I’ve been thinking about religion and the arguments people use to defend it, again. Or more likely I’ve never stopped. It’s a line of thought that shrinks or expands, that takes up a position in the middle of the living room or creeps into the back of a closet, depending on what I’ve heard or read lately, but it probably never goes away entirely, never actually packs the wheely suitcase and marches away into the sunset (which would be inadvisable from here, actually, because you would drown). Anyway I’ve been thinking about it. I’ve been thinking about the idea that religion has something to do with humans’ desire for meaning – that religion does something about that desire. Satisfies it, answers it, solves it in some way. We see that general idea (and it is general) expressed a lot in these disagreements over religion. It’s always (at least in my experience) expressed in a very vague, hand-waving fashion. I’m tempted to say (so I will) a carefully vague, hand-waving fashion – because it can’t really be expressed in any other way, because there’s not really anything non-vague to say. At least so it seems to me.

I was browsing and I found this old Comment on the subject, prompted by a review (now subscription, unfortunately) of Richard Dawkins’ A Devil’s Chaplain by Allen Orr and the similarity of something he said to something Michael Ruse said about the same book. Orr:

You might argue that what conflicts did occur between science and religion were due to misunderstandings of one or the other. Indeed you might argue that Dawkins’s belief that science and religion can conflict reflects a misconstrual of the nature of religious belief: while scientific beliefs are propositions about the state of the world, religious beliefs are something elseā€”an attempt to attach meaning or value to the world. Religion and science thus move in different dimensions, as Gould and many others have argued.


People like Dawkins, and the Creationists for that matter, make a mistake about the purposes of science and religion. Science tries to tell us about the physical world and how it works. Religion aims at giving a meaning to the world and to our place in it.

In that old Comment I focused on the truth-claim aspect, but now I want to take a look at the ‘meaning’ question. One obvious question is, what does it mean to give a meaning, to attach meaning to the world? Give or attach meaning how? How does religion do that? By making factual claims, that’s how. By saying there is a god of a certain kind, and that that god is what makes the world meaningful. Well – factual claims are factual claims, and anyone and everyone can query them, emphatically including scientists; therefore that sharp separation is completely bogus.

And then, what does that phrase even mean? Give a meaning? Surely it’s obvious that that’s simply a very human idea, a human want, reflecting human thoughts and feelings. Yes of course, we want to think our lives (hence the world they take place in) matter, have significance and importance, ‘mean’ something – something more than what they mean to us. And we suspect that actually sub specie aeternitatis they don’t. So we want something – something non-factual, anti-factual, non-empirical, counter-empirical – to ‘give’ the world meaning for us. For the something to ‘give’ meaning it has to be anti-factual because we already know the facts aren’t going to do it for us – that’s the problem, that’s why we talk about ‘giving’ meaning in the first place. The facts are that we live brief lives and in three or four generations at most are as forgotten as if we’d never lived. We might as well give meaning to the life of the chicken we just ate for dinner or the ants we stepped on as we crossed the street. The meaning doesn’t seem to be in the brute facts; we want meaning; so we invent a non-factual magical Something that gives meaning for us. Very well. That’s consoling for many. But the fact remains that the trick only seems to work if this supposed extra-factual transcendent magical Something is after all quite mixed up with The Facts – with factual claims, that is, as opposed to real facts. It has to be there and to have certain attributes for the meaning to stick. So we decide it is and does.

There are other ways of ‘giving’ meaning, that don’t rely on a special external supernatural Something to ratify the meaning – but of course they are so much the less consoling. They make smaller humbler claims, they don’t deny death and extinction, they settle for human versions of meaning.

But that’s the nature of the enterprise. Either ‘meaning’ is a limited, temporal, human creation and interpretation – the world has meaning because of love, or art, or progress, or hope, or beauty, or all those – or it’s a timeless transcendent non-human creation ratified by a supernatural being – in which case it is making factual claims that are entirely open to dispute and investigation.

It’s a dishonest form of sleight of hand to try to blur the two and then pretend the whole thing is off-limits to inquiry.

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