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God and the Meaning of Life (2014)

Ryan Stringer

Is there any relationship between God and the meaning of life? Is God needed for life to be meaningful? Can the meaning of life be found in God? Would God's existence have any implications for the meaning of life? This essay examines these questions and closely related issues.

1. The Meaning of "The Meaning of Life"

When asking about the meaning of life, it is crucial to be clear on exactly what is meant by "the meaning of life" because different senses of the phrase will lead to different conclusions. As far as I know, there are two radically different senses of "the meaning of life." Many of the people who ask "What is the meaning of life?" want to know about the purpose or point of life (as if there is one). Thus "the meaning of life" sometimes means "the purpose or point of life." Other questions about the meaning of life are not after a cosmic purpose or point of life. Rather, they seek the key to having a meaningful life—that is, a life that is particularly valuable, worthwhile, or fulfilling. So the locution "the meaning of life" sometimes means something like "that which makes life particularly valuable, worthwhile, or fulfilling."[1]

Armed with these two different senses of "the meaning of life," we can now examine the questions above along with the closely related issues.

2. Is God Needed for Life to Be Meaningful?

This question can be interpreted in multiple ways. Using the first sense of "the meaning of life," the question could be asking:

(Q1) Does a cosmic purpose for human life require God's existence?

Using the second sense of "the meaning of life," the question could be asking either of the following:

(Q2) Does having a particularly valuable, worthwhile, or fulfilling life require God's existence?
(Q3) Does having a particularly valuable, worthwhile, or fulfilling life require the belief in God's existence?

Let's begin with Q1. Anyone that favors an affirmative answer to this question is making an invalid inference that believers make all too often. And this is to think that if there is a metaphysical role that needs to be filled, then it can only—and therefore must—be filled by God. Those who answer the first question in the affirmative are thinking in exactly these terms—that if human life has a cosmic purpose, then it must be due to God. But the invalidity of this inference can be recognized with just a little imagination: other supernatural beings could be responsible for creating humans for some cosmic purpose. Thus the answer to Q1 is: No, a cosmic purpose for human life does not require God's existence. Of course, a cosmic purpose for human existence does require the existence of some supernatural being or beings that created us with a cosmic purpose. So even though life need not be "meaningless" in the sense of lacking a cosmic purpose in the absence of God, life would indeed be meaningless in this sense if there were nothing supernatural at all—that is, if naturalism were true. Consequently, those of us that reject the existence of all supernatural beings must be committed to the meaninglessness of life in the limited sense of life lacking a cosmic purpose or point.[2]

That life must be meaningless in this limited sense for naturalists may seem like an unwelcome conclusion, but it turns out to be innocuous. For even if life is meaningless in this larger but unimportant sense, it is not necessarily meaningless in the other, important sense—the lack of cosmic purpose to life in no way entails that life cannot be particularly valuable, worthwhile, or fulfilling. Those who think otherwise adhere to the mistaken notion that a life that is particularly valuable, worthwhile, or fulfilling must be one that is lived in accordance with a cosmic purpose that we were created to fulfill. And though it is probably true that a particularly valuable, worthwhile, or fulfilling life must have purpose in it, this purpose need not be a cosmic one that is imposed on us from the outside by a supernatural being. Instead, we can—and do—give purpose to our own lives. In fact, I cannot help but think that having purpose imposed on us from the outside is detrimental to having a meaningful life in the second, important sense. While some people may need such an imposition in order to avoid the responsibility of self-imposing their own purposes, I imagine that most of us, as free and autonomous beings, will need to impose our own purposes on ourselves to have a meaningful life in the second, important sense. We therefore should not think of life being "meaningless" in the sense of life lacking a cosmic purpose as an unpalatable consequence of naturalism.

This brings us to Q2, which, like Q1, many believers will answer in the affirmative. However, it is not clear why life being meaningful in the second, important sense requires the existence of God. What is the connection here? It cannot be that (1) we need purpose to have a meaningful life in this sense and (2) we need God to give us this purpose; for as we just saw, this second claim is false because we can self-impose our own purpose. Perhaps the root idea here is that if our lives end in nothingness, they cannot really be meaningful. This implies that a meaningful life must be one that does not end in nothingness. And a theistic worldview, unlike a naturalistic one, can ensure that life does not end in nothingness—the end of earthly life is merely a transition to immortal life in another realm. We therefore need God, so the thinking goes, to ensure that life does not end in nothingness, which in turn allows our lives to be meaningful.

