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This question of meaning is a particularly important one, because one of the most common ways that religious believers justify their belief is by saying it gives their lives meaning and purpose. In fact, even people who aren’t particularly religious themselves will often give credence to this argument, saying that although the doctrines themselves might not actually be true, we should still encourage religious belief because it can make people’s lives feel more meaningful and fulfilling.
But just because something gives you a sense of purpose doesn’t mean that it’s automatically a good thing. After all, jihadists clearly find a powerful sense of purpose in their doctrine of holy war, but that doesn’t mean their zealotry should be encouraged. The Inquisition priests who tortured heretics to death derived an intense feeling of purpose from their doctrines, but that doesn’t mean that those doctrines were any good either. The mere fact that their beliefs gave them a sense of purpose didn’t mean that they were automatically virtuous.
Still though, what about the less extreme, more personal kinds of religious belief, which ostensibly affect no one but the believers themselves, and which provide them with a deep sense of enrichment? Surely that kind of faith is a purely good thing, right? But even there, just because something gives you a sense of purpose doesn’t mean that your life is necessarily better because of it – especially if that purpose is based on false premises. Just imagine, for instance, someone who mistakenly believed that they had to press a big red button, every hour on the hour, for the rest of their life, in order to prevent the world from ending. This person might feel like what they were doing was extremely meaningful – in fact, they’d surely consider it to be the most important thing in the world – but if the button wasn’t actually doing anything, and if the task of constantly having to press it was causing them to miss out on life’s greatest joys (finding love, spending time with their family, doing actually valuable work, etc.), would we consider their life to have been genuinely well-lived? Or would we consider it a tragic waste? Would we envy their sense of purpose, or would we pity them for having stressed themselves out so much over something that didn’t matter?
Religion can be the same way. It’s true that it can give you a sense of meaning and purpose – but the purpose it provides is often bogus; it can cause unhealthy preoccupations and unnecessary stresses, and it can lead you to waste precious hours (and days, and years) of your life pursuing things that don’t actually matter in the end. Sapolsky mentions one example from Hinduism which is disturbingly similar to the button-pressing example above:
The observant Hindu is expected to recite the Gayatri mantra 2,400,000 times in his lifetime. [To put this in perspective, if reciting the mantra only took 5-10 seconds, and you spent 8 hours a day doing nothing else, it would still take you a good 2-3 years to reach the 2,400,000 mark.] It is common for aging gentlemen, perhaps feeling the shadows lengthening and lacking the fortitude for repetition, to hire a Brahman to finish their homework for them, reciting the remaining mantras. Or for those in a hurry, one may hire 24 or, for the truly wealthy, 240 Brahmans to do all 2,400,000 mantras nonstop in one major blowout numerologyfest.
Likewise, observant Muslims are expected to engage in ritual ablution and recite Salat prayers five times a day – which, if we sum that to about an hour per day, amounts to about 30,000 total hours over the course of a lifetime – the equivalent of working a full-time job (8 hours a day) for a full decade.
Granted, these rituals might feel deeply meaningful to the people who follow them as part of their faith. I’m sure many believers find them therapeutic as well. But do you think they’d choose to spend their time in the same way if they knew for a fact that their religion wasn’t actually true? Are these practices really that rewarding in themselves? The conspicuous lack of nonbelievers who spend their time doing them would seem to suggest otherwise.
On that same note, there are also billions of Christians who give up every Sunday morning of their lives to their religion – and a fair portion who devote their entire lives to it. These believers undoubtedly derive a lot of meaning from their religion. But the whole reason why it feels so meaningful to them is because they genuinely think it’s true. If it weren’t true, then they’d no more want to devote their lives to it than they’d want to devote their lives to pushing a pointless red button. Should we really encourage them to keep devoting their lives to it, then, if we don’t actually think it’s true ourselves? Should we keep encouraging people to spend their lives doing the equivalent of pressing a pointless red button, just so they can feel like they have a purpose?
After all, as much as people can derive meaning from their faith, it comes at a very real cost: By devoting so much of their lives to their religion, believers are depriving themselves of other genuinely valuable life experiences. The most devoted believers of all, like monks and nuns, sacrifice the only chance they’ll ever have to fall in love, start a family, pursue a career, and so on; they’re basically giving up their whole lives. But even the more casual believers – the kind who ostensibly only give up the occasional Sunday morning to their religion – can suffer from their beliefs in less direct ways, which, rather than making their lives more meaningful, can deprive them of meaning. When you believe that an eternal afterlife of perfect happiness awaits you after you die, for instance, it can make it feel like what happens here in your earthly life is comparatively inconsequential. When the central source of meaning in your life comes not from your life itself, but from a place that you’ll only ever reach after you die, then it reduces this earthly life to a mere waiting room – just a place to prepare for what’s to come. True, believing that you’re going to spend eternity in Heaven can provide some consolation when circumstances get hard and your life isn’t working out the way you want. But for the same reason, it can also make you more complacent about trying to make the most of this life; if you think you’re going to be eternally happy in Heaven anyway, then you might not be as motivated to make your earthly life as happy as possible while you still can. Why focus your attention on this momentary blip before the real show? Heaven is what really matters, right? Well, if Heaven were real, then this approach to life might make sense; but if not, then all it would really be doing was causing you to value your precious time on Earth – the only time you’ve got – less than you should.
