What is the role of religion in finding the meaning of life?

The next essay I am writing for the Meaning of Life course deals with the question whether religion can provide a grounding of values which make life meaningful. Here are some preliminary thoughts:

When searching for the meaning of life, this meaning needs to be grounded to something, it needs a vehicle. A vehicle for meaning is something that carries the value, the thing that is valuable, which in turn can provide meaning. The vehicles for meaning that religion can provide are numerous, for example: the church as a community, the relationship to a god, the promise of an afterlife etcetera. To answer the question whether religion can provide a grounding of values, we need to investigate what sort of vehicle religion is, compared to non religious values systems as means for providing meaning.

I believe that religion is not able to provide a solid foundation for values; religion as a foundation for meaning is a metaphysical sky-hook. It does not provide a solid foundation because it can not be rationally or empirically justified. The justification for religion is not based on rational thinking or observation, but on revelation. But, does this really matter?

Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem shows that not every true statement can be proven through rational arguments. The incompleteness theorem thus leaves some space for religious and other non-rational statements to provide truth. Religious knowledge can, however, not be verified, as it is based on revelation. Revelation is a very personal experience and therefore neither open to verification nor falsification.

Religion can thus not provide a solid (rational) foundation for the meaning of life

Rational thinking, mainly in the form of science, can, however, also not provide a solid foundation. David Hume has shown that some very basic assumptions we make about the world around us can not be rationally verified. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem also limits the reach of rational reasoning, as not all truth can be rationally justified. Hume’s scepticism, combined with Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem shows us that science is also not able to provide a solid foundation for meaning.

After 2,500 years of philosophical thinking we have come to a point were we are forced to realise that there are no rational justifications for the big questions (See my paper on Joske’s concept of futility).

For a lot of people, this understanding that life is essentially futile can be an agonising thought. The thought that life has no meaning whatsoever – the thought the our lives will end in blackness – has driven many people to suicide.

I think this typical human condition is something we have to live with and there are basically two possible reactions. First of all we can ‘invent’ – without any rational justification – a vehicle for meaning. This is what happens in religion. If there is no rational basis for these beliefs, how can we decide which vehicle is the better one, as there is no truth criterion. The individual systems can only be justified internally, as we have no value system outside religion to make a call.

The other option is to embrace the futility and meaninglessness of life. In this option we need philosophy to be able to cope with this. Our vehicle for meaning is a metaphysical hot-air balloon – not anchored to anything – enjoying a brid-eye perspective upon life.

The Validity of Religious Experiences

The Blues Brothers having a religious experience

The Blues Brothers having a religious experience

The question of the epistemology of religious experience deals with the issue whether information obtained through religious experiences can be considered valid knowledge. For a brief introduction into different forms of religious experience, see my paper on that subject.

Information obtained through religious experiences, which I shall further refer to as Revelation, is not considered valid knowledge in contemporary society mainly because the information obtained through revelation can not be verified. Religious experience is thus a very personal experience and unique knowledge, only available to the person receiving the revelation. The receiver of the information is the only one who is able to interpret the revelation and communicates it as thus to the wider world.

In pre-industrial society power was vested in the intermediaries between the transcendent and the immanent. The Latin word Pontifex (priest) illustrates this beautifully as it also means ‘bridge’. The priest as bridge builder between the material and the spiritual worlds.

Knowledge gained through revelation is unique and invests power into the person receiving that knowledge as they are the only ones capable of interpreting the information. Knowledge in this sense is esoteric, only available to a small group of people.

Empirical philosophy has, in combination with rationalism, revolutionised human knowledge of the material world. This combination has been an important and powerful tool. Where does this leave revelation? Can we simply say that revelation is not relevant and that religious experiences are mere delusions?

Because revelation is always esoteric knowledge, every experience is interpreted different, depending on the cultural and psychological dispositions of the person receiving the revelation. An important question to be asked is why a Hindu does not receive revelations concerning Jesus Christ or any other cross cultural experiences?

Religious experiences are particular and esoteric. In a society where knowledge is available to anyone through empiricism (although this is not completely true as we do not all have a particle accelerator in our backyard) the Pontifex has lost his power over society as the sole interpreter of knowledge.

The consequence of this, however, is that we have thrown the baby with the bathwater by ignoring religious experience as a valid source of knowledge.

I believe that religious experience can be a valid source of information to make decisions about non material things. It can people guidance about their life, which can have a very profound impact on their lives in the ‘real’ world. Religious experiences also have an effect on how we interpret the material world which shapes our world views.