I made a realization yesterday that helped me better understand my atheist friends. When we get debating atheist I kept arguing that they had a meaning deficiency. How can you have meaning in life if you don’t have a dominant meta-narrative that establishes the meaning OF life.
What helped me was reading atheist Jonathan Haidt’s book the Happiness Hypothesis. In the second to last chapter he teases that now after exploring some of the evolutionary mechanism which explain human religion and community he’d tackle the question of the meaning of life. That raised my anticipation. I found the last chapter very intriguing.
He calls “the meaning of life” the “Holy Question”.
He then says that there are two sub-questions beneath it.
There appear to be two specific sub-questions to which people want answers, and for which they find answers enlightening. The first can be called the question of the purpose of life: “What is the purpose for which human beings were placed on Earth? Why are we here?”
The second sub-question is the question of purpose within life: “How ought I to live? What should I do to have a good, happy, fulfilling, and meaningful life?” When people ask the Holy Question, one of the things they are hoping for is a set of principles or goals that can guide their actions and give their choices meaning or value.
Haidt, Jonathan (2006-12-26). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (p. 218). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
He will the go on to say
I don’t believe there is an inspiring answer to the question, “What is the purpose of life?” Yet by drawing on ancient wisdom and modern science, we can find compelling answers to the question of purpose within life.
Haidt, Jonathan (2006-12-26). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (p. 238). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
I see now how I failed to understand my friends. They were asserting the second. I was acting more like a traditionalist, an ancient, someone who assumed that the answer to both questions is available to us and livable. That is the difference.
Contemporary society says “because we can’t arrive at certainty or consensus on the first question it cannot be public, so we shouldn’t treat that in a public way. The answer to the second question seems to be more public, more doable, and also more individual so that’s the level we should pursue.”
I of course don’t wish to give up on the first question and so will continue to pursue it, but I understand my friends better, I think.