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

Derek OConnell


In David Hume’s “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion,” three characters debate God’s existence. The character Demea represents rational theology and deductive argument—at least until the end, when he suddenly declares that “each man feels, in a manner, the truth of religion within his own breast; and, from a consciousness of his imbecility and misery rather than from any reasoning, is led to seek protection from that Being on whom he and all nature are dependent . . . . Wretched creatures that we are!”

Two centuries later the religious studies scholar Mircea Eliade argued that religions across history are a way to escape “the terror of history”: “how can man tolerate the catastrophes and horrors of history from collective deportations and massacres to atomic bombings—if beyond them he can glimpse no sign, no transhistorical meaning; if they are only the blind play of economic, social, or political forces?”

How do we find meaning in a world of suffering? Free will does little to explain the earthquake that destroyed Lisbon and inspired Voltaire to write “Candide.” Original sin offers cold comfort to the mother whose infant dies just after birth (and to the infant, for that matter).

Here is the crux of the issue: If meaning is not given, then it seems everything is the whim of nature and history, life’s sufferings and its dullness. (Schopenhauer: “life swings like a pendulum to and fro between pain and boredom.”) In that case, what should we live for? (Nietzsche: “The meaninglessness of suffering, not suffering itself, was the curse that lay over mankind so far.”)

We have seen that religion has no better answer than secularism. Part I argued that if God assigns meaning, God’s choice is either arbitrary or no choice at all. Part II suggested that if religion helps people, it is not through the divine but society, feeling, or other human factors. Does that mean there no “true” meaning in the end?

I suggest we reverse the question. Rather than ask whether life has a meaning “out there,” we must instead ask whether our lives are lived meaningfully, and if so how. As we saw in Part II, religion is generally not really about belief, but about our relationship to the world—about how we live. Likewise, meaning is not about what’s out there, but rather what we do.

In other words, meaning is not, cannot, and should not be objective. Meaning, as psychiatrist Viktor Frankl argued, manifests as a task we live out—including, sometimes, in suffering. Frankl would know, as a three-year prisoner of Nazi concentration camps. There what mattered, for religious and non-religious alike, was not an answer as objective as “2+2=4.” What mattered was finding something to live for. For Frankl, it was his wife and his unfinished work. For some it was their children, for others something left undone. Even great suffering is meaningful when it is recognized as part of a task—a fact every martyr knows.

But such a task is not handed down by God, nor for that matter by science—it emerges through living one’s life. “Ultimately,” Frankl says, “man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”

The meaning of life comes from a person’s unique relationship to the world, which presents tasks about which we must make choices and for which we are responsible. These choices are not invented by us, but they are also not written down in an eternal text—they come from our circumstances, whatever those may be. Hence meaning is “subjective,” yet absolutely not arbitrary. To hope for an objective meaning is to hope that life can ultimately be rid of choice and responsibility, that there will be a simple answer that can never change. Such a hope is understandable. It can also lead to fundamentalism.

In my final column next month, I will offer a theory of what “meaning” means.

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