THE BLOG

Does Life Have Meaning or Are We Merely Bobbleheads in Bubbleland?

09/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • John W. Whitehead Attorney, President of The Rutherford Institute, and author of 'Battlefield America'

"Religion is a search for the truth about man's existence and his relationship with God and his fellow man, and once you stop searching and think you've got it made -- at that point, you lose your religion." -- Jimmy Carter

Is there a purpose to life? Is there a meaning to life? Are we all aimless beings, mere products of chance, here merely to consume, grind out a living and die? Or is there some bigger purpose behind the stage play we call life?

There are those who view us as mindless beings trapped in a spiritual void, cut off from both reality and the outside world, chasing fulfillment in "things" -- consumer zombies imprisoned in a series of shopping malls. According to author and journalist Nicholas von Hoffman, Americans are "bobbleheads in Bubbleland....They shop in bubbled malls, they live in gated communities, and they move from place to place breathing their own, private air in bubble-mobiles known as SUVs."

But are we merely bobbleheads in Bubbleland? Or have we been programmed to be so? Can we change our values to reflect something higher? Martin Luther King Jr. thought so. Standing at the pulpit of the Riverside Church of New York City in April 1967, King urged his listeners:

[W]e as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motive and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

We didn't listen then, and we still have not learned: Material things don't fill the spiritual void. People need more than possessions to give meaning to life.

Unfortunately, as recent studies confirm, young people are now paying the price for our failure to heed King's warning. For example, at least one in 10 young people now believe life is not worth living. A 2009 survey of 16- to 25-year-olds by the Prince's Trust found "a significant core" for whom life had little or no purpose, especially among those not in school, work or training. More than a quarter of those polled felt depressed and were less happy than when they were younger. And almost "half said they were regularly stressed and many did not have anything to look forward to or someone they could talk to about their problems."

Paul Brown, director of communications at the Prince's Trust, noted that the study showed that there are thousands of young people who "desperately" need help: "Often, young people who feel they have reached rock bottom don't know where to turn for help." Family relationships help, but too often because of the fractured modern family, little support can be found in the family setting.

No wonder many young people have such a pessimistic view of the future. According to a June 2009 study, 15 percent of American teens who were in 7th through 12th grades believe they will die before age 35 -- a perspective strongly linked to risky behavior. Activities related to such a pessimistic view of the future include attempting suicide, using illegal drugs, sustaining fight-related injuries that require medical care, engaging in unprotected sex, being arrested by the police and contracting HIV or AIDS.

Family and parental connectedness, as well as other institutions such as school to which young people can belong, are important for developing a more optimistic view of the future among teens. But this, too, is lacking. As Professor Freya Sonenstein, director of the Center for Adolescent Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at Johns Hopkins University, recognizes: "You also have to dig down a little deeper and look at the structural situation that make kids lose optimism in the first place."

The structural situation in America, as Professor Sonenstein calls it, has dramatically changed in American society -- that is, the traditional family structure is only a remnant of what it was 50 years ago, and American schools at every level are overtly secular (even atheistic). As a result, young people are seldom taught spiritual values, let alone that there is a greater purpose and meaning to life.

Yale University professor Anthony Kronman lays much of the blame at the feet of modern colleges and universities. As Professor Kronman notes, when young people enter college, "they will find courses devoted to every question under the sun. But there is one question for which most of them will search their catalogs in vain: the question of meaning of life, of what one should care about and why, of what living is for."

The consequences of colleges ignoring life's biggest questions are far-reaching, and as Kronman concludes, we all pay the price. Kronman continues:

In a shift of historic importance, America's colleges and universities have largely abandoned the idea that life's most important question is an appropriate subject for the classroom. In doing so, they have betrayed their students by depriving them of the chance to explore it in an organized way, before they are caught up in their careers and preoccupied with the urgent business of living itself.

The question of life's meaning is a spiritual one -- one that has been largely lost due to the devaluing of spiritual and religious institutions in the country. But the problem goes beyond religion. "Can the meaning of life be studied independent of religion? There are many who doubt that it can," writes Professor Kronman. "They say that any program of this sort must rest on religious beliefs, which have lost their status as a source of authority in higher education. But that is a mistake. For even after the rise of the research university, with its secular and scientific culture, there were humanists who believed that the question of life's meaning can be studied in a disciplined but nonreligious way."

Is it really true that you can teach spiritual values without any reference to religion? As we now see, the answer is most likely in the negative. However, those who rule over American education view religion as irrelevant. And this affects how and what they teach or do not teach young people about the meaning of life. As Christopher Lasch writes in The Revolt of the Elites, religion has been relegated by the educated elite to the sidelines:

Among the elites it is held in low esteem -- something useful for weddings and funerals but otherwise dispensable. A skeptical, iconoclastic state of mind is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the knowledge classes. Their commitment to the culture of criticism is understood to rule out religious commitments. The elites' attitude to religion ranges from indifference to active hostility.

Is there any good news in all this? Maybe there is. "[P]erhaps the great upsurge of religious fundamentalism outside our colleges and universities is a sign of the growing appetite for spiritual direction," Kronman writes. "These movements can be a source of danger and division, and intellectuals may mock and despise them, but teachers also ought to see in them the energy that will drive the restoration of the question of life's meaning."

Is anyone listening?