Thursday, December 29, 2011

The meaning of meaning

The second Sunday after my deconversion was stake conference. Said deconversion took place late on a Monday night, and I had had a whole week to think about things. I was quite certain--let's say 97%--that the church was not true. (For reference, I'd now put that somewhere around 99.99%, give or take.) I had spent a lot of time online researching and reading exit stories. I had realized the implications of my lost testimony on the night of my deconversion. I didn't know whether to believe in God. My belief up to that point had been informed entirely by Mormonism, and I had no experience with God outside of that context.

I wanted to believe in God. Oh, how desperately I wanted to believe in God. That first night I cried and prayed myself to sleep. I didn't know what to do. I had a strong suspicion that there wasn't a God, but I didn't want to confront it. It was a giant pink elephant in the living room of my mind, and I really didn't want to deal with it. I wanted to just believe.

Those first few weeks after my deconversion were the most surreal experience of my life. It was as if I was a prisoner recently released from a life in prison. I didn't know what to think or how to handle this new perspective. It frightened and baffled me. Everything was new, and once I got past the initial fear I was like a kid in an intellectual candy shop. I was allowed to think about things that I hadn't been able to before. But at first, it was too scary. And one of the scariest things to think about was whether or not God existed.

The reason this was so frightening to contemplate was because God and Mormonism together had comprised the totality of my life's meaning. I didn't know how to think about life, the world, or even myself outside of that context. The world seemed so dark, empty, and meaningless without it. I had time to think about this on that Sunday afternoon, after stake conference had ended. One of my roommates was out of town and the other two were asleep. It was sunny outside and there was no snow on the ground yet, so I wrapped myself in a blanket and leaned on the railing outside my apartment, just like I had the night I lost my testimony.

I mulled over the idea of atheism in my mind as I watched the wind blow through the grass and the trees of my dorm's courtyard. I couldn't comprehend it. How could this beautiful, fascinating, complex world exist without some kind of divine being? How could my life have any meaning at all? I wanted to believe. I felt emotionally compelled to believe. But intellectually, I couldn't justify it. I was faced with Søren Kierkegaard's choice of whether to make a leap of faith, and I couldn't do it. I was caught between faith and doubt, and doubt was winning, even though I didn't want it to.

I came to no firm conclusions that day on the railing outside my apartment. I would work through this dilemma over the course of the following months. But that day, I couldn't even put a name to what I believed. I didn't believe--or disbelieve--anything. I didn't know what to believe, and it was uncomfortable. The reason this dilemma was so difficult was because I needed meaning in my life, and I didn't see how I could have it without God.

Human beings seem to have a compelling need for meaning. What they mean when they say "meaning" is very subjective, but the persistence of the question surely indicates that we need some kind of answer to it. Philosophically speaking, there are four basic answers to the question. All but one was incomprehensible to me as a newly minted apostate, because all four have fundamentally different conceptions of what the question is. Well-meaning people on Internet forums told me that I had to create my own meaning. They might as well have been speaking Klingon for all the sense that made to me. Meaning, to me, wasn't something you could just create out of your own fancies and preferences. It was supposed to be objective, immutable. I subscribed to the religious version of meaning. For something to have meaning, in my view, it had to fit into a bigger picture somehow. This view of meaning is very well articulated in a poem popular with Christians, the author of which I (regrettably) do not know:


My life is but a weaving
between my Lord and me;
I cannot choose the colors,
He worketh steadily.
Oft times He weaveth sorrow,
And I, in foolish pride,
Forget He sees the upper,
And I the under side.

Not 'til the loom is silent
and the shuttles cease to fly,
Shall God unroll the canvas
and explain the reason why.
The dark threads are as needful
in the Weaver's skillful hand,
As the threads of gold and silver
in the pattern He has planned.
He knows, He loves, He cares,
nothing this truth can dim.
He gives His very best to those
who leave the choice with Him.

Meaning, for me, required my life to fit into "the big picture" in a predetermined way, just like the individual threads in a tapestry go together to make a picture. The proposition that one must create one's own meaning will make no sense to someone who thinks this way--after all, a bunch of threads all doing whatever they please is not going to make any kind of discernible picture on a tapestry.

I hinted at the second view of meaning earlier--this view questions the utility of "meaning of life" as a concept. It holds that the idea that life must have a "meaning" is, in itself, meaningless. In the first place, the question, "what is the meaning of life?" presumes a priori that life does, in fact, have a meaning. But does it? And in the second place, what does that mean? If you reject the existence of God and of any other overarching teleology, you can't have meaning in the tapestry sense. You have to come up with something else. This view holds that there is no such thing.

The third view, which is often confused with atheism itself, is nihilism. Nihilism holds that while the concept of "meaning" is coherent, no such meaning can or does exist. Many atheists do take this position, but not all do. When I subscribed to the tapestry view, I saw nihilism as the only alternate option. And justifiably so--if you reject the truth of the tapestry view, but still retain that definition of meaning, then you are faced with no meaning.

The fourth view is the humanist view. This is the "create your own meaning" view. And it requires a shift in one's understanding of the meaning of meaning (so to speak). Instead of a tapestry, the humanist view sees meaning as a sort of mosaic--there's no overarching picture, but it's still beautiful even in its chaos. And, as you would expect, definitions of meaning vary widely within humanism. This view is, in one sense, much more limited than the tapestry view because it is not objective or overarching, nor does it have any kind of ultimate end. It's temporary and subjective. But on the other, this same fact creates a great deal of freedom and flexibility as well. And it does require much more of the individual. It requires one to "know thyself," as the ancient Delphic oracle admonished. It requires one to work through the mire of epistemology and ethics, and it doesn't have easy answers.

I did not understand this distinction that first Sunday. I could only conceive of meaning in a limited way. I wanted to fit into something beyond my own control or will. In a way, I wanted to be enslaved to a "higher power"--it did not matter what God's plan was, so long as I fit into it somewhere. But I had already realized that I really had no interest in fitting into the Mormon conception of meaning. I have chosen the humanist view. Admittedly, this makes me something of a relativist. It entails a certain amount of epistemological ambiguity. I'm okay with that. But the important thing to understand--what I did not understand as I began my search for meaning without religion--is that before you can find the meaning of life, you have to know what that question means to you.

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