[guest post] A Purpose-Driven Life – Is God Required?

My friend Gleb Tsipursky wrote this guest post about a secular approach to finding a sense of purpose in life.

We need God for a sense of purpose in life, at least according to the vast majority of mainstream perspectives in American society. Moreover, research confirms that people with a strong religious belief generally have a stronger sense of meaning and purpose than those who do not. But is it really necessary to believe in God to have a purpose-driven life? Based on my research on meaning and purpose, and my experience in helping people find life purpose in my role as President of Intentional Insights, I will illustrate some science-based strategies that we as reason-oriented people can use to find a deep sense of life meaning without a God.

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(Graphic created by Cerina Gillilan)


In a way, the American mainstream opinion is not surprising – after all, religious dogma generally gives clear answers to the question of life’s purpose. Moreover, it provides the main venue for exploring questions of meaning and purpose in life. According to faith-based perspectives, the meaning and purpose of life is to be found only in God. An example of a prominent recent religious thinker is Karl Barth, one of the most important Protestant thinkers of modern times. In his The Epistle to the Romans (1933), he calls modern people’s attention to God in Christ, where the true meaning and purpose of life must be found. Another example is The Purpose Driven Life (2002), a popular book written by Rick Warren, a Christian mega church leader.

But some thinkers disagree with the notion that religion is the only way to find meaning and purpose in life. Jean-Paul Sartre, in his Existentialism and Human Emotions, advances the notions of “existentialism,” the philosophical perspective that all meaning and purpose originates from the individual. The challenge for modern individuals, according to Sartre, is to face all the consequences of the discovery of the absence of God. He argues that people must learn to create for themselves meaning and purpose.

Another prominent thinker is Greg Epstein. In his Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, he advocates striving for dignity as a means of finding “meaning to life beyond God.” According to Epstein, “we are not wicked, debased, helpless creatures waiting for a heavenly king or queen to bless us with strength, wisdom, and love. We have the potential for strength, wisdom, and love inside ourselves. But by ourselves we are not enough. We need to reach out beyond ourselves – to the world that surrounds us and sustains us, and most especially to other people. This is dignity” (93).

Likewise, Sam Harris, in his book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (2014), states that “Separating spirituality from religion is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. It is to assert two important truths simultaneously: Our world is riven by dangerous religious doctrines that all educated people should condemn, and yet there is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit” (6).

Are they correct? Can we have meaning and purpose, which fall within the sphere that Harris refers to as spirituality and Epstein terms dignity, without belonging to a faith-based community?

In fact, research shows that we can gain a sense of meaning and purpose in life from a variety of sources. The classic research on meaning and purpose comes from Victor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist who lived through the concentration camps of the Holocaust. He described how those who had a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives were most likely to survive and thrive in the camps. He conducted research demonstrating this both during and after his concentration camp experience. His research suggests the crucial thing for individuals surviving and thriving is to develop a personal sense of individual purpose and confidence in a collective purpose for society itself, what he terms the “will-to-meaning and purpose.” Frankl himself worked to help people find meaning and purpose in their lives. He did so by helping prisoners in concentration camps, and later patients in his private practice as a psychiatrist, to remember their joys, sorrows, sacrifices, and blessings, thereby bringing to mind the meaning and purposefulness of their lives as already lived. According to Frankl, meaning and purpose can be found in any situation within which people find themselves. He emphasizes the existential meaning and purposefulness of suffering and tragedy in life as testimonies to human courage and dignity, as exemplified both in the concentration camps and beyond. Frankl argues that not only is life charged with meaning and purpose, but this meaning and purpose implies responsibility, namely the responsibility upon oneself to discover meaning and purpose, both as an individual and as a member of a larger social collective (Frankl).

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(Graphic created by Cerina Gillilan) 

Frankl’s approach to psychotherapy came to be called logotherapy, and forms part of a broader therapeutic practice known as existential psychotherapy. This philosophically-informed therapy stems from the notion that internal tensions and conflicts stem from one’s confrontation with the challenges of the nature of life itself, and relate back to the notions brought up by Sartre and other existentialist philosophers. These challenges, according to Irvin Yalom in his Existential Psychotherapy, include: facing the reality and the responsibility of our freedom; dealing with the inevitability of death; the stress of individual isolation; finally, the difficulty of finding meaning in life (Yalom). These four issues correlate to what existential therapy holds as the four key dimensions of human existence, the physical, social, personal and spiritual realms, based on extensive psychological research and therapy practice (Cooper; Mathers).

So where does this leave us? Religion is only one among many ways of developing a personal sense of life meaning. One intentional approach to gaining life meaning and purpose involves occasionally stopping and thinking about our lives and experiences: we can find an individual sense of life purpose and meaning through the lives we already lead. A great way to do so is through journaling, which has a variety of benefits beyond helping us gain a richer sense of life purpose – it can also help us deal with stress, process sorrows, experience personal growth, learn more effectively, and gain positive emotions through expressing gratitude.

Here are some specific prompts to use in journaling about meaning and purpose in life, as informed by Frankl’s research and logotherapy practice:

  1. What were important recent events in your life?
  2. Which of them involved stresses and adversity, and how can you reframe them to have a better perspective on these events?
  3. What did you learn from these events?
  4. What are you grateful for in your life recently?
  5. What was your experience of life meaning and purpose recently?

Try journaling about these topics for a week, and see what kind of benefit you get, what kind of challenges you run into, and what you learned about how this journaling can be adopted to your own particular preferences and needs.

There are a wide variety of additional strategies to gain meaning and purpose in life without belief in a deity. To help you learn and practice additional strategies, I developed and videotaped a workshop freely available online. I also created a free online course, which combines an engaging narrative style, academic research, and stories from people’s everyday lives with exercises to help you discover your own sense of life purpose and meaning from a science-based, humanist-informed perspective. I am also writing a workbook on this topic These are part of our broader offerings at Intentional Insights, which aims to help us as reason-oriented people use scientific evidence to live better lives and achieve our goals. I hope you can find our offerings helpful for your life, and am eager to hear any feedback you have to share about your experience!

Gleb Tsipursky, PhD, Co-Founder and President at Intentional Insights. Intentional Insights is a new nonprofit that provides research-based content for reason-oriented people to help us improve our thinking, feeling, and behavior patterns and reach our goals. Get in touch with him to learn more: gleb[at]intentionalinsights.org

[#wiscfi liveblog] The Mattering Map: Religion, Humanism, and Moral Progress

The WiS2 conference logo.

I’m liveblogging Rebecca Goldstein’s talk, “The Mattering Map: Religion, Humanism, and Moral Progress.” Goldstein is a novelist and professor of philosophy at Barnard College. Follow along!

4:18: “Amanda just said in her wonderful talk that she wasn’t going to bore you with philosophy. That’s my job.”

I agonized over this talk. Should I publicly address the gender issue for the first time? [Audience: yes!!!]

4:21: Criticism of literary criticism can be used to unearth biases. For instance, that it’s okay for women to write certain kinds of books that are mostly read by other women, but those books are then dismissed as being “for women.” Subconscious gender biases undermine women and make them unwilling to enter the fray–though that doesn’t seem to be an issue at this conference.

In preparation for this talk, I polled some very prominent women and asked them if they ever feel that their gender undermines them professionally. Virtually all of them reported saying something in a discussion or meaning and being completely ignored–until the comment is picked up and reported by a man. Then, suddenly everyone jerks to attention.

Obviously it’s true that compared to more violent manifestations of misogyny, being ignored/interrupted/talked over is easy to dismiss because it’s an experience of privileged women. We privileged women can feel petty and ashamed voicing complaints about these things.

Psychologists call these experiences “microaggressions,” and they cite evidence that for women (and other marginalized groups), these small attacks take a greater toll than the more outright expressions of misogyny.

Derald Wing Sue, a researcher on microaggressions, says that it’s easier for marginalized people to deal with the more outright expressions of bigotry because there’s no guesswork involved. You can easily dismiss them as bigotry.

4:26: As secularists with strong scientific orientations, we’ve concentrated almost exclusively on the way religions exploit the “will to believe.” We’ve used science to argue against this. And that’s important, but we’ve largely ignored another issue: the “will to matter.”

