is it any surprise that someone could believe in 3.4 billion year old Earth but still believe in astrology.

I know some libertarian atheists who like to tear apart Creation Science but refuse to think that humans have anything to do with Global Warming.

When can one have enough information or ability to question established viewpoints of those who have training in their fields. I tend to go with the scientific consensus on thinks like Global warming but think that many biblical scholars/theologians are arguing over angels on pinheads.

I’m beginning to think even rational thought can be a hit and miss affair and that it is often down to blind luck that you picked it was the maid and not the butler who did the murder even though everyone had all the relevant facts.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

Mark, I am not surprised you like Pell to Jensen.
Jensen is biblically literate whereas Pell isn’t.

This is easily seen by asking both of them how do you get to Heaven.

Janice
Janice
2022 years ago

“There is no doubt that atheists can have a deeply motivated sense of purpose in life”

Would you please explain to me from where atheists derive such a sense of purpose.

yellowvinyl
2022 years ago

yr question seems to imply that the concept is inherently unlikely, Janice. I would think that there are many different places from which atheists can derive a sense of purpose. you might like to start by reading what Irant wrote in the post Mark linked to above. it seems to me that he put it well:

http://www.immanuelrant.com/comments.php?id=174_0_1_0_C

Fyodor
2022 years ago

Frame it another way, Janice. Why does your life need a purpose? Why aren’t you happy just living it?

Janice
Janice
2022 years ago

Yellowvinyl refers me to Irant who asserts that, “purpose comes from understanding and accepting … that luck plays an important part in … life”. I can see that such an understanding of life would motivate one to try to protect oneself against misfortune. Perhaps I’m very dull today but I can’t see what else it might motivate.

simon
simon
2022 years ago

Janice does holding your new born baby, a beautiful sunrise, or looking into your lover’s eyes etc etc only have desirability if there is a ‘God’ or afterlife?

Knowing that this is probably the only existence I will ever have and that it can be such a rich and fulfilling experience what more motivation should I need?

Life is too short to go on a guilt trip or worry over a ‘God’ or afterlife that even those who believe cannot agree on.

From star dust we came to star dust we return, but at least I have some say on what happens in between.

Irant
2022 years ago

Janice,

While I acknowledge the role of luck, that in itself does not imply purpose as you seem to think. There is more to my argument and I suggest you reread what I wrote and enage that as well as simon and yellowvinyl’s comments instead of chopping quotes up out of order.

Janice
Janice
2022 years ago

Fyodor and simon,

A sense of purposelessness in life is generally not found among those who are happy living it. It tends to be found among the clinically depressed and may be a consequence or a cause of the depression.

Therefore, the fact that atheists do manufacture some sense of purpose for their own lives does not surprise me. But that is beside the point. And now I see that I didn’t phrase my question clearly enough.

What I want to know is how atheism itself can serve as a basis from which the atheist can derive a sense of purpose in life. Babies do not stay new-born forever, a lover’s eyes can turn cold and during the day no stars can be seen. So what is it about atheism that can sustain the atheist?

Fyodor
2022 years ago

“What I want to know is how atheism itself can serve as a basis from which the atheist can derive a sense of purpose in life.”

It doesn’t, and that’s the point in a nutshell. One’s purpose in life is not necessarily connected with your belief or dibelief in God. Why should it be?

You may choose to make your particular God the source of your purpose in life, but that’s your choice. My purpose in life has no more to do with my atheism than my fondness for Cherry Ripes, and I’m doing just fine.

Now answer my question: “Why does your life need a purpose? Why aren’t you happy just living it?”

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

Actually Fyodor you have answered Janice’s question.
You have shown you have a purpose in living it.

Janice
Janice
2022 years ago

Yes, Fyodor has answered my question. He said atheism cannot itself serve as a basis from which to derive a sense of purpose in life.

To answer his very peremptorily put question; all human beings need a purpose in life to help “ward off poor mental health”.

The quote is from the Conference Consensus Paper, “Exploring the Nature and Development of Purpose in Youth”, March 2003, Stanford Center on Adolescence, http://www.stanford.edu/group/adolescent.ctr/Conference/2003/2003cons.html, which further states that, “the personal effects of purposelessness may include self-absorption, depression, addictions, and a variety of psycho-somatic ailments; and the social effects may include deviant and destructive behavior, a lack of productivity, and an inability to sustain stable interpersonal relations.”

Of course anyone may have purposes in life that do not spring from whatever he or she believes about the existence of God. As long as pursuit of them is rewarding enough the person will do “just fine”. I am not trying to suggest that all atheists are necessarily in poor mental health.

However, one good thing about theism is that it does, of itself, offer a basis for finding a (grand, unifying) purpose in life from which everything else flows. One is, therefore, spared the necessity of having to make up a series of purposes de novo, as it were, as life goes on and circumstances change. This is convenient for the theist but not, I think, something that would inspire a committed atheist to reconsider their position.

yellowvinyl
2022 years ago

thanks for clarifying yr position, Janice. you write:

“However, one good thing about theism is that it does, of itself, offer a basis for finding a (grand, unifying) purpose in life from which everything else flows. One is, therefore, spared the necessity of having to make up a series of purposes de novo, as it were, as life goes on and circumstances change. This is convenient for the theist but not, I think, something that would inspire a committed atheist to reconsider their position.”

