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Sep 06 2011

Questions, answers, and the search for meaning

One of the common statements made in favour of religion is that it provides us with answers to life’s deepest and most important questions: why are we here? how should we behave? what is the ultimate purpose of life? A commenter here once expressed dissatisfaction at my explanation of where morality comes from if not from a deity, saying that my naturalistic and philosophical explanations of the origin of morality were not going to provide “meaning” to people’s lives. I suppose the criticism assumes that religious-based morality does provide that kind of “meaning”. Atheism and science are, the criticism goes, not equipped to answer the ‘big questions’. A quote that I used to like, and would press into service in my own criticisms of atheism goes something like: Science tells you how; religion tells you why.

It’s a nice, pat phrase that allows believers to smugly assert that despite the fact that their beliefs have no basis in fact, they provide an existential framework that science simply does not address. Religious beliefs provide the kinds of answers that are ‘spiritually’ satisfying, allowing people to quiet the constant questioning that happens in the backs of their minds so that they can get on with their lives. This kind of thinking bothers me for three main reasons, which I will go to in detail.

1. They do not answer anything

Imagine for a moment you asked me why tomatoes are red, and I answer “because rain falls upwards in the southern archeosphere”. Technically, in a very shallow sense of the term, I have given you an ‘answer’. You have asked me a question, and I have given you a sentence in response that starts with the word ‘because’. The problem, immediately discernible, is that what I have told you is utter nonsense. First of all, rain doesn’t ever fall upward, regardless of where you are relative to the globe – the very concepts of “fall” and “up” are diametrically opposed. Second, the word ‘archeosphere’ is completely made up – it has no value semantically. Finally, even if my statement was valid, it has nothing at all to do with tomatoes. What I have given you is a completely useless answer.

It is the same with the answers that religion gives. “Why shouldn’t I kill?” “Because God says that it is wrong.” The definition of the word ‘God’ is vague and applied equally to any number of different semantic concepts. Saying that “God” says something in particular is in no way an answer to the question – it does not provide us with any information.

2. They presume uniformity of belief

But if we, for the sake of argument, grant a particular definition of a deity (and this is a major concession on my part), religious “answers” still do not reach the status of an actual answer. If you were to ask me why it is that European countries are far better off than African countries, I could give you a facile response: “it’s pretty obvious once we recognize that white people are genetically superior and predisposed to excellence.” Now, this would be an answer to your question provided that we agree on the genetic superiority of the white race. However, assuming that you aren’t a white supremacist, you’re likely going to (correctly) label my answer as non-legitimate.

It is the same for religious answers to questions. We have no reliable evidence that even if there were a deity, that your particular interpretation is correct. The response completely fails to give a meaningful answer to the question, because it is based on the assumption that all people believe in the same gods that you do. An earthquake and a hurricane on the eastern coast of the United States is an unlikely event, and many people have pronounced that it is evidence of their god’s judgment for some transgression or another. The problem, of course, is that there are a variety of imagined slights that are supposedly being punished or warned about. Not only that, but many people who agree on the basic concept of their god disagree that she/he would use such an oblique method as an earthquake and a hurricane to send her/his message. The response fails to address the question accurately.

3. They beg the question

Back in high school I took a course in philosophy (roughly the equivalent of a 1st-year university survey course). One of the assignments we had to do was to construct our own ‘argument, refutation, counter-refutation’ essay on a philosophical topic of our choice. I’m sure Mr. Peglar would be proud to know how much that class informed not only this blog, but my thought process more generally. One of the essays written by a classmate of mine concerned teaching an artificial intelligence to learn to use and interpret language. His basic thesis was that there are a number of ways that words in the English language can be arranged that are syntactically correct, but semantically meaningless – for example: penguins often ward intrinsically argumentative pacifism’. Sure, the words each make sense, and the way they are arranged is grammatical, but it doesn’t make any sense.

I feel the same way about many of the “big questions” we are supposed to turn to religion to solve. “What is the meaning of life” is perhaps the most egregious culprit for this one. The question entirely presupposes the existence of a ‘meaning’ for life, and then demands that we identify it. Why would we suppose that there is something at all like ‘a meaning’ for life? I could paraphrase and produce similarly faux-profound koans: “where does the sound a soul makes go?”, “who created sunlight?”, “why can’t we weigh time?” Yes, they’re all questions that make sense in English, but they don’t make anything even approaching sense. Assuming the existence of an answer bypasses the more important question: is there an answer?

So whenever people tell me that they gain a great deal of meaning from their religious beliefs, or that religion is how they find answers to the big questions in their lives, I am always mystified. Without exception, the ‘answers’ that religions provide are based on shaky evidence at best, and complete incomprehensibility at worst. We can develop ways of answering real questions, but as anyone who works in the sciences will be able to tell you, formulating these questions properly is 90% of the difficulty. We should never accept pat, simplistic, and evidence-free answers to complex questions, no matter how comforting we may find it to do so.

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4 comments

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  1. 1
    Daniel Schealler

    You’re touching on one of my pet hates: The rhetorical application of misleading euphemism.

    Q: What is the meaning of life?
    A: Any metabolizing, reproducing pattern of complex chemicals.

    Q: Do you think there is more out there?
    A: Yes. Example: Europe.

    Q: Do you think we are part of something bigger?
    A: Yes. Example: The room we’re standing in. Or the solar system.

    These answers to these questions are obviously pat and tongue-in-cheek – but they also reveal that the questions are poorly worded. They do not accurately reflect what the questioner is actually talking about.

    I’m not entirely sure why that bothers me as much as it does… But its a reliable button that someone can press to send me into a fit of pique.

  2. 2
    Abeille

    I like (and have used) Dawkin’s, “Why are unicorns hollow?”

  3. 3
    Luna M

    Hi!

    I just found this blog through the Friendly Atheist, and I’m really glad I did. I read (and lurk on) a lot of atheism blogs, but yours is the first that I’ve found that really resonates with my ideas about the world. With Pharyngula or Blag Hag or FA, I can say, “Well yes, that makes sense, but…” And I’ve got a new point of view to assess, which is always nice. But here, I’m just nodding along the whole time and thinking “Well that makes exact perfect irrefutable sense to me. That is basically what I think about this topic.” Which is unsual, but certainly welcome.

    I’m sure we can’t agree about everything, though. I’ll keep reading and see. Maybe I’ll even post again, though I’m really more of a lurker, honestly. :]

  4. 4
    Crommunist

    What a nice thing to say! Thanks so much! As long as you keep reading ‘em, I’ll keep writing ‘em.

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