Once again, those who buy this line of thinking are guilty of a lack of imagination: God is not the only supernatural being that can ensure that life does not end in nothingness—there are several other possible supernatural beings that could do so. Thus the answer to Q2 is: No, life's meaningfulness in the second, important sense does not require God's existence. Of course, it might require the existence of some sort of supernatural being, which, if true, would imply that life is indeed meaningless in the second sense on a naturalistic worldview. And because this consequence, if true, would constitute a significant psychological barrier to adopting naturalism and, more importantly, would falsify it since many people do have meaningful lives, we need to show it false by making room for meaningful lives in a naturalistic world. But how do we go about doing this?

The intuitions suggesting a connection between meaningful lives and supernaturalism are very powerful and seductive. For if—as naturalism implies—our lives end in nothingness, then aren't our lives for nothing? Isn't everything we do, whether for ourselves or others, for nothing? If so, then how can our lives be meaningful? On the surface, it does look like naturalism's implication that we cease to exist at death dooms life to meaninglessness in the second, important sense. But a little reflection shows that this is simply not true.

First, we need to examine what might be meant by saying that our lives and everything that we do is "for nothing," since this is purportedly what makes life doomed to meaninglessness in a naturalistic world. In one sense, our personal extinction does make our lives "for nothing" because there is nothing external to them that we can point to and say "our lives are for that." However, this does not doom life in a naturalistic world to meaninglessness because the meaning of life need not be found in something external to life itself. For instance, some people might believe that Heaven infuses life with meaning since it makes life "for something"—namely, a means to the end of living eternally in Heaven. On this view, the meaning of (earthly) life is found in something external to it. But this just pushes the issue one step back: what then makes the external something (in this case, Heaven) meaningful? In order to infuse earthly life with meaning, Heavenly existence must be meaningful, too. And yet, unlike the meaning of earthly existence, the meaning of Heavenly existence must be intrinsic to that existence because such existence is "for nothing" in the same way that earthly life in a naturalistic world is for nothing. (Something along similar lines will be true of anything external to earthly life that is ultimately responsible for its meaning.) Now if Heaven, or anything else, can be intrinsically meaningful—and something must be so if life is to have meaning at all—then life in a naturalistic world could also be intrinsically meaningful. So even though life in a naturalistic world is for nothing in the sense of it being for nothing external to life, this does not doom such life to meaninglessness because, like Heavenly existence, it can be intrinsically meaningful.

Furthermore, life in a naturalistic world can be intrinsically meaningful even though it is not eternal like Heavenly existence. First of all, there are many things that we find meaningful even though they only last for a finite period of time. For instance, I used to work at a mental health center, and though the job was not as fulfilling as academia, it was still meaningful for me even though it lasted for only about three years. In the summer of 2011 I taught an introductory logic class at Michigan State University, and it was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life even though it lasted less than two months. Now if these temporally finite things can be intrinsically meaningful, then why can't temporally finite lives be intrinsically meaningful as well? I see no reason to think that they cannot be while numerous other temporally finite things can be.

Moreover, if temporally finite lives cannot be intrinsically meaningful—which implies that intrinsically meaningful lives must be eternal—then eternality must make at least some contribution to a life's meaningfulness. However, it is difficult to see how eternality would make such a contribution.[3] For if something temporally finite is not already intrinsically meaningful, then how would extending it for an eternity make it meaningful? My first job as an entry-level employee at Taco Bell, which was far from a meaningful experience, would not have become meaningful had I stayed there indefinitely. Similarly, failed romantic relationships do not become meaningful by persisting forever. Such examples show that eternality per se cannot make a meaningless, temporally finite thing meaningful. Put another way, if a temporally finite thing is meaningless, then it remains meaningless even if it lasts forever. But this implies that if something eternal (such as Heavenly existence) is meaningful, then that same something in temporally finite form would also have to be meaningful. It would therefore be mistaken to allow for meaningful eternal lives without allowing for meaningful finite ones. Meaningful lives can be either temporally eternal or finite; so life in a naturalistic world can be intrinsically meaningful even though it is temporally finite.

In addition to the sense already discussed, there is another sense in which our lives in a naturalistic world are not "for nothing" even if they end in nothingness. Since we dedicate the majority of our mortal lives to important causes, projects, our own and others' well-being, and so on, our lives are lived for such things and thus are not for nothing. So even if lives that are truly for nothing are indeed meaningless, life in a naturalistic world is not doomed to meaninglessness because such life need not be for nothing. Furthermore, the fact that everyone's life ends in nothingness in a naturalistic world does not imply that everything we do, whether for ourselves or for others, is for nothing. This idea probably stems from the thought that the actions that we perform for ourselves and others must ultimately amount to nothing—and thus are for nothing—because the people that they affect ultimately amount to nothing in the sense of ceasing to exist. But it simply does not follow that our actions for ourselves and others are for nothing just because we all ultimately amount to nothing in this sense. Our actions need not contribute to an eternal existence to be for something; they are still for something by contributing to finite existences. So even though our lives do end in nothingness in a naturalistic world, the actions that we perform for ourselves or others are still for something—they will improve the quality of finite lives. Therefore, our actions should not be thought of as for nothing and thus doomed to meaninglessness.

