Inventing Your Own Life’s Meaning

ricky gervais quote on something to live for

“To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.” Bill Watterson, author of the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes

The meaning of one’s life is a question every human struggles with. Many people turn to religion to give their life meaning. Evangelical zealots accuse atheists of having meaningless lives. According to them, a life without the Evangelical God is no life at all.

For the Evangelical, the meaning of life is strictly defined.  The Westminster Shorter Catechism ask the question, what is the chief end of man? The answer? Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.

In the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon said the sum of a human’s life is:

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.

Deuteronomy 6:4-9 states:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord:and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates.

Jesus, in Matthew 22:37-40, stated:

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.This is the first and great commandment.And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

From these verses, the Evangelical concludes that the meaning of life is found in the worship of the Evangelical God and keeping his commandments. Worship and obedience.  The Evangelical is commanded to love God with all his soul and mind and to love his neighbor as himself. In doing this, their life brings glory to God.

Many of us took took seriously these commands. We set out to form our lives according to the teachings, commands, and precepts of the inspired, infallible, inerrant Word of God. Out of love, devotion, and worship to God, we determined to live sanctified, committed lives. To the best of our ability, we surrendered our lives to God, asking him to do whatever he wanted with us. We didn’t matter, he did.  Like the virgins in Revelation 14:4, we followed the lamb (Jesus) wherever he went. What Would Jesus Do (WWJD) was not a cute saying to us, it was a way of life.

Of course, this kind of thinking, because it was rooted in ignorance about the nature and history of the Bible, led to failure. Try as we might, we could not keep all the commands of God. Even though our hearts burned with righteousness and zeal, every day we failed to measure up to God’s holy standard. Even with the Bible in our hands and the Holy Ghost in our hearts, we failed.

The problem wasn’t our warped understanding of grace, as some will surely say. The proponents of cheap grace are everywhere today, preaching the wondrous gospel of fire insurance. If one takes the Bible seriously, believes all of it is the very words of God, how can they not strive to obey every teaching, command, and precept found in the Bible? It is up to those who preach up grace to show why they are free from what God has commanded. It is up to them to explain why they can embrace what the Bible says about Jesus and grace but ignore what it says about how to live one’s life.

The liberal Christian rightly points out that Evangelicals don’t really take the Bible literally and they most certainly don’t obey all the commands found in the Bible. Of course the liberal rarely points out that either do liberal Christians. The Evangelical at least makes a good faith effort to keep the commands of God. The liberal Christian dismisses most of the commands of the Bible, either by explaining them away, reinterpreting them, of ignoring them. Rarely do they present a cohesive argument for doing so.

Both the Evangelical and the liberal Christian find their meaning within the pages of the Bible.  What within its pages gives them meaning varies greatly. Few atheists would argue that loving your neighbor as yourself is a bad idea. Few would argue against the fact  that some of the teachings, commands, and precepts of the Bible have moral and ethical value.

It is one thing to say that the Bible is a good book from which wisdom and guidance can be derived. If the Bible is just one book among many, all is well, but Evangelicals don’t believe the Bible is one book among many. They believe the Bible is THE BOOK, the only book, the one true source of wisdom. To them, wisdom is gained by fearing God and keeping his commandments.  The Bible becomes the blueprint for life, the operating manual for every generation, culture, and person. It is a timeless book that teaches timeless truths.  There isn’t many ways, truths, and lives…there is ONE way, truth, and life, Jesus Christ.

To the Evangelical, the atheist, the agnostic, the humanist, is a fool. The Bible says in Psalm 14:1:

The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good.

