Meaning

You’ll have seen this bit of wisdom before – possibly more than once.

In his conclusion, McGrath spoke of the limitations of science. Issues such as the meaning of life, he said, remain outside the scope of science.

In some senses, yes – but does it follow that religion is inside the scope of science? Is that what we’re meant to conclude? Probably, although the Baptist Press doesn’t say so (it’s not clear whether McGrath did or not). At any rate, let’s ponder what may be meant by that familiar trope.

I think what is meant by it is that science interferes with denial and therefore it interferes with certain ways of deriving meaning. I think that’s probably true – but that’s because reality interferes with certain ways of deriving meaning; science in this context is just a source of information about reality. There are others, which are just as likely to interfere with certain ways of deriving meaning. Life, the passage of time, experience, observation can all do that; can and are quite likely to. That’s how it is. We’re weak mortal entities with short lives who tend to love other weak mortal entities with short lives. That brutal set of facts always does tend to interfere with our efforts to derive meaning; it always does mess up ‘issues such as the meaning of life.’ So I would say that what is meant here is not so much that religion helps us to derive meaning, as that religion helps us to deny intrusive bits of reality that would otherwise smash our derived meanings.

Now, I think that’s true – religion does help us do do that. Religion does, and science doesn’t (mostly). But it’s interesting that that’s not the way apologists for religion usually put the matter. They don’t usually even say that religion helps us to protect some illusions and science doesn’t. I suppose that’s because it would be much like a doctor saying ‘I’ll give you a placebo for that.’ But still – it would be more honest.

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