How Can You Have Meaning Without… ?

Oddly, this is something about religion that I’m not furious about.

It’s the “How can you experience any meaning to your life without God?” trope. And yes, okay, it bugs me. It bugs me a lot. It’s a patronizing, clueless, irritating thing to say.

But I don’t think it’s limited to religion. It’s an extremely irritating blind spot — but I also think it’s an extremely human one.

I hear it from parents. Hobbyists. Political activists. Artists. Fans. “How can you experience any meaning to your life without kids? Without art? Without political involvement? Without folk dancing? Without Buffy the Vampire Slayer?”

I hear it from parents a lot. Hoo, boy, do I hear it from parents. Parents can be relentless on the subject of how all of life’s essence is distilled into their adorable little poop machines. “I didn’t fully comprehend my profound connection with humanity and the true meaning of life until I replicated my DNA.” (For the record, I like kids — I just don’t plan to have any myself, and I don’t think I need to in order to have a happy, meaningful life.)

And I suffer from it myself. I am, for instance, utterly baffled by people who can try English country or contra dancing without being overwhelmed by its glory and wanting to do it every week. I am baffled by people who can watch longsword dancing and not be blinded by its radiant beauty; not feel instantly compelled to run up to the sword team, fall on their knees, and beg to be permitted to join.

More seriously: I am completely mystified by people with no creative outlet in their lives. Not so much by people who aren’t Professional Artists — not everyone can or should be a Professional Artist, somebody has to mind the store. But people who don’t do any sort of art, even as a hobby? No dancing, no blogging, no macrame, no customizing of hot rods, no barbershop quartet — nothing? I absolutely do not get it. Writing is the Number One way that I feel connected to humanity as a whole, the Number One way that I feel myself to be part of a link in a human chain extending back into history and forward into the future. How can anyone not want that in their life?

And I am utterly bewildered by people who say they don’t want or need sex in their life. Not only am I bewildered by them — I don’t believe them. My reflex is to think that they’re fooling themselves; they’re afraid of sex, they’re afraid of the intensity or intimacy or whatever, and so they convince themselves that they don’t really need it or want it. I mean — it’s sex! It’s the best idea evolution came up with, ever! Make the animals want to replicate their DNA by building a mechanism for ecstasy and joy that gets triggered when they do it! How could you possibly not want it?

Now, none of this is very nice of me. And in my heart of hearts, I don’t really believe it. Or maybe I should say in my brain of brains. In my heart of hearts, I really am pretty mystified by people who don’t care about the things I care about. But my brain knows better. In my brain of brains, I know that people can live rich, full lives without sex, without artistic expression, without contra dancing even.

So I’m just saying: Perspective is hard. It’s hard to understand that people love broccoli when you find it so repulsive; it’s hard to understand that people hate broccoli when you find it so delicious. And when it comes to the things that are central in our lives, the things that define us and give us meaning and purpose, it’s especially hard to understand how anyone could look at them, shrug, and go, “Ehn.”

Where I think religion falls down, I think, is when it treats its bafflement as a moral imperative. It’s one thing to say, “Boy, I really do not get people who don’t like contra dancing.” It’s another to say, “People who don’t like contra dancing are wicked and sinful and will be tortured and burned forever unless they change their evil, non-contra-dancing ways.” There certainly are religious believers who think atheists are cool, who get that you don’t need religion to live a good, happy, meaningful life… but it sure seems like they’re in the minority. And I think there’s something about the “not based on any evidence whatsoever” nature of religion that makes believers unusually insistent that everyone around them share their beliefs.

But again, religion isn’t alone in this. Parents can be very guilty of this attitude. Have you ever watched a talk show featuring people who are childless by choice? It’s brutal. The level of venom, of almost violent condemnation, that parents can level at people who don’t want kids is frightening. Clearly, the tendency to lash out with righteous moral indignation at people who don’t find meaning in the things you do is not limited to religious believers.

Now, it does seriously tick me off when believers who actively troll in atheist blogs still say shit like this. I mean, you can’t spend fifteen minutes in the atheosphere without seeing people talk — passionately and at great length — about the meaning and value in their lives. Visiting atheist blogs and still asking how atheists can find meaning without God… that’s not just cluelessness or lack of perspective. That’s putting your hands over your ears and going, “I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you, la la la la la.” That’s willful ignorance. And willful ignorance has no excuse.

