In an Oct. 3 WSJ article “Swords Into Plowshares,” which was adapted from Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, the author Jonathan Sacks discusses the “re-emergence of religion as global force” after the collapse of communism. According to him, this happened because “it is hard to live without meaning” for humans, “the meaning-seeking animal.” And he seems to say that that meaning can be only provided by a religion or a “substitute for religion”, a political ideology such as communism. He writes: “If there is one thing the great institutions of the modern world do not do, it is to provide meaning. Science tells us how but not why. Technology gives us power but cannot guide us as to how to use that power. The market gives us choices but leaves us uninstructed as to how to make those choices. The liberal democratic state gives us freedom to live as we choose but refuses, on principle, to guide us as to how to choose…. The world’s great faiths offer meaning, direction, a code of conduct and a set of rules for the moral and spiritual life in ways that the free-market, liberal democratic West does not.”
I agree with the author that humans, in general, seem to desire a meaning for life. This desire for the meaning of life may even be said what separates humans from other animals. But I also suspect that this human tendency may be a byproduct of modern life that allows even an average person enough time to ask such a question. As Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, famously asked, “To be, or not to be, that is the question”. And such a question is asked precisely because life, at times, seems hard despite the repeated mantra of preciousness of life. Hamlet himself explicates this after that famous question: “Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer/ The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, / And by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep -/ No more, and by a sleep to say we end/ The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks/ Devoutly to be wished to die to sleep!” This is a disturbing yet heart-felt thought. But as an average adult person knows, such a thought is often merely a passing thought, a whim. But how can the grown-ups teach a young person the thought of ending one’s existence a mere whim that he/she would certainly regret had he/she lived? Thus, a theological doctrine that suicide makes one go straight to hell becomes useful. This is not an argument but a simple truth: when one ends one’s life one goes to hell, the most horrific place imaginable. That’s how a skeptical prince Hamlet stops short of ending his existence: “But that the dread of something after death,/ The undiscovered country, from whose bourn/ No traveler returns, puzzles the will,/ And makes us rather bear those ills we have,/ Than fly to others that we know not of?”
I also agree with the author that a major religion offers a ready-made meaning of life for individuals. According to major religions, such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam, this physical life constrained by time and space is but a preparation to the permanent existence either in heaven or hell, that is the ultimate meaning of human life. However, it is difficult to imagine a healthy, well-to-do person truly lived a religious life throughout one’s life submitting to the code of conduct prescribed by a religion. I actually believe only minority of religious people are “religious” honoring the direction and code of conduct supplied by a religious orthodoxy. For instance, it is a well-known story that the highly intelligent mathematician Blaise Pascal was persuaded into succumbing to the code of conduct prescribed by Catholicism. But, he did so only when he was physically weak and after rational calculation of the possible damnation in eternal hell as opposed to temporary submission of his will to the will of God (after all his life would not be long). Then, what does it mean that a religion provide a meaning of life to an individual if it is not sustained throughout his/her life? Is it true that only a religion can provide a meaning for life? I believe there are other ways to create a meaning of life. For instance, an individual may create a meaning of life in an ad-hoc fashion as he/she lives.
It may not be a totalizing idea. It may not be an eternal idea. It may not be a heroic idea. Nonetheless, a created meaning of life by one individual is a meaning of life. For instance, a person’s meaning of life for the first 2 decades since birth is to make him/her educated so that he/she may be able to deal with life’s difficulties in a more informed manner, whereas the second 2 decades should be devoted to creating a family or contributing to a larger society in one way or another, and so on. Is such a short-term meaning of life unsatisfactory? Perhaps. But, who can deny such a meaning is a meaning. The problem is of course the meaning of life in the face of extreme suffering. I can imagine one person finds his/her meaning of life in the very act of enduring this suffering whereas another person finds his/her meaning of life in the act of having control of his/her destiny. Is this such a disturbing way to consider a meaning of life? Does it destroy the fabric of society?
The fact is that religion that preaches irrational faith as a way to cope with the poor and miserable life lost its power among the more educated and materially well-to-do people in the West as science became the most reliable method of inquiry that could produce technologies that make life easier. It is conceivable that these people who had lost religion would come back to religion as they age and become weak.
The current social turmoil occurring in the world was not caused by the lack of meaning of life, but rather it was caused by the rigidity of that religious meaning for human life. If the phenomenal life is considered as a mere preparation for the eternal life in heaven or hell, wouldn’t it be logical to consider it not that precious? Wouldn’t it be logical to perform an act that provides the shortest way to the eternal life in heaven? Wouldn’t it be easy to consider the life as one knows it as dispensable, because the question if one “lives” in the eternal world or not is the ultimate meaning of life? Sometimes I wonder if this religious meaning of life coupled with the theology of apocalypse would be the very hotbed for stirring up the vision of ecstatic annihilation of the world in the mind of the passionate believers.
“The Second Coming” by W. B. Yeats
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity…