A Challenge for Naturalism
Humanists Need a Ready Answer
S. Matthew D'Agostino
The following article is from Free
Inquiry magazine, Volume 22, Number 1.
Why consider the meaning of life from a secular humanist and naturalistic
perspective? There seem to me at least two major reasons why it is worthwhile to
take up that question.
1. An account of the meaning of life can inform our views of the
fundamental purpose(s) for which we should continue to live—our operational
objectives, as it were. It can affect the ways in which we value things and
actions. A cogent account of meaning can, at least to some extent, help to set
standards by which reflective people normally decide how they ought to behave.
2. It's helpful to have a persuasive answer handy when others,
especially nonsecularists, pose questions about life's meaning. So far as I
know, everyone in every culture ponders such questions from time to time.
Central cultural establishments such as churches try to offer their members an
instant, appropriate, and sweeping answer. If the secular humanist movement is
ever to achieve true "establishment" status, it too must have its
answer ready. Jesting aside, if secular humanists ever want to be taken as being
something more than a pack of ornery, nay-saying curmudgeons, we will need to
develop a clear, positive, and consoling doctrine.
Is Secular Humanism Exhausted?
Yet the secular humanist movement has been relatively sluggish in
articulating radically different approaches to life. We've been slow to create
new, substantive values comparable in scope to the dramatic revolution secular
humanism has effected in our religious/metaphysical beliefs. That is, we have
turned away from God and the sacramental view of the universe towards . . .
what? Well, towards nothing in particular. We don't seem to stand for anything
distinctive that might distinguish secular humanists from other decent-minded
folks who happen to believe in God and attend church.
Secularists often strive to persuade others that we are really like them and
still share the same moral outlook, i.e., that atheism hasn't turned us into
callous barbarians. That approach may be commendable politically, but it's
surely odd philosophically. Should not a dramatic revolution in our
religious/metaphysical view of ourselves and our place in the scheme of
things—arguably the greatest intellectual revolution in history—have at
least some implications as to how human life is to be lived? Shouldn't we be, or
gradually become, different?
Instead of pushing on with new ideas, most secular humanists have been
content to remain comfortably conformist. It's as though they expended their
energy entirely in turning away from God. On an intellectual level, I would
suggest that our inability to come up with genuinely new programmatic approaches
to living—i.e., new values—stems from the fact that we haven't paid serious,
sustained attention to the fundamental questions about the meaning and purpose
of life. Could it be that most secular humanists are reluctant to address the
issue because they fear they can offer nothing consoling to replace the glorious
"pie in the sky" tales offered by the major religions? I'll make some
positive suggestions along these lines in this essay's last section.
The Traditional Christian View
Let's begin with a brief consideration of the traditional religious approach,
because I will be borrowing some of its structures later on in order to turn
them toward humanist purposes. On the Christian view, what is the meaning of
First and foremost, we and everything else in this universe are artifacts:
things made by a creator. What was the creator's purpose for the human artifact?
As I recall my schoolboy catechism, everything was quite clear:
Q: "Why did God make you?"
A: "God made me to know Him, and love Him, and serve Him on this Earth, and
to bewith Him in Heaven."
God's purpose, then, is for us to live out our lives on Earth, following the
rules He and His local agents have set, after which we will die and go on to
live in Heaven, where we will be joined with Him, Our Father, in indescribable
bliss for all eternity. The meaning of life is that human beings are God's
creation; we are to do whatever He wishes us to do, then rejoin Him after our
deaths. Such a life would have meaning on a cosmic scale—indeed beyond the
cosmic scale, for when rejoined with our creator for eternity in Heaven, we may
well outlive the physical cosmos itself.
It's a fine story—but it's not very likely.
Evaluating the Meaning of Life
How do we weigh the value of our concepts of the meaning of life? The
traditional approach can be examined in terms of its consolation value
and what logicians call its truth value. Most persons would say that the
consolation value—how much comfort we would feel if we came to believe that we
would never die and would spend eternity in Heaven—is extremely high. Of
course, some clever wags have claimed that isn't so. They remind us that, if
Heaven is filled with the same pious nincompoops we are familiar with from the
present day, it might not be such an appealing venue. They have a point; I'm not
at all sure that spending eternity with Pat Robertson, the pope, Tim LaHaye, et
al., is truly preferable to obliteration.
