My friend Gleb Tsipursky wrote this guest post about a secular approach to finding a sense of purpose in life.
We need God for a sense of purpose in life, at least according to the vast majority of mainstream perspectives in American society. Moreover, research confirms that people with a strong religious belief generally have a stronger sense of meaning and purpose than those who do not. But is it really necessary to believe in God to have a purpose-driven life? Based on my research on meaning and purpose, and my experience in helping people find life purpose in my role as President of Intentional Insights, I will illustrate some science-based strategies that we as reason-oriented people can use to find a deep sense of life meaning without a God.
In a way, the American mainstream opinion is not surprising – after all, religious dogma generally gives clear answers to the question of life’s purpose. Moreover, it provides the main venue for exploring questions of meaning and purpose in life. According to faith-based perspectives, the meaning and purpose of life is to be found only in God. An example of a prominent recent religious thinker is Karl Barth, one of the most important Protestant thinkers of modern times. In his The Epistle to the Romans (1933), he calls modern people’s attention to God in Christ, where the true meaning and purpose of life must be found. Another example is The Purpose Driven Life (2002), a popular book written by Rick Warren, a Christian mega church leader.
But some thinkers disagree with the notion that religion is the only way to find meaning and purpose in life. Jean-Paul Sartre, in his Existentialism and Human Emotions, advances the notions of “existentialism,” the philosophical perspective that all meaning and purpose originates from the individual. The challenge for modern individuals, according to Sartre, is to face all the consequences of the discovery of the absence of God. He argues that people must learn to create for themselves meaning and purpose.
Another prominent thinker is Greg Epstein. In his Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, he advocates striving for dignity as a means of finding “meaning to life beyond God.” According to Epstein, “we are not wicked, debased, helpless creatures waiting for a heavenly king or queen to bless us with strength, wisdom, and love. We have the potential for strength, wisdom, and love inside ourselves. But by ourselves we are not enough. We need to reach out beyond ourselves – to the world that surrounds us and sustains us, and most especially to other people. This is dignity” (93).
Likewise, Sam Harris, in his book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (2014), states that “Separating spirituality from religion is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. It is to assert two important truths simultaneously: Our world is riven by dangerous religious doctrines that all educated people should condemn, and yet there is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit” (6).
Are they correct? Can we have meaning and purpose, which fall within the sphere that Harris refers to as spirituality and Epstein terms dignity, without belonging to a faith-based community?
In fact, research shows that we can gain a sense of meaning and purpose in life from a variety of sources. The classic research on meaning and purpose comes from Victor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist who lived through the concentration camps of the Holocaust. He described how those who had a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives were most likely to survive and thrive in the camps. He conducted research demonstrating this both during and after his concentration camp experience. His research suggests the crucial thing for individuals surviving and thriving is to develop a personal sense of individual purpose and confidence in a collective purpose for society itself, what he terms the “will-to-meaning and purpose.” Frankl himself worked to help people find meaning and purpose in their lives. He did so by helping prisoners in concentration camps, and later patients in his private practice as a psychiatrist, to remember their joys, sorrows, sacrifices, and blessings, thereby bringing to mind the meaning and purposefulness of their lives as already lived. According to Frankl, meaning and purpose can be found in any situation within which people find themselves. He emphasizes the existential meaning and purposefulness of suffering and tragedy in life as testimonies to human courage and dignity, as exemplified both in the concentration camps and beyond. Frankl argues that not only is life charged with meaning and purpose, but this meaning and purpose implies responsibility, namely the responsibility upon oneself to discover meaning and purpose, both as an individual and as a member of a larger social collective (Frankl).
Frankl’s approach to psychotherapy came to be called logotherapy, and forms part of a broader therapeutic practice known as existential psychotherapy. This philosophically-informed therapy stems from the notion that internal tensions and conflicts stem from one’s confrontation with the challenges of the nature of life itself, and relate back to the notions brought up by Sartre and other existentialist philosophers. These challenges, according to Irvin Yalom in his Existential Psychotherapy, include: facing the reality and the responsibility of our freedom; dealing with the inevitability of death; the stress of individual isolation; finally, the difficulty of finding meaning in life (Yalom). These four issues correlate to what existential therapy holds as the four key dimensions of human existence, the physical, social, personal and spiritual realms, based on extensive psychological research and therapy practice (Cooper; Mathers).
So where does this leave us? Religion is only one among many ways of developing a personal sense of life meaning. One intentional approach to gaining life meaning and purpose involves occasionally stopping and thinking about our lives and experiences: we can find an individual sense of life purpose and meaning through the lives we already lead. A great way to do so is through journaling, which has a variety of benefits beyond helping us gain a richer sense of life purpose – it can also help us deal with stress, process sorrows, experience personal growth, learn more effectively, and gain positive emotions through expressing gratitude.
Here are some specific prompts to use in journaling about meaning and purpose in life, as informed by Frankl’s research and logotherapy practice:
- What were important recent events in your life?
- Which of them involved stresses and adversity, and how can you reframe them to have a better perspective on these events?
- What did you learn from these events?
- What are you grateful for in your life recently?
- What was your experience of life meaning and purpose recently?
Try journaling about these topics for a week, and see what kind of benefit you get, what kind of challenges you run into, and what you learned about how this journaling can be adopted to your own particular preferences and needs.
There are a wide variety of additional strategies to gain meaning and purpose in life without belief in a deity. To help you learn and practice additional strategies, I developed and videotaped a workshop freely available online. I also created a free online course, which combines an engaging narrative style, academic research, and stories from people’s everyday lives with exercises to help you discover your own sense of life purpose and meaning from a science-based, humanist-informed perspective. I am also writing a workbook on this topic These are part of our broader offerings at Intentional Insights, which aims to help us as reason-oriented people use scientific evidence to live better lives and achieve our goals. I hope you can find our offerings helpful for your life, and am eager to hear any feedback you have to share about your experience!
Gleb Tsipursky, PhD, Co-Founder and President at Intentional Insights. Intentional Insights is a new nonprofit that provides research-based content for reason-oriented people to help us improve our thinking, feeling, and behavior patterns and reach our goals. Get in touch with him to learn more: gleb[at]intentionalinsights.org