But in general, when religious believers say things like, “How can you have meaning in your life without God?”, I have to acknowledge that it’s not just religious stupidity. It’s human stupidity. And while it’s a form of human stupidity that definitely ticks me off, I have to acknowledge that it’s also one I share.

How Can You Have Meaning Without… ?

27 thoughts on “How Can You Have Meaning Without… ?

  1. Myk

    Yay for Contra dancing! I’ve been drumming in a Contra Dance band for several months now.
    Just found your blog. Great writing!

  2. 2

    I don’t think there are any “religious believers who think atheists are cool, who get that you don’t need religion to live a good, happy, meaningful life.”
    I suspect these sorts of religious believers tend to think (as C. S. Lewis alluded to) that soi disant atheists (at least the cool ones) really do believe in God, they just express their belief differently.

  3. 4

    I don’t see how a “god” solves the meaning problem any way. What if we discover that god’s existence has no meaning or purpose? Better yet, what if we discover that god came into existence “through chance”?
    BTW, it also irritates me when theists deny the role of chance in creating human life. When you consider all the humans who come into existence because someone failed to use contraception during sex, then it looks perverse to claim that their existence has to reflect the plan of some greater intelligence.

  4. 5

    Perspective is a hard thing to gain on issues, especially when you assume you are right about topic x. I read on Paul’s Blog (it escapes me as to which post, that assuming you are even right about 80% of what you now is an arrogant assumption.
    I think I have well formulated opinions, but I also allow those opinions to be easily adaptable. This way as new info comes along it is easy to build upon or reevaluate what I know.

  5. 6

    Wow… Nice posting.
    I’ve had similar experiences with folks who would tell me that I would become more conservative once I had kids. Like being liberal was some sort of syndrome that I would recover from once I had mouths to feed. Well I have 2 kids now, and I’m more of a flaming radical pinko atheist than I ever was before because I have kids and want a better world for them to live in!

  6. 7

    What an awesome commentary. You make a good point about how we all have a similar human weakness, depending on what we personally feel strongly about.
    If only the extremely faithful could just not condemn the rest of us for not being like them…

  7. DB

    “It’s the “How can you experience any meaning to your life without God?” trope. And yes, okay, it bugs me. It bugs me a lot. It’s a patronizing, clueless, irritating thing to say.”
    That is absolute nonsense. The derision and absurdity of your reaction to a perfectly SENSIBLE question is indefensible. Patronizing, even.

  8. 9

    Have you reached into my brain and pulled my thoughts out and then typed them here? It sure feels like it.
    I have had the same thing, “Not having religion in your life must make your life have no meaning.”
    Wrong. I feel like I have much more to live for. I don’t believe in an afterlife, therefore I want to make THIS one count.

  9. 10

    @DB – I hear what you’re saying. There could be people who honestly are asking the question with genuine curiosity and won’t just wait for you to stop talking to pelt you with bible passages to show you how, in fact, you’re quite wrong and the ONLY way to have meaning in your life is by accepting Jesus. Yes, they could exist, but they’re few and far between.
    What your article boils down to is the inability of most people to try to see things the way someone else sees them. It’s no easy task, I’ll agree, but it’s something we all have to be more mindful of.

  10. 11

    Great post! I can think of a few times when I’ve experienced this myself – most memorably when I was much younger, early teens I think, and was shocked when I went to a friend’s house and discovered they didn’t have drawing equipment on hand. What? How on earth were they supposed to draw their comic strips?

  11. 12

    In the past few years I think I found a better way to deal with this topic. I decided to stop calling myself an atheist.
    An atheist is defined by what that person does *NOT* believe in. Perhaps it is better if you state what you *DO* believe in.
    Now, let us say, to move the argument along, that you believe in the Universe, possibly the Multiverse, the Big Bang, relativity and quantum physics. Let’s say you believe in sub-atomic particles, atoms, molecules, planets, and galaxies.
    You believe in the self-organizing principle of matter as expressed in biology through DNA and evolution.
    Now, that’s saying an awful lot of things that you DO believe in. Much of which you can produce abundant evidence for.
    Next, simply take all of the things you do believe in and call it ‘God’.
    Some people claim that this is a semantic argument or somehow redefining God to mean something else.
    I really don’t think that is the case at all. The term God represents a belief system that accounts for all of creation. If your belief is that all of creation accounts for all of creation then it is perfectly reasonable to call that ‘God’.
    Most people refer to this as ‘pantheism’. I call it having a little bit of awe and respect for the Universe.
    Personally I am a Freemason. That means I belong to an organization that does not allow any atheists to join. To become a member I had to profess a belief in God. Since I do, in fact, believe in the entire known Universe I was quite comfortable in stating I believe in God/Universe/All that Is.
    My beliefs are not bizarre and strange, rather they reflect the beliefs of many ancient eastern religions of the world (some thousands of years older than Christianity). To show awe, respect, devotion, and to find meaning in the Universe (i.e. God) is a profound statement. It feels good to embrace what you do believe. It feels especially good to know that th weight of evidence rests upon your side.
    Personally I found it quite comforting that within Freemasonry we refer to God as ‘The Great Architect of the Universe’ and teach, in the 2nd degree, that the best way to ‘know’ God is through science, logic, reason, and cosmology.
    Sometimes it is easier to argue the ‘pro’ point of view rather than the ‘con’.
    John W. Ratcliff

  12. 13

    Just a note on sex – some of us can’t get it, couldn’t get it if our lives depended on it, and have tried for years to get it. Sometimes convincing oneself that sex is no big deal is what keeps us from grabbing the poison, the razorblades or the keys to the car that has the map to the Golden Gate Bridge.

  13. 14

    John W. Ratcliffe – It seems to me that that way of looking at it – taking everything you believe and giving it the label “God” – reduces the word to meaninglessness. Everyone believes in their own beliefs, so under that systems everyone believes in “God”, but the word has no content, it’s just sticking a label on a tautology. You could as easily change labels and say everyone believes in “Porky Pig” or “Bart Simpson”. It’s glossing over very real disagreements in the name of a facade of harmony — we can all agree, sure, as long as we don’t actually examine each other’s beliefs. And for all that there’s a lot of misinformation about what atheism means, saying “I believe in God, but I don’t believe in any kind of supernatural forces or supreme being or anything like that” is a lot more confusing.

  14. 15

    Greta, here’s one parent who’s NOT going to tell you you need kids to be fulfilled. I have very little tolerance for parents who make their kids the focus of their existence. And I can tell you firsthand that they can take as much from your lives as they add to it.
    (Don’t get me wrong; my kids are great and I love them both, but children are demanding little vacuum cleaners of free time. They will change your life more thoroughly than you can imagine, unless you’re willing to be a bad parent.)
    And the only thing I have to say about broccoli is: stir fry. Broccoli is the best part of a lot of Chinese dishes since it absorbs the sauce better than anything else. Mmm…faaaaty….

  15. 16

    I realize your reference to the Golden Gate was probably metaphorical or hyperbolic. But, on the off chance you (or anyone else who’s listening!) ever think seriously about jumping off it, please PLEASE do some research on it first.
    I started reading about it online one day and what I found curdles my blood (metaphorically, of course). Jumping off the GG is made out to be sort of an easy, glamorous way to go, but the reality is much harder. You hit the rocks if you don’t walk out far enough, it takes a while to fall (and time slows WAY down), some survive (and break lots of ribs from the force of the water), and others survive the fall but drown in the currents and eddies around the posts.
    Sorry to get all serious on you, folks. It’s just something that doesn’t get talked about as much as it should.

  16. 17

    #1 – Thanks again, Greta, for a thoughtful post. It’s very difficult to be honest and aware of your own prejudices. But that very awareness and honesty is crucial to being a healthy human being.
    #2 – PhillyChief had a good response to DB. The question “How can you have meaning in your life without God?” is rarely a genuine question. It’s usually a set up. The same with “How can you be a moral person if you don’t believe in God?” Being tired of baiting questions isn’t derisive or absurd. The catch here is to have the awareness of whether it’s bait or genuine. It’s awful to ask someone a question out of real curiousity and be treated as though you’re being a jerk.
    Self awareness is a human being’s greatest gift to him/her self.

  17. 18

    Meaning is a very personal thing – I’m not sure why people have to be so busy about projecting their own meaning onto others.
    I have two wonderful children. I adore them. But would my life be meaningless if I’d never had them? Of course not! It would be different, certainly, and in some ways it would actually be better. I wouldn’t ever choose to give them up, but it’s ludicrous to think that a life without kids is /necessarily/ missing something.
    Just because I think my kids are great is no reason to try to convince you (or anyone else for that matter) that life must be bereft without kids. What nonsense!
    You stick to your guns.

  18. 19

    Somehow this conversation reminds me of the time my wife said to me (a school counselor), “Rebecca, not everyone is fascinated by the emotional lives of middle schoolers!”
    No way!
    On a certain level, it hadn’t occurred to me that something I can think about and talk about for hours is someone else’s snoozefest.
    On the other hand, I don’t go around telling people that if they don’t know current trends in 7th grade fashion their lives have no meaning.

