Meaning and Happiness

I’m not going to address the canard that without god we can’t have meaning in our lives. OK, yes I am. But only briefly, and the rest will only deal with that question indirectly. Yes, it is quite obvious that people without a belief in gods have meaning in their lives. Perhaps not inherent, absolute, and cosmically significant meaning, but those things are illusory, just like gods.

I have been, since childhood, rather introspective. I do a lot of thinking about thinking, reflecting on experience, and asking simple “why…” questions about mundane things that most people take as granted.  To me, the beginning of skepticism begins with the ability to ask why something is, and then asking for reasons to keep accepting it.  I never merely accepted the way things are and that they need to be that way. Thus, my becoming a degenerate deviant is not surprising.

Ultimately, I think seeing polyamory, atheism, and skepticism as deviant and degenerate is, well, unfortunate and morosely funny.  It does not speak well of our species that such basic values as demanding evidence for claims and then not accepting worldviews that can’t stand up to such demands is the weird thing. But I digress…

Anyway, I’m one of those annoying people who thinks asking why we do and believe certain things is good. I also am interested in various experiences. I was very interested in meditation while young, and much of what I learned and experienced during those times in my life have influenced how I see the world, how I think, and how I try and improve as a person.  I “experimented” with drugs while younger (meaning I enjoyed their effects while on them), and while I have little interest in such things now, I am glad that I had those experiences.

When I got to college, I was very interested in taking as many courses that dealt with religion, philosophy, and anthropology as I could. I was interested in questions about meaning, belief, and knowledge in culture and psychology. Is there any surprise that I graduated with a degree in ‘religious anthropology”?  Is there any surprise that I write about religion, think about religion, and ultimately oppose religion?

I knew that the history of ideas which dealt with meaning, experience, etc are contained in philosophy, theology, and religion. I also knew that I didn’t believe in any gods, had strong issues with religions, both organized and less-than-organized, and that I had an attraction to science and philosophy.

After reading religious thinkers from over the centuries, including many scriptures and apologetic writing, I knew that these things had something to offer us, even if much of it was meshed with absurd theological assertions and assumptions; I knew that it is all too easy to conflate interesting psychological insights with the tradition adjacent to their origin. That is, I understood that a Catholic, Moslem, or Hindu thinker could say something interesting, insightful, or even true without that idea having any logical relevance to the theology they believed.

So, any sophisticated theologian who attempts to claim that this gnu atheist is unfamiliar with sophisticated theology, I can confidently reply that they are simply incorrect. No Courtier’s Reply can stick to me, especially since the Reply is absurd on its face.


For a few years I have thought about how we, as a community of reason, could talk about such things outside of a theological context.  I mean, philosophers do it all the time, right? (And I do have a MA in philosophy).  Then today I ran into this post by Dale McGowan which talks about the importance of social interactions in happiness.  It is a quick review of a study about why religion makes people happier.

Essentially the point is encapsulated here, stolen from McGowan’s post, in these quotes by Chaeyoon Lim:

[Life satisfaction] is almost entirely about the social aspect of religion, rather than the theological or spiritual aspect…

and Raising Freethinkers co-author Amanda Metskas:

[T]heology is less important to most churchgoers than a number of other benefits. In many cases, they attend despite the theology. It is telling that only 27 percent of churchgoing US respondents to a 2007 Gallup poll even mentioned God when asked for the main reason they attend church. Most people go for personal growth, for guidance in their lives, to be encouraged, to be inspired—or for the community and fellowship of other members. These, not worship, are the primary needs fulfilled by churches. (p. 206)

This is illuminating, and speaks to precisely the point that many gnus have discussed over the last few years; it is not the beliefs which make people happy (they are usually harmful), but it is the social connections that keep many people in church.

The implication, I believe, is that we do need to do more to create social environments for atheists and such.  Skeptics in the pub, conventions, campus groups, etc are all great steps in that direction, even if some people take things too far in terms of emulating religion.  That is, Alain de Botton is wrong precisely because he does not just want to keep the social aspects around, but he wants to keep some of the theological parts alive too.

Part of what will cultivate community, I think, will be organizing under a banner, a label (or a very small set of labels at most), and a small set of major organizations who represent what we do share, our political concerns, and our social presence.  The Reason Rally was a step in defining much of these things, and the next few years will have a lot to tell us about the nature of our collective message, what organizations will be saying them, and how broad we need to be to draw people in.

We have issues, as a community, in terms of drawing in the voices of women, ethnic and racial minorities”, genderqueer people, and even blue collar secularists.  I don’t know what all the solutions are, but I am keeping my ears tuned to people who offer some and will be thinking and writing about it from time to time.

I know I am guilty of many of the things that turn many people away; my writing is esoteric, my tone is sometimes harsh, and I include commentary which does not fit in with most atheists and skeptics (specifically polyamory.  To what degree, if any, I may change any of this will depend on the strength of arguments, the evidence supporting said arguments, and my ability to actually change.

But I think we, the community of reason and skepticism, have a lot to say about how to create meaning in important ways and how to live lives of general contentment and happiness.  Fore me, my life project to be happy lead me to atheism and polyamory, while sharpening my skeptical tools along the way.  I think my story and views have something to add to this conversation.