The Big M

May 1, 2009

  AVAILABLE NOW! The meaning of life explained in 200 pages! All answers to your questions and concerns about ultimate significance—for only $99.99.   NOT SOLD IN STORES! Plus, IF YOU ACT NOW, you will receive, ABSOLUTELY FREE, our special bathroom mold remover, so you can contemplate your purpose and place in the universe without distracting fungi.

OK, maybe that sarcasm was a bit excessive, but often I do find discussions about the “meaning of life” pretentious, manipulative, and insulting to our intelligence. The worst offenders are the religious who argue that life has no “meaning” unless there is a God and an afterlife.

  "Successful Huckster of Prepackaged Meaning"

And, yes, I have Rick Warren (a/k/a the vetter of presidents) particularly in mind. Two reasons: A religious person I know recently made reference to his book The Purpose Driven Life and his book has sold a gazillion copies. (I’d link to the web page for his book, but the site indicates all content thereon is copyrighted. Not exactly an example of Christian charity, is it?) Warren’s book, which bills itself as a groundbreaking manifesto on the meaning of life, is chock full of bad reasoning, ridiculous examples, and just plain drivel. According to Warren, our life has meaning because God has five purposes for us, the first one being that “we are planned for God’s pleasure, so you [must] offer real worship.” So being a cog in some super-powerful being’s plan to please itself invests our life with meaning? How precisely? Strikes me more as a rather depressing fate—but then again I am not especially attracted to totalitarianism.

And how does everlasting life provide us with meaning? The notion that unending duration is indispensable to meaning is unsupported and horribly flawed. As Bertrand Russell observed, “Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting.” Eternity actually drains our lives of meaning—and not just because it suggests we may have to spend a very long time with hucksters like Warren.  It is precisely because our lives are finite and that we are ultimately responsible for what we accomplish or fail to accomplish that our lives assume significance. What we do matters because we do not get second chances.

Of course, pointing out that religion provides no solution to the problem of the “meaning of life” doesn’t show that humanists can provide the answer.

Well, we can’t. Because this so-called problem is not framed properly. There is no such thing as THE answer to questions about THE meaning of life. Think about it. Given how diverse our lives are, there can only be diverse meanings to our various individual lives. Neither I nor any humanist “prophet” can show you the true path to “meaning,” O my children. Sorry, but you have to create meaning for yourself. Indeed, this underscores why it is possible for your life to have meaning. Meaning isn’t something doled out to you. It doesn’t come prepackaged. It can’t be found between the covers of any one book. One size does not fit all. You have the possibility of achieving fulfillment on your own terms because you are a unique individual who is not some part of a preordained master plan. Leave the facile, false solutions to “the meaning of life” to those sheep who feel the need for a shepherd.

The foregoing wasn’t 200 pages long, but that is a virtue in my opinion. So if you want to send me $99.99…