The Meaning of God

Over the past three months a running battle between Karen Armstrong and Sam Harris has been raging in the pages of Foreign Policy Magazine, a spirited back-and-forth questioning the value of God and religion for human beings. Harris’ response to Armstrong’s long article focuses, predictably, on the worst excesses of religion and on the negative effects it has in the world, but I want to take on another aspect of Armstrong’s argument. Armstrong claims that:

Homo sapiens is also Homo religiosus. As soon as we became recognizably human, men and women started to create religions. We are meaning-seeking creatures. While dogs, as far as we know, do not worry about the canine condition or agonize about their mortality, humans fall very easily into despair if we don’t find some significance in our lives. Theological ideas come and go, but the quest for meaning continues. So God isn’t going anywhere. And when we treat religion as something to be derided, dismissed, or destroyed, we risk amplifying its worst faults. Whether we like it or not, God is here to stay, and it’s time we found a way to live with him in a balanced, compassionate manner.

While it is certainly true that “we are meaning-seeking creatures”, Armstrong commits a colossal non-sequitur here: in saying that, because “the quest for meaning continues…God isn’t going anywhere”, she implies God is the natural and only possible route to a meaningful life.

Countering this bizarre narrative should be a major task of the New Humanism. First, the proposition is empirically false: there are multitudes of committed Humanists and Atheists who live lives rich with meaning and do not experience any semantic lack stemming from their godlessness. Second, there is no reason to believe that a life without God is inherently or necessarily less meaningful than a life with God. Depending on how you interpret the nature of God, it could help bring meaning to your life, or could mire you in despair at the senselessness of fighting against His will (as Hamlet opines, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will”). Similarly, while rejecting belief in God might lead to debilitating Nihilism, it can also give rise to a life-affirming Humanism which embraces the dignity and worth of every person. Indeed, embracing the worth of secular rituals which bring depth and significance to the process of human being is the subject of Deborah Strod’s article on TheNewHumanism.org.

Armstrong writes, in her answer to Harris’ response to her article, that

Religion is…about the quest for transcendence, the discipline of compassion, and the endless search for meaning; it was not designed to provide us with the same kind of explanations as science, but to help us to live creatively, serenely, and kindly with the suffering that is an inescapable part of the human condition. As such, it continues to appeal to millions of human beings across the globe.

Exactly the same could be said of Humanism. Let’s show Armstrong the truth of this.


5 Responses to “The Meaning of God”

  1. January 8, 2010 at 8:44 pm

    I thought Armstrong was too Pollyanish about religion but Harris was too flip in response.

    I think religion serves as an emotional placebo that makes people feel better. Unfortunately, it also has “side effects” like extremism that are dangerous. It would be preferable to build a community and practice that provides as much of the serves as religion do as is possible without creating fictions and without the side effects.

  2. 2 David Kimball
    January 9, 2010 at 11:02 am

    This “search for meaning” which is unique to humans has nothing to do with a “god”. The whole science of neurobiology and how the mind works describes humans as being the only animals which can reflect on the past, put it in context with the present and cogitate about the future. That is the reflective nature of man. It happens in all areas of our lives. And it applies to our future and even about our possible future existence. We look at our past, we see ourselves today, and we are going to wonder about tomorrow and even the day after we die. That is a natural human response to how our mind works. It has nothing to do with an outside object such as a “god”.

    It is illogical to assume that the contemplating of multiple types of futures is indicative of a second outside force of nature. It is human nature that is manifest here, not god’s nature.

  3. 3 Robert Mack
    January 10, 2010 at 8:56 am

    I wholeheartedly agree with James’ essay and with the comments above. I perceive an obvious disconnect between Armstrong’s observation that mankind seeks meaning and her conclusion that reality is incapable of satisfying that need. I find that contemplation of the world as it exists, without resort to supernatural explanations, can meet my own desire for meaning, emotionally as well as intellectually. The most recent of many possible examples is this Symphony of Science video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hOLAGYmUQV0

    As usual, I can’t argue with the substance of what Harris says but I think his flip tone will tend to alienate people who don’t already share his views.

  4. 4 Robert Mack
    January 10, 2010 at 12:22 pm

    See also the response by Phil Zuckerman in the January 5 HuffPost to an article by Jonah Goldberg in the Los Angeles Times which “asserted that religion is a natural, innate component to being human.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/phil-zuckerman/are-we-hard-wired-for-god_b_411089.html

  5. January 12, 2010 at 4:45 pm

    Intention is one thing, Ms. Armstrong; results in the real world are something else entirely.

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