Can Life Have Meaning Without God?

Is this a reason why religion will always beat science?

Posted Sep 24, 2015

Wikipedia (public domain)
The Ancient of Days (William Blake)
Source: Wikipedia (public domain)

Organized religion has traditionally been a crucial source of community for people, and strong communities can provide great benefits for individuals and society. But what about people who aren’t religious believers, and who instead understand the world from a naturalistic (as opposed to supernaturalistic) perspective—are the benefits of community simply closed off to them? Or could naturalistic, secular communities (founded on, for example, humanistic philosophy) provide the same sorts of benefits that have traditionally been provided by organized religion? In a previous post I suggested that naturalistic, quasi-religious communities indeed could—and should—step up to fulfil the cultural role that has historically been fulfilled by supernatural religions.

Since writing that post I’ve been thinking more about how possible it would really be for naturalistic communities to fulfil the role of supernatural religions. In the West, a few naturalistic quasi-religious movements have had some recent success in this regard (for example Humanism and the Sunday Assembly), but none have achieved anywhere near the levels of popularity that traditional religions have historically enjoyed. As a result, as a source of community and sociocultural influence, naturalistic communities have always constituted only a weak force compared to traditional, supernatural religion.

How have traditional religions (which I’ll refer to collectively as “supernaturalism”) been able to achieve this great advantage over naturalistic quasi-religious ideologies (“naturalism”)? There’s not one simple reason, but an important part of the explanation is that supernaturalism has been superior to naturalism at providing followers with a transcendent meaning of life. (By "transcendent" I mean imparted by some force or process that exists above and beyond humanity itself). That is, supernaturalism furnishes followers with the belief that the purpose of their existence has been determined by some seemingly intentional, extra-human force. Typically this force is described as a god or gods who have some plan for you and for the world, and expectations and desires about what your role in their plan should be. For many followers of supernaturalism, this belief in the purpose of life is a source of enormous comfort and confidence. It makes their lives seem ultimately less pointless and more profound, and makes human striving seem significantly less impotent and more worthwhile. Without their faith in this higher purpose, life for many people would be as summed up in the famous words of Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

In contrast to supernaturalism, naturalism has demonstrated less power to rescue people from the depressing conclusions of Macbeth. When followers of naturalism (such as scientists and humanists) face the question of whether life has transcendent meaning, they typically answer “no, at least not any that humans can discern, but life can still be meaningful, because people can subjectively create meaning in their own lives.” For example:

  • In his book the Happiness Hypothesis, psychologist Jonathan Haidt says that “I don’t believe there is an inspiring answer to the question, 'What is the purpose of life?' Yet by drawing on ancient wisdom and modern science, we can find compelling answers to the question of purpose within life.” He goes on to explain that we can find purpose within our own lives by achieving good relationships with other people, with our work, and with the groups to which we belong.
  • The science writer Lawrence Rifkin demonstrates a religious-like reverence and appreciation for the natural world. However, in this article he argues that evolution cannot infuse life with any definitive meaning, and that we must instead construct this meaning ourselves: “So is… having genes survive through the generations the meaning of life? The answer is yes—from an evolutionary gene's eye view… But from almost every other perspective—individual, group, moral, environmental, or concern for life as a whole—the answer to the question is no. Meaning from these perspectives—from life as it is actually experienced—is up to us.”
  • Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain of Harvard University, expressed similar sentiments when I interviewed him recently for Meaning of Life TV. He feels strongly that life’s meaning is not something that was given to humans by something non-human. Instead, people can jointly and inter-subjectively create meaning in their lives (this discussion begins at 15:51 in this video of our conversation).

My main purpose here is not to disagree with these perspectives. On the contrary,  I largely agree with them. I certainly think that Haidt, Rifkin and Epstein are expressing views that are—intellectually and scientifically—reasonable, responsible, and defensible. On the other hand, I also hope that communities founded on naturalistic philosophies will be able to thrive and achieve more influence in the world, and I wonder if they'll be hampered in this regard by an inability to compete with traditional religion when it comes to infusing life with transcendent meaning.

If naturalistic ideology could provide transcendent meaning, what would this meaning actually look like? I address that issue in this previous post, in which I suggest (as others have before me) that such meaning could potentially arise from evolution on a cosmological scale. Biological evolution creates organismal traits that are well-crafted and functional enough to present an illusion of intelligent design, and cosmological evolution could in theory work in an analogous way. If so, then life could have some function (that is, some meaning or purpose) bestowed not by an intelligent designer but by processes of cosmological evolution.

The question of whether life could be a functional product of cosmological evolution is a massive one that won't be resolved any time soon. Regardless of whether such evolution (or some other natural process) turns out to be a legitimate source of transcendent meaning, I think that on the issue of whether life could actually possess this meaning, our minds should remain critical but open. There may be more meaning to life than only that which we subjectively construct. Efforts to promote naturalistic community would benefit from regarding existential meaning as something that is not off-limits to responsible scientific inquiry, but that is in principle discoverable. Transcendent meaning may or may not exist, and our only way to find out will be via scientific means.

What do you think? Should naturalistic philosophies at least attempt to provide a transcendent meaning of life, or are they better off without even trying? Are traditional religions advantaged over naturalistic philosophies by virtue of their claim to provide such meaning, and if so, is this an advantage that they will always maintain?

Copyright Michael E. Price 2015. All rights reserved.