However, one may still question whether our actions can be meaningful in a naturalistic world even if they are for something. Specifically, one may worry that our actions are for something that will end in nothingness and thus still ultimately amount to nothing, bringing their potential to be meaningful into question. But a little reflection will show this worry to be unfounded. Consider a personal example. On April 15, 2011, one of my cats, Bubbles, died from a fatal disease. My spouse and I did what we could to save him—we even drove him from Ann Arbor to East Lansing so that he could receive the best possible health care at Michigan State University. We also did what we could to provide comfort and general care for him during the remaining days of his short life. And before the disease took over, he lived one of the best possible lives that a cat can live: he had plenty of good food, fresh water, comfortable lodging, fun toys, health insurance, and all the physical affection he could want. Overall, he was loved and treated like he was our child. (In fact, this is exactly how we thought—and still think—of him.) But even though Bubbles' life ended in nothingness, it does not seem like what I did for him ultimately amounted to nothing. I played a crucial and substantial role in shaping his entire life—I largely ensured that he had a really great cat life instead of any of the many inferior lives that he could have had. That certainly seems to amount to something. And even if everything that I did for him "ultimately amounted to nothing" (whatever this means), everything that I did for him is still very meaningful for me. My efforts to save him, even if futile, were undertaken as part of my role as one of his caregivers—a role that has given a lot of meaning to my life. The fact that his life ended in nothingness does not take anything at all away from the meaning of what I did for him.

Consider another example. When my grandfather, James Stringer, was dying in the hospital years ago, I stayed with him one night and cared for him as best as I could. I talked with him when he was conscious, used tissue to catch the mucus that he would cough up, and did whatever else I could to help him. For the last few years of his life, when he was in better health, I would go and visit him when I could. We would spend time together smoking cigars, drinking beer, and having good conversation (my grandfather was a very intelligent, science-loving atheist). At Christmas we would drive around to look at the lights and decorations. These things that I did with and for my grandfather are meaningful despite the fact that his life ended in nothingness. My caring for him in the hospital, for instance, is intrinsically meaningful because it attempted to contribute positively to the quality of his life while it lasted—the fact that his life ended in nothingness, and thus that my caring for him may have ultimately amounted to nothing, does not annihilate the meaningfulness of my actions. This is true of all meaningful actions that we perform out of care or love for others: they are intrinsically meaningful because they attempt to contribute positively to the quality of others' lives while those lives last. We can extrapolate this to some of the things that we do for ourselves as well. Teaching and producing philosophy, for instance, are intrinsically meaningful for me since they contribute positively to the quality of my life while it lasts—that my life will end in nothingness one day does not alter the meaning that these activities have for me. Overall, then, our actions can be meaningful in a naturalistic world even if such actions are attempts to improve the quality of lives that will end in nothingness.

Besides the worries related to nothingness, one might worry that life is doomed to meaninglessness in the second sense in a naturalistic world because human life looks insignificant in the grand scheme of things." While our lives might seem long to us, they are miniscule on a geological time scale and are next to nothing from the perspective of eternity. And compared against the rest of humanity during one's brief lifespan (not to mention how we compare against the total number of humans who have ever lived), each of our lives makes up just a tiny part of the very large whole. In the grand scheme of things, our lives are, as the song "Dust in the Wind" by rock band Kansas says, only drops of water in an endless sea. So how can they be meaningful?

As natural as this worry may be, it evaporates upon reflection. Its central problem is that it takes how things look "in the grand scheme of things" to be an accurate indicator of life's meaningfulness, which is completely misguided. Why would the appearance of life from the perspective of "the grand scheme of things" be an accurate indication of its meaningfulness? This is like thinking that the earth's appearance from the moon is an accurate indication of the earth's size. In both cases the measurement is taking place from the wrong vantage point. When it comes to meaning in life, it does not matter how significant life looks "in the grand scheme of things"—that life looks insignificant from this perspective is itself completely insignificant when it comes to its meaningfulness. To see life from this perspective is merely to see it as a very small thing in relation to a much larger whole of which it is a part—this is how the judgment of insignificance here must be understood. But this in no way indicates that our lives cannot be meaningful. On the contrary, our lives can be particularly valuable, worthwhile, or fulfilling regardless of how insignificant they are "in the grand scheme of things." For our lives being this way is a function of what we do or have in our lives and how these things affect us, which is not influenced by how significant our lives are "in the grand scheme of things." Consequently, our lives are in no way doomed to meaninglessness in a naturalistic world simply because they look insignificant "in the grand scheme of things."

