Monthly Archives: October 2013

The meaning of “meaning,” and why atheists have it

We’ve all heard it: “If you don’t believe in God or an afterlife, life has no meaning!”

Let’s put this one to rest, once and for all.

What do people mean when they say “meaning” in this context?

Seems to me, when people talk about “meaning,” they mean it in one of three ways:

1)      Something that makes you want to keep living.  Something you’re passionate about.  Something that makes you want to wake up every day.

E.g. “My volunteer work gives my life meaning.”  “Raising my kids gives my life meaning.”  “Seeing the look in my student’s eye when he understands something for the first time… traveling and seeing new places and new people… going fishing with my dad… getting together with my longtime friends once a week… give my life meaning.”

One notices right away that none of these examples – nor any of the other infinite number of examples we could insert – requires God or an afterlife to provide the meaning therein.

2)      Value.  That is, when people say, “Without God, your life, this world, it’s all meaningless!” they often mean, “It’s worthless.” 

Here the assumption is that if something is temporary – such as a person’s life without an afterlife, then it has no real value.

As with #1, this myth is quite simple to dispel.  Feeding a hungry child is anything but worthless, even though the food I gave her is temporary.   Neuroscientist Sam Harris gives a great example of a parent holding a baby:

But the next time someone tries this one on me, I think I’ll just tell them:

“You know I drove for 3 hours to Six Flags, and I’m waiting online for a half hour for the roller coaster, and then the guy in front of me informs me: ‘Just so you know, you can’t stay on the roller coaster forever.  Actually it lasts only for a few minutes.’  I was so upset that I left right then and there and went home!”

3)      Purpose.  That is, when people say, “If you don’t believe in God or an afterlife, life has no meaning,” they often really mean, “If you don’t believe in God or an afterlife, life has no “purpose.”  The assumption here is: In order to have a purpose, some being had to have created you with a purpose.  An air conditioner has a purpose – to blow cold air, because someone made the air conditioner with that purpose.  But if no one made you, and you just evolved over billions of years from stardust, then you have no purpose!  Right?

My answer?  That’s great news!!!  If you had a choice between being created specifically to blow cold air or being born with a whole unlimited array of options of who you can be and how to live your life available for you to choose, is there even a question which option I would prefer?  It’s liberating to discover that I have no pre-determined purpose!

It seems to me that those who maintain – and often spread – the illusion that having a pre-determined purpose is somehow preferred are living their lives walking on crutches and want everyone else to do the same.  It may be easier to spend one’s whole life under the illusion that he has a purpose – e.g. to serve the ancient Israelite god Hashem by following the commandments written in a bible as precisely as possible, or by having a fortune teller that tells him what his purpose is supposed to be and what exactly he should do to fulfill that purpose. But just because it’s easier, doesn’t mean it’s a better, happier, or more noble way to live.

But physicist Sean Carroll said it better and more concisely than I could (at 1:11:55 of this video):

So do our lives have meaning?  Religious or not, if I have things in my life that give me meaning (things I’m passionate about) and people, places, things, and ideas in my life that have value, my life has plenty of meaning.

Do our lives have a pre-determined purpose?  Based on all we have learned from the sciences, logic, and modern Biblical scholarship, highly unlikely – and it’s a truly wonderful thing.

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Flooded with skepticism

On this very day, Jews around the world are reading Noah’s Flood or Deluge story in synagogues throughout the world. Rabbi Natan Slifkin, a leading proponent of embracing science and history while trying to apply a rationalist approach to Biblical study and religious observance, has written a lot about this topic in his books and in his blog. In his most recent post Dealing with the Deluge, he also cited some other contemporary sources that tackle this issue (beginning by promoting his own book).

The problem I always have with these modern religious approaches that say, “Of course that story is allegorical; it was never meant to be taken literally,” is: Why didn’t you say that BEFORE science left with you no other choice?

As soon as you discover scientifically that the world could not have been created in seven days, humans could not all have come from one human ancestor, a global flood could not have taken place, etc., it seems to me you have two choices at that point:

1) The one who wrote those stories was a human living at a time and place where people believed these things, or

2) God wrote those stories, but He always intended them to be allegorical and in no way literal.

There’s a very good logical basis for choosing Option 1; we have many other examples of other stories written by humans living in a certain time and place with certain beliefs about the world.  But what logical basis do you have for choosing Option 2 instead?

Freedom is actually a good thing

In this article about the horrible tragedy of Deb Tambor’s apparent suicide and the way she and her partner were treated by her family and former community, the most powerful line to me is the last one. The Hasidic Jew from New Square levies upon her the damning accusation: “It’s like she was free!”

By all accounts, Ms. Tambor treated people with dignity and was a wonderful friend and partner. But all that is rendered insignificant because “she was free.”

I think that’s the biggest thing that separates us as freethinkers; we believe freedom is a good thing.

But this Chasid makes perfect sense, given his assumptions; if you’re sure you have the precise instructions from the all-knowing being on how to live a good life, and that includes a lot of restrictions and thus tells you that living however you want is a bad thing, then of course being free would be a bad thing. As the Torah says:

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live (Deuteronomy 30:19).

(In other words:

free will)

It’s like if you teach your daughter that cocaine is harmful, and she says, “But I want to be free!” of course you don’t want your kid to live free and do whatever she wants if that involves harming herself. So if you know that violating the Torah is as bad for you as snorting cocaine – except it’s worse, because it ruins your life both in this world and the next, then of course you would think of living free as a bad thing.

I normally have held the view that Orthodox Judaism, while based on a false assumption that the Torah is of divine origin, is not necessarily harmful, and as long as someone is happy and isn’t harming anyone, there’s no reason to try to encourage people not to be Orthodox.

However, as Sam Harris would say, beliefs have consequences. The Chasid in this article reminded me that if you really truly believe what Orthodox Jews are obligated to believe – i.e. that the Torah is God’s perfect instructions on how to live, then it’s impossible for you to believe that living “free” – i.e. living however you want as long as you’re not harming anyone – is a good thing.

And so how could we sit here while our neighbors teach their kids they do not have the freedom to live the way they want?