Why Live?

YouTube user Religious Fiction considers a question that she has heard from many believers: If there is no God, why live?  The question itself puzzles her, and she suggests that YouTubers should have a big conversation about it:

She says that no theist has ever explained to her “why living with the assumption that there is a God is so great.”  She finds it “hard to imagine that there are gobs of theists out there who would honestly think that they have no reason to live if their assumptions and their doctrine just slipped a bit or maybe even had a profound change.”

It’s true that quite a lot of people do talk as if belief in God were the only thing that made life tolerable, and that it is quite strange of them to do so.  Few people, after all, commit suicide, and most of those who do exhibit one of a very small number of psychological disorders.  The idea of suicide may have a compelling power over many imaginations, but in terms of actual practice suicide is an eccentricity.  When Albert Camus opens his Myth of Sisyphus with the claim that the  only serious philosophical question is whether life is worth living, therefore, it is as if he had said that the only serious philosophical question is whether one ought to ride a unicycle.

That much said, does the frequency with which believers suggest that life would not be tolerable without their beliefs show that they are mentally ill?  I say not.  I think Thomas Fleming’s “Five Good Reasons Not to Be an Atheist,” discussed below, explain why a happy, well-adjusted person could believe that a loss of religious faith would mean a loss of the will to live.

I would focus on the third and fourth of Fleming’s five reasons.  “Atheists have no religious calendars” and “Poor atheists… have no sacred spots.”  These points show, first, that it is not as propositions that the doctrines of a religion have power for its adherents, but as narratives.  The doctrines of a faith are a story in which the believer is given roles to play; the calendar is set of occasions on which the believer will enact those roles one by one, and will join with others as they play their own roles in the same story.  The sacred narrative consecrates particular places, places where key events in the narrative have taken place or will take place.  People can bond with each other as they share a relationship to these places.  Thus, the sacred narrative gives structure to a believer’s  experience of both time and space.  Discard the sacred narrative, and we may choose between a life with no sense of narrative structure or the acceptance of a new master narrative to create a new sense of structure.  “Life with no sense of narrative structure” sounds like a definition of clinical depression.  If we experience life as just one thing after another, we may very well wonder what the point is of living.  “The acceptance of a new master narrative,” on the other hand, sounds less like the outgrowing of illusions for which atheists strive than like a conversion from one religion to another.

The most interesting reply to ReligiousFiction’s invitation that I’ve seen is from QualiaSoup.

QualiaSoup usually does an excellent job explaining where arguments against a secular interpretation of physical phenomena go wrong; there’s a fine example here.  Addressing this question,  he proposes a master narrative about knowledge vindicating ignorance.  Scientific advances and antiracist action make life worth living because they both represent blows against ignorance.  QualiaSoup in fact takes on something of the character of a prophet when laying out this narrative.  Indeed, he presents himself as a prophet who brings not peace, but a sword; his image of a family is a group of people divided by various dark lines, such as “prejudice” and “hate”; these lines cannot be erased until all submit together to the liberating power of knowledge.  Otherwise, our prophet will set a man at variance with his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and the enemies shall be of one household.  He makes this point at greater length here.

Many commenters on QualiaSoup’s video say that people should be hurt if their relatives say that life would be intolerable without religious faith.  I disagree with this position, for two reasons.  First, it is through narrative that family relationships are defined.  Two people may have common ancestors within living memory, and yet feel no kinship at all.  Meanwhile, many people quite seriously regard pets with whom they have no common ancestor in the last 100,000,000 years as family members.  Change the narrative you accept, and your relationships with others will change in ways that cannot be predicted.

Second, let us assume that some person (say, a man named Bob) does live simply for the sake of his or her family.  Let us assume further that Bob lives in a society where it is a great advantage to be classified as “white,” and that the people Bob recognizes as close kin are all classified that way.  How could Bob justify working to abolish that advantage?  Indeed, if Bob considers his life worth living solely or chiefly because he wants to serve the interests of his family, would it not seem natural to him to lay down his life for the sake of perpetuating discrimination in favor of whites?  I certainly agree that Bob ought to find value in his family and enjoy sharing his life with them, but unless he adopts a narrative that can sometimes override that value in the name of a broader kinship he will be doomed to support white supremacy.

