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Meaning without God

By: Mike Gashler

In 1995, I knocked on the door of a complete stranger. When it opened, I said my line in my best approximation of Mandarin Chinese: "Good evening! We're missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Lat..."

"There is no God", the man before us interrupted. His wife immediately started laughing.

"How do you know?", I asked.

He looked at me like it was a stupid question. "Well, I've never seen him!"

My missionary companion wasn't feeling very patient that day. He stepped to the front and challenged the man, "Have you ever seen your brain? ...Well, maybe you don't have one!"

Obviously, we didn't get to share our message with that couple. It was probably for the best that we didn't get in that door. No one on that doorstep that day was in a mood to contemplate, or even listen to ideas from the other side!

More than two-and-a-half decades and some big changes in my beliefs later, my dentist reccomended that I have my two front teeth filed down. I may have asked him a question that invoked the notion of an evolutionary relationship with rodents that had to chew on things to prevent their front teeth from growing too big. Apparently, this tipped him off that I might be an atheist, and he asked if I had some time to chat about a religious matter after the appointment. I was intrigued, so I agreed.

Unfortunately, he wasn't at all interested in having a two-way conversation. He just wanted to unload a lot of thoughts about how wrong I was. Among them, he told me life had no meaning without God. I waited patiently for my opportunity to share my views, but it never came. A nurse interrupted him to say, "Your next patient has been waiting for over 40 minutes." I had no idea someone had even been waiting on us!

Since I never had a chance to reply to my dentist, I'm writing about it instead.

Meaning without God

I understand that belief in God is a source of meaning to many people. After all, my beliefs were my source of meaning for much of my life! And I certainly had a hard time seeing how anyone could find meaning elsewhere. But just because you cannot see something, doesn't mean it cannot be there.

Let's try to avoid making that mistake of failing to listen yet again. Let's try to really understand where meaning comes from.

As a hypothetical thought-experiment, imagine a universe created by an evil god. Imagine that he instructed you that your purpose for existing was to torture puppies, take candy from small children, and push old grandmas down long flights of stairs.

The most common response to this situation is, "That's ridiculous! I can't even imagine such an absurd universe!" Apparently, some people don't like hypotheticals that make them stretch their minds. But you don't gain anything from refusing to confront an awkward challenge. Some people respond that they would accept whatever purpose their creator gave them. They would actually live their lives torturing puppies near the tops of long flights of stairs, just hoping a grandma or child with candy would come along to intervene.

Well, my mother wanted me to be a concert pianist. My father wanted me to be an airline pilot. I became a computer scientist. I'm not afraid to do my own thing. So I think I'd tell my creator those cruel purposes he intended for me were not for me. I'd find something better to live for. Maybe, I'd decide my purpose was to try to overthrow him. Perhaps that would be impossible. But sometimes impossible objectives do even more to give life meaning than achievable objectives! Maybe I would die for this cause, knowing it would make little difference to my universe--but at least I would die knowing I was trying to stand for what I believed to be right!

From this silly hypothetical situation, we learn something that I believe is very profound: Meaning and purpose are not things that God rams down our throats. If they are gifts, they do not become ours when they are given, but when they are received. Believers often characterize me as someone who has rejected the gifts of God. I may not agree with that characterization, but at least we agree on one point: purpose is not ours because is given--it is something that we must choose to accept.

It is the same whethere there is a God or not. Either way, meaning is what we choose to accept. So the existence or absence of God is really quite irrelevant to whether life has meaning. What is relevant is what we choose to live for.

Meaning without an afterlife

What many believers choose to live for is hope of an afterlife. But naturalists, like me, believe death is the end of an individual's life. So it makes sense that believers would suppose we have nothing to live for. We don't have much hope at all in the one thing most important to them. So what on Earth could naturalists possibly even choose to live for?

Often, believers assume the only possible answer for an unbeliever must be unbridled hedonism. If life is temporary, they reason, the only rational response is to make the most of what we have by engaging in unbridled sin! ...except, they conclude, the thrill of carnal gratification is ultimately hollow. Therefore, the path of living for one's self must inevitably lead to a nihilistic depression, where we are forced to face the reality that life has no meaning. And we create for ourselves a sort of endless sorrow--a living hell--as our natural punishment for unbelief.

They're not wrong about carnal gratification being ultimately hollow. They're not wrong about living for one's self leading to a nihilistic depression. They're not wrong about nihilists having to face a reality without meaning. And they're not wrong about the unending sorrow that is the natural consequence for nihilism. The only thing they are mistaken about is the causes of it all.

Nihilism is the inevitable result of living for one's self. Some people choose to live for their present carnal selves. Some people choose to live for their imagined spiritual selves. But those are not the only options. And no matter how self-important we may imagine ourselves to be, none of us are really the center of the Universe, now or ever.

I think a lot can be learned on this subject by observing the patterns that occur in nature. Consider the cells in your body. They many not be conscious in the way you and I are, but it's not hard to anthropomorphize them a little bit. Like us, they they are compartmentalized to have individual identities. Each one has a job to fulfill. They're busy. And like us, there are a lot of them. (There are almost 5000 times more cells in one human body than there are humans on the Earth!) These cells all work together to operate in a sort of society. And like human society, together they accomplish things that no individual ever could. Specifically, they accomplish giving you life and consciousness!

