“Nothing in this world has meaning without a life devoted to God.”
Variations of that phrase can be heard from Christians of all stripes. It’s a common statement frequently directed toward atheists, letting them know in no uncertain terms that their lives cannot be truly meaningful without religion… without faith… without God.
After hearing that point (far too often), I began to wonder just what “meaning” religion brings to the table. For simplicity, I’ll refer to Christianity in particular, but other faiths probably have similar concepts.
I think a distinction needs to be made between the meaning of life and meaning in life… why we exist versus what we do with our existence. Christians make claims with respect to both issues (though generally the same claims for each). I do not.
So what is the meaning of life for Christians? What meaning is there in life for them? Here’s a small sampling from various sources.
You were put on this earth for one, and only one, reason, and that is so that you can have a living relationship with God. Every other reason is meaningless. This relationship with God is the Meaning of Life.
Rather, real meaning in life is when one begins to follow Christ as His disciple, learning of Him, spending time with Him in His Word, the Bible, communing with Him in prayer, and in walking with Him in obedience to His commands.
What is the real purpose of life? “Fear God and keep His commands.”
Our main concern in life must be to work in God’s kingdom and have a right relationship with Him.
– The Gospel Way
So, this is what man is here for, to serve and worship an Almighty God for a few short years in order to obtain a life forever and forever in glory with Him. It is the duty of man, it is the meaning of our life.
– Joel Hendon on SearchWarp.com
[The meaning of life] is to love God by choosing to have a relationship with Him through His Son, Jesus Christ.
– All About Worldview
Some other passages attempted explanations for why God actually created humans (the meaning of life), but they were usually either weak (he wanted to have man serve him) or vague and circuitous (because of events regarding Lucifer and the “Angelic Conflict”).
What I get from all those quotes (and from many others that I didn’t include) is that what gives life meaning for Christians is serving and worshipping God… and in one case, fearing him. It seems that, without subjugating yourself to God, life is pointless.
Without getting too deep into discussions of mortality, everlasting life, and the human tendency of trying to avoid feeling insignificant, I find the above Christian reasoning to be disheartening… at best. In my own life, I have a beautiful wife and daughter, a terrific job with wonderful co-workers, a great family, caring and funny friends, and entertaining (and adored) pets, just to name a few things. All these things are important to me and have a significant, positive, and tangible influence on my life. It is almost unfathomable how anyone could hold these things in lower regard than subservience to an intangible deity.
How can a man, in good conscience, say that serving and worshiping God is more important than his own wife?
How can a woman, with any sense of an ethical foundation, claim that it is more important to praise and obey God than it is to protect and care for her children?
How can anyone, with even a loose grasp of reality, believe that raising his hands to the sky and praising God is more important than helping someone in need?
Like so many other aspects of religion, I think the idea that meaning in life comes only from serving God trivializes and cheapens life by providing a simplistic and misguided view of what is significant and important. I can think of dozens of things in my life that I would deem more important, though of course I am biased by my lack of belief in God. However, the suggestion that my daughter’s well-being should be less important than devotion to God is abhorrent. The suggestion that caring for a sick family member should be less important than worshiping God is despicable. Even the suggestion that planting trees or helping the environment is less important than taking time to worship God is disturbingly mis-prioritized.
Even one kind act to a complete stranger does more to enhance the quality of my life than would hours of worshiping God. It’s something tangible. It’s something real.
I have no belief in any deities. I have no faith in religion. I place no credibility in any “holy books.” Yet, despite the lack of all those things that Christians deem so important, I have a genuine sense of meaning and purpose in my life. Not only does my life include things that motivate me to become a better person, but it includes things that make me laugh, fill me with joy, and astound me with a sense of wonder and awe that is almost unbearable at times. I have no shortage of things to give my life meaning… to give my life purpose.
I also have something that is in direct contrast to Christianity… a lack of belief in an afterlife. I have no second chance. I have no immortality. Contrary to creating a sense of hopelessness, the knowledge that my mortality is real gives me even more incentive to live my life in a way that creates joy and happiness around me… locally and globally. Since I have no heavenly hereafter to dream of, 100% of my attention is on this life… my family, my friends, my fellow earthly inhabitants, my environment… I’ve got a limited amount of time, so I’d better focus on that.
So I have a purpose in life… I can find meaning in my life. But why am I here in the first place? What about the meaning of life?
I don’t think there is one.
Does that flush our existence down the the virtual toilet of cosmic meaninglessness and make all life worthless? No. Does it make our existence insignificant? Depending on your scale of thought, perhaps. To friends and family, our lives are not insignificant. In the grand scale of the universe, we are extremely so.
But why should that matter? Why do people fear being insignificant on a universal scale? Does that really have a profound effect on your choice of what to eat for breakfast? …of what to wear? …of who your friends are? …of what movies you like?
To me, it’s the opposite. When I try to imagine the size and scope of the universe (to the point where my brain hurts), I am filled with a sense of overwhelming awe. We are so, so tiny. We’re tiny on this planet. This planet is tiny in this solar system… which is tiny in this galaxy… which in turn is infinitesimally tiny in the universe. On a universal scale, it’s unfathomable how insignificantly tiny we are… yet here we are.
Here we are thinking and dreaming, laughing and crying, living and dying. In a universe so completely inhospitable to life, here we are. Despite the odds, the process of evolution has reached a point where we have a conscious awareness of ourselves and of things outside our own experience. We can delight in that magnificent natural achievement and in our increasing understanding of its complexities. Using the power of imagination, we can stretch our minds outside our own spheres of influence and conjure up visionary delights that our un-evolved protozoan ancestors could not.
Walking on a beach along the Caribbean Sea not long ago, I was surrounded by incredible forms of life in the exposed reefs. Facing the deep waters containing untold millions of marine inhabitants, knowing that we are all connected to a common ancestor, separated only by millions and millions of years, but living together on our glorious ball of life called Earth, I couldn’t help but feel overcome with a beautiful sense of life.
There is no god in my view of life. There is no dogma. There is no holy book.
There is, however, meaning, purpose, beauty, and awe.