I first thought of this idea through one of my fictional characters. I was invested in being “rigorous” and these ideas seemed to lack rigor. My editor said, “I don’t really understand Renee [the character].” Renee, like me, was a rigorous philosopher. She started coming up with these ideas about “mattering.” We’re invested in “mattering” and will give up our lives to causes for the sake of “mattering.”

Her other idea was “the Mattering Map.” A person’s location on the Mattering Map is determined by what matters to them and their perception of people–who the somebodies and nobodies are, who the heroes are, who should never have been born. We differ on who we think the heroes are because we differ on what matters. If what matters is intelligence, then the heroes are the geniuses. (In fact, Renee, the character, married a genius and regretted it.)

4:31: The idea of the mattering map has become a working theoretical concept in certain areas of psychology. The idea of my fictional character has been incorporated into actual theoretical work! I Googled it and got tens of thousands of hits, more than I got for me. [audience laughs]

It was even written about in the Harvard Business Review: an article called “How Mattering Maps Affect Behavior.” The article even quotes Renee herself.

4:35: What is it that keeps intellectually sophisticated people clinging to propositions about the world so improbable that they can be described–if you’ll allow me to use the technical terminology of epistemology–as crazy-ass shit?

These beliefs extend at least 30,000 years to Cro Magnon man, whose cave paintings are interpreted as expressions of spiritual beliefs. But the religions that still resonate with people were all originally forged during the period called “the Axial Age“–between 800 and 200 BCE. At the same time, secular philosophy and tragic drama emerged in ancient Greece. This period is called “the axial age” because these traditions still extend into our own age, including among the secularists who are the inheritors of Greek tradition.

What they have in common is a preoccupation with the issue of mattering.

Some lives achieve mattering and others don’t. Perhaps there’s something a person can do that will make the difference when it comes to his or her mattering. The question is, what is the human life that matters?

The belief that you might mess up and have a life that doesn’t matter, that you might as well have not even had, erupted during the Axial Age.

4:38: Why did this preoccupation emerge in this age? One possibility is that it was spurred by the emergence of cities, and the greater anonymity and choices that they provided. Markets and money, which provide an impersonal measure of wealth, could also have provoked this development.

The ancient Greeks had religious rituals to ward off evil, but when it came to the issue of what makes a human life matter, the Greeks did not really use religion. They used human terms. This is what allowed philosophy to develop in ancient Greece.

The belief is that life must be extraordinary in order to matter; ordinary lives are not worth living. It’s not immortal attention you need to attract, but that of other mortals.

In The Apology, Plato has Socrates compare himself to Achilles, who chose a short extraordinary life over a long ordinary life. Of course, Socrates was already 70 years old…so it was too late to have a short extraordinary life. But still, this shows that Socrates/Plato bought into this general Greek idea of the “ethos of the extraordinary.”

4:45: On the other side of the Mediterranean, the Hebrews were grappling with the same issue. They approached the problem of mattering in divine terms, not human terms.

But only one of these approaches has been self-correcting, and that is secular moral reason, initiated by the Greeks.

Back to microaggressions. What do they do? They undermine a person’s sense that they matter. And they’re even worse when they come from someone who matters to you, who can’t be dismissed as the ranting bigots and slobbering misogynists.

4:50: Without sensitivity to the will to matter and how it gave rise to religion in the first place, we fail to understand the secular ethical progress to which we are the heirs, and upon which we wage an assault, macro or micro, every time we undermine a person’s sense that he or she matters.

4:54: Audience question: What about the tendency to matter by notoriety rather than popularity? When people like negative attention, is that because they feel like mattering by something positive isn’t an option?

Goldstein: The various ways that people want to matter are interesting. The Greeks had a concept of celebrity too (having poets fawn over you). Maybe when you’re a secularist and you think that this life is all you have, the attention of many people becomes all the more important. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to lead to a satisfactory life, though, and that’s an empirical question. That’s something for the psychologists to figure out.