There is yet another way in which one might worry that life is doomed to meaninglessness in a naturalistic world.[4] In a naturalistic world, we come into existence from nothingness, live our lives, and then go back into nothingness when we die. But after we have died, it will be as if we never existed. And if it will inevitably be as if we never existed at some point in the future in a naturalistic world, then how can our lives be meaningful?

However natural this worry may be, it too evaporates upon reflection. For it is based on the idea that one day it will be "as if" we never existed. But look carefully at what is really going on with this idea: one day it will be as if we never existed even though it will not be true that we never existed. This is true of "as if" claims in general: whatever follows the "as if" part of the claim is usually, if not always, false. In fact, such claims betray something that is deceptive—things look a certain way when they really are not that way. And this—a deceptive appearance—is precisely what lies at the bottom of this worry about our lives being doomed to meaninglessness in a naturalistic world. But why should this deception bother us? Why would a deception doom our lives to meaninglessness in a naturalistic world?

The fact of the matter is that the prospect of a meaningful life is in no way threatened by it being as if one never existed once one is dead. Billions of people who died centuries ago are not remembered today, and while it may be as if they never existed as far as we are concerned, that fact has no effect on whether or not they had meaningful lives. It simply does not matter how things seem to us, or what is happening now. What instead matters is what went on during those lives. Just as it is absurd to measure the intensity of love after the partners have split, or the brightness of a star after it has burned out, it is absurd to measure the meaning of a life by what things are like outside of that life. So even if it will one day be as if we never existed, this does not doom our lives to meaninglessness because it does not affect the actual content of our lives, which is what matters when it comes to whether or not our lives are meaningful.

Finally we come to Q3, and many believers will think that a meaningful life does indeed require belief in God. But those who think so ignore, dismiss, or are simply ignorant of the evidence to the contrary: many people that do not believe in God—whether they adhere to a religion without God or are thoroughgoing naturalists—live particularly valuable, worthwhile, or fulfilling lives. Of course, some believers will dismiss this evidence by saying that anyone who does not believe in God may think that he or she is living a meaningful life, but cannot really lead such a life. But this dismissiveness is both ridiculous and self-serving. It reflects a desperate attempt to protect and promote a blind, deeply ingrained belief that a life with God is the only viable option against the strongest kind of evidence to the contrary. Some people may need to believe in God to have a meaningful life, but it is utter claptrap to claim that this is true of everyone.

Of course, not all believers will dismiss the possibility of meaningful lives without belief in God in this ridiculous, self-serving way. Some will think that life can be meaningful without the specific belief in God because other religious beliefs can likewise help make a life meaningful. And yet, these people will still doubt the possibility of a meaningful life in the absence of religious belief entirely, as these lives are just too foreign and lack what is considered to be the most important part of life. To see the error here, however, one need only reflect upon the common elements of life that are meaningful and yet not inherently religious—friends, family, love, pets, good careers, hobbies and recreational activities, personal projects, learning, noble causes, helping others, being a good person in general, notable achievements and experiences, and so on. It should then be evident that a nonreligious life, which can certainly contain a healthy amount of these elements, can also be meaningful, and thus that a meaningful life does not require religious belief.

Not only is it mistaken to think that a meaningful life requires belief in God, it is mysterious how one might think otherwise, as it is not clear how such belief would function as a necessary component of a meaningful life. What exactly is this belief supposed to be doing here? One possibility is that the belief in God is bound up with the belief in eternal life, which could be regarded as a necessary component of a meaningful life. But no matter what belief in eternal life is supposed to be doing here, it is, like the belief in God itself, not necessary for a meaningful life. There are plenty of naturalists that have a particularly valuable, worthwhile, or fulfilling life without believing in eternal life.

Another possibility is that belief in God is bound up with the belief that our lives are no accident, and perhaps this is significant enough for people that they believe that their lives would be meaningless if this were not true. But even if being part of some plan is itself significant, what does this have to do with having a meaningful life? Again, the meaning of a life (in the second sense) is determined by the content of that life, which is not in any way a function of whether or not that life was intended. One's life can be unintended and still contain a sufficient amount of the meaningful elements noted above, and its unplanned origin has no adverse effect on the meaning-conferring power of these meaningful elements. It might be intrinsically important that one's life was planned instead of being an accident, but this is irrelevant to the meaningfulness of a life.

