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