4:56: Audience question: How do you justify the claim that we secularists are the heirs to the Greeks when there’s such a strong aversion to philosophy and the liberal arts in the atheist movement?

Goldstein: I think there should be a correction to that. A lot of times when we make points in the atheist movement, we’re relying on philosophy whether we know it or not. The idea that science is the best way of knowing is an epistemological claim. People are always wondering into philosophy without realizing it, and I think philosophers should be given some credit.

4:58: Audience question: Can you comment on traditional gender roles in terms of mattering?

Goldstein: One can become convinced of these things because they’re so rigidly imposed. They’re often just handed down to us–men/women, slaves/owners, adults/children. The empirical question is, do they work? Do they make people feel as though they really matter? Is it conducive to the greatest good of the greatest number of people? But throughout history, these roles break down. The suggestion is that they don’t work. It took so long to realize that slavery is wrong, that racism is wrong, that sexism is wrong, but after that you never go back. People never start owning slaves again. They never become racist again. It’s progress. It’s just as much progress as scientific progress, and the two are linked together.

5:01: Audience question: Can you bring your ideas on mattering and your ability to develop complex characters to understand the psychology of the reviled misogynist?

Goldstein: I feel like I do understand reviled misogynist. I’ve had quite a few in my books. I’ve never created a character that I don’t in some sense sympathize with, understand what’s motivating them. I think the explanations for misogyny are fairly well-understood. How wonderful it must be to be born and think that everything is coming to you, and that even if you don’t matter very much, you can be sure that there are people who matter less than you. That’s why, again, social justice is the answer to all of these questions. One has to make all people feel like they matter and don’t need to put down some group to feel like they matter.


Previous talks:


Faith-based Pseudoscience (Panel)

How Feminism Makes Us Better Skeptics (Amanda Marcotte)

My Oppression Is Not Your Thought Experiment

[Content note: sexual assault]

There seems to be no shortage of people just itching for the opportunity to turn real, tragic human suffering into intriguing little thought experiments for their own amusement or political gain.

This time we’ve got a college professor attempting to make some sort of bizarre claim about drilling for oil using Steubenville and sexual assault:

Let’s suppose that you, or I, or someone we love, or someone we care about from afar, is raped while unconscious in a way that causes no direct physical harm—no injury, no pregnancy, no disease transmission. (Note: The Steubenville rape victim, according to all the accounts I’ve read, was not even aware that she’d been sexually assaulted until she learned about it from the Internet some days later.) Despite the lack of physical damage, we are shocked, appalled and horrified at the thought of being treated in this way, and suffer deep trauma as a result. Ought the law discourage such acts of rape? Should they be illegal?

[…]As long as I’m safely unconsious and therefore shielded from the costs of an assault, why shouldn’t the rest of the world (or more specifically my attackers) be allowed to reap the benefits?

Unfortunately for Steven Landsburg, the author of this rationalization, analogies only work when you know what the fuck you’re talking about.

Sexual assault isn’t wrong (just) because people don’t like it. It’s wrong because we have decided, as a society, that people’s bodies belong to them and only them. You cannot use someone else’s body for your own needs without their consent. You can’t harvest their organs. You can’t force them to get a piercing or a tattoo or a haircut. You (theoretically) can’t force them to have a child or an abortion, although we now seem to be getting closer and closer to forcing people to have children. You can’t compel them to undergo a medical procedure or experiment. You cannot go up to a stranger and touch their body. You cannot punch someone except in self-defense or, again, in a consensual setting. (Of course, all of this completely falls apart when it comes to children, which I think is ridiculous and wrong.) And you cannot use someone else’s body for sex without their consent. Your body belongs to you.

This, at least, is the ethical framework under which we normally seem to operate. It falls apart all the time, of course–with children, as I mentioned, and with pregnant women. It falls apart when we insist on the right to touch a Black stranger’s hair, and it falls apart when the police have been given the authority to use deadly force on innocent civilians. But in general, most of us have come to the conclusion that a just society is one that grants individuals the autonomy to decide what happens to their bodies, and that this power can only be taken away when there’s a compelling reason (i.e. the person is a child who is refusing medical care, the person has entered a coma from which they are extremely unlikely to return and their families now have the final say regarding their treatment, the person has committed a crime and is refusing to cooperate with the police, etc.)