One last possibility here is that belief in God is required to find meaning in theistic activities, which in turn are required to have a meaningful life. But even though belief in God is required for theistic activities to be meaningful, it is patently false that such activities are necessary components of a meaningful life; many people that do not participate in theistic activities have meaningful lives. Perhaps some people need to participate in theistic activities to have a meaningful life, but it is again utter claptrap to suppose that this is true of all people.

3. Can the Meaning of Life Be Found in God?

As before, this question can be interpreted in different ways due to the different senses of "the meaning of life." Using our first sense of "the meaning of life," the question can be posed as:

(Q4) If there is a cosmic purpose to human life, could this be found in God?

But if we are dealing with our second sense of "the meaning of life," then the question becomes:

(Q5) Can a particularly valuable, worthwhile, or fulfilling life be found in God-oriented things?

Let's begin with Q4. On one understanding our answer to this question depends on our answer to the question of whether God exists. For if there is a cosmic purpose to human life but God does not exist, then this purpose cannot be found in God—obviously it must be found in some other supernatural being or beings. But if human life has a cosmic purpose and God does exist, then this purpose must be found in God—since he is the creator of human beings, there is simply no other place to look for their cosmic purpose. So, if we answer that God does not exist, then the answer to Q4 will be "No"; and if we answer that God does exist, then the answer to Q4 will be "Yes." On another understanding, however, our answer to Q4 depends on our answer to the question of whether God could exist. If God could not possibly exist, then the assumed cosmic purpose of human life could not possibly be found in him—it must be found elsewhere. But if God could exist, then the assumed cosmic purpose of human life could be found in him. So if we maintain that it is impossible for God to exist (which of course implies that he does not exist), then our answer to Q4 will be "No," whereas if we maintain that it is possible for God to exist, then our answer to Q4 will be "Yes."

Since the answer to Q4 depends on whether God does exist or on whether he could exist—substantial philosophical issues well beyond the scope of this paper—I will not defend any answers here. However, I will provide my answers. Since I believe that God does not exist, my answer to Q4, on the first understanding, is: No, the assumed cosmic purpose of human life could not be found in God. On the second understanding, my answer is: Maybe, but probably not. On the one hand, it seems intuitively plausible that God could exist. On the other hand, there are reasons for doubting the coherence of the concept of God. For example, God is conceived of as a person that exists outside of space and time. But how is such a person possible? Persons perform actions, and yet this seems to require both space and time. For when a person performs an action, it seems that the person and his or her action must exist somewhere in space, and that the action must occur for a certain duration or length of time.

As another (and perhaps better) example, consider that God is, necessarily, a metaphysically free, morally perfect agent. As a metaphysically free agent, it must be the case that no matter what God actually does, he always could do otherwise. And, as a morally free agent, he chooses between right and wrong. But even though he always does what is morally right (since he is morally perfect), he always could do what is morally wrong (since he is metaphysically and morally free). However, God's performing a morally wrong act would amount to undoing his nature as a morally perfect being, for doing something morally wrong would make him morally imperfect. But it is logically impossible to undo God's nature as a morally perfect being, so God simply could not do this. He therefore could not do what is morally wrong in virtue of his moral perfection. This obviously contradicts the earlier consequence that God could do what is morally wrong. Thus the very concept of God as a metaphysically free, morally perfect agent is incoherent, and so God could not possibly exist. Of course, these and other challenges to the coherence of the concept of God might all be overcome, so perhaps God could exist after all, and thus perhaps the purported cosmic purpose of human life could be found in him. Personally, I find this highly improbable given the strength of at least some of the challenges to the coherence of the concept of God—especially the second challenge explained above. Consequently, my answer to Q4 on the second understanding is "Maybe, but probably not."

Now we come to Q5, which is more interesting to me than Q4 in the present context. As explained above, the answers to Q4 depend on answers to questions that have nothing to do with the meaning of life, so answering them requires that we change the subject. While that subject is interesting in its own right, it does not tell us anything interesting about the relation between God and the meaning of life. For once we have an answer to whether God does or could exist, the answer to Q4 trivially follows. Q5, on the other hand, asks the more interesting question of whether certain things—God-oriented things—really do live up to the value that some people attribute to them. Let us proceed to answer this question.

The first thing to notice is the modesty of the question (when interpreted correctly). It only asks if a meaningful life can be found in God-oriented things, which is the same as asking if participation in God-oriented things could be sufficient for having a meaningful life. It does not ask whether participation in God-oriented things is necessary for a meaningful life, which would be easily answered in the negative by pointing to nonbelievers that have meaningful lives even though they do not participate in God-oriented things. (Of course, God-oriented things are probably necessary for some people to have meaningful lives.) Moreover, it does not ask if everyone can find a meaningful life in God-oriented things, which would likewise be easily answered in the negative by pointing to nonbelievers who could not possibly find meaning in activities that cannot be sincerely embraced. Q5 is only asking whether someone could find a meaningful life in God-oriented things, such as knowing God, worshipping or glorifying him, loving him, or serving him. I would also include going to Heaven, the central appeal of which is to live in the direct presence of God. Can anyone find a meaningful life in such things?

