A useless question targeted at nonbelievers is ‘what makes your life meaningful?’ This is largely a half-question, unable to ever be answered since we are devoid of the question’s content. Meaningful for what? To get you thinking about this, consider the wonderful Russell Blackford’s focus on ‘moderate’ Christianity.
I have always maintained that genuinely moderate Christianity should not be viewed as an enemy [to nonbelievers] – though I have also emphasised the word “genuinely” and suggested that whenever we are confronted by something that purports to be (or is described as) “moderate” Christianity we should ask pointedly: “Moderate about what?” I don’t, for example, find anything that can reasonably be described as “moderate” in the Vatican’s teachings on homosexual conduct as a sin or on a homosexual orientation as disordered … or on much else.
Blackford has picked up on an important point. To get back to the question of ‘meaning’, we will see that it is largely a ‘mistaken’ or ‘dislocated’ question. I think ‘embryonic’ is the best way to describe such challenges: the questions cannot survive removed from their context, they are often in a state of becoming more complete and (ironically) meaningful questions. A further irony is this: it is mostly religious people who think embryos are fully formed persons; similarly, it is mainly religious people who find such questions as fully-formed. But it is not.
What gives me meaning is as broad as what I believe in. It is not so ridiculously broad as what I disbelieve in (and what I hate), but it quivers on the precipice of becoming equally vacuous and vague. In what context is such a question being asked? Usually the question is boringly all-encompassing or perhaps flirting with existential solutions. Such answers are big but transparent, like a massive balloon filled with the hot air of solipsism: after all, who cares what my answers to these questions are? I love Goethe, you like Lady Gaga’s lyrics. I like Tool, you like Timbaland. (In my less fine moments, I might become a Millian elitist and call your taste a ‘lower’ one.) Nonetheless, what gives me meaning are varied values, loves, hates, desires, ideals, the fulfilment of biological necessities (digestive, etc.), and so on. All these, within their contexts, provide meaning for that context.
The question is boring to this extent. People expect some life-affirming response to questions of meaning; indeed, such thoughts carry over even into those who have done away with tawdry metaphysical responses to this ‘need’. But their questions, stripped of the magical aura of silly religious nonsense and circular arguments, are even more distasteful – because we should be done with such answers, but not necessarily with the questions.
For example, the line of books by Alain de Botton read like pop-psych with a hint of philosophical exegesis. Really, it seems almost a discredit to Schopenhauer to have him appear in one of de Botton’s books; or, recently, Ronald Aronson has attempted to cover the holes lefts by the sharp-shooting of the ‘Gnu Atheists’ by writing about the fulfilled godless life. Yet, Aronson’s bland and circular book, despite praise from Ehrenreich and Hitchens, and because of its attempts at arguments that tend to be nothing but fairly eloquent ramblings, only confirm my thesis that answering this question is often boring. It is too personal to echo any further than your own life and your loved ones.
This of course is different to political ideals of, for example, defending and promoting autonomy (different things). This, too, falls into the category of providing me with meaning but I can safely say why its actualisation is not limited to my life. Yet, this, too, is not what people are looking for when answering this question: they appear in need of something permanent and, by its very engagement, producing smoke called fulfilment. Yet what machine will suffice? I don’t think any will. And anyone that claims to answer the question, absolutely, are precisely those we, as secularists, should attack.
The point is this: we are secularists because we have overcome any abstract moral totality; because we have done away with any metaphysical system which answers the Sisphyean ‘human condition’ projected, as it is, toward death; because we suspect anyone and anything claiming to answer these demands – of meaning, morality and metaphysics – using the megaphone of ‘certainty’.
The complexity of our existence is not that it should be solved but that we should weed out all the idiotic answers to it. By basing ourselves on the fundamental realisation that there will never be an answer that satisfies all, that indeed the individualised and isolated domains of meaning rarely, if ever, dovetail to take flight, we can more easily get on with appreciating those things that do fulfil us. Whatever they are, Goethe or Gaga.