One of the things we hear a lot at church is that the gospel brings meaning to life. It answers the questions dealing with who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. And, of course, faith, the gospel, church, religion, or whatever you call it can bring meaning to your life.
But do you need to have some sort of religion or faith to for life to have meaning? I don’t think so.
I recently talked about my thoughts on finding meaning in life without religion on a new podcast that I’m part of (yes, that’s a shameless plug). We like to think that religion supplies what we need for a meaningful life, but I’ve been finding meaning on my, own without the adherance to specific religious teachings. Or, rather, I’ve been cherry-picking what I like from various traditions to figure out what gives my life meaning.
Mostly, I’ve found that I can be happy and derive meaning from life, and be a moral person, even without “traditional” religious observance.
One of the ideas that has always bothered me is the thought that without religion, or a belief in a higher power to punish us, we’d all be awful. However, Mormonism teaches that we all have the “light of Christ” in us when we’re born. This is one of the religions that teaches that people are basically good. Yet many of us think that belief in a higher power and religious observance are necessary for morality.
The idea of religion leading to morality is flawed when you look at the fact that many people who do terrible things and are terrible people profess faith. You can point to them as sinners and as poor examples of religion, and insist that grace will save them in the end as long as they believe, but the bottom line is that all their belief hasn’t necessarily given them a moral compass.
And, of course, there is the issue of atheists and how many of them are good people. Good, moral people. To the core. You can argue that many of them had early moral training in religion before leaving. However, now we are seeing some atheists raised by other atheists or humanists who have strong moral centers and lean toward issues of social justice, compassion, fidelity, and treating others with respect.
Find Meaning in Life by Focusing on the Here and Now
One of the irritants I find with following a set religious path is the focus on the future. Yes, we should plan for the future. Yes, we should look forward to a better world. But are we doing it because we hope for individual salvation or exhaltation? In Western religions there is an especially high emphasis on personal salvation in some future paradise. We do a number of things, following prescribed steps, that bring us to our personal paradise. Most religions do include requirements to help fellow-travelers and live good lives now, but the ultimate goal isn’t making the current world a better place. Instead, it’s about a future date that involves eternal rest or exhaltation (depending on your religious persuasion).
That doesn’t sit well with me. I like the idea of being more focused on the here and now, and working on improving myself and helping my community, rather than concerning myself with whether or not I will reach some distant goal of godhood. While a lot of good is accomplished by the religious, the focus on doing it for a future reward isn’t my thing.
My son and I are studying various religions right now. One that really calls to me is Mahayana Buddhism, which includes some who delay their own nirvana on purpose in order to aid others on their path. It reminds of something I read in one of my fantasy novels. Two characters were talking about another, who kept getting diverted from their quest to help others. They said that she seemed to be guided by making whatever corner of the world she inhabited a little better.
No, one person probably isn’t going to change the world. But I find deep meaning and satisfaction in working in my local community. I find purpose in teaching my son to be kind to others and helping him learn to be a contributing member of society. I don’t need to make the whole world a better place. But I can focus on doing good in my community.
And there is meaning in that, without religious observance.
I don’t think that religious observance is bad. I think it’s a great way for people to connect with others, connect with the divine, and find meaning in their lives. It’s a wonderful catalyst for them to find ways to help others and create stronger communities. But it’s not something I feel I need right now.
While I think religion can be a help in finding meaning, I don’t think it’s necessary for finding meaning. You can find meaning in life with or without religion.