This question is not whether such things can be meaningful, or can contribute to a meaningful life; they obviously can and do for many religious people. Rather, the question is whether God-oriented things can be enough for anyone to have a meaningful life. And my answer is: No, they cannot be. To see why, let's start by looking at the things that are the most strictly God-oriented: knowing God, worshipping/glorifying him, and loving him. For one thing, all people—religious or not—will probably at least need human or nonhuman animal friends to have a meaningful life. People are so deeply and inherently social that it is hard to fathom a meaningful life without friendship. Even monks and nuns—the most promising examples of those with potentially meaningful lives almost exclusively focused on strictly God-oriented things—live in the social settings of monasteries and convents. And surely they must make friends with their peers in order to have a meaningful life. In addition, people probably need to make a positive difference in the lives of other people or of nonhuman animals. For even if monks and nuns did not need friends, they would probably need to feel like they were helping others—solely worshipping, loving, and "knowing" God would not suffice to make their lives meaningful.

In addition to friendship and helping others, most people will probably need even more things apart from strictly God-oriented things to have meaningful lives. Things like romantic partnerships, families, personal projects, and recreation or hobbies come to mind. Some people will need even more: good careers, learning about nonreligious topics, fighting for noble causes that are not religious in nature, being a good person in general, and so on. Again, this is not to say that strictly God-oriented things are not a necessary component of a meaningful life for certain people—indeed, I think that some people do need these things to have meaningful lives.[5] My point is only that such things are probably not enough for people to have a meaningful life. They will probably need at least some of the things that make life meaningful for nonbelievers: friends, family, romantic partnerships, pets, good careers, recreation and hobbies, nonreligious projects, nonreligious learning, nonreligious noble causes, helping others, being a good person in general, nonreligious achievements and experiences, and so on.

Next we have to consider the God-oriented thing "serving God." Whether a meaningful life can be found in this depends on how broadly one construes the serving of God. If "serving God" is construed broadly enough to include everything mentioned in the previous paragraph, then a meaningful life can certainly be found in serving God. However, such a broad conception of "serving God" is much too liberal. Serving God can certainly include worshipping, loving, and knowing him. It can also include religion-infused things that are not necessarily religious in nature. For example, charity and fighting for noble causes can be done in either a religious or nonreligious fashion, and doing these in a religious fashion could be what makes them meaningful for certain people. And serving God will of course encompass meaningful careers that are religious in nature, like being a church leader or working for a religious organization. But no matter how wide we can legitimately cast the net of serving God, it does not seem legitimate to cast it so wide as to include everything from the previous paragraph. Having friends and a family, for instance, do not appear to be examples of serving God. After all, even strong atheists with antireligious tendencies like me[6] have friends and family, and yet to think that someone like me is serving God in any capacity is utterly ridiculous. On the other hand, it could be maintained that having a family is for some people a religious activity that can be construed as serving God. God wants us to "be fruitful and multiply"; so reproducing can be a form of serving God. Raising one's children in a certain religious tradition can obviously be a form of serving God. But there is more involved in certain people having a family than having children and raising them in a religious tradition. As such, having a family per se is not a form of serving God.

Even if having a family could somehow be an example of serving God, simply having friends certainly could not. And there are many more of such examples. Romantic partnerships, which are the highest and most special kind of friendship, are not instances of serving God. Engaging in hobbies and other recreational activities, at least for the most part, are not instances of serving God. The same is true of nonreligious projects and nonreligious learning. But since none of these things can legitimately be said to constitute "serving God," and since all people will probably at least need friendship to have a meaningful life (most of them will need more than friendship), the meaning of life cannot be found in serving God. It may be an important and necessary component for certain people to have a meaningful life—it may even be, if cast wide enough, the most important and most necessary component. However, it will not be enough; there will be more to the story.

But what about striving for Heaven? Is this not a God-oriented thing that can make life meaningful all by itself? I imagine that an affirmative answer is a fairly common belief among religious believers—or at least among those that are striving for Heaven themselves. But such striving cannot, just on its own, make life meaningful. For even if, like other God-oriented things, it contributes to a meaningful life and is a necessary component of such a life for a handful of religious people, it is still not enough to make their lives meaningful by itself. And this is because it amounts to striving for one's own place in Heaven, which makes it an inherently selfish activity. And though selfish activities are probably important components of a meaningful life, it is doubtful that anyone could find a meaningful life solely in selfish activities. Instead, people will need a hefty amount of unselfishness in their lives, whether it comes in the form of friendship, family, romantic partnerships, noble causes, helping others, or being a good person in general. Thus a meaningful life cannot be found in striving for Heaven.

