Reflections from an Existential Lens | Religion, Secularism, and the Meaning of Life, Part II

Derek OConnell


Some years ago a Christian friend asked me what “the religious experience” is. He had visited various churches and worship groups and was puzzled by what he found. Practice seemed disconnected from theology, and even the practice didn’t seem consistent. I visited his church at that time, the Vineyard (an evangelical church that is one of the few on the rise in the United States), and several small groups, to see what I would find.

When I ask people what religion is, the most popular answer involves belief: to be religious is to believe certain things. The second most popular answer involves faith. But when asked what faith means, usually the answer goes back to beliefs, specifically those lacking certainty or believed for special reasons.

Beliefs, in this view, are what usually define being religious or not. Yet recall from Part I that the Christian friend of a friend, who studies arguments for beliefs in his spare time, asked me not about beliefs. He asked: How do my beliefs provide a meaning?

In fact, there are many reasons that people are religious or not, and belief is almost always secondary. When people find meaning through religion, it isn’t because a specific piece of factual knowledge gives life meaning. Rather, something happens to them that is then framed by belief.

In this respect I agree with sociologist Emile Durkheim when he says that for believers, “the true function of religion is not to make us think, enrich our knowledge, or add representations . . . . Its true function is to make us act and to help us live. The believer who has communed with his god is not simply a man who sees new truths that the unbeliever knows not; he is a man who is stronger.” For Durkheim this happens through collective rituals. Together with those important to us, we are raised to a higher level. Consider the rising of the gospel choir, or for that matter the crowd’s roar after a touchdown, the protest chant, and so on. Religion, for Durkheim, is an attempt to put that transcendent experience into words.

The psychologist William James, in speaking of religious conversion, suggests that we have a center of energy or focus, and that conversion is a redirection of that center towards something that guides and empowers us. Religion in general, he argues, is the sense that there is a higher part within us that “is conterminous and continuous with a MORE of the same quality, which is operative in the universe outside of him, and which he can keep in working touch with.” This feeling is framed by beliefs, but at its core remains a feeling that directs our energy.

The anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann studied the Vineyard church, which I visited with my friend, and observed that people found there something had been missing from life. “Maybe they talk about purpose, maybe meaning; almost always they talk about wanting ‘more,’ as if the volume control of their life is set too low and the sound is weak and tinny.” In Vineyard theology, Jesus is a close friend who is always there for you, and Vineyard practice emphasizes techniques of positive thinking and emotional transference, building a personal connection to the friend Jesus. These techniques, not complex theology (which Vineyard also has), ground its allure.

These scholars, of differing disciplines and viewpoints, are all generally positive about religion itself. However, they trace the “meaningfulness” religion provides not to a supernatural source. Rather, meaningfulness is experienced within us, and religion is a way to achieve it — God’s love, for instance, can be explained by social connection or emotional transference without invoking an infinite Creator. After our observations, I suggested to my friend that “the religious experience” is whatever the particular believer needs in their life at that moment. Those who sought comfort turned to the Vineyard for group support. Those who sought emotion engaged in laying of hands. Those who sought status find themselves “called” to a mission. And so on.

But if God doesn’t ground the sense of meaning even within religion, what does? In Part III, I will point towards an answer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *