Do you need religion to give your life meaning?

In LIFE AFTER FAITH: The Case for Secular Humanism (2014), Philip Kitcher argues that religion is not necessary to lead a happy, meaningful and ethical life.

PhilipKitcherLifeAfterFaith41M561fKDdL._SX303_BO1,204,203,200_His argument is obviously true, as far as it goes.  I know of many people, through personal aquaintence and reading who aren’t in the least religious, but are happy, wise and good.

But there also are saints and heroes whose religious faith enables them to go beyond what average human nature is capable of, as well as many seemingly ordinary people for whom faith is a source of quiet serenity and unpretentious goodness.

Others are hurt by their religion.  Their faith fails them in times of crisis.  Or they are tormented by a sense of sin because they can’t obey certain rules or accept certain beliefs.

Religion certainly makes life more dramatic.

If I believed, and internalized the belief, that my life was a high-stakes test, leading to either eternal bliss with God or eternal pain without God, my life would be much more intense and meaningful than it is now, but not better.

I would have to struggle to stop myself from thinking about why a merciful and loving God would condemn people to infinite pain for sins committed during a finite life or, even worse, for choosing the wrong creed.

One way to have the satisfactions of religion without being chained to harsh dogmas is through what Kitcher calls “refined religion,” such as Unitarian Universalism, Ethical Culture or Reformed Judaism.

“Refined religion” puts theology on the same level as art, literature, philosophy and science—part of a treasury of human wisdom on which we can draw as needed.

“Refined religion” is not far from Kitcher’s own “soft atheism”, which doesn’t claim that science and philosophy have all the answers and which sees much of value in religious tradition, but sees no basis for affirming that religious beliefs are objectively true.

He admits that both refined religion and secular humanism are weak tea compared to the powerful emotions evoked by the great religious traditions and rituals.

But the great religions traditions have thousands of years’ head start, he wrote; there is no reason in principle why secular humanism cannot evolve rituals and traditions that are just as compelling.

In any case, the reason for believing or not believing in a particular religion is not whether or not you find it satisfying, but whether you think it is true.


I read this book as part of an informal philosophy seminar hosted by my friend Paul Maticek.

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4 Responses to “Do you need religion to give your life meaning?”

  1. 61chrissterry Says:

    Reblogged this on 61chrissterry.


  2. Yang Ho Says:

    I have never thought about religion dramatizing life, and if it truly does so, then that would have some implications about the usefulness of religion. Still, religion is not meant to be used but rather believed, right?


  3. tiffany267 Says:

    Sounds like an interesting book, however as a lifelong atheist I cannot say my life lacks drama or deep emotional experiences. In fact, I think that my outlook on my life, as a tiny speck in a vast universe, yet remarkably complex (yeah I know, cliché atheist description!) gives me the shakes sometimes. Knowing that this life I have is a very short little blip, and the natural miracle that I’m alive at all – that gives me an intense feeling of importance and pressure in my daily life.

    I don’t think religion is needed to provide that, and in fact I think it’s a dangerous substitute for appreciating our lives as we have them and as they can potentially be.

    I don’t know that I immediately agree with you that “saints and heroes” have always done great things because of their faith. It seems to be the obvious conclusion, but deeper than that I would believe historical figures had very healthy secular values which simply fit within a religious agenda of their time and flew from there. In other words, some saints and heroes might have done great things, and just happened to be considered people of faith. At any rate, even if we consider some people to be successful in life because of faith, I think that’s a terrible trade-off not just for them personally but for humanity.


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