According to the Evangelical:

  • The atheist, the agnostic, the humanist is a fool, and the Bible has nothing good to say about fools
  • The atheist, the agnostic, the humanist is corrupt
  • The atheist, the agnostic, the humanist  does abominable works
  • The atheist, the agnostic, the humanist does not do good (forgetting the fact that the Bible says in Romans 3 that the Evangelical doesn’t do good either)

It is for these reasons that the Evangelical thinks atheists, agnostics, and humanists live meaningless lives. They can not comprehend a life of value without their God being in the center of it.  For the Evangelical, their worship and devotion will have a big pay off some day. According to John 14, Jesus is in heaven right now preparing a mansion (KJV) or a room (NIV) for them. Without such a pay off, according to the Evangelical, live is meaningless and not worth living. I suspect more than a few Evangelicals wonder why atheists, agnostics, and humanists don’t kill themselves since they have NOTHING to live for.

Over the past five years, countless Evangelicals have told me that my life is meaningless. A few have even suggested I commit suicide and get it over with. No matter how I try to explain how and why my life has meaning, they reject what I say because they can not fathom a meaningful life without the Evangelical God. Their minds are made up; no God, no life.

The Evangelical finds meaning in their religion and the Bible. The atheist, agnostic, and humanist, as Bill Watterson states, must invent their own life’s meaning. It is not an easy path to walk. Let’s face it, in many ways life was easier when we were an Evangelical Christian. The Bible defined what was moral/immoral, ethical/unethical.  The Bible was the owner’s manual for our life and all we had to do is consult it on a daily basis. Now, there is no owner’s manual and we are forced to rethink and adjust our moral and ethical beliefs, and, at times, jettison moral and ethical beliefs that no longer make sense. This process can often be quite bewildering and painful, and more than one atheist has said, life sure was a lot easier when I was a Christian.

For most atheists and agnostics, it is humanism that gives their life meaning and moral/ethical form and substance. The Humanist Manifesto III states:

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

The lifestance of Humanism—guided by reason, inspired by compassion, and informed by experience—encourages us to live life well and fully. It evolved through the ages and continues to develop through the efforts of thoughtful people who recognize that values and ideals, however carefully wrought, are subject to change as our knowledge and understandings advance…

Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience. Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond. We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility.

Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals. We aim for our fullest possible development and animate our lives with a deep sense of purpose, finding wonder and awe in the joys and beauties of human existence, its challenges and tragedies, and even in the inevitability and finality of death. Humanists rely on the rich heritage of human culture and the lifestance of Humanism to provide comfort in times of want and encouragement in times of plenty.

Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships. Humanists long for and strive toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences, where differences are resolved cooperatively without resorting to violence. The joining of individuality with interdependence enriches our lives, encourages us to enrich the lives of others, and inspires hope of attaining peace, justice, and opportunity for all.

Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness. Progressive cultures have worked to free humanity from the brutalities of mere survival and to reduce suffering, improve society, and develop global community. We seek to minimize the inequities of circumstance and ability, and we support a just distribution of nature’s resources and the fruits of human effort so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life…

It is clear from the Humanist Manifesto that the life of humanist has great meaning and that meaning is found in life itself.  Since this life is the only life we have, how we live it matters. As a husband, father, grandfather, citizen, neighbor, and friend, I want others to have a free, productive, fulfilling, happy life. Yes, death will end our live all too soon, but until it does, we should busy ourselves doing that which not only benefits ourselves but the lives of others. The humanist can say Amen to the Bible command to love our neighbor as ourselves. We all benefit when every human lives a free, productive, fulfilling, happy life. When love and peace reign we all benefit.

I realize that nothing I have said in this post will convince the Evangelical that atheists, agnostics, and humanists have a meaningful life. They are blinded by their obedience to a fallible, errant, contradictory ancient text, and until they are disabused of this belief they will not see the world any other way. The liberal/progressive Christian often sees the world like the atheist, agnostic and humanist does. While they may still believe in God, they, like the non-believer, do not grant the Bible power over their lives, and they do not allow the Bible to become the only measure by which they determine what is a meaningful life.

Comments (26)

  1. Anne

    Thank you for this, Bruce. Just recently started reading Forbidden Fruit by Paul Kurtz. Began my deconversion in my early 50′s and now at 60 find myself pondering how to best “redeem the time” wasted for most of my life in fundy delusion. Better late than never, I suppose! I so appreciate your writing and relate to so much of what you share!

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Thanks, Anne and I love the redeem the time reference. I sure did preach that text a lot. :)

      Reply
  2. August

    It doesn’t matter who one is; one *always* creates the meaning for one’s own life. That’s true even if one decides that the Bible will be their guide. That is a choice that they make for themselves.

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      On one hand, I agree with you…but…

      We all start out in life as a blank slate. Geography, culture, family, and peers generally define meaning for us. For people birthed into a religious culture/family, they didn’t choose that religion, it chose them. Based on my upbringing, there was no doubt I would be a fundamentalist Christian. It is when we reach adulthood that we truly begin to investigate and choose that which gives life meaning.

      Reply
  3. Jeff Brown

    Bruce,
    I do so enjoy reading your posts, especially on this and related topics. I could not begin to put all this information, my atheist and humanist beliefs into such a ‘this-makes-sense’ content. I usually don’t post many humanist things to my FB page although everyone knows where I stand. But this one I will. It will most likely be ignored as that’s how my friends and family have chosen to deal with anything I post from a humanist perspective. And, that works for me.

    Write when you can, rest when you must and I hope your mind continues to allow you to blog.

    Jeff Brown

    Reply
  4. ismellarat

    What can be said about the meaning of life to these people.

    It’s goody for him:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yvbSv_ZeGRg

    And tough shit for them:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mEKjlip9ECk

    So I don’t see how atheists have anything better to offer than many of the religious.

    Atheists are supposed to be happy that these people’s lives will end up being bad and forgotten (but meaningful?) jokes, and the fundamentalist nut jobs give them their own “meaning” by wanting the tortures to continue forever.

    There’s a funny scene from the movie Always, where the dead wake up to meet Shirley MacLaine. Hell, I’ll even take that option (and ask the bastard in charge why all the suffering leading up to it was necessary), before I can be happy expecting nothing at all.

    There must be a better ending to this story.

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      No atheist/humanist denies that bad things happen and that many people have difficult lives. The difference is, the humanist’s worldview is defined by reality, by the present. We hope for a better day, not only for ourselves but for others. The Evangelical’s worldview is defined by a promise of eternal payoff, an eternity he has never seen and can not know exists. Many Evangelicals see life before the grave as something that must be endured.(not all do) The difficult life, in a sinful world, is the price they pay for a mansion in heaven after they die. I wouldn’t have any problem with their pie-in-the-sky thinking if they weren’t so focused on enduring life and waiting for the imminent return of Jesus. It is hard to get Evangelicals fired up about the reality of global climate change when they think Jesus could come at any moment and torch everything to the ground.

      Reply
      1. ismellarat

        There are moral, future-oriented atheists, as well as believers who are such, but I think the majority in each group don’t really give a dam about anyone outside their immediate circles, so I don’t necessarily get excited when I hear conversion stories from whatever to whatever. It seems that people generally just trade one set of definitions for another, realigning their in- and out-groups as needed.

        One merely need give each group a grade-school geography test, which most would flunk, to reveal of how little concern the lives of those outside their circles really are to them.

        The most frustrating thing is that I can’t prove there will be something in it for them by changing. A specific incentive from beyond the grave would do it, but the established religions seem to mostly be focused on kissing some deity’s ass and “getting in.” They even emphasize that being good isn’t the point, that it’s only a by-product that comes on its own. If only that much were true!

        Earthly incentive structures don’t seem much different. It’s all about surrounding yourself with goodies while you can. And referring to them as “blessings,” if their worldview happens to call for it.

        Side note: A fascinating project would be to have a series of debates solely among converts who had a good track record of having been one thing before they became something else . X->Y debates Y->X, with each telling the other that they’d already been there, done that.

        You and this lady might find a few things to talk about. ;-)

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pTMuTDIMvXU

        She spent an interesting few minutes on the “create your own meaning” issue.