Need an unstructured life be dismal?  Certainly there are experiences that are pleasurable whether or not we see them as connected to any other experience.  The physical satisfaction that follows a vigorous workout is pleasurable even if we never give a thought to the benefits it might have for our health; a successful sexual encounter is enjoyable even if it does not strengthen the bond between the partners; solving a problem brings a thrill even if that problem is not part of an important research program.  To keep those self-contained pleasures fresh, however, we must continually increase our level of activity.  For example, when I was in graduate school I was a postmodernist.  The first few years I worked happily, convinced that what I was doing was of value because it was part of the postmodernist contribution to the study of ancient Greek and Latin.  There came a time when I decided that postmodernism was a dead end.  Rather than give up, I began to work much harder.  I found that if I put in 100 hours a week, each piece of work I did still gave me a thrill, even though I no longer believed in the overall project that had once justified it.  I couldn’t sustain that frenzied pace, but many do.  And isn’t frenzied activity one of the worst problems our world faces?  What is behind war, what is behind the destruction of our natural environment, if not people who have thrown themselves into ever-more frenzied activity rather than taking pleasure in the traditional rewards of life?

Irving Babbitt used to say that peace was a religious virtue.  This was a bit of a paradox, since Babbitt himself was not all religious and not at all warlike.  I think the paradox is resolvable, however.  A sacred narrative, with its religious calendar and its holy places, gives its believers something steady and finite.  If the world around them is at peace, they can find meaning and satisfaction without disrupting it.  On the other hand, those who try to live without a sacred narrative cannot be still, regardless of the conditions in which they find themselves.


  1. vthunderlad

     /  January 14, 2011

    I’m ever fascinated by people’s deepest beliefs. The investigations (and defenses) of those beliefs usually result in condemning most or all competing belief systems, whether mildly or harshly. There are few who arrive at a firm sense of the ultimate meaning of life without immediately planting a flag upon their hill and looking down upon dissimilar flags.

    Drawing distinctions is a cornerstone of creating an identity, I suppose, and once distinctions are made humans have to work very hard to not become prejudicial about those differences.

    In any case, the issue of “is life meaningless without God/a sacred narrative?” seems as if it’s a part of a rational investigation (and also a defense) of belief while it’s actually one of the mild condemnations of atheists.

    It does not bother me much that people have differing views on God and religion, and that debate can rage about what is even meant by God: the fact that such diversity of opinion is upheld by the mass of humanity is a testament to my own belief that the primary focus of life is one’s own effort to invest life with meaning.

    I can variously call myself an atheist and a believer without personal discomfort (and certainly I enjoy a private thrill at my seeming deception when talking with certain individuals) because, though I don’t attend religious ceremonies regularly and don’t honor my own tradition with any specific allegiance or fervor, I certainly spend a great deal of time in a form of communion with the exact topics and emotions that I see in play in others’ religious practices. Talking about religion and various concepts of eternity, the continuance of life, good versus evil, our origins and our final destination, whether spirituality can manifest itself physically (eg., miracles) – all of these things fascinate me. Their resonance through virtually every non-sociopathic person marks them as inherent, urgent drivers of the human experience as much as the animal drives. That I don’t honestly believe there is a conscious entity suffusing the universe which caused its creation and transmitted various tracts and tests to mortal creations matters not, to me. There are many myths, and I believe in the power of myth in our minds and lives. I cherish many and love the endless shuffling of symbols the human imagination has produced to deal with our all too brief individual struggles with “the cosmic round.”

    I don’t find myself in this middle ground as a form of challenge or rebellion (as far as I can question myself, anyway) against my upbringing or even against what I do see as often malignant practices of religious folk.

    To me, religious ceremonies and observances have never held any power as magic, as living truth, as a true touchstone to a community or any other number of values that others find there. I observe our general calendar of holidays and gatherings without investing them with actual spiritual significance as far as religious authority is concerned – but that doesn’t mean I don’t find Christmas a particular joy in the middle of winter, or that I don’t feel the need to have meaningful rituals throughout the year (along with unscheduled ones). I do feel a pull towards community celebration and even envy for some with religious traditions. I could see myself adopting some if it became important to please someone, but I doubt strongly I would ever truly convert wholeheartedly, as others do.

    But I do fundamentally and truly believe that humans need to search for meaning. Some need to rely on static pillars of faith that resist even science and personal experience of the world; some get by with denying there’s anything spiritual to contend with, though those folk usually direct plenty of energy to a kind of cult of anti-meaning.

    Even those with very firm beliefs tend to want to challenge themselves to greater understanding, deeper commitment, and further enlightenment. Christians, Jews and Muslims, and everyone else, really, rarely see joining a faith as an automatically renewing thing: they must not only practice regularly, they must attend Sunday school, prayer groups, casual discussions of Koranic principles over coffee, and so on. Meaning in a religious framework is a lifelong pursuit. It certainly provides great benefits to the majority, even as it seems to inevitably invite conflict between groups.

    I find my own search for meaning just as vital, even if it’s an unstructured, free-flowing (perhaps careless when viewed by others) series of engagements. Appreciation of art, nature, other people, my victories and failures, and returning to newly generated and constantly re-edited narratives of my own story, often with new glimpses of mythic symbols temporarily embraced or sketched in, are all a part of what I consider not a stale humanism or a painful non-theistic existence, but the richness of life itself. So am I a believer? The fact is, if I embraced my Catholic upbringing I’d still be a doomed soul in the minds of many supposed Christians! Yet there are times I read about someone’s conception of God that makes me think I should answer, if that person asked me the ever-burning question in America, “Sure, I believe in God.” What are my beliefs to anyone, anyway?

    I’m not immune to marking my beliefs distinctively and defending them, obviously. My defense of my hill and flag is, I suppose, to enjoy looking at the other flags, noting similarities and differences, and, truth be told, judging how much meaning individuals seem to have claimed for themselves. I’ve known religious people who were poisonous creatures and I’ve known outspoken atheists who were comfortable in their own skin and genuine assets to the world.

    Do we have to be religious to want peace? Perhaps Babbitt has different criteria for peace – perhaps he is making an assertion that peace is bound up with religion, not an argument that peace can only follow from religion, which I certainly would find fault with. That’s tantamount to saying religion is required for morality or promoting “good,” which makes sense if you’re a person of faith or if you just like circular arguments. But people of faith rarely claim that someone of a different faith is inherently capable only of evil. A Muslim may despair for the ultimate fate of a Buddhist, but people have always recognized that, like it or not, there are people out there who believe differently. Why should it be different for atheists? Why can’t an atheist be still, on different terms, just as a Catholic might recognize that other Christian denominations are well-meaning though errant in doctrine? Why can’t an atheist be capable of good and evil and a rich, purposeful life, if Christians can allow such for others?

    Stillness, true enlightenment or a reunion with a higher power: attainment of any of these are presented as elusive but noble goals in all traditions. Even those of us without a recognized path want to live a good life, and, despite our common need to find out, we’ll never agree on exactly what that is.

    ps. If you were condemned to reading this whole post – I absolve you of whatever’s troubling you!

  2. acilius

     /  January 14, 2011

    Very interesting, VThunderlad, thanks for the comment. Maybe it should be a post unto itself. It certainly is no condemnation to read it!

    The only thing I’ll comment on right now is the bit about Irving Babbitt. The only remark of Babbitt’s that is at all widely quoted today is “Behind all imperialism is ultimately the imperialistic individual, as behind all peace is ultimately the peaceful individual.” That remark deserves to be remembered, since at the time Babbitt made it in the 1920s “imperialism” was by no means the dirty word it is today. When Babbitt drew a contrast between “peace” and “imperialism,” he was attacking a system that ruled most of the inhabited surface of the planet and that had millions of ardent defenders.

    Babbitt’s big idea was that as animals, humans naturally have an inexhaustible array of cravings, and that only by appeal to a supernatural principle can anyone develop the self-restraint that will limit those cravings to the point where social life becomes possible. That’s why he saw religion as the only source of peace. By his lights, some crude form of religious faith was required to make it possible for people to tolerate each other’s presence, and a very high degree of religious development was needed to make it possible for sovereign states to coexist without mass slaughter.

    Babbitt explained his own existence and that of other peace-loving secularists by reference to the strong religious traditions of the cultures from which they sprang. He claimed that his own anti-imperialism was made possible because he had grown up in an America informed by religion. Conversely, Babbitt attributed the pro-war activities of many American churches to the influence on those churches of essentially anti-supernatural movements such as Romanticism and positivism. This latter argument was picked up just a few years ago by Babbitt scholar Richard Gamble in his book “The War For Righteousness: Progressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation.” Gamble demonstrates that it was precisely among the most “liberal” American churches that support for World War One and the repressive measures of the Wilson administration was strongest, and he makes a strong case for connecting this support with their theological modernism.

    In the humanistic traditions of Europe and Asia Babbitt saw, not threats to religion, but attempts to purify religion of the restless craving for power that drives the conflicts among sects. Babbitt’s concept of tradition is notoriously vague, and he alternates between extravagant claims for the salutary power of tradition and equally extravagant protestations that he is himself the most modern of the moderns. Still, he was fairly consistent about describing tradition as a restraining force and pinning the blame for aggressive and domineering behavior on the corrupting influence of naturalism.

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