Fortunately, we need not decide that issue here. For regardless of its marked
consolation value, Christianity's truth value is ridiculously low. That has been
demonstrated elsewhere and often, so I shall simply pass on. But I should like
to remark that we have set a parameter of sorts for our secular humanist or
naturalistic view of the meaning of life: it should have the highest
consolation value that it can, allowed by or consistent with possessing the
highest truth value.
Discovering the Meaning of Life
I will now attempt to construct a secular humanist concept of the meaning of
life. In doing so I will use a logical framework essentially identical to the
one that undergirds the Christian worldview, substituting the "blind"
forces of nature and biological evolution for the hand of the deity.
Before proceeding, a caveat of sorts: "Meaning" may not be so deep
a question as many suppose. Intellectuals often assume that fundamental
questions about the meaning of life must be difficult, subtle—the greatest of
human mysteries. I suspect this is largely because to them, our possession of
both consciousness and high intelligence in a rich cultural nexus muddles the
affair hopelessly. "We have minds; we can choose any course of action,
accept or reject any doctrine, persuade or fail to persuade any person, think of
ourselves in any way that we might wish, etc." In fact, it is a mistake to
skip down this path. The real issues are far more straightforward: our high
intelligence makes virtually no difference, since meaning attaches to our lives
on the primal level of our being alive and aware, not the level of our being
highly intelligent and cultured. We share that level of meaning with many other
living creatures such as chimpanzees, birds, dogs, cats, and so on. The only
difference is that we can recognize (or discover) that our lives have meaning
and ponder its implications, while other creatures apparently do not.
Intelligence may permit humans to understand that life has meaning, but doesn't
itself actually create that meaning. More precisely, intelligence doesn't create
the objective, physical basis for meaning. Yes, there is one. Life, we
shall see, actually does wear meaning on its sleeve.
Where We Come from—the Dust of Stars
The universe is an unimaginably vast, strange place, with an incredible
amount of cold, dark space, incandescent stars, and cooled masses of rock
sailing about in various patterns. On some of these rocks called
"planets," a phenomenon called "life" began. We don't know
exactly when or why. Based on current knowledge we can only assume that life is
one of the many inherent capabilities that matter happens to possess, a
capability that actualized or developed under some still largely unknown set of
initial conditions. We're not absolutely sure what life looked like once the
process was fully underway: something like algae, the biologists suggest: a
foamy blue-green pond scum.
Note, however, that we can already begin to answer those catechism-type
Q: "Who or what are you?"
A: "I am a descendant of a blue-green algae."
A rather unusual bit of the blue-green algae that somehow tried—or in any
event, managed—to keep going, to keep on being what it was, to hold onto its
internal organization or structure, to replicate itself, to avoid obliteration
by outside forces that might dry it into dead powder, pulverize it, and scatter
it on the wind. Let me be blunt: There is no need to pray to "Our Father
who art in Heaven." "Our Father" was that blue-green algae
floating in a pond. Do not forget that. Not ever!
That picture may lack the heart-warming appeal of the elderly white-bearded
gentleman watching over us from heaven. Nonetheless, and so far as we know,
those first droplets of algae were the most precious and beautiful objects in
this whole, vast universe. Rocks have remained rocks, sky has remained sky. But
not that blue-green algae! It has transformed itself dramatically, over and over
again. And it never stops trying. Look down into a pond someday and study the
verdant flotsam there. Observe your own reflection in the water. If we do not
sense grandeur in that, there may be something amiss with our aesthetic
Over eons of time and changing geologic conditions, that sturdy bit of algae,
always trying to survive, managed to transform itself into (among other things)
highly mobile animals that possess a conscious awareness of their surroundings.
Some of those animals, striving to keep themselves free from destruction or
control by outside forces, evolved into mammals—and in turn, into primates.
