Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Life, the Universe and, (uy) Everything. Part 1

What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? What is our purpose?

These issues, particularly for those with religious backgrounds, are hardly a casual esoteric college campus discussion. Our answers to these fundamental questions gives us the basic clarity to make decisions in our lives.

What career should we pursue? Should we build a family? What are our criteria for success in life? How do we guide our priorities and make the myriad of choices which define our lives?

No one would want to go to sleep at night with a secure understanding of why they are here on earth and what their goals are, and wake up in the morning with no idea at all. But that is the problem facing those who can no longer believe in the theism of their past.

Two of the popular bloggers in the ‘skeptical’ Jewish blog world are currently struggling with this very conundrum. Both of these writers have significant doubts about the dogmatic structure of Orthodox Judaism. Both remain observant. And, both struggle to formulate a grand meaning in their religious practice, belief and lives.

I admire both of these persons. They are honest, intelligent and filled with integrity. They deal fairly with the issues about which they write, and they speak and explore from their own hearts.

Orthoprax, who has constructed an elegant re-statement of the entire observant Jewish proposition, writes the following (excerpted from a recent comment):

“People need purpose in their lives. Modern society is full of people who invest all their energies into their jobs or other short-sighted ambitions, but is that all not pointless toil? So many artificial constructs are made in human society to shield people from the truth that they don't know what this, meaning human existence, is all for - if it is, in fact, for anything.The point of life then is to search for the point of life. That is the search for God. What else can you possibly compare to that imperative? “

The compelling but elusive Godol Hador, (the Harry Houdini of OJ blogging) with all of his skepticism of Jewish theological dogma, has (at least for the moment) rested his case on ‘meaning’:

“If one could sum up the fundamental message of Judaism, I think ‘meaning’ would be a good choice. We see meaning in the Universe, meaning in History, meaning in our lives and meaning in every ritual and piece of text that we have in our tradition. The outside world suffers from a serious lack of meaning. Of course there are religious folks who simply go through the motions, and of course there are strong atheists who spend their lives performing charity. But these are the exceptions to the rule, not the rule.”

[I will note that the use of ‘meaning’ as compelling justification for observance of Jewish law is coupled, at least for these two bloggers, with the presumption of the morality of that law. But that is the subject of a different post.]

Orthoprax and Godol Hador have both gotten stuck in the ‘meaning of life’ vortex. These writers have many differences, particularly regarding their level of theistic certainty, but to both of them, religious belief and practice is equated with meaning, while non-belief and non-practice is equated with the absence of meaning.

Why are these two highly intelligent people bottlenecked at the same question? Why is it so hard to recover your ‘meaning’, your ‘purpose’, after shifting from the theistic model of life?

Believers do not have a corner on the market for seeking and understanding life purpose. Our drive to understand our reality is one of the great universal characteristics of mankind. But theists and atheists come at this question from such opposite experience points that it is often impossible for each of them to value the answers which the other postulate.

And former believers face a special problem: They are phrasing the question in theistic terms, yet looking for answers in humanistic ones. They have (unknowingly) disqualified all of the answers available to them even as they look for those answers. In religious systems, life purpose is linked inextricably with God and the divine goals of creation. In these systems, the broad answer is often not at issue – it is to serve God’s purpose – the only question which remains is how to best discern His purpose and how we can best serve it.

Believers seek answers which are inherently extrinsic. They must originate from a source outside of our individual selves. Either they must be God given or, at least, they must hold universal truths which have validity for humanity.

A recurring theme in the believing world is that the absence of purpose is equated with hedonism and nihilism. They are imbuing their own inability to find meaning in the world without the crutch of a deity upon others. I can hardly blame them, it took years of religious training to reinforce these ideas. But those ‘others’ do not need God to reach a meaningful life.

Non-believers seek internal answers. They look within the individual for the aspects of life which hold meaning and purpose. That meaning is vastly different for each person. And it is the accomplishment of each individual’s life purpose which enables that person to truly give to others, and to benefit mankind as a whole.

To be continued.

