Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Can life have meaning without God? Part 4

In the previous three articles I have explored why it is that some Christians insist that life has no meaning without God, and also why their arguments do not stack up.

In this article I will offer some advice and examples of how to create meaning in your own life, without the need for a belief in God. Please note that I am not an expert on this, and much of what I say will be drawn from my own experience, and from material I have absorbed during the course of leaving religion. As with all advice and information in life, your job is to determine which bits are useful to you, and then let the rest go.

I hope you find it both informative and helpful.

A great life doesn't just happen, it must be created

The first step in creating a meaningful life is to learn how to identify what things mean to you. If you have not already done so, start listening to your inner voice. Learn to look inside yourself and ask how you truly feel, and what you truly value. Unlike what some believers may tell you, your voice does matter. And unlike what believers may tell you, your life does not have some concrete meaning that is waiting out there somewhere for you to find it. It will likely have many meanings, and all of them will come from within you. At first this can be difficult, especially if you've been raised to look for meaning externally. This shift in thinking takes time. It's like learning a new skill. You need to work at it. It will feel more natural as you become used to it.

The fundamental shift you need to make is to realise you are not a slave. You are not the helpless child. You are a complete individual. You are in charge of you. Don't let anyone tell you that "without God you are nothing". With or without God, you are you. The very same you. You are capable of more than you think.

What do you find meaningful?

It's time to start noticing more. Be more self-aware. Listen to how you feel, and learn to accept yourself for who you are. If you've only recently left religion, particularly if the religious environment was at the more conservative end of the spectrum, you may have a lot to discover. It can sometimes feel like meeting yourself for the first time. It's time to get to know the real you. You will start to become aware of things that matter to you. As you give more attention to things in your life you will learn more about yourself. Notice when you're enjoying something, and when your motivation and passion light up. These are the things that mean something to you.

In my life I derive meaning from many things, from the smell of coffee to the sweet hugs and kisses from my children. I become full of wonder and awe when discovering things about nature and science. I find meaning in creative expression, creating computer software, pursuing hobbies, and even in sharing my thoughts on this blog. I find meaning in my interactions with others, and in reflecting on events in my life and how I've grown through them. I read mostly non-fiction, and find meaning in the way it changes me and informs my view of the world. Likewise I also find meaning in the messages behind fictional stories and movies. I find meaning in self-improvement and in self-reflection. Also in compassion, empathy, love, and probably most of all, peace.

Finding your inner peace

I have spent time during the last couple of years practising mindfulness, and also the principles in ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) and CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). Through meditation and reflection I have managed to transform my life from one of emotional turmoil to one of self-acceptance and inner peace. That's not to say I am always at peace with myself. Far from it. But I feel more in control of my emotions than ever before. Once you recognise that you are not your thoughts, that you can choose whether to act on an emotion or just accept it and let it pass, and that you can change your thinking, you start to realise just how much control you really have. Your mind is an extremely powerful tool, but it requires practice and skill to get the best from it.

Your ability to succeed in any given situation, provided you have the physical ability, is largely a result of your state of mind and your attitude. Once you realise you can use your imagination and problem solving abilities to mentally construct exactly the kind of attitude and frame of mind you want, you are suddenly in the position of being able to identify where you are, and where you need to be, and you can start to take real steps in that direction. This is not to say you can always succeed. None of us are perfect. A lot of times we might feel helpless to change our situation. We may even feel helpless to change how we feel about our situation. But such helplessness (the latter kind) is really just your brain saying you've run out of options. This is almost never the case. There is always something you can do. And there is always some way to accept things you cannot change, and thus find peace in knowing what you have to do, and working out the best path towards the future you want.

We all have an inner critic. Perhaps several. Mine is the master of doom. My inner critic would happily accept a duel with yours any day. Often I can't switch it off. But I can just let the insults go through to the keeper. I can acknowledge my inner critic without accepting it as true. It doesn't speak for me (although in some sense it really is me - I don't believe for a second that there is someone else injecting messages into my brain). Learning to recognise internal thoughts that are harmful or unhelpful is vital in the quest to become a better person. Some setbacks are inevitable. It makes no sense to judge or criticise yourself when this happens (and try not to feed the spiral of guilt if you find yourself criticising your failures). Failure is actually more human and more normal than you might realise. It even provides you with experience that makes you more likely to succeed next time. Failure is useful. You can always learn from it. Failures and mistakes really do make you a better person. If nothing else, you'll find plenty of people who can relate to it.

Meaning isn't everything

As much as we all want to live meaningful lives, there are times when our search for meaning can go too far. In trying to find meaning in every detail, we can miss out on experiences that are quite valuable, and we can overthink a situation and miss the point. Sometimes there are situations in life that have no useful meaning.

I'm reminded of times in my life when I've felt really depressed, and I despaired at trying to sift through my thoughts and inner feelings to try to figure out what it all meant. Every dead end and every mental roundabout made me more frustrated. Here I was, suffering from some deep problem that was obviously important, and I couldn't for the life of me figure out what was actually wrong. What did I really want? I didn't know. None of my usual techniques were working.

And yet, in situations like this, perhaps the most sane thing of all to do is to stop looking for meaning, and just let the emotions work themselves out. It was sometimes beneficial to call a truce, to accept the way I felt, and accept that I had no idea why I felt that way. At that point the urgency would disappear, and I could just make myself a hot chocolate, or take a hot bath (or both), and just accept, and even possibly enjoy, the feeling of being human. There have been times when I have felt intense sadness and depression, but still managed to feel some awe at the depth of human experience that I was going through. It was quite comforting to feel that I could embrace the full extent of what it means to be human, for all the good, the bad, and the downright ugly. I still felt terrible, but I no longer saw it as a problem that needed to be fixed. That was liberating.

Make your own road

The above is just a collection of thoughts and lessons derived from various experiences in my life, especially over the last 3-4 years during my journey away from religion. I have spent a number of hours talking to psychologists and counsellors, and read several books, all of which have been immensely helpful in some way.

Whether or not you found any of the above helpful, your task is to make your own road, and create your own meaning in life. As I've indicated, you don't need to do it all on your own. There are professionals who can help, from psychologists and counsellors, to career and life coaches. There is also a wealth of material available both online and in print. There is even material specific to leaving religion and creating a fulfilling life without God.

Also, don't feel like anything you create in your life is set in stone. It's yours to change as you see fit. There isn't just one meaning in life. There are as many as you want there to be. Life can be full of meaning of all different kinds. It's all up to you. That can be daunting sometimes, but take it one step at a time and you'll get there. It has taken me almost 2.5 years since leaving religion to get this far. Many people take less time. Perhaps some will take more. But I don't think meaning is something you are ever finished with. Like life itself it is an ever-changing journey of wonder and discovery. There is the odd stumble here and there, the occasional win, perhaps a touch of mediocrity, but it's yours.

You write the story. You create the plot. You create the connections. It's your life. Your road.

If there is no God, what is the purpose of life?

Don't worry about what your life will mean when you're gone. You won't be there to care. That might not seem all that comforting to some of you, but in a way it does comfort me. It tells me that there's no rational reason to fear being dead, or to worry about it. It helps to manage priorities. If I'm going to spend effort worrying about something, I should worry about the present. I still fear dying, and pain. But the thought of remaining dead forever, while still scary, is essentially irrelevant to me. What matters to me is what happens before then. I care about right now. Right now is all I actually experience. Not yesterday, nor tomorrow.

I try to live the best life I can, but I try not to overthink it. I don't always make the most of every opportunity, and that's fine too. I accept who I am, and what I have. I'll make mistakes and there will be some dark times as well. But ultimately (there's that word again, but now I'm using it in a way that is relevant to me) it won't matter. Not to me, and not to anyone else. I'm happy with what my life means. There is always room for improvement, but at the end of the day (or at the end of my days), I'll be happy that I did the best I could with what I had.

So long as I have lived the life I chose to live (more or less), I will be content. I am enough, for me, and that is all that really matters.

I'd like to conclude with a quote from Dan Barker, which I think sums up this entire article series beautifully:
“Asking, ‘If there is no God, what is the purpose of life?’ is like asking, ‘If there is no master, whose slave will I be?’ If your purpose of life is to submit as a slave, then your meaning comes from flattering the ego of a person whom you should detest.”
Dan Barker


  1. Thanks for the series of articles. Certainly something I have been thinking about, and could do with further thought on.

    To me, one of the frustrating thing about WL Craig and writers of his ilk is they can actually write well and persuasively, and still end up with a number of things that are so illogical that they make me either want to laugh at them or shout at them (depending on my mood). A lot of what annoys me is the binary thinking: if you don't have absolute purpose, you have no purpose. If you don't have an absolute standard of morality, you don't have any morality. Do people really not see the middle ground, or do they willfully ignore it? If we can't say a rule is applicable in every single situation, does that mean the rule has no value? To me, so long as it is useful I'll follow it, because it leads to a better outcome.

