Ruminations on Religion, and Meaning in the Void

Religion, to me, is savagely interesting. Some of the reasons for this include:

  • The evolution of religious/supernatural thought (evolutionary psychology)
  • The ontological/metaphysical consequences if religious beliefs were true (philosophy)
  • The history of religion: how religious beliefs progress and change in reaction to its environment (politics, society, new ideas, calamities, etc.) (history)
  • The schism between what many professed believers believe/know about their religion and what scholars of those religions believe/know (theology, scholarship)
  • The questions it raises with respect to: epistemology (what is ‘true’? how do you know?), society and tolerance, democracy, education, ethics and consequentialism (e.g. birth control and Catholicism), etc.

Today, though, I specifically wanted to comment on the immense loss I can see that religious believers would suffer if they were to give up their religious beliefs (note: I’ll be concentrating on Judeo-Christian beliefs).

The philosophical belief system that a lot of religions share are the following:

  • A benevolent, omniscient, perfect diety. That is, there is something out there that knows what’s going on: the world isn’t chaos, it’s perfectly planned and coordinated. Not only that, but it has been coordinated with perfect love in mind.
  • This diety, the most important thing in the universe, specifically made you and loves you with perfect, unconditional love. I don’t know how to emphasize how gorgeous of an idea this is. I mean, what more do people want in life other than to feel that they are: special, loved, and not alone.
  • There is perfect justice in the world. Everyone who does good, will receive good, and all those that do bad, will receive bad. There is a perfect yin-yang. Nothing is lost in vain. Everything bad that happens has a reason.
  • The world won’t end when you die. Instead, if you’re good, you will go to a place for eternity and live in perfect happiness with perfect love and everything you could ever want forever.
  • Your life has unquestionable meaning.
  • You have free will.
  • The answer to lots of life’s questions can be found in a book that was (in some way) influenced by this perfect diety.

In contrast, as an atheist, I don’t have ANY of these:

  • The world is chaos, except for the empirically observable laws of physics/statistics. The universe is cold and uncaring.
  • My life is insignificant to the universe. The love I find comes from family and friends, which is human (and all that goes with that).
  • There’s nothing close to perfect justice: terrible, awful people sometimes live wonderful lives; wonderful, unimaginably kind people sometimes live miserable lives.
  • When I die, that’s it: game over.
  • The meaning of my life is whatever I decide to give it.
  • We are products of our genetic make-up and then our environment. Free-will is an illusion.
  • There are no clear answers to anything, let alone one book to find them in.

Now, if you compare the two, I wholly admit that the former is infinitely more desirable. And certainly, if I was a devout believer, I would see the atheist life as being ridiculously depressing. You lose so much when you lose your faith.

I think the question then becomes: why then, am I not depressed? or: why then, am I not a believer?

I’ll answer the latter first: because I can’t be. Religion, based on what I know, is un-believable: I can’t see how anyone who is willing to be sceptical and follow empirical evidence would conclude: oh yeah, this religion thing is patently true. Furthermore, I am unwilling to take a leap of faith because I think that the only way to make a responsible life decision is to base it on facts (and to question those facts), not on ignorance (or wishful thinking).

To answer the former: well, I’m probably not depressed because my genetic/environmental/societal factors make it such that I have a pretty positive/happy temperament. But besides that fatalistic answer, the reason I’m not depressed by missing out on all the religious awesomeness is because it was never real enough for me to ‘lose’. If I really felt like I lost all those things by being an atheist, I think I would be depressed. But, at least for the majority of my adult life, that’s never been a real option: I don’t really know what I’m missing out on. Just like I don’t lament the fact that the following are not true:

  • I’m the most important person in the world
  • I have a trillion, gajillion dollars
  • Everyone, secretly, is in love with me
  • All of my ex-girlfriends talk about me all the time (only in the positive), I was the most important thing that ever happened to them, and they think that I’m a gift given to them from God
  • I’m the most talented rock-star, ever. Period.
  • From tomorrow on, everyone will be happy, and the sun will always shine, and it will be the perfect temperature, and there are no diseases or inequality, and there are double rainbows, and free love, and everyone feels good, and there’s lush grass and trees and no pests, and so much food, but no matter how much you eat, you don’t get fat, and you never get tired, and everyone’s excited about everything, etc.

I mean, those are all nice things, but I can’t really choose to believe them. Plus, even if I could just choose to believe them, I would probably be worse off, because the choices I made would be grounded in illusion, and the reactions I would expect to get would be wholly different from the reactions I would actually get (slap in the face, most likely).

Do I wish all those things were true? Absolutely. But just because they aren’t true doesn’t mean they should get me down. We should focus our lives on being happy, and creating meaningful lives.

How does one create a meaningful life, without resort to religious beliefs? I don’t know. For my part, I’ve just kind of been living life by the seat of my pants. I enjoy it, so what’s there to complain about? But, I know that I want to make the most of my life. I’m alive now, and it will end sometime in the near(ish) future, so why not make the most of it? Somethings give fleeting happiness, while others seem to give me meaningful and lasting happiness. I guess that’s my life’s meaning: to strive towards meaningful and lasting happiness. This is related to Aristotle’s concept of Eudaimonia, no?

Is this, then, in any way different from anyone else’s life’s meaning? I mean, we may all say different things…but do they not all come down to this? That is, so many of the people I know who are religious don’t seem any different from me: we seem to care about the same stuff, and find meaning in the same things. It is as though our ontological beliefs about the universe don’t really have any consequences for how we act. Can this be true?

Are the reasons we give for our actions actually responsible? Or do we act and then, unconsciously, give the acts reasons?

Maybe I don’t see any difference within my group of friends because we’ve all grown up in a the same society, one which happens to be, relative to other world societies, heavily secular.

Are people who are depressed, and say “it’s because I have no meaning in my life”, actually depressed for that reason? Or are they depressed first, and then, because their mind thinks only of the negative, unconsciously decide “my life has no meaning”, and then find all the corroborating evidence for it?

I honestly think that religious beliefs aren’t all that important, at least when it comes to a secular society such as the one I’ve grown up in (Barrie/Toronto/Hamilton/Ontario/Canada/U.S. media/Internet). But then, I can see how it can have devastating effects on people’s lives, i.e. when it dictates policies/life choices (AIDS in Africa). That’s not to say that religion is the only thing that is wrong with the world (AIDS in Africa).

And with that positive conclusion, I’ll end this.

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About dontdontoperate

28 year old originally from Barrie, Ontario, Canada. H.B.Sc. from UofT with a major in chemistry and a double minor in philosophy and math. M.Sc. from UofT in physiology and neuroscience. Finished my Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at McMaster in the fall of 2013.
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