We go to work, we eat, are entertained or entertain others with movies, music, tv, drama and comedy, we party with friends, couple, have sex, yet behind all our activities lurks the question, why do we exist? What is it all about? Why should there be life rather than not? And why us—why are we the ones who should be alive?
I think it is fair to say that this is the ultimate religious question. All of our major religions have a “story” whose purport is to answer it.
It’s likely that humans are the only species on earth who asks such a question of themselves. That observation itself, that we alone ask the question of existence, is often thought to be a clue to the answer. Perhaps other animals fail to ask why they are alive because they have no “higher purpose”; perhaps we ask because we sense that we do. That we even wonder about such things could itself be evidence that there is something “untold” about our lives, that there is “something more”.
Before continuing, let’s ask ourselves what kind of answer could ever satisfactorily resolve this question of “why?”.
Imagine God asking himself (itself/herself)
Why do I exist? What is my purpose?
For God, what could the answer be to such a query? What is it that makes God’s existence meaningful for God?
If we try to address this question from God’s point of view (rather than our own) we are likely to conclude that no possible answer could do God justice. God doesn’t have a “higher purpose” because God is the higher purpose. God doesn’t yearn for “more” because God is the “more”.
God doesn’t have to ask why his life is meaningful, or what makes it meaningful, because God is the source of meaning itself. If your life is the source of meaning, it makes no sense—indeed there is no need—to ask why or whence.
The Meaning of Meaning
But to understand this, let’s look at what it means to be meaningful. Words, as we know, are (usually) meaningful, but what makes them meaningful? Their meaning derives from the fact that they reference—that is to say, they point to—something in the world. Sometimes, to be sure, words only point to other words which point to other words and so on. But eventually there are real, existing things being pointed at which are the source of meaning (even if only in a pretend way, as in fiction), or else the whole pile of words signifies nothing.
Put simply, something is meaningful if it points at something else which serves as its source of meaning. Thus a theist would say that our human lives are meaningful because they point back to a source of meaning in God. But notice a peculiar consequence of this. Unless there is a greater God who is God’s source—and by definition there isn’t—God’s life isn’t meaningful. God has nothing to point back to for a source of meaning.
In this sense in which we use the word meaningful, if applied to God’s case we have to admit that God is not meaningful. God’s existence doesn’t reference something else. This follows because God is a source of meaning, something which meaningful things reference, and not something whose existence references elsewhere.
To our God asking himself what makes his life meaningful, the correct response would be,
God, you don’t understand—that question doesn’t apply to you because you are not meaningful but a source of meaning.
And what if the question doesn’t apply to us either? What if it makes no sense to ask the why questions about our existence because, like God, we are sources of meaning, because our living does not reference elsewhere.
It’s not even that we must create meaning for ourselves, as Sartre maintained. After all, do we imagine God making up stories about himself, creating “reasons” for his existence? It would be unnecessary. Existence doesn’t need meaning, and the attempt to apply “meaning” can only bring it down a notch. Real beings exist; they don’t exist for a reason.
In fact, reasons are only explanations. They come afterward, when we want to talk about things. When we want ideas to work with. Just as it would demean God to say he exists for the purpose of bringing us into the world and furthering our human careers, so it demeans us to say that God created us to carry out some grand plan of his. Meanings & explanations turn us into mere tools. To say we need a meaning is to say—beforehand—that we are tools for something else. It makes us illegitimate, makes us important for someone else, rather than important within.
All such efforts stem from the mistaken trap of believing that thought can legitimize existence. It never can.
We can smother ourselves in explanations (as we smother everything else)—and they are useful (extremely useful when the scientific method is followed)—but explanations can never justify usefulness itself, or justify us in our lives.
We are not the sort of things that need be or ever can be explained. We simply are.
De-Valuing the Body
What is curious is that theists cannot accept the possibility of bodily life being valuable on its own. From the natural perspective, this is difficult to comprehend. The atheist wonders how one could not see bodily life as inherently valuable. How can value not be embodied?
The answer is that theism derives from an incomprehensible but long-standing tradition of splitting body from soul, with all value assigned to the soul side of the equation. The body is devalued “by definition,” which means the theist faces a logically-defined barrier to identifying our bodies as valuable.
As one theist explained to me years ago,
The soul, the personality, is actually the being, not the body. The body is the mere tool or the puppet of the soul to be used for playing the game, and for communication. The truth is that you don’t need a body to experience joy and pleasure. Actually the pleasures that can be had on a ‘body’ level are quite low level when compared to the spiritual ones of serenity and exhilaration.
Life, the soul, the being, can exist with or without the body, but the body without the soul is little more than a hunk of meat with no goals, no hope, no desires, no personality. It is in short ‘dead’ for all practical purposes, except for that it can breath and perform the physical functions of life. —John Kendrix, Seekers BBS, Atlanta, GA, 11/14/1988, Msg# 6476, To: The Atheist, Re: Bodies (spelling corrected)
Kendrix’s devaluation of the body demonstrates the pernicious (if not outright evil) influence of spirituality. It represents a viewpoint endemic to theism, which effectively sets believers up for a life bordering on depression, unmoored from any stable source of value. Within its framework, God is essential of course, and in this sense devaluation of the body serves the religious priesthood well.
Yet God’s role is a disturbing one here, for deity serves as a last-ditch effort to introduce a stable and enduring source of value for our lives, a desperate way to make some kind of sense of life and why we exist as bodies.
But you can’t make sense of why we exist as bodies by denying that we are bodies or denying that bodies are valuable. And you can’t deny the body’s centrality to life and at the same time live and feel with any kind of sanity or moral ground. The problem is that adding God doesn’t make sense of things. A bodiless God, brought in to be the ground of life, is anything but grounded. Inevitably God floats off in the realm of non-existence, weightless, groundless, absurd.
The core problem with God is that he has no body, and therefore no way to move or exist, no way to be valuable, much less to serve as a source of value for us. A disembodied mind—whether God’s or ours—can’t bring value to life.
It takes a body for that.
Getting Rid of the Middleman
The natural world view enhances our inherent value because it removes the “middleman”—God—which has separated us from our worthiness. Many claim that nature without God leads to despair and loss of intrinsic value to life, but in reality we ought to be delighted to be able to dispense with the middleman. Without God, ultimate worth comes back to bodily life itself.
Remove God from your world view and everything that matters gets redirected to life.
If we think of ourselves as natural, and of the natural world view as one that folds God into nature, then we see that atheism can only enhance our worth as human beings. Naturalism eliminates God, but more importantly it eliminates the need for God. It brings value—everything we value—home to our bodies. Home to us.