15 Comments:

Blogger anonymous said...

the ex religious i know mostly don't find meaning -- and not because they don't *understand* the point you make, but because it simply doesn't stack up for them to the kind of meaning that theistic system offers.

"A recurring theme in the believing world is that the absence of purpose is equated with hedonism and nihilism."

You don't have to make this equation to simply say the experience of meaning is different, and less compelling at least for many people.

June 14, 2006 3:52 AM  
Blogger The Jewish Freak said...

On of my struggles (or my biggest inconsistancy) is that I believe that the ultimate level that a human can reach is to help other humans. This is a strong belief that I hold for which I have no logical proof. Great post btw, it really made me think.

June 14, 2006 10:10 AM  
Blogger dbs said...

anonymous,

the ex religious i know mostly don't find meaning -- and not because they don't *understand* the point you make, but because it simply doesn't stack up for them to the kind of meaning that theistic system offers.

It is, in fact, a difficult transition. If you were raised to believe that a certain thing is the most important goal in life (whatever that may be; making money, looking beautiful, going to med school, etc.) it is very hard to make the emotional shift to prioritizing other things. You can cognitively understand that something does not represent your priorities – that is the easier part of the process - building the emotional acuity is far slower.

This is the point of my post. If you were brought up atheistically, you have the tools to find great meaning in life without jumping through hoops. If you were brought up religiously and remain so, then you’re not going to have a problem (at least with this). But if you change from theism to atheism, then you will have to deal with it.

Most theists do not understand (not just don’t agree with – but really don’t get) the atheistic approach to life purpose, and they often misunderstand it as lack of purpose or ‘lesser’ purpose.

Atheists from birth also miscontrue theistic meaning. They look at the religious experience as being artificial and not able to deliver the genuine depth of life purpose which they can experiance.

As for your ex religious friends, perhaps you just don’t interpret what they feel as ‘purpose’, or perhaps they are still suffering from their theistic emotional context. Give them time.

June 14, 2006 10:25 AM  
Blogger Big-S Skeptic said...

Finding meaning is a huge challenge, one that I've struggled with repeatedly. But I'm not sure that it breaks down on religious lines. I think there are probably a lot of religious people who find themselves wondering "what's the point?" And there are probably a lot of secular people who are not really bothered by such questions. I think maybe there is a type of individual -- a type personality -- that tends to be really bothered by these questions. Such a person may or may not be religious. Belief in God doesn't really relieve such questions, for the person who is predisposed to ask them.

June 14, 2006 2:35 PM  
Blogger anonymous said...

"Most theists do not understand (not just don’t agree with – but really don’t get) the atheistic approach to life purpose, and they often misunderstand it as lack of purpose or ‘lesser’ purpose."

Some of them get it and think it doesn't compare. You really seem to miss the point.

"Atheists from birth also miscontrue theistic meaning. They look at the religious experience as being artificial and not able to deliver the genuine depth of life purpose which they can experiance."

Some do, lots don't. It's nowhere near as pervasive. Don't confuse looking down on accomplishments driven by ideology with misunderstanding that the people involved feel purpose.

"As for your ex religious friends, perhaps you just don’t interpret what they feel as ‘purpose’, or perhaps they are still suffering from their theistic emotional context. Give them time."

Don't assume that everyone will have your experience. Maybe you didn't feel that much purpose as a religious person. I know people who've been irreligious for 30 plus years who think the sense of purpose is not the same after abandoning religion. They are not all unhappy, by any means! Actually I know people who were irreligious for fifty years, happy,, productive, and happy for their kids to become baalei teshuva for this reason. A person can be happier not on drugs than on drugs, but that doesn't mean the high from running is exactly the same as from on drugs, you know.

June 14, 2006 4:24 PM  
Blogger anonymous said...

"I think there are probably a lot of religious people who find themselves wondering "what's the point?""

The group of people who are happy post-religion is not random.

June 14, 2006 4:26 PM  
Blogger Big-S Skeptic said...

Not sure I get your point, anonymous.

June 14, 2006 7:13 PM  
Blogger dbs said...

Freak,

Well, I wish that there were more people as 'inconsistant' as you.

June 15, 2006 9:55 AM  
Blogger dbs said...