    On to your argument, a comment I heard somewhere which has stuck with me:
    Imagine you are the coach of a baseball team, which has worked hard all year and reached the final. If they lose that final, the coach might consider consoling them by saying "Next year we'll have another chance. And the year after. Yes, it's painful, but in 10 years it probably won't still be the biggest worry in your life." However, you're definitely not going to see that if the team won. No coach is going to say "Great, you won - but the win isn't going to be meaningful in 10 years". They will say "Great work. Let's celebrate the achievement". The achievement has been worked hard for, and is the most important thing in the world right now - whether or not it will be in 10 years time. I think you are making a similar argument on a longer scale. The same behaviour is shown in Christians' lives. I know many who are trying to get a better job, or to win this or that sporting event. They're not about to drop that target just because it has no ultimate meaning. It is possible to justify these activities as an application of "do all things as to the Lord", but I have a feeling that's not the real reason for competing and doing our best. It wasn't (and isn't) for me, anyway.

    Yes, I struggle at times with finding meaning in my life. Particularly when doing tasks like cleaning up, washing dishes, etc. over and over again that aren't interesting and don't finally fix any problem. But I liked your comment "Believers search for meaning, non-believers create it." Will need to think about it more.

    Searching for what I really value is something I have done off and on for years, and probably with greater interest the longer my faith stayed weak. It comes up with "I don't know" much more often than I like, but it's still probably better than unknown unknowns. Seriously, though, it came up with "I don't know" plenty of times when I had strong belief and the entire Bible to guide me. Having ultimate purpose wasn't that helpful in knowing what I should be doing in the next 1, 5, or 10 years.

    So your inner critic really wants a duel with mine? I don't know how exactly they compare, but mine's not weak. Fortunately, it hasn't made me delete this line or guilt tripped me with how bad I am even writing this betrayal of my inner self. Well, not much, anyway. :)

    In fairness, though, I think most Christians I know would take offence at the master/slave analogy. What they say instead is "Seeing we believe God made us, he probably has a better idea of what will make us happy than we do, so it's worth learning about and following". It's a much more positive spin, and there's certainly a part of me that wouldn't mind being able to believe that. I'm sure it's just laziness, though: not wanting to go to the trouble of finding out why I do what I do and what is really best to do.

    1. I often struggle to find meaning as well. It's easy for me to pretend I've got it together in articles like this but the reality is that being human involves a dose of uncertainty and self doubt.

      Your last paragraph was interesting. Even the positive spin just sounds like giving up and hoping for the best. There's a point where one needs to give up their free will. I don't know if people think much about what that means.

      Thanks for the comments. :)

    2. I think one word change really shows the difference. I don't think they are "hoping" for the best. I think they trust that the best will come, and there's a big difference between "trust" and "hoping for the best" (even if the trust is misplaced).

      You are right, though. Slavery is used as an image throughout the NT (perhaps most notably in Romans 6). So is submitting to the (perceived) will of God and "doing all to the glory of God".

      Personally, I think the original statement sounds quite reasonable, if you accept the following assumptions:
      1. There is an all powerful God who created the universe.

      2. This God is still involved in the universe right now.

      3. This God is benevolent. He really cares about people in particular, and wants every one of them to have the best life they can.

      Believers accept all three, so it is obvious that they will do great if they just fall in line. It's not such a stretch then to think that such a God might have produced a "user manual" or list of instructions how to live, and the Bible could just be it (point to the Sermon on the Mount). Tell people they can have a deep and meaningful relationship with God, that he is real and obvious to those with faith, because he cares for us. Provide some anecdotal evidence about how following the teachings in scripture made someone happier. Build a feeling of superiority - we got it right, and sadly they didn't. Game over. [OK: I think the argument could make sense without the feeling of superiority, and certainly not everyone has it].

      However, I think it's fair to say that neither of us accept all three of the original assumptions, so we lack that luxury. I hadn't realised till thinking this through how much it relies on assumption 3: the benevolence of God. For example, if for some reason we were to build sentient robots to do factory work, we would be wanting them to do factory work. By the above reasoning, they could assume that as we were their creators that would be their best way of achieving happiness and purpose. We could even make the hardware "reward" them for doing a good job. But we would be doing it for our ends, not because we are benevolent and care about our creation. I guess I've always just assumed a benevolent God because if he's all powerful he has nothing much to gain from us, and so is impartial enough that he might as well do the thing that is best for us and contributes best to his glory (that sounds really bad when I say it like that...).

  2. JJ, these arguments stand or fall on whether God exists, or whether god is simply a literary player introduced into what the early producers of the biblical books cobbled together. I have moved from being indoctrinated into the former belief to a position of gradually being convinced about the latter. However, I respect those whose understanding is of one view or the other, and if adherents to these opposing views are committed to living in harmony with each other, then that can only be to the good. It is when one side or the other seek to convert others to "their" belief that any harmony is killed off. Or is this a too simplistic view?

