The meaning of life?

July 28, 2006 | By | 9 Replies More

People who believe in god(s) are inclined to say that one reason they believe in god(s) is because they would find their lives “meaningless” otherwise.  So, here’s my question:  how does belief in god(s) create “meaning” in life? 

Let’s consider an example.  Many Christians are inclined to say that one reason they believe in God is because they would find their lives “meaningless” otherwise.  According to this worldview, the “meaning” their religion offers them is to suffer through life until God is satisfied they have suffered long enough, then (if they are “united with Jesus”) they go to heaven to worship God for all eternity or (if they remain “fallen”) they go to hell to suffer for all eternity. 

Does that really seem like a meaningful existence?  God creates us merely to play games with us for a few dozen years here on earth — in order to “test” us — and then God sits in judgment of us to decide where we will spend the rest of eternity?  Our “meaning” in life thus reducees to praising God throughout our lives just to earn the right to praise God for the rest of eternity?  Indeed, the story of Lucifer demonstrates that even after a person gets into heaven, his failure to continue praising God might still put him in hell for all eternity.  Where is the meaning in being nothing more than a praising chorus for a God who already knows He is omnipotent?

Let me put it another way.  Think of Adam and Eve — arguably the best models we have for what human life in heaven is probably like.  Exactly what meaning did they have in their lives?  They had no struggles, no pain, no death, no successes, no failures, no challenges, no accomplishments, no learning (because they were forbidden to eat from the Tree of Knowledge), etc.  The Bible does not even describe them as having any joy.  Their lives consisted of being specimens in God’s little zoo.  Where is the meaning?

Now, imagine you are in heaven and imagine you are surrounded by people who are perfectly happy to have no successes, no failures, no challenges, no accomplishments, no learning, etc.  You spend eternity either praising God or discussing how you are going to better praise God.  Where is the meaning? 

Indeed, can we think of any earthly place that is similar to heaven — where people can be perfectly happy to have no successes, no failures, no challenges, no accomplishments, no learning, etc., and to, instead, spend all of their time praising some god-figure?  I can think of one:  psychiatric hospitals.

Sorry, maybe that’s too harsh, but my question remains:  if you tell yourself (and others) that your religion gives your life “meaning,” but you ignore the details of the “meaning” that your religion promises you, then in what way does your religion actually give your life “meaning?”  Said another way:  is having no answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life,” so frightening that any answer — even a vague, self-contradictory one — becomes better than none at all?

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Category: Good and Evil, Meaning of Life, Religion, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

Grumpypilgrim is a writer and management consultant living in Madison, WI. He has several scientific degrees, including a recent master’s degree from MIT. He has also held several professional career positions, none of which has been in a field in which he ever took a university course. Grumps is an avid cyclist and, for many years now, has traveled more annual miles by bicycle than by car…and he wishes more people (for the health of both themselves and our planet) would do the same. Grumps is an enthusiastic advocate of life-long learning, healthy living and political awareness. He is single, and provides a loving home for abused and abandoned bicycles. Grumpy’s email: grumpypilgrim(AT)@gmail(DOT).com [Erich’s note: Grumpy asked that his email be encrypted this way to deter spam. If you want to write to him, drop out the parentheticals in the above address].

Comments (9)

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  1. Renee says:

    If we could all have the same definitions of what belief is, what g-d is, and what is meant by the 'meaning' of life, then we truly would have eaten the entire apple. Also, I see the new found concept of spirituality play into replacing only a simple concept of religion. What is g-d, what is the meaning of life, what is religion?

    Here's my cynical viewpoint. Religion is what comes from a group of people who get together and say they have the answers to the first two questions and charge an admission fee to those that want to buy into the answers. What are the answers? 1) g-d is everything and we are made in this image and when you come to understand this, you can stop paying and start collecting and 2) "Be fruitful, and multiply; fill the earth, and subdue it" Genesis 1:28 or less tactfully "f**k and breed like rabbits, and learn and harness the power of the planet"

    The difference I see that spirtuality offers is only changing the answer to 1) we are g-d and we don't have to pay or be paid to know this.

    Although I don't feel the need to do either the religous 1) or the spiritual 1), I do spend time doing 2 (the learning part 😉 and as long as others try to follow the 'Golden Rule' when they do 1 or 2, it's their choice how they waste time on this 3rd rock. But I know most of us forget about the Golden Rule as soon as we can walk upright

  2. John says:

    Might I make a recommendation to those who wish to find "meaning" outside of religion? Robert Nozick's The Examined Life explores this question (existentialist philosopher). It does not do much for me (I'm occupied by another's theory), but I am sure that many others could potentially gain a great deal from his thoughts.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Grumpy:

    Really? Even if I make it to heaven (as the story goes), I can still might have those heavenly privileges revoked for F.A.W (failure to adequately worship)? I guess you're right. If it can happen to someone as powerful as Lucifer, why not to little ole' me?