Some primates began to use tools regularly, walked upright, and developed spoken
languages to better pursue team efforts and projects. It proved a highly
advantageous combination. After a time these upright, tool-using
conversationalists realized that they had become something distinct from their
mammalian and primate cousins. They began to call themselves "human
They Needed Reassuring Stories
One of the salient traits of these new creatures was that they knew that
they were going to die. To date, it is not clear that members of any other
animal species understand their destiny as adult humans do. Because early humans
were afraid of what would happen to them, they invented the gods: not a
surprise, if you consider their situation. The world seemed complex, dangerous,
and virtually uncontrollable. And of course the early humans knew nothing of
their true origins. Not a bit! That wasn't discovered, recall, until the middle
of the nineteenth century. So early humans developed myths that explained both
their origins and their destiny in the most sensible and comforting possible
There is more than a little irony here. It was the sons and daughters of
algae that created that elderly white-bearded gentleman and declared him
"Our Father." They made an easy, obvious mistake in selecting the most
comforting, heart-warming account they could imagine. But, of course, it's not
the degree of comfort that makes a proposition true. Would that it were.
The Facts, Just the Facts
Eventually, some members of the human species recognized the facts, saw that
theology was bunk, and bravely proclaimed that we must face life as it is
without the twin crutches of myths and mumbling priests. Some of these
individuals formed secular humanist organizations, began to hold regular
meetings, spoke about this or that, consumed inordinate amounts of coffee and
pastry, and so forth.
At the end of all this, what is the meaning of life? Let's return to the
vocabulary of the old catechism:
Q: "Who are you?"
A: "I am a creature who descended from a determined bit of blue-green
algae, or some such."
Q: "Why were you made?"
A: "Even though we may often speak of nature with a capital 'N,' there was
no specific agent or artificer at work. We exist and are the way we are because
many generations of our ancestors, both animal and human, tried as best they
could to survive and be free. We are the end product, so far, not of literally
'blind' forces but rather of a very, very, very great many discrete, purposive
struggles to survive."
So, what is the meaning of our lives? That is the meaning! We are an
episode in the long, difficult struggle of living creatures to survive, to keep
on against whatever obstacles the world places in our way, never to yield. We,
you and I, are individual segments or discrete moments in the ongoing process.
We are nothing more than that—and certainly, nothing less.
Our individual purpose is to survive as long and as well as we can, to
develop our inherent capabilities in a coordinated fashion so that we can make
the most of our talents and, I believe, to help our fellow humans—our
partners—in their own struggles. This planet can sometimes be a very rough
place, so hold tight to that pledge: "never to yield."
Yet human life isn't all bleak desperation; there is also love. If we were
only solitary creatures going about our business, everyday experience might be
cheerless. But we are not alone. Many of us are fortunate to have companions
whom we love, and who love us, and that makes all the difference. While one life
might be lonely and bleak, and a second life might be lonely and bleak, when
they are combined great happiness can result. It's as though adding one and one
doesn't merely equal two, or even three or four, but somehow comes to equal
twenty or thirty. Love can transform life, even in its hardest struggles, into
very great joy.
Now, I don't believe I've said anything that secular humanists haven't heard
before, perhaps many times over. What I am suggesting here is not so much that
we learn this naturalistic perspective as that we?—the secular humanist
community—pay serious attention to it, openly adopt it, keep it before our
eyes with a steady focus, and imaginatively construct its implications—and
then that we go on as best we can to live those implications. Only that
could make a cultural revolution.
A Time for New Values
Does this view of the meaning of life have programmatic implications? Are
there distinctly secular humanist values that fall outside of standard or
conventional religion-based cultural norms? You bet! There are very likely a
great many such values, of which only a few have been discovered so far.
Consider once more: It's been only since the middle of the last century that any
deep understanding of who we are and where we came from was possible. I expect
that many of the new values the secular humanist worldview implies remain to be
articulated. Below I will sketch just a few of the areas in which I think new
values might arise.
1. Embracing the Body. The conventional Christian perspective
on human sexuality and sensuality is rooted in a dualistic view of human nature
as a clash of lower and higher impulses. Lower is of the earth, the body,
the passions, the realm of little consequence. Higher points to the pure,
eternal life in Heaven of a disembodied spirit, that elderly white-bearded
gentleman, the realm of supreme importance. All of this is completely wrong. The
Earth, the body, and sensuality comprise all that is. There's nothing evil or
wrong or dirty about it, and there never was. We are only just starting to
explore the implications of what I'll call the pro-human body revolution.
2. Indefinitely Prolonged Health. When the Grim Reaper shows up
at our door, why just lay down and die? Secular humanists know that there's no
place very interesting to go. Life spans in the industrialized world have
increased by an average of twenty-one years since 1900, and that trend is likely
to accelerate as we learn to refurbish or rebuild each part of the human body as
required. Secular humanists can support, indeed champion, measures to
dramatically expand human life and health.