Having said all this, of course, I can understand why a lifelong believer might find the alternative even harder to swallow. If we humans really weren’t created with this plan in mind – if our purpose in this life isn’t to come to know God here on Earth, so that we can serve him for all eternity in Heaven after we die – then what is the point of it all? Is our existence just completely meaningless? If nothing we do matters in the grand scheme of things, then why even do anything in the first place?
But I think that framing the question in this way creates a false dichotomy. There’s this idea that unless our lives are meaningful in some eternal, cosmic sense, they can’t have any meaning at all. But that just isn’t true. As Green points out, “In the grand scheme of things, maybe nothing will matter. But we don’t live in the grand scheme of things; we live here, in the day to day.” And here in the day to day, we can find meaning in our lives in all kinds of ways: We can appreciate the beauty of nature, we can love our friends and family, we can enjoy great art and music, we can help the needy, we can pursue knowledge and discovery, and so on. These are all things which are deeply meaningful, and which matter immensely. They might not matter on a cosmic scale, but why do they have to? They matter to us.
Is there one grand universal purpose to all of it? Were we all created for one specific reason? Probably not. But again, as Irwin Edman puts it, “The discovery that the universe has no purpose need not prevent a human being from having one.” You can choose your own purpose in life. You can decide what you think is most important, and have that be what gives you your sense of meaning. Just because God didn’t preordain some particular purpose for life doesn’t mean that there is no purpose to life. On the contrary, as Hank Green puts it, “There is a purpose to life, but it is decided upon by the things that are doing the living. And that doesn’t make it less real.”
Barker explains it in a slightly different way, but the spirit of what he’s saying is the same:
“If there is no hope of eternal life, then what is the purpose of life?” is a question we atheists often hear. My response is that there is indeed no purpose of life. There is purpose in life. If there were a purpose of life, then that would cheapen life. It would make us tools or slaves of someone else’s purpose. Like a hammer that hangs on the garage wall waiting for someone to build something, if we humans were designed for a purpose then we would be subservient in the universe. Our value would not be in ourselves. It would exist in our submission to the will of the toolmaker. That is slavery to a master, or infant dependency on a father figure. Besides, if there is a god, what is the purpose of his life? If he doesn’t need a purpose, why do we? Doesn’t a father need to have had a father? A true father does not want the child to remain forever subservient, finding purpose in pleasing the will of the parent. A true father expects the child to become a peer, with its own purpose, even if it disagrees with the parent. If I raise a child who is eternally dependent on me for meaning, then I am an inept parent.
There is no purpose of life. Life is its own reward. But as long as there are problems to solve, there will be purpose in life. When there is hunger to lessen, illness to cure, pain to minimize, inequality to eradicate, oppression to resist, knowledge to gain and beauty to create, there is meaning in life. A college student once asked Carl Sagan: “What meaning is left, if everything I’ve been taught since I was a child turns out to be untrue?” Carl looked at him and said, “Do something meaningful.”
(I’ve also heard this phrased succinctly as “The meaning of life is to live a life that’s meaningful.”)
The reason why our lives have meaning is not because they matter in some infinite cosmic sense, but because they matter to us here in this moment. The reason why life is precious is not because it lasts forever, but because our experiences are precious in themselves. Our ability to find meaning in life isn’t predicated on our lives lasting eternally; every instant is meaningful in its own right. Here’s Harris on the subject:
Of course, having said all this, there actually is one sense in which you might consider our lives – and everything we do during our lifetimes – to be eternally significant. Time itself, as it turns out, is actually a dimension, in the same sense that height, width, and depth are dimensions – and as such, it’s inextricably bound together with those three special dimensions in a single universal fabric called spacetime. Accordingly, it’s possible to think of the entire history of the universe as one big, unchanging, four-dimensional “block” of spacetime, in which every moment of the universe’s history exists side-by-side on the same timeline. In this conception of the universe, moments in time don’t just appear and then pass away into oblivion; future moments are “already there” even though we haven’t reached them yet, and past moments are “still there” even though we’ve left them – just as locations are still there even after we leave them. Every moment in the universe’s history is permanently embedded in the fabric of spacetime, in the same sense that every moment of a song is embedded in the surface of a vinyl record. And when you think about our lives in that sense, it’s not hard to imagine how everything we do really is significant in a timeless way. Commenter moridinamael explains:
Timeless physics helped solve my issues with meaninglessness in a “pointless” cosmos. Yeah, in the far future, the universe will be a flat smear of cold hydrogen. But if you think of the universe as a timeless object, then “past” and “future” and “now” cease to have objective meaning. The moment when you lost some sleep to help talk a friend through a rough time? That moment is permanently embedded in the universe. It will always be there, right where you left it. It will always have happened – nothing can take it from you. So what if the moment passes out of living memory? You did a good thing; you had a moment of connection; you mattered in that moment. It’s preserved in the causal history of the universal wavefunction, which is a more indelible substrate than diamond.
Contrary to the idea, then, that nothing we do matters because time will ultimately sweep it all away, this model of the universe says that everything we do matters, because it’s all a part of that universal wavefunction. Time doesn’t sweep our actions away into oblivion; it preserves them in eternity. Even after we die, everything we’ve done during our lives will remain a part of that universal block of spacetime that makes up all of existence. And so in that sense, the impact of our lives isn’t just a meaningless, transient blip at all; it’s a small but undeniably necessary part of existence itself – and our universe wouldn’t be the same without it.