One might imagine a heart cell growing tired of working with the group. "This pumping job is a lot of work", he might think. "I'm tired of doing it. What about me?" Maybe that cell might abandon his job and devote himself to engaging in the carnal pleasures of reproducing. Since cells reproduce asexually, their offspring carry on the general attitudes of their parents even more than ours do. So what comes from a cell that decides to live for itself? A cancerous tumor.

So why do cells work so hard to do their jobs, to cooperate, and to serve you? Are they altruists? Do they understand that their efforts sustain a life greater than their own? Do they imagine they will be rewarded for their selfless efforts in some kind cell-afterlife by a benevolent cell-God? I don't imagine they actually put as much thought into their lives as we do in ours. But I do believe they have settled into a productive balance where opportunity for meaning is maximized.

As various philosophers have observed, a meaningful life is found in the dedicated service to a cause greater than one's own self. Perhaps the cells in our body do not even possess the intellectual capacity to appreciate or seek meaning like that. Nevertheless, they have somehow found it. By whatever process cells have evolved to arrive at their present roles, somehow they have found the kind of meaningful life that we all yearn for at a our most primal level.

Like individual cells that make up a body, individual humans make up our families, our neighborhoods, our nations, and all of human society. Like cells, we will one day die, and another will step in to continue doing our jobs. And like cells, it was never really about us as individuals. The life we serve will accomplish and experience much more than we ever could as individuals. And it will live on long after we die. There is deep meaning in there to be discovered and lived for.

Seductive fantasies

If I place brussel sprouts in one of your hands, and a wish for you to rule as king of the Universe in the other hand, which hand has something in it?

Even making this comparison is somewhat painful, isn't it? After all brussel sprouts are not even immediately appealing. You'd have to start thinking about something as unpleasant as nutritional value before you'd even start to see any positive value in those brussel sprouts. And how can you even compare that to something as glorious and satisfying as being king of the Universe!? ...except being king of the Universe isn't really what was placed in the other hand, was it? And there eventually comes a time when everyone needs to start considering nutritional value.

As we all hunger at a deeply subconscious level to dedicate our lives to some cause greater than ourselves, we find religion standing before us with open hands, ready and anxious to receive our services. I don't believe it is the promise of a glorious afterlife that appeals so strongly to most people. I think that may sound immediately appealing to our initial responses, but ultimtely I think the religion appeals to a much deeper hunger. It is the opportunity to devote ourselves entirely to another cause that speaks to or subconscious minds. And what cause could be more worthwhile than one that we are told is absolutely supreme and perfect in every way?

But the highest priority in religion is to pursue one's own eternal salvation. My relationship with God. My afterlife. My eternal salvation. My purpose.

Ironically, while overtly promising meaning and purpose, false religions feed people an egocentric objective to dedicate themselves to. But if there is no self, an egocentric purpose dies with it. So an egocentric purpose depends on having an unnatural extension of life. Have you ever suggested to a believer that life may end at death? They will rarely even contemplate the possibility. They need their lives to continue. They need their beliefs to be true. Otherwise, the meaning of their lives is destroyed!

It is very hard to show believers there can be any meaning at all without their religions being true. Often, they will even turn this reasoning around, saying: I hunger for meaning and purpose, therefore my beliefs must be true.

It is an addictive idea to live for a reward in a supposed afterlife. The longer a person does it, the more the idea of being wrong will require that person to consider having wasted his or her life sustaining a fraud. The longer a person does it, the less important this life becomes, except as a means to secure an eternal future. So the only people really worth maintaining long-term relationships with are those who will also be there too. Even if only subconsciously, believers begin to adjust their relationships to reinforce their beliefs. And this further traps them in having to continue believing. If they lose faith, they will also lose their relationships that actually do give them a sense of meaning.

Good depends on truth

In nature, an obvious hierarchy of impact can be observed:

  • The reason the activities of a protein matters is because it impacts the function of an organelle.
  • The reason the role of an organelle matters is because it impacts the life of a cell.
  • The reason the life of a cell matters is because it impacts the function of an organ.
  • The reason the role of an organ matters is because it impacts the life of an individual.
  • The reason the life of an individual matters is because it impacts a family.
  • The reason the role of a family matters is because it impacts a community.
  • The reason the life of a community matters is because it impacts a society.
  • The reason society matters is because it impacts the global population.
  • ...and when we finally achieve inter-stellar space travel, perhaps we will start building a galactic society.

Egocentric religions attempt to cut this hierarchy off at the level of the individual, and replace everything above it with their superstitions. They effectively say, "The individual is as high as this hierarchy goes. Any higher meaning depends on our proprietary formula for eternal salvation."

Is that really a problem? Well, that depends: Is there really an afterlife as promised? A lot of religions are fond of claiming that they do a lot of good, even if their promises are not actually true. But the "good" they do is to lead people to live for the Church instead of for society. They may see no harm in this, but the life of society is not theirs to take.

A cancerous cell may not understand the harm it may cause by pursuing its selfish agenda. It does not understand that the person whose life it changes has a career. It does not understand that this career supports a family. It does not understand that this family has children whose lives depend heavily on their parents. The cell is not in a position to understand the meaning of a life at a higher level in the hierarchy. Likewise, religions are not in a position to understand the damage they cause to society.

They love to say they give people meaning and purpose. They love to say they give people reasons to be moral. But they deprive society of finding valid reasons to be moral--reasons that do not depend on superstitions or false hope. And they have no concept of the consequences of their actions. By giving people a false sense of meaning and purpose, they deprive them of the real thing. It is not possible for a religion to be good unless it is also true.