Big,

Yes, I agree. I'm painting the issue with broad strokes. Or, in my own defence, I'm focusing on the religious component of the syndrom. But I certainly agree that there are many other things at play which affect how we relate to life meaning.

June 15, 2006 9:57 AM  
Blogger dbs said...

anonymous,

No, I do understand the point that the 'meaning' experiance is very different for theists. I am certainly not suggesting that it is the same. And you're right, some people resonate better with the theistic formula. And I'm sure that you're right that some people who no longer believe feel that the answers provided by religioun are more satisfying than humanistic ones.

June 15, 2006 10:08 AM  
Blogger lightseeker said...

Our drive to understand our reality is one of the great universal characteristics of mankind. But theists and atheists come at this question from such opposite experience points that it is often impossible for each of them to value the answers which the other postulate.

I couldn’t agree more. For most people who have been raised in non fundamentalist households, searching for the unknowable answers to the basic questions of why we are here and what is our life purpose really is just an interesting intellectual pursuit and do not provide enough substance to base life decisions on. The more meaningful questions center around establishing and staying true to core values. How do I want to live my life, which beliefs do I privilege, what is meaningful to me at this particular stage in my life: be it self, family, community, saving the earth or cultivating spirituality, meaning is derived from living.

Just as religious people can find meaning “… in History, meaning in our lives and meaning in every ritual and piece of text that we have in our tradition, …” non-religious people can also derive meaning from all aspects of their lives. The difference is that the fundamentalist privileges only one type of meaning:“… the search for God…” and although lip service is given to God being unknowable, a very narrow view of God or at least God’s interaction with mankind is held as the supreme value. Whereas non-fundamentalists have the freedom to hold up different constructs for meaning, such as love (and here I refer to the Buddhist view of loving kindness or Metta, NOT to pleasure-based love), or awareness of self and the universe, or promoting the elevation of mankind. I for one, would find it unsatisfactory at best to derive meaning from living by a proscribed rule book in which the fundamental organic human truths available by living with an open heart and mind are ignored in favor of an indoctrinated path that requires blinders at every turn.

June 15, 2006 6:32 PM  
Blogger Just me said...

DBS: Great post. I'm reading a very interesting book at the moment that attempts to tackle head-on the theme of the post. It's called:
"Respecting the Wicked Child: A Philosophy of Secular Jewish Identity and Education," by Mitchell Silver.

I'm currently reading the chapter dealing with the meaning/definition of "spirituality" from a secular point of view. Quite thought-provoking.

June 16, 2006 1:35 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

I've also read "Respecting the Wicked Child". For someone who chooses to be secular, and yet is looking for a structured framework for identifying as a Jew, it is a very good book.

June 18, 2006 12:14 AM  
Blogger Orthoprax said...

DBS,

"Non-believers seek internal answers. They look within the individual for the aspects of life which hold meaning and purpose. That meaning is vastly different for each person. And it is the accomplishment of each individual’s life purpose which enables that person to truly give to others, and to benefit mankind as a whole."

Can you tell me then what would be wrong with a person choosing his meaning in life to be, say, watching television all day? Or one's purpose in life is to have sex with as many women as possible? In modern society that seems to be popular among the younger people - or at least that's as far as the media presents it.

You seem to define a "good purpose" as that which gives to others or benefits mankind. On what justification do you make that assertion?

I suspect you are making the same type of extrinsic value judgements that you criticize theists (and post-theists) of doing.

See, I've been there on the other side of things. I've even given the arguments that life's meaning is self-discovered and self-contained, but I now find them unfulfilling. It's not that atheists can find meaning so much easier, it's just generally that they don't think on the same scales that people like I do. They don't think about the question in the way I do.

They may say that they live for X, but they aren't willing to see, or to recognize, that X is an artifical construct not really worthy of living for in itself. I am victim of it myself, but at least I'm trying to root it all to something more, well, meaningful.

June 18, 2006 2:50 PM  
Blogger dbs said...

just, ek,

Thanks, I'll look it up. (hmm, or maybe a fathers day present for my dad.)

June 18, 2006 2:51 PM  

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