        Reply
  5. kittybrat

    It is so much better to live today, knowing that there is not some deity with a “plan” buggering up everything!

    Life is full, and beautiful. It is tough, and lovely…. and so liberating without a “god”. Who needs a vengeful, irrational, psychopath to warp one’s mind and values? Not this chickie!

    Reply
    1. ismellarat

      “Life is full, and beautiful…”

      The point of reference should be one of an impartial observer, in the worst situations you can try to imagine being in. What kind of metaphysical reality would best serve the people I linked to above, for example (since we’re all in the same boat)?

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mEKjlip9ECk

      Something which doesn’t serve them doesn’t seem worth appreciating, to me. There’s nothing beautiful about their looking forward to either a nonexistence (which, if that’s how it is, they may as well get over with, considering their situation), or an eternity of more tortures.

      Or, if it’s 100% about sticking only to what we know is real, why make any reference to personal happiness at all? We may as well say that life simply “is what it is.”

      Reply
  6. bill wald

    Bruce,

    Is your life worth more than the lives of the cattle you eat? Why should healthy people pay taxes to pay for your and my medical costs?

    Even as a Christian, I don’t understand the big deal about “meaning of life.” We are all now “human resources.” A resource is something to be used and and discarded when it is no longer useful. In the old days companies had personnel departments, not (human) resource departments. The joke of the century is that corporations are persons and persons are resources.

    Bill

    Reply
    1. ismellarat

      Hey, what do you think of the same question I just asked an atheist? Are you happy being a Christian because “I got mine?” What do you think of these tortured people’s situations – those of whom who weren’t Christians when they died? Will God be piling on more?

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mEKjlip9ECk

      I make up my metaphysics as I go, so I’m free to say what I wish would be true, but I think both you guys have to defend something with (different) holes in it, so I’d be curious to hear your input also. :)

      BTW, here’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. I hope it’s true, as far as it goes, that there’s something on the other side. I hope we eventually all go there, even if we die just the way we are. How about you?

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lx14HUpX660

      You’ll like this article, too:

      http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2013/12/24/atheism-is-an-intellectual-luxury-for-the-wealthy/

      Reply
      1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

        I really have nothing to defend. I am one man, expressing how I presently view life. I think humans are social creatures that generally band together for the common good. This common good is the social contract (s) we operate by.

        Reply
      2. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

        I am not sure there is much value in hoping for life after death. If there is, great. If not, I will have wasted the part of my life I spent on the fantasy of life beyond the grave. Now if someone comes back from the dead…well that would be different. So far, it is 0 back from the dead, billions and billions dead. :)

        Reply
        1. ismellarat

          “I am not sure there is much value in hoping for life after death.”

          It (religion) can have value as a motivating force, and I think this is underestimated. Many atheists simultaneously argue that society doesn’t need it – because what’s good is obvious, and would have been done anyway by good people – and that it’s also not needed because it likewise makes people do bad things. I don’t think both can be argued at the same time, and yes, I know the catchy saying that goes along with it.

          What’s lacking are an easy to disseminate and obviously existing love your neighbor standard and enforcement mechanism which reach beyond the grave.

          The well-meaning religious are hampered with sources which endorse eternal torture and baby killing, and which only preach love your neighbor with qualifications. Many take neighbor to only mean those who believe as they do. I wish we had something better.

          “If there is, great. If not, I will have wasted the part of my life I spent on the fantasy of life beyond the grave.”

          I think the waste had mostly to do with all the silly baggage you had to schlep around with it. To the extent that you changed people’s actual behavior for the better, it wasn’t a waste. You’re still trying to do it! ;-)

          Reply
  7. Stephanie

    But couldn’t one say they are living their life for the afterlife? If you believe that your life is no longer at death then you have to value every moment of life that you get.
    I totally agree that things were easier being religious. I knew what was right, what was wrong. Didn’t have to think too deeply about issues. Had to ignore a lot of reality so that wasn’t easier.
    I get depressed from time to time as everyone does but my life has meaning. I love my friends and family. I get joy out of helping people, learning new things, new experiences, wondering about the world. Like the Humanist manifesto said those are the things human beings find meaning in. I am sure the devout wouldn’t disagree that they also find meaning in those things.