    I think your main point is a good one. Believers of all stripes are constantly telling me that my life has no "meaning" because I'm not striving to get to heaven (where, apparently, I'll be standing around worshipping God). But that sort of ethereal sycophantic lifestyle just doesn't seem to inspire much meaning. I think "That's it? That's all I'm living for?"

    Many believers look at my mortal, limited, life and tell me that it lacks meaning because it is not eternal. I disagree. It certainly seems important to me right now. Again, I point to the thing to which all of those believers aspire–standing around telling God that he is great. As you point out, God should already be aware of this, if He exists. And if He doesn't know it yet, why would he be convinced by a bunch of non-omniscient peons like us?

    ps. There is absolutely no credible evidence that any person continues to have any sentient existence following bodily death. I find it surreal (though worthy and fascinating) that we continue to have these discussions.

    Also, I fear that I am being defined all too much by my need to react to preposterous claims. I just spoke with a high school aged relative who lives in Norway. She mentioned that 90% of the students don't believe in God and that only maybe 1% attend any sort of church. Instead of spending their energies having to fight off the wild claims of fundamentalists, they spend much of their time considering how to actually make their communities and their world better places to live.

  4. Ricky Koppel says:

    The meaning of life is, in my opinion, much too large a discussion to be placed in anything less than a complete volume. Blogs (yes, including my own) are not thorough enough to do it any justice.

    With that being said, I'll continue to do so anyway. When you speak of Adam and Eve's state being similar to heaven, that leaves a lot to question. Truly, Adam and Eve had no meaning. They lived in complete ignorance of all good and evil. Perhaps the lesson is that with good, evil is inevitably accompanying. Perhaps to have knowledge of good is also to have knowledge of the lack of good, which is evil. So, perhaps the elimination of evil is the elimination of the knowledge of good.

    Perhaps ignorance truly is bliss.

    Also, human life is typically driven by a pursuit of meaning. If that is true (which I believe it is) it can be said that our purpose is to discover our purpose. The question then arises: what will become of us, once we discover our true, final goal?

    I'll address this [the pursuit of purpose] in a future blog of mine, if anyone is interested.

    [Erich's note:  Ricky's blog can be found on his myspace.com profile at http://blog.myspace.com/overambition ]

  5. grumpypilgrim says:

    From Erich's comment, it sounds like America needs more Norwegian immigrants! Imagine how much good America could do in the world if it spent less time ranting about alleged sinners and more time doing good deeds.

    I like Ricky's comment that "ignorance is bliss" — it nicely summarizes what seems to give "meaning" to many Believers' lives. How very sad that this should be so.

    Indeed, one good example of this is the many Believers who reject all fields of science (biology, geology, botony, astronomy, etc.) and declare their belief in creationism. Virtually every one of them is completely ignorant of the science they reject — a convenient, if ridiculous way to maintain their faith.

  6. Erika Price says:

    Erich: it often worries me that freethinkers waste their questioning intellects on defending themselves against religious zealots. The devoutly religious make so many preposterous claims that the typical freethinker feels personally compelled to deflect the idiocy. But such teeth-gnashing doesn't always prove worthwhile. We have to answer to the throngs of fundamentalists, of course, but we also need to save much of that intellectual motivation for the things the Norwegians have full time to do: reflect on how to improve our world.

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whisky bottle in the hand of (another)… There are just some kind of men who – who're so busy worrying about the next world they've never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results.

    <p align="right">Miss Maudie Atkinson, "To Kill a Mockingbird"

  8. gatomjp says:

    A god that creates imperfect beings so that they must then grovel for admittance to his kingdom seems small and petty to me. A god that REQUIRES worship?? That is a very human attribute.

    Why does life have to have any meaning anyway? Why can't it just be what it is? Are we really so self-important that we can't possibly accept that we aren't here to do anything other than make more of us and enjoy the process as much as possible along the way?

  9. Tu says:

    I find myself nodding in agreement to the majority of your blog. The point which I found to be most poignant is the idea that so many people are so afraid of not knowing or having an answer that any answer will do. For that reason, I do think that is why many people rely on religion as the backbone to their existence. It is easier to leave it all in God's hand than to figure it out for yourself.

    However, I do not think that religion could be completely ruled out. Who really knows the "meaning" of life? Without the relation of religion, in general, who can define it? No one can. Life has no definite and universally acceptable answer, which is why I think it would be unfair to say that continuous praising of God does not provide an answer. Personally, I don't understand it nor could I ever conform into it, but I would never rule it out as a meaning for others.

    More so than anything, I think the search for the meaning is the most compelling aspect. To open yourself up to new theories and ideas in order to better grasp the concept of a meaning is as close to a meaning as human beings can get. The exploration and the thrive to learn more about yourself and the world around you can bring you closer to a meaning, perhaps it is THE meaning. Yet, the exploring and searching can manifest religion as your answer, or anything else for that matter. In a subjective world, no answers can be ruled out.

    The only thing I would reject as a meaning is living and functioning as robotic drones within society without venturing towards greater depth and blindly throwing yourself towards one answer without knowledge of what that answer stood for.

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