Tuesday, November 17, 2009

meaning and belief in god

I was thinking about two end of class questions today, regarding how one could believe in god without believing that god actually exists, and whether this belief is pointless like a child’s belief in an imaginary friend. I think atheistic existentialists would very much agree with this comparison, in that they would argue the child’s imaginary friend, just like God, serves a very important function despite the fact that they do not believe either actually exist.

I think that when people are placed in situations where they have trouble accounting for what has happened, for the meaning in life, for their own purpose, as existentialism in a way requires one to do, an easy and comforