Reflections from an Existential Lens | Religion, Secularism and Life-Meaning, Part I

Derek OConnell


I have a friend of a friend who is Christian and interested in abstract theological questions. When we first met, he knew both that I was non-religious and that I know about religious arguments. Yet when I met him and the conversation finally shifted to religion, his question was not about intelligent design or first causes. It was, “How do you find life meaningful if there is no ultimate source of meaning?”

This is unsurprising. In my experience the issue of life’s meaning is central to many people who are religious, and they often think it is a, or the, fundamental challenge for the non-religious. I don’t share that view. Not only does one not need religion to solve the problem of the meaning of life; in fact, religion doesn’t solve the problem at all.

Before I turn to the source of meaning for a non-religious person, I’d like to talk about a problem for the belief that God provides meaning. This problem is old—in fact, it comes from Plato and is just a variant of what philosophers call “the Euthyphro problem.” The Euthyphro problem is normally used to talk about morality, but it also works here. And quite a problem it is.

It doesn’t take long to explain. For argument’s sake, say that God exists. Say also that your life has meaning. And its meaning is what God says it is. The problem: does your life have that meaning because God says so—that is, through God’s choice? Or does God say it has meaning because it (already) does?

Let’s say, as the Christian does, that it’s because God says so. Notice that since this is due to God’s choice, God can choose otherwise. In other words, something’s being meaningful has nothing to do with what that thing is—it is only from the free choice of God. If God decided tomorrow that your life is meaningless, it would be so. More crudely, if tomorrow God decided that the only meaningful activity is torturing babies, it would be so. The only thing that prevents this is God’s choice. Your life is right now meaningful, and torturing babies not meaningful, only because God decided so—and no more.

But, you might respond, God would never, or could never, decide otherwise! To which the reply is: why not? Nothing prevents God from changing God’s mind. If you just assert that God wouldn’t, that’s a hope rather than an argument, for God still very well can, at any time. And if God couldn’t, then it’s not up to God. For instance, say God’s inherent goodness makes life meaningful. But then that just follows from God’s nature, which God doesn’t choose (it’s inherent). Thus what’s good is not God’s choice, but rather whatever it is that also makes God good. God is a manifestation, an example, of goodness or meaningfulness, but does not decide its content. (Similarly, a globe manifests roundness, but does not make roundness itself round, even if it were the only existing round thing.)

The real issue, in fact, lies deeper. Behind the view that God gives life meaning is a concern that life’s meaning be objective. Here “objective” means not arbitrary, not pure whim. But if God’s decision is not arbitrary, then something is limiting what God decides. In other words, if it’s objective it can’t be up to God, and if it’s up to God it’s not objective! For God, as normally understood, is a free subject who makes unconstrained choices. If not, then whatever constrains God’s choice dictates what is meaningful, not God. Even if it were God’s nature—say, as love—we need only remember, to quote a famous thinker, that “all you need is love.” One doesn’t need God to know love. (To those who respond that one does, read the following columns.)

Using God to give life meaning gets us exactly nowhere. If it’s truly up to God, meaning is as arbitrary as choosing it ourselves. If it’s not up to God, then God isn’t the decider. How, then, can religion provide a sense of meaning for so many? I’ll turn to that in Part II.

Dr. Derek O’Connell is an academic advisor and instructor in the Department of Philosophy at Illinois State University. His current research interests include philosophical anthropology, existentialism and philosophy of education.

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