That you feel like having sex with them and they’re unconscious so it won’t hurt them anyway is not a compelling reason. I refuse to debate this point. This is elementary.

Of course, Landsburg’s analogy fails on the other side, too, because people who criticize oil drilling generally don’t criticize it on the grounds of BUT IT MAKES TEH LANDSCAPES LESS PRETTY. But whatever.

This tendency to philosophize over real, painful, tragic issues that some of us are actually trying to do something about shows up all the time. It shows up during pro-choice activism. It shows up during suicide prevention efforts; I can’t count how often someone would appear on some post where I was discussing suicide prevention and attempt to engage me in some vague pseudo-philosophical ramble about whether or not it is truly ethical to prevent people who want to kill themselves from killing themselves, completely ignoring the fact that I am only here writing this by virtue of the fact that there were so many people who really didn’t want me to kill myself, once upon a time.

And it especially shows up when we talk about sexual assault and the proper way to respond to and prevent it.

I have spent a lot of time arguing about sexual assault with people who want to use all sorts of creative analogies about the violation of someone’s body when that person wasn’t (supposedly) doing everything in their power to prevent that violation. It’s like leaving your bike unchained! It’s like leaving your front door unlocked! It’s like leaving your keys in the ignition! In fact, it’s just like taxing someone, because money is just like bodily autonomy, so at best taxation is just as bad as violating someone’s actual, physical body. (Yes, that argument has been put forth in one of my comment sections. No, I won’t go dig it up.)

My body is not a bike. It’s not a house. It’s not a car. It is not money. Using my body without asking me first is not like robbery. It is not like taxation. You know what’s it’s like? It’s like sexual assault, because that’s exactly what it is.

To be clear, I don’t hate philosophy or discussions thereof. I think they can be really fascinating and useful. However, there’s a time and a place, and, in my opinion, an obligation to be sensitive when you’re trying to abstractly discuss things that actually hurt, traumatize, and potentially kill people.

First of all, do not attempt to insert yourself and your philosophical theorizing into spaces where people are trying to do activism. Philosophy can and should inform activism, of course, but when someone’s discussing rape prevention, that’s not the time to start pontificating at them about what rape really means and isn’t it just like a theft of property and whatnot.

Second, this is tangential to the main idea of this post, but very relevant anyway. Take special care when playing devil’s advocate. Tell people what you’re doing. Tell them you’d like to work through some possible counter-arguments and allow them to refuse. Why is this important? Because it’s so incredibly draining and hurtful for activists to be asked to listen to the same offensive and basic arguments over and over and spent their time and energy arguing against them, only for you to conclude with, “Oh, whatever, I was just playing devil’s advocate.” Cut that shit out.

Third, know what you’re talking about! Landsburg clearly didn’t. Or, if he did, he still managed to completely minimize that in favor of his convoluted view of rape-as-bad because people just don’t liiiiike it, in which case, should it really be illegal if it doesn’t cause them “Real Harm”? After all, it’s not illegal to call someone a poopyhead! So there. (I may be editorializing slightly.)

Fourth, take care that your philosophizing is not unintentionally contributing to the problem that you’re discussing. There is a long history of rationalizing away sexual assault, and Amanda Marcotte notes in her post:

Colleges in this country are suffering from a  rape problem that is all too real and not some kind of cutesy thought experiment. Rapists and their enablers are known to seize on claims like the one Landsburg is kicking around here, that it doesn’t count if you didn’t have to beat the victim to subdue her. In fact, one of the witnesses who saw the Steubenville rape but didn’t try to stop it used exactly that excuse: “It wasn’t violent. I didn’t know exactly what rape was. I thought it was forcing yourself on someone.” Having a popular professor casually endorse this rationalization through wanky and ultimately irrelevant thought “experiments” isn’t just offensive, but could be dangerous as well.

In other words, your fun little thought experiment might actually make things worse. It’s not just a fun little thought experiment, really, because ideas and attitudes have consequences out in the real world, into which Landsburg might consider venturing sometime.