Searching for Meaning
Dateline: February 24, 1999
Part 1: Doubts
It is a quintessential need of human beings to find meaning in just about anything - especially their own lives. This desire to find meaning is probably a principle explanation for the perpetuation of religion in modern society. In fact, some people find that meaning is more critical than ever in a modern society, regarding science as a detrimental influence. The effort to have meaning in the face of doubt and science is a theme of many books, including the latest from Gregg Easterbrook, Beside Still Waters: Searching for Meaning in an Age of Doubt. Since this book has both familiar features and unique ideas, it's worth focusing upon in a discussion of the search for meaning.
I'll be honest up front, and tell you that I was quite disappointed with the book. Easterbrook's arguments contain significant flaws - but since those flaws are not unique with him but instead are common among many who offer similar ideas, they still serve as a good example of what we encounter. As is my policy, however, I will first look at where Easterbrook gets it right.
In Praise of Doubt
Unlike many religious and pseudo-religious writers, Easterbrook has very positive things to say about science, skepticism and doubt. If we atheists and skeptics encountered this attitude from more theistic authors and leaders, we'd all be in much better shape. Basic scientific progress is praised highly, and he cites theologian Karl Barth as having said that he welcomed modern critiques of scriptures and the findings of natural science because he could understand why any believer would not want to know more about creation, even if a greater understanding undermined previously held dogma. This, unfortunately, is an attitude totally alien to the average American fundamentalist.
Basic skepticism and doubt also come in for some praise, another concept alien to most fundamentalists. For Easterbrook, challenging traditional assumptions or authority can lead a person to a better idea of just what is and is not worth believing in today. In this, I fully agree with him. It's nice to see that, in order to find meaning in life, he does not react to modern society with the common knee-jerk reaction of wishing that doubt would go away.
Although Easterbrook in the end finds faith to be a good thing, at least he does not shy away from the recognition of all the horror perpetuated by blind faith throughout history. In many books, not even a brief nod is given to this historical reality At the behest of unknown and unseen gods, a significant portion of human horrors like inquisitions, crusades and ethnic cleansings have been wrought. But for some reason, he still wants to promote faith in the expectation that this will simultaneously have a positive impact upon things like character, integrity and values. Unfortunately for Easterbrook, there is no real evidence that past ages were any more virtuous than our own. Religious faith doesn't automatically make a person good - this is an undeniable fact. So if religion and faith don't automatically make a person better - and have in fact contributed to people acting in nasty ways - why does he want to make it more popular again? I'm not entirely sure, and he doesn't seem to explain himself on this.
As I indicated already, Easterbrook's book contains serious flaws. The first, and most egregious, is that of a subtle and unstated equivocation of terms. The book, as is obvious from the title, encompasses a search for meaning in an age of doubt. This is reinforced in the preface when he asks "Is There Anything Left to Believe In?"
|Quote of the week:
A doctrine insulates the devout not only against the realities around them but also against their own selves. The fanatical believer is not conscious of his envy, malice, pettiness and dishonesty. There is a wall of words between his consciousness and his real self.
So which is it? Does he ever choose? Sadly, no - he never finally settles on what he is looking for. This is quite unfortunate because he regularly slips from one to the other, never clearly explaining how or why. For example, the second section of the book is entitled "The Spiritual Journey of God" and the third entitled "Reasons to Believe." A reasonable observer might conclude that Easterbrook would explain possible reasons to believe in a god - but that would be incorrect. Instead, he is interested in explaining that "There are many consequential reasons why men and women should embrace faith in higher purpose and the human prospect." If that were all he wanted to talk about, he'd find wide agreement among atheists and humanists - but then why did he bother spending so much time talking about the Judeo-Christian god? Although, to be honest, even many humanists might disagree with the idea of finding a "higher" purpose in life, because that implies first, that there is some purpose out there, independent of us, waiting to be "found" rather than created. Second, it implies that our purpose is "higher" than us, and not simply a reflection of our own needs and existence.
There are two possible reasons for his equivocation of terms. The first is that Easterbrook is simply unable to understand the difference between "higher purpose" and his god. Because of his other misunderstandings, this is entirely possible. Another potential reason is instead of being error-prone, he is in fact quite clever and crafted his word choices with great care. By speaking of a "higher being" in some places, he manages to appeal directly to those who already believe in a god. However, by speaking of a "higher purpose" in other places, he manages to appeal to skeptics and humanists who have no interest in any gods.
Don't miss the other section: