Of Goethe and Gaga: a Response to the Godless Meaning of Life Challenge

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.

One of the things I hate

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’.

Some of the things I love - You can go ahead and guess which one

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.


5 thoughts on “Of Goethe and Gaga: a Response to the Godless Meaning of Life Challenge

  1. I think I disagree with you a bit on this one. If you are equating the “value” of lyrics of Gaga and TOOL based on the perception of the user then one must then compare those two groups of listeners I’m not one to split hairs and I hate exceptions to rules. Generally speaking the lyrics of Maynard are way above and beyond lyrically, emotionally, spiritually, intellectually those of just about any band. Hell, Beethoven wrote better lyrics than Gaga! HA! When analyzed, the listeners of the Gaga are generally less inclined intellectually. Some may say “so what?” to which I say “If not to enlighten then why engage in it?” Music as a tool for further brain draining seems an awful goal on perpetrated by the stupid. I hear these people say that they like the beat. I always ask why? There is never a valid answer. We all eat junk food once in a while but as a staple of diet is just a slow stupid death. The same can be said for spiritless music. It’s junk food for the brain and should only be taken in small doses but I see an entire society that views it as real music. It isn’t. It’s junk and I have no problem pointing out that fact.. If I can question someone’s religion I can question their music…and I do both with glee.

  2. @Justin:

    I’m not sure what you mean by “equating” with regards to Tool and Gaga’s lyrics. If you mean, Gaga’s are suitable for people who like Tool, then obviously not. They would be meaningless if not stupid to people for Tool fans. And that’s the point.

    Secondly, supporting JS Mill as I do, the idea that you know better than others what’s good for them is worrying. Paternalism is rarely a good thing these days and we ought to watch out for it. I think what you mean is that you have formulated a teleological approach to music: “If not to enlighten then why engage in [music]?”

    Yet, what fulfills us differs from person to person; the point behind defending autonomy is to allow individuals to pursue their own ends of happiness as long as they do not interfere or harm others. What you are suggesting is that people are wrong in thinking that they are getting fulfillment from their music because they are not using it as a form of enlightenment (I don’t know what you mean by this, since, like happiness, knowledge of oneself or the world can come from varied sources. Someone might learn more about themselves from Gaga than Maynard.). But who says music has to be that? You have simply asserted your own incredulity that there is no other reason for music.

    People use it for dancing, social gathering and solidarity, self-expression, etc. etc. They are not wrong or right to use music for these things – it is neither since I am sceptical of any and all teleological frameworks (as I indicated in the post); but you saying music is only for x is paternalistic and defeats one of the most (if not THE most) important attribute of secularism: individual autonomy.

    Finally, given the context of the post, it seems quite trivial. And you haven’t said in what respect my argument is incorrect.

    Thanks, as always, for reading, Justin.

  3. I have a problem with the overall premise of your article but I still think its really informative. I really like your other posts. Keep up the great work. If you can add more video and pictures can be much better. Because they help much clear understanding. :) thanks Nemunas.

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