12/16/2010 02:04 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Note to the Pope: Thanks, But I Do Have Meaning in Life

Perhaps in response to Stephen Hawking's own recent declaration that God isn't necessary for explaining the existence of the universe, Pope Benedict wants to remind everybody that the church's voice remains as necessary and vital as ever in addressing the fundamental matters of life.

The Telegraph reported that the Pope, speaking to an audience at St Mary's University College in Twickenham, southwest London, said that while studies in the human and natural sciences provide us with an "invaluable understanding" of aspects of our existence, the disciplines cannot satisfy the "fundamental" question about why we exist. "They cannot satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart, they cannot fully explain to us our origin and our destiny, why and for what purpose we exist, nor indeed can they provide us with an exhaustive answer to the question 'Why is there something rather than nothing?'"

The Pope was reasserting the church's long held view, put briskly as well by the Protestant, Westminster Shorter Catechism: "Question: What is the chief end of man? Answer: Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever." The Shorter Catechism itself formalizes a central Christian theme going back through St. Aquinas (in his beatific vision) to St. Augustine's prayer in his Confessions: "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you." And, the Apostle Paul: that we must grope in the dark for God (Acts 17: 26 - 27). Not to forget Rick Warren's own updated and folksy take on the matter, described in his book, The Purpose Driven Life.

As uplifting as the religious assurances can be to some, on closer inspection, matters don't seem to be so self-evident. Many who believe they have found God, never realize Augustine's promised accompanying "rest." To the contrary, even deeper feelings of emptiness and depression accompany their faith. Having grown up in a conservative Christian environment, and having seen and tried organized religion's recipe, I know first hand that being religious doesn't always impart such existential assurances and deliverances. I've come to believe that neurologists are right about depression, happiness, angst and elation being more about the chemicals bathing our brains than angels ministering to our souls.

The failure of belief in God to grant me the meaning of life and what my ultimate purpose is here need not be celebrated by the likes of the New Atheists and assorted skeptics. This failure, so to speak, doesn't mean that religion poisons everything or that it is delusional. It's really the failure of religious leaders to make such promises and to pick unnecessary fights with philosophers and scientists, not the failure of religion itself. Religion should not hold out the prize of granting the consummate meaning of life or that it will endow certain meta-teleology in our lives here. In fact, religion might be one way of coping with the feelings of loss of meaning and purpose in the midst of one's immortality.

But our skeptical friends do have a couple important points here too, and the sooner religious people come to appreciate them, the culture war over religion might be mollified. For the sake of argument, consider that you think only religion can grant meaning and purpose to life. Then imagine that one day you wake up and, for whatever reason, explicable or not, you no longer believe in God. As hypothetical and unlikely as such an occurrence might seem to you, if this happened, what do you think would result in your life? Getting out of bed, would you feel an utter loss of meaning and purpose in your life, and seeing your elderly, live-in mother walking down the hall, would you be compelled to trip her? Would you then callously step on the cat's tail to have it yowl? Would you, without sting of shame, begin to slap your kids around or sell them into slavery? Albeit sensing a bit bewildered in your loss of religious faith, would you, as a consequence, shun all loves, friends and acquaintances, interests, passions, hobbies and career? Would even your "me-time" at Starbucks lose all meaning and purpose? This is all very unlikely. Life without belief in God doesn't mean that we must be relegated to a nihilistic and depressing existence.

This is because it seems quite clear that even without belief in God we can have great meanings and significant purposes in life. Indeed, if this is the only life there is, then I might have even more reason to cling tighter to my children, parents, family, loved ones and friends. As for purposes, rather than being consumed solely by my career, I might consider how I could, in light of the quickly passing years, more wisely spend my time. The range is infinite: I could endeavor, as my all consuming passion, to dedicate my life to alleviating human suffering or, because of my circumstances, to be the best parent possible.

Whether we can have meaning and purpose in life really isn't a religious/secular debate. All reflective people can find important and meanings and purposes. It's really about another associated quality we should all inculcate, reflected best in Horace's (65 - 8 B.C.) longstanding, pre-Christian, advice: "Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero" -- "Seize the Day, trusting as little as possible in the future."

G. Elijah Dann holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Waterloo and a Doctorat en Théologie from the Université de Strasbourg, France. He teaches philosophy and religion for the Seniors Program at Simon Fraser University, and is Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. He is author of the books God and the Public Square and After Rorty: The Possibilities for Ethics and Religious Belief. He is co-author of An Ethics for Today: Finding Common Ground Between Philosophy and Religion and editor of Leaving Fundamentalism.