    Reply
  8. ismellarat

    “Evangelical zealots accuse atheists of having meaningless lives.”

    *Ultimately* meaningless, they would say, because there is no ultimate existence. I get that, if you think you’ll cease to exist soon, you might value the time you have left more, but it can also lead to a nihilism.

    A movie scene comes to mind, where some scumbag was living fast and loose, killing and robbing as he went. A bank robbery finally went bad on him, he took a few bullets, and he did what for him was the next logical thing. Realizing that the fun was finally over, he blew his brains out. Many people think this way, and I don’t see why they should bother changing, once they’ve already burnt their bridges and gone down that road.

    So I think prison ministries are doing good work, telling such people that there will always be a future they can invest in by making changes, even if it’s on death row.

    I just feel sad that they’re stuck doing it by only telling the “good” parts of their story. They wouldn’t dare directly preach “guess where we think your mother’s going.”

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    1. ismellarat

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        1. ismellarat2

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  9. oneperson

    There was a period of time after I began drifting away from my fundamentalist-type absolutes, that I felt and thought and stated: “Sometimes I long for that cocoon of ‘knowing.’ ”

    As of now, some eight years later, the freedom is sweet. But at the beginning of this leg of the journey, it was an overgrown intimidating wilderness. I’m glad I grew some wings and that the cocoon has pretty much decayed.

    That said, I will never forget the darkness of that false security in that faux cocoon. (At least I hope I don’t forget…)

    Great post Bruce.

    Reply
  10. Angiep

    Funny, I did not feel life as a Christian was easier, nor did I feel that I was in a safe cocoon. I felt more like I was under a microscope with God’s eye on me every second. I wasn’t supposed to think for myself, but rather to accept what I was taught from the pulpit. That wasn’t easy at all; it goes towards the reason I am now an atheist. I didn’t leave the faith because either believing or not believing gave me something to live for. I just couldn’t believe the myths and lies any more. I also had to look at people and situations through what I call the “God filter.” I couldn’t just like a person based on their own merits; I had to worry about getting them saved so they wouldn’t go to hell! I couldn’t just enjoy life; I had to be witnessing and carrying myself in a way that glorified God. So no, it wasn’t easier at all for me…it makes me so grateful every day that I am no longer under that burden.
    I loved the Humanist Manifesto – it made such good sense.

    Reply
  11. John Arthur

    Hi Bruce,

    I agree pretty much with this humanist manifesto even though I believe in a mystical ‘presence’ which I experience in meditation. This may be “God’ or it may be something that is just occurring in my being when I engage in such a process.

    The emphasis on living this life in cooperative and peaceful relationships with others is more important than worrying about the next life. If there is an ‘after life’, I hardly think it will be like the Evangelical thinks it will be. I can’t imagine how God could torture people forever. It’s so unjust, so repulsive and so lacking in compassion. How could anyone who loves his enemies torture them forever? ‘God’ save us from religion (especially Evangelicalism)!

    To live a meaningful and worthwhile life doesn’t require religion or holy books or church attendance. Sometimes these things hinder us. A life of compassion and peace can be developed with or without religion, with or without a belief in God. But many Evangelicals can’t understand this. They are, too often, indoctrinated by an “us and them” mentality preached from the platform and in the books they read from their local Evangelical bookstore. They think that their is only ONE way and they have the correct interpretation of that way.

    They think that atheists, agnostics, people who belong to non Christian religions and even Liberal and Progressive Christians live meaningless lives because we are on the path to hell to be tortured by their ‘loving’ God.

    Better to focus on promoting peace, social justice and care of the environment by showing respect and kindness to others and by seeking to uplift those around us than to be preoccupied with the next life.

    Thanks for this post, Bruce.

    Shalom,
    John Arthur

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    1. ismellarat

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