Religion as Meaning Making Guide

Since my college days, I’ve contemplated the meaning of religion. It was and continues to be an active inquiry for me. I disliked the arrogant certainty that the evangelicals and the atheists spoke about each other. Particularly, the atheists who should know better and yet still claimed to be free from the disease of religion. It was clear to me that everyone has a religion of sorts even if you don’t subscribe as a member to a religious institution.

Imagine my resonance discovering this article, America’s New Religions by Andrew Sullivan. He writes:

Everyone has a religion. It is, in fact, impossible not to have a religion if you are a human being…
By religion, I mean something quite specific: a practice not a theory; a way of life that gives meaning…
…John Gray puts it this way: “Religion is an attempt to find meaning in events, not a theory that tries to explain the universe.”

…This is why science cannot replace it. Science does not tell you how to live, or what life is about; it can provide hypotheses and tentative explanations, but no ultimate meaning. Art can provide an escape from the deadliness of our daily doing, but, again, appreciating great art or music is ultimately an act of wonder and contemplation, and has almost nothing to say about morality and life.

In this way, religion is how one navigates the meaning of life. This includes questions such as, what’s real? What’s valuable? What’s good? These are vital questions that most of us inherit from our family and cultures. The answers to these questions form one’s value system, one’s way of life, or one’s religion to navigate through life. In my view, one of the greatest dangers are those people who are not conscious of their own religion, their own inherited patterns of behavior and thinking which is to say most people including my modern cohort of non-religious peers.

It is hard work to really ask these questions and challenge one’s assumptions about what’s valuable and how to live one’s life. For most of us, we would rather follow the pack than upset the existing order. If there is anything I agree with those Fox News Christian conservatives is that there is a popular, subtle anti-religion culture in America. In fact, there’s an anti-institution of any sort whether it’s government, business, or academia. Since the 1970s (and arguably for centuries), we’ve uncovered and examined the abuses of power by institutions and grown to automatically distrust them.

Andrew continues:

…the fact that religion has been so often abused for nefarious purposes — from burning people at the stake to enabling child rape to crashing airplanes into towers — does not resolve the question of whether the meaning of that religion is true. It is perfectly possible to see and record the absurdities and abuses of man-made institutions and rituals, especially religious ones, while embracing a way of life that these evil or deluded people preached but didn’t practice. Fanaticism is not synonymous with faith; it is merely faith at its worst…

A lot of people argue that religion has caused a great deal of war and conflict throughout history. They say, “Look at the Crusades!” However, consider this modern epoch with a historic low of religion and yet destruction of life and souls is at an all-time high. Suicide outpaces both war and murder combined in the world. The planet itself and its countless species are going extinct on a daily basis. Yet, survival of life itself does not seem to matter against the values of progress and economic growth.

Andrew says that today’s religion of meaning is in the idea of progress for individual, selfish humans:

Seduced by scientism, distracted by materialism, insulated, like no humans before us, from the vicissitudes of sickness and the ubiquity of early death, the post-Christian West believes instead in something we have called progress — a gradual ascent of mankind toward reason, peace, and prosperity — as a substitute in many ways for our previous monotheism. We have constructed a capitalist system that turns individual selfishness into a collective asset and showers us with earthly goods; we have leveraged science for our own health and comfort. Our ability to extend this material bonanza to more and more people is how we define progress; and progress is what we call meaning…

…But none of this material progress beckons humans to a way of life beyond mere satisfaction of our wants and needs. And this matters. We are a meaning-seeking species.

If I query most young folks my age what are they really doing with their life? What really matters? I often get vague answers. “Trying to find my purpose. Take it one day at a time. Focused on my family.” Or sometimes the rare, “I don’t know. Just trying to survive and be more happy.” There is this constant wheel of progression whether it’s career, family, health, or otherwise. Just keep doing stuff.

As a society and in this historic age, we’ve lost an overarching positive narrative, a positive meaning of what are we doing? We don’t seem particularly caring for each other. All of us dislike being glued to our phones traveling in lonely masses through our cities. And, yet, what’s the alternative when everyone does it?

I would argue that we need new paths, new stories, new religions. We can take the best from the past and recast it for our times now.

All of this begins with the simple questions of what is my religion? What do I care about?

Going forward, I’m planning on writing more about religion including Jamie Wheal’s recent talk on Religion 2.0 and Japanese philosopher Keiji Nishitani’s essay, What is Religion?