    1. (just adding my 2c)

      I generally agree, except that there are often times when a belief can be harmful to others.

      For example, suppose that some people believe that they need to sacrifice the next harvest in order to appease the gods. That is a belief worth challenging in order to ensure that there is enough food for the people.

      Likewise, if people feel that climate change poses no risk because "God would not allow the earth to be destroyed by humans", then that too is a dangerous belief worthy of being challenged.

      On the other hand, if someone believes that there is a benevolent God out there who had a son that died for their sins, and that belief somehow motivates them to be a better person and do good deeds, then I'd be inclined to leave them be. But Christianity doesn't stop there.

      Christadelphians in particular typically do hold some beliefs I would consider harmful/toxic, for example: "People are inherently evil", creationism, "us vs them" mentality ("in the truth" vs "in the world"), and the one I mentioned in this article series, "You are not your own" / slavery to God.

      I'm not about to try to physically stop them doing what they do, but I have pointed out a lot of these things here on my blog, and I can only appeal to those who read it to think about it and hopefully create some change, however small. I'd probably make a terrible activist.

  3. Steve, I can only agree with you that some outworkings of belief can be harmful. One facet of the Cd`s is the teaching of "absolute truths" about certain of their beliefs, such as you mention, creationism. And to bring infants up to this belief without giving them at an early stage the alternative viewpoint/s, is, in my opinion, very wrong.

  4. Mancott/Steve, I try to understand why people believe, say, and do the things that they believe, say, and do. I don't try to force them to agree with me. More important is that it helps me understand whether I should trust their point of view and how I think and make decisions. I too would make a terrible activist: Maybe it's selfish, maybe it's lazy, or maybe it's just friendly and enlightened to leave people to make their own decisions.
    And maybe I'm just showing my own upbringing, but I find it hard to see how you bring up children without showing them both in word and actions what you really think important (bonus points if the two align, as they did with my parents). Can you really teach alternative viewpoints objectively if you think they are very wrong and your heart isn't in it?

  5. JJ, Cd`s would find it impossible to teach alternative viewpoints, because in most Cd`s thinking and belief there are no alternative viewpoints. (Although that isn`t strictly true as letters to the Cd mag show.) This indoctrination of infants and youngsters in my opinion is wrong. However, I wouldn`t rant and rave against them (maybe a little online disgruntlement!) or stand outside their meeting places with a loud hailer telling them how wrong I thought they were.

  6. If I read a book that has a bias or pushes a particular point of view, I don't expect the author to go out and write another book covering alternative viewpoints. Instead, I try and find another book or critique to show me the alternative viewpoints.

    I think the same is true here. While I have way too much skill at arguing viewpoints I don't believe, most people can't, and I think it is unreasonable to expect them to. Ideally outside groups will be able to present alternatives. For children, "school teachers" are the most likely outside group. Books might be another. And yes, many children will trust their parents more than school teachers and books, just like many children will want to be like their parents. I don't know that there is anything that can be done about that. Also, some children will receive similar teaching from their Christian school as from their Christian parents. Potentially a concern, but again unsurprising.

    As for getting rid of indoctrination: I've heard you say it. And Steve. And I think Richard Dawkins. And I agree it's a nice idea to all be friends and teach all ideas and leave everyone to make up their own minds (even though the "making up your mind" can be long and difficult). I also agree that beliefs built in childhood can be very difficult to shake. There are plenty of things I am learning now that I wish I had known earlier, but I'm not sure how realistic that is - I doubt either my parents or my teachers knew some of them. But in our current society I just don't see any mechanism that can realistically achieve this. Without such a mechanism I'm not sure there's any advantage in saying "Wouldn't it be great if no-one grew up indoctrinated with the wrong beliefs of their parents". "Doing things for the best" isn't a perfect defense against negative effects, but I don't think the average parent can do much better. Fictional dictatorships have got rid of the role of biological parents, having the children taken away and brought up and educated by people appointed by the society. Ancient Sparta did too. I don't think it's likely to happen in our current context (except in legally determined child abuse cases). And such an idea terrifies me anyway, as it concentrates the power of determining right and wrong, true and false, in the hands of a small and probably untrustworthy group.

    Long wall of text, but what it really boils down to is that I don't understand what the entire debate is getting at or what changes are being suggested. What am I missing?


Comments will be moderated. Please keep comments on topic.

Please do not comment as "Anonymous" (use "Name/URL" instead - the URL is optional). If you wish to remain anonymous, just use a fake name. That way it makes it easier to track who is replying to whom.