I’ve been reading a little about meaning in life. Psychologists tell us we need to have meaning and purpose in life for our psychological wellbeing. With a sense of meaning, we are more likely to be happy, have a positive sense of our own identity and be more resilient under stress
But what gives our lives meaning? What part does God play in this? And how do non-believers find meaning?
What gives our lives meaning?
While we all enjoy pleasure, it is a short term feeling which isn’t enough to make us satisfied with life (despite what our culture and advertising sometimes tells us). And meaning in life goes deeper than happiness, which is a more settled feeling than pleasure, but still tends to be based on the present.
Meaning is more about our whole life, past, present and future, and psychologists tell us it comes from several important factors:
- Purpose: our lives are directed towards goals or intentions.
- Significance: our lives are intelligible beyond our own selves, we have made a difference.
- Values: having a basis for knowing what is good and bad.
- Efficacy: having the ability to actually make a difference, based on our purpose and values.
- Self worth: we feel good about ourselves and what we have achieved.
Where do we find purpose, significance, values, etc?
For millennia, people found meaning (if they had time to think about it at all) primarily in religion. In some religions at least, even slaves, peasants working for an overlord, women who were treated as chattels, and other disempowered people (probably the majority down through history) could feel that their lives were a prelude to heaven, and hence meaningful.
But as larger numbers of people in the western world stopped believing in God, many felt they were left with lives without meaning. Existentialists like Jean-Paul Sarte and Albert Camus thought life was absurd and pointless. Suicide or random acts, more of desperation than kindness, became viable responses.
Fortunately, most of us are more pragmatic than these thinkers, and people mostly don’t feel the same level of despair and meaninglessness. For a while, people in western countries were able to fill the void with growing wealth, possessions and experience, but they weren’t as satisfying as the advertising told us.
Enter the psychologists
Traditionally, psychology was more focused on disorders, but a couple of decades ago positive psychology came to the fore. Positive psychology aims to help mentally healthy people to live better. And so, many psychologists have investigated meaning and can tell us what we need to do.
Their conclusions can be summarised:
- Life has no objective meaning, we have to choose our own.
- We can choose any purpose we like (including hedonism, materialism and self actualisation), and can change our minds if we choose.
- Nevertheless, to give our life meaning, our choice must give us purpose, significance, values and self worth, and we must be able to achieve our aims.
- Religion, altruism, serving others and living our lives in the service of a cause greater than ourselves are the most effective ways to have meaning in life.
God and meaning
While studies show that most people wonder about the meaning of life, many don’t follow the psychologists’ advice on what will make their lives more meaningful. Clearly many people seek money, pleasure or personal success, sometimes even to the detriment of family and health. Studies show that most people feel life has meaning for them, despite not looking in the right places, but perhaps they settle for less in life than is available to them. Perhaps they don’t think too deeply about meaning and purpose.
For those who do think more about meaning, values and purpose, it is clear that religion can help people to find meaning in life, but how important, or even necessary, is it?
Atheists find meaning
Many non-theists choose to live with strong altruistic values, and a sense of purpose according to those values. They may be highly motivated to work for a cause greater than themselves – perhaps peace, or the environment, or caring for the suffering. For some, it seems that promoting atheism and opposing superstition and religion has become a “cause”.
Some atheists report that they find great freedom in not being bound by the strictures of a religion, which they believe makes their lives more meaningful than when, or if, they were believers.
But all this raises a few interesting questions and dilemmas.
- If we make a personal choice about the values and meaning we adopt, that seems to make our search for meaning narcissistic, selfish and individualistic – and sometimes even competitive. This isn’t a helpful basis for a cooperative society.
- Choosing to pursue altruism for the sake of our own self fulfilment seems to be a contradiction. It may be “good deeds”, but it isn’t truly altruism.
- Few atheists believe there are objective ethics. If they make their choice because they adhere to some external standard, then they lose the freedom to choose their own values, but if they choose without any objective basis, then they are not being truly rational, something they would generally wish to do.
- Sometimes life, and death, destroy all our plans. Psychological studies, supported by the experiences of Viktor Frankl in a Nazi death camp, show that people with an external, objective meaning for their lives (which generally means religion) rather than a chosen, subjective sense of purpose, cope better with stress and difficulties.
- Most thoughtful atheists I have discussed this matter with choose some level of altruism anyway, not because of an objective ethic, but out of a feeling of compassion. But it seems to this onlooker that, while this feeling is worthy, it is often a leftover from the christian ethic they grew up in. I wonder whether their children will choose the same?
So choosing a purpose in life presents dilemmas for the sensitive non-believer. To their credit, many make the choice despite the dilemmas. But it doesn’t seem to me to be a totally satisfactory approach.
Christians and meaning
Meaning is an easier thing for christians, for we can easily relate christian belief to the five components of meaning identified earlier. Our purpose is to serve God and other people, which pleases him. Our significance and self worth is found in our status as his “children”, an inheritance we don’t have to struggle to earn, but rather receive by grace. We get our values from God. And God gives us the ability (efficacy) to achieve his purposes (though sadly we don’t always use it).
Of course, that is the theory. In practice, christians fall short of these ideals often. Sometimes christians, and whole churches, don’t even try. Or they get their significance and purpose in ways that are contrary to the teachings of Jesus. But if christianity is truly followed, it is communal and robust enough to survive disappointment, suffering, bereavement and death, for our purposes include the life to come.
So while christians have a readily apparent purpose and meaning in life, we too face dilemmas – of actually living in accordance with those values.
Does this tell us anything about God?
None of this is “proof” that religion is true and secularism is false. It is quite possible for the secularist to argue that we have evolved to find our meaning, purpose and values in religion, even if no religion is actually true and there is no God. There is nothing stopping them choosing to be altruistic. Some can even feel noble about persisting with such a view in the face of their emotions when things are difficult.
But one of the tests that a conclusion is true is if it “works” in the real world. So the fact that religious belief seems to provide some life advantages when it comes to meaning, purpose and a fulfilled life surely is a small piece of evidence that we may know better in our hearts than a secular worldview may lead us to think?
I’ve looked at these questions in more detail, and provided a score of references, in What is the meaning of life?