I agree with Simon above – having to accept responsibility for one’s own directions rather than “having to make up a series of purposes de novo” is a positive thing, and to the degree that it springs from a rejection of theism, it can be seen as an atheist inspired purpose to life.

Brian Bahnisch
Brian Bahnisch
2022 years ago

“However, one good thing about theism is that it does, of itself, offer a basis for finding a (grand, unifying) purpose in life from which everything else flows.”

Janice, that’s about the worst argument for believing in a god. If life in general is meaningless, then the problem is not solved by grasping a reason to believe even if believing in an illusion may make you feel better (IMHO).

Fyodor
2022 years ago

Well said, Yellow & Brian. You must have a miserable view of the world if you need to believe in fairy tales for your “mental health”.

Janice
Janice
2022 years ago

“Janice, that’s about the worst argument for believing in a god.”

I said it’s convenient for the theist. I did not say that it is any sort of argument, good or bad, for believing in God.

simon
simon
2022 years ago

Janice if you are asking an atheist for a meta-physical meaning/purpose for life i’d imagine most will say there is none. If you ask for a pragmatic/here-and-now, living life is a common answer.

And that sustaining list is for all practical purposes infinite even within a finite life.

It enough for me regardless what some clueless academics like John Carroll- The Wreck of Western Culture; Humanism Revisited- may think.

It’s just like the so called moral problem for atheists. Since we don’t believe in a God why shouldn’t we all go out and rape and murder. Just shows no amount of intelligence or academic qualifications stop people from saying some really stupid things.

Brian Bahnisch
Brian Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Fyodor, as an agnostic rather than an atheist, I’m not sure it’s a fairy tale. I do think, though, that that it is dangerous to sign up to any prepackaged set of beliefs from a position other than of personal strength and integrity. Once you work on that the need to “believe” seems to diminish.

Brian Bahnisch
Brian Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Janice, you did indeed say it was convenient. You also said it was a “good thing” and that the unifying purpose of life provided by theism “spared the necessity of having to make up a series of purposes de novo, as it were, as life goes on and circumstances change.”

My concern is that the comfort provided by such a belief is tempting and can IMHO inhibit and distort one’s contact with and response to reality. No-one starts de novo as we can’t operate without beliefs and values. Our very perceptions are made through a values prism. It is important, though, I think, that we respond to changes in circumstances and constantly re-examine the basis of our beliefs as well as the nature, source and implications of our desires and purposes.

In my youth friends who were concerned about my loss of belief often urged to make a ‘leap of faith’, to will myself into a state of belief. If only I would take the step then I would see how it all worked out in my life and the advantages that flowed. I couldn’t, partly because I thought it dishonest, partly because that was where I had just come from and it hadn’t worked out well at all.

I used to hold the position that a god may exist, it was just that he/she had not been revealed to me. I now think that if a god exists then it is a case of ‘deus absconditus’ and God has absconded to a place where we CAN’T know whether he/she exists.

Even so I speak only for myself as I can’t totally put myself in the shoes of others. So I respect the positions others may take on this, Janice.

But the advantages available to you from theistic belief are not available to me. So you are right, they would not inspire me to reconsider my position.

Brian Bahnisch
Brian Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Gaby, I wonder whether you and Mark are at cross-purposes in the terminology you are using.

As a person who was a Christian and then became a lost sheep I am aware of some of the residues in my psyche.

Our younger son, a teenager, has never had a belief in a god and is an example of some-one to whom the notion is simply absurd. Recently when he said something particularly unflattering about God my wife and I both reacted in defence of the memory of a figure we no longer believed in. It was disrespectful, we thought, and said so. Of course he immediately nailed us. How can you be disrespectful to something that does not exist. We were clearly being absurd.

Still having suffered a hell-fire preacher when I was very young I’m still half expecting a thunderbolt from heaven.

In short, I think Mark is probably right. Afterall the word “a-theism” is clearly referenced to theism. To an emerging generation the notion of a god is at best an historical phenomenon.

Irant
2022 years ago

simon,

I’ve never read John Carroll but the reviews were interesting. The gist I got was that because humanism doesn’t shy from the reality of death (where religion offers hope of an afterlife) we’ve all come a cropper and death makes life futile.

If so (and this is the common argument against atheism) I do find it strange. Why get hung up over death? It seems that the focus is on the destination rather than the journey. What happens after death is irrelevant to how we act and what we do in the here and now

yellowvinyl
2022 years ago

there’s an argument from philosophers like Heidegger (in his more existential period) that our orientation towards death is what gives our life meaning. that is to say, the choices we make are irrevocable and cannot be atoned for in a future life. not what I believe, but I thought I’d point out that this is effectively an argument from atheism to meaning. Derrida has stuff on this too in “The Gift of Death”.

simon
simon
2022 years ago

Irant,
(the reviews were probably better reading than the work ;)

Through certain stages of history humanity discovered that the Earth and humanity aren’t the centre of the universe and had to grow up. This is just another stage. Though I wouldn’t necessarily throw the baby out with the bathwater there is a lot of wisdom thrown in with the absurd.

Knowing that in the end your life has no ultimate meaning is pretty stark, but I doubt many non-theits dwel or get depressed about it. Just another fact like going bald I have to deal with :(

Actually what happens after death would be relevant if it were at all likely.

Put a spin on Pascal’s Wager; even if there was an afterlife it would be blind luck that you happened
to be in the right faith to know how to get it. Odds favour you missing out or ending up in the wrong place. D’Oh