3. Celebrate Diversity. One of the most unfortunate types of
human behavior—as universal as it is destructive—is to identify, isolate,
distrust, and even hate "Others," those of a different color, class,
language, religion, sexual orientation, style of attire—the list of targets is
virtually endless. Over the centuries humans have managed to parse and hate each
other in uncountable ways. This nonsense must finally cease! We all share the
same origin, the same destiny. Secular humanists can and should lead the way not
toward mere tolerance or acceptance, but toward an authentic celebration of
human diversity. There is much creative and productive work to do; no one should
be denied the opportunity to participate. Nor, frankly, can we afford to spare
4. The Final Frontier! One starkly remarkable quality of human
beings is how far they have traveled, literally to the ends of the earth. Most
Americans are direct descendants of persons who followed Columbus across the
Atlantic. Some of our ancestors came by free choice, some not. Not even
so-called Native Americans originated here; instead they traveled to the Western
hemisphere from deep inside Asia, and spread over both the American continents on
foot—no horses at that time, nor the wheel. Impressive! While we may have
surveyed most of Earth's surface, there's plenty left to explore in the wider
universe. Secular humanists can support, indeed champion, our currently stalled
and incoherent programs of space exploration and colonization.
Those are only a few areas where new values can grow. I am sure that we will
bring many others to light with time, imagination, and a bit of applied logic.
Is Even Death Solvable?
Sadly, death will come to us all. Nature appears to have been unable to
arrange for the individual to survive indefinitely. Rather, the path evolution
followed equips us with tendencies toward sexual profligacy such that the
species will survive. Under evolution's logic so far the individual is
expendable—but other logics are possible.
I believe that death is neither necessary nor "sacred." It's only
the path that evolution appears to have taken to date. Human intelligence may be
able to force evolution into a different direction. Eventually, I am convinced,
science will overcome death.
What's perhaps a more annoying possibility—these remarks may surprise
you—is that death would probably already have been overcome, long ago, had we
not endured two thousand years of myths and mumbling priests. Christianity
turned its back on "the glory that was Greece." The early church
father Tertullian (c. 155-220) explained that turn succinctly: "If you have
Jerusalem, you don't need Athens." Having turned its back on rationality
and loosed twenty centuries of anti-science hysteria and persecutions, which
continue even today, Christianity will deserve the "credit" for
putting at least our grandparents' generation, and our parents'—and our
own—in their graves. How many more will be lost before the conquest of death?
A Clear, Positive and Consoling Doctrine
As long as we are confronted with death—and remember that I do not believe
that will be for very long—what's the most sensible way to understand it? What
can secular humanists say of death that is at all appealing or comforting—and
also true? Maybe something like this: Death is a return to the earth from which
we originally sprung, a re-embracing of our world, a return to our origins. The
productive work that we accomplished during our lives helps those who remain or
come after—the books or buildings or ships or symphonies or what-have-you that
we helped construct will find use. Even so, our individual life force is
destined to drain away into the earth.
Yet Earth, I remind you, can be an exquisitely beautiful place. I offer one
time-bound example, but one could substitute many others: imagine looking up one
evening from your work desk and out a window. The view surprises you. With nary
a sound you noticed, several inches of fresh snow have fallen. The tree branches
are laden with it. Snow-covered yards glisten and shimmer under electric
streetlights. And the flakes continue to gently fall. Very lovely—and clearly
not such a bad place to be for eternity.
Now perhaps we can glimpse the meaning of life, secular-humanist style.
Because of the determined efforts of our ancestors, all passed from the scene,
we have won the privilege of experiencing life and the earth firsthand. And the
end of our days, we will re-embrace the earth and lie at the sides of our
forebears. Not such a bad place to be, and in excellent company: all the heroes
and heroines of our youth are there, waiting. There's even a slender beauty to
the prospect of joining together with it—and them. This seems especially true
if we are still doing our level best, still struggling tenaciously "never
to yield," even as we fall.
Dedication: For Candace
S. Matthew D'Agostino is a writer and filmmaker working in Albany, New York.
He wrote Thinking Things Through, an educational film series on critical
thinking. He has served on the faculties of the City University of New York and