Todd May on the Meaning of Life

He has this write-up in the Times’ Stone:

The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre thought that, without God, our lives are bereft of meaning.  He tells us in his essay “Existentialism,” “if God does not exist, we find no values or commands to turn to which legitimize our conduct.  So, in the bright realm of values, we have no excuse behind us, nor justification before us.”  On this view, God gives our lives the values upon which meaning rests. And if  God does not exist, as Sartre claims, our lives can have only the meaning we confer upon them.

This seems wrong on two counts. First, why would the existence of God guarantee the meaningfulness of each of our lives?  Is a life of unremitting drudgery or unrequited struggle really redeemed if there’s a larger plan, one to which we have no access, into which it fits?  That would be small compensation for a life that would otherwise feel like a waste — a point not lost on thinkers like Karl Marx, who called religion the “opium of the people.”  Moreover, does God actually ground the values by which we live?  Do we not, as Plato recognized 2500 years ago, already have to think of those values as good in order to ascribe them to God?

Second, and more pointedly, must the meaningfulness of our lives depend on the existence of God?  Must meaning rely upon articles of faith? Basing life’s meaningfulness on the existence of a deity not only leaves all atheists out of the picture; it leaves different believers out of one another’s picture.   What seems called for is an approach to thinking about meaning that can draw us together, one that exists alongside or instead of religious views.

One comment

  1. Late thanks for the link to this! I really enjoy reading May, and I wish that any of the self-styled “politically-minded” teachers I’ve had (and had the misfortune of having) thus far were anywhere near as insightful and relevant as TM.

    Plus, I must say he does honor to the Kangol.

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