And it will do no good to protest that striving for Heaven is not an inherently selfish activity because it involves paradigmatically unselfish acts, such as doing charitable things and helping others. For even if striving for Heaven does involve such acts, these acts cannot be truly unselfish if they are done for the sake of going to Heaven. In order for them to be truly unselfish, they must be done for the sake of others, not for the sake of our own benefit. But if one is striving for Heaven in his or her actions, then one is acting for the sake of going to Heaven and not for the sake of others, so such actions cannot be unselfish. It is therefore incoherent to suppose that striving for Heaven involves truly unselfish acts.[7]

Overall, then, a meaningful life probably cannot be found in striving for Heaven or any other God-oriented activity. Such things may be necessary and important components of a meaningful life for some individuals, but they are not likely to be sufficient—there will probably always be more to the story.

4. Would God's Existence Have Any Implications for the Meaning of Life?

In order to determine whether the existence of God has any implications for the meaning of life, it will be helpful to formulate and examine questions pertaining to specific purported implications. For example, we could incorporate the first sense of "the meaning of life" and ask:

(Q6) Would God's existence imply that human life has a cosmic purpose?

We could also incorporate the second sense of "the meaning of life" and ask:

(Q7) Would God's existence imply that a particularly valuable, worthwhile, or fulfilling life is found in him?

Let's start with Q6. On the one hand, it does seem like the answer to this question is a definite "Yes": since God is a person and persons create things for purposes, human life must have been created for a purpose. And that God created humans for a purpose is surely a common belief among the religious populace. So there is a good case for an affirmative answer here (and this is not anything that naturalists need to be worried about). However, an affirmative answer may not be accurate. For even though persons do create things for purposes, it is not true that everything that they create must be for some purpose. Artistic creation readily comes to mind here: an artist may create a work of art for no purpose at all in the sense that it is not created to serve some function outside of itself—it was created, in other words, for its own sake. So it is possible that God's existence does not imply that human life has a cosmic purpose because humans could be artistically created by God.[8]

Finally we come to Q7, which I think is the more interesting and important of the two. While Q6 is strictly a metaphysical question whose answer in itself does not matter to how we should live our lives, the answer to Q7 does matter to it. As before, many believers will probably be inclined to answer Q7 in the affirmative. For instance, some people might think that God's existence implies that (a) human life has a cosmic purpose, (b) this purpose must be God-oriented, and (c) a meaningful life in the second sense is to be found only and completely in fulfilling this purpose. If these were valid implications of God's existence, then his existence would indeed imply that a meaningful life in the second sense is found in him. But even if God's existence implies (a)—which, as we saw in the previous paragraph, can be questioned—it is doubtful that God's existence implies (b). And it definitely does not imply (c). First of all, there is no good reason to think that God would be so self-serving as to create humans whose cosmic purpose was geared towards him. I know that many religious traditions paint God as an unbelievably vain being that needs constant praise, attention, and glory (whatever that means), but these are not the needs of a perfectly good being. I have even heard some people say things like "it is all about God," as if a perfectly good God would intend for things to be this way. Moreover, if God is a completely self-sufficient being, then he does not need us in any way. So why would he make our purpose geared towards him?

One might respond by claiming that God gears our purpose toward him for our benefit, not his, because it is beneficial for us to be oriented toward God. Consequently, God is not actually being self-serving by creating humans with a cosmic purpose geared towards him, but is instead being benevolent towards us. Far from being in tension with his perfect goodness, then, God's creating humans whose cosmic purpose is geared towards him is a benevolent expression of that goodness. Unfortunately, this clever response does not quite dissolve the tension between God's perfect goodness and his gearing our purpose towards him. For even if were true that it is beneficial for us to be oriented towards God, we must remember that, on this picture, it is God that would be responsible for this in the first place. On this picture, God chose to make humans in such a way that they benefit from being oriented towards him. He could have made them another way, but he did not do so. And this certainly looks like self-serving behavior instead of benevolence.

In any event, it should be evident from this discussion that God's existence, even if it implies that humans have a cosmic purpose, does not seem to imply that this purpose is God-oriented. For surely God would not need to create us with a God-oriented purpose. Even if he would, as a perfectly good being, need to gear our purpose towards our own benefit, he surely could have made us to benefit from things other than orienting ourselves towards him, which would then allow him to gear our purpose towards things other than himself.

Suppose, however, that God's existence does imply both that human life has a cosmic purpose and that this purpose is God-oriented. Even so, God's existence would not imply that a meaningful life in the second sense is to be found only and completely in fulfilling our God-oriented purpose. For starters, God is not, as already mentioned, the unbelievably vain being that many religious believers make him out to be. If he were, then it would indeed make sense for him to create creatures that would get meaning only and completely through him. But since he is a perfectly good being, such vanity cannot be grounds for thinking that he would create humans to gain meaning only and completely through him. Furthermore, and more importantly, humans are very complex, multidimensional, autonomous beings. As such, it would make no sense to intend for such beings to gain meaning only and completely through a single purpose that is imposed on them from the outside. But it would make sense for God to intend for humans to get meaning from a variety of sources, many of which are self-imposed.

Overall, then, an affirmative answer to Q7 cannot be accepted on the basis of thinking that God's existence implies (a), (b), and (c).

What's more, one cannot accept an affirmative answer to Q7 without thereby affirming the truth of atheism. How so? Since meaningful lives (in the second sense) are at best rarely, but probably never, found exclusively in God-oriented things, and are sometimes found solely in nonreligious sources, it is false that a meaningful life per se is found in God. But that a meaningful life per se is found in God is the consequent of an affirmative answer to Q7, and so this answer, conjoined with the fact that a meaningful life per se is not found in God, entails the falsity of the answer's antecedent—i.e., the nonexistence of God. Consequently, if it is plausible to think that God's existence is indeed compatible with these facts about meaningful lives (in the second sense), then it is plausible to reject an affirmative answer to Q7.

5. God's Existence and the Pursuit of a Meaningful Life

There is a final question that I should briefly address. Does God's existence really matter when it comes to pursuing a meaningful life (in the second, important sense)? I think it depends on what kind of a person you are. For some people, a meaningful life can be found completely in nontheistic sources, and this holds independently of whether God exists. So these people can pursue a meaningful life without worrying about whether God exists. For other people, a meaningful life must include God, but even for these people it is technically true that God's actual existence does not matter when it comes to the meaningfulness of their lives. All that really matters is that they sincerely believe in God. For as long as they have this belief and it remains solid, their theistic sources of meaning will continue to provide meaning regardless of whether the belief is actually true. So they, too, can pursue a meaningful life—one with both nonreligious and religious sources of meaning—without needing to worry about whether God really exists. Of course, such people might—and should—be haunted by the possibility of God's nonexistence, which would, if they came to accept it, destroy their religious sources of meaning. As such, those of us that do not need God for meaning in life are pro tanto (that is, to a certain extent) better off than those who do, for we do not need to worry about whether one of our most important sources of meaning rests on a shoddy foundation. So when it comes to pursuing a meaningful life, there is an advantage in being God-free.

Notes

[1] A. J. Ayer distinguishes between these two different meanings of "the meaning of life" in "The Meaning of Life" in Life and Death ed. Jonathan Westphal and Carl Levenson (Indianapolis, IA: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993): 117-126.

[2] This conclusion might appear to reflect a lack of imagination. For it could be argued that other natural beings—such as extremely intelligent extraterrestrials—could be responsible for creating humans with a cosmic purpose. In that case life could have a cosmic purpose even if there were no supernatural beings whatsoever, and so naturalists would not have to be committed to the meaninglessness of life in the requisite sense. But I will not treat this possibility as a live option, for it is not a scientifically informed option that naturalists seriously entertain, and it does not seem to mesh well with a scientific understanding of life and the cosmos at large.

[3] I owe this point to Fred Rauscher.

[4] Thanks to Keith Augustine for pointing out the need to address this worry.

[5] At the same time I think that many people mistakenly think that they need God-oriented things in their lives for their lives to be meaningful. I do not have any personal examples, but I would be willing to wager that plenty of nonbelievers that used to be believers could verify this.

[6] My antireligious tendencies are towards religious beliefs, activities, and institutions, not religious people. Some of the most important people in my life are religious, and I have no negative attitudes towards them or anyone else based solely on the fact that they are religious.

[7] The idea that one cannot strive for Heaven by doing unselfish acts is perfectly consistent with the idea that one must perform a decent number of truly unselfish acts to be deserving of Heaven. Put differently, it is perfectly consistent to maintain that one must not strive for Heaven in order to be deserving of it (just as it is consistent to maintain that one must not strive for honor in order to be truly honorable).

[8] This possibility is derived from Moritz Schlick's "On the Meaning of Life" in Life and Death ed. Jonathan Westphal and Carl Levenson (Indianapolis, IA: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993): 127-145.


Copyright ©2014 Ryan Stringer. The electronic version is copyright ©2014 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Ryan Stringer. All rights reserved.

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