  19. 20

    Oh, blessed are those acting/thinking out of an absolute premise 😉 Because that’s the difference between contra dancing and religion: the former just doesn’t pose a rigid, absolute framework on every aspect of your life. I can imagine very well on the other hand how there could be people who’d plunge into complete existential fear without such a framework, without the certainity of an absolute – which is then of course directly threatened as a whole by every (however tiny) sign of dissent or denial.
    May I also say how glad I am your blog is out there? 😀

  20. 21

    Oh, blessed are those acting/thinking out of an absolute premise 😉 Because that’s the difference between contra dancing and religion: the former just doesn’t pose a rigid, absolute framework on every aspect of your life. I can imagine very well on the other hand how there could be people who’d plunge into complete existential fear without such a framework, without the certainity of an absolute – which is then of course directly threatened as a whole by every (however tiny) sign of dissent or denial.
    May I also say how glad I am your blog is out there? 😀

  21. 22

    I actually agree with your statement:
    “Oddly, this is something about religion that I’m not furious about”
    I am almost envious of religion in that it provides such a nice answer to such a tough question. I’d say I contemplate it a lot, our existence, when did time start for instance? None of these things I can answer. However, that is one of the things that give me purpose. There are things that I can’t explain and might possibly be explained in the future. I’m left humbled in the sheer wonder and magnitude of our existence in this universe. I can easily see why it’s a little scary to not have some concrete reason for our existence. I will admit that I am a bit scared and daunted by meaning and purpose, as well as envious of people who have such strong conviction in things like heaven. But in all seriousness do you really want an answer? I mean the consensus is god created us in his own image, but for what? What purpose was that? So we can worship him? I’m just not buying it.
    Just not plausible in the face of reality. Sorry. Believing in god would give me less purpose because it just takes away all the wonder and fun of wondering.

  22. bec

    awesome post.
    i have four kids and wouldn’t wish them (or parenthood) on anyone.
    i have always been under the impression that the reason why other parents have this sick need to tell other people that their lives are basically meaningless without becoming a parents is due to a simple adage: misery loves company.

  23. 24

    I love that incredulous look you get when you tell someone there is no God. My wife told me she would have preferred that I killed someone. I am certain that is why murderers find God as soon as they go to prison. Much easier to be forgiven for murder than for atheism. It is no wonder religion is such big business. Who wouldn’t exploit that kind of mind control.

  24. Ed

    People who are incredulous of non-believers, especially the sanctimonious ones who insist that I really do believe in God, I’m just “confused” or “lost”, remind me of people who think homosexuality is a choice. Don’t you think that I would love to believe in something that easily sums up the universe and all of existence, and provides all the answers? That would be great, but I can’t. Why? Because I have a rational mind that won’t let me ignore science and logic. Sorry, I’m not willing to throw that away just so I can sleep easier at night and not feel the need to analyze the difficult questions of life.

  25. 26

    I would say “Amen” but that would be too puntastic (even for me).
    I was raised in a semi-religious house, but became very religous in my youth; only to drop it like a hot rock when I had my religious and spiritual leaders tell me that I was sick, evil and needed to be cleansed because I dared to masterbate. I feel even more angry when I realize that I felt the need to repent the sin of masturbation to my clergy in the first place!
    Now I am a fuly grown woman with my own ideas and one of them is being my choice to embrace not being religious…and being okay with that. I mean really, really okay with that. Guilt free atheism post christianity is a hard won fight sometimes.
    Now I find rage in the faithful who tell me that when tragedy, deaths, illnesses etc, struck my life over and over again like a raging sea this last couple of years, that they would pray for me.
    Because let’s face it that is seriously about the very least you can do for a friend in need, and it’s frankly insulting.
    How about you get up off your knees, unclasp your hands and hold mine when I am puking through chemo, or grieving over the loss of yet another pregnancy, or family member. That would be far more helpful.
    I don’t need religon or god in my life to be happy, but what I do need are friends, family and a supportive community that aids, gives comfort and spreads love, joy and compassion when it is needed. Now that would make me happy…and if there is a God and I am bassackwards, then I think it would make /himher happy too!
    Just saying.

  26. 27

    Youre the perfect example of human ignorance and hubris.
    I pray that your soul can be saved and for your mind to understand how insignificant your are
    But still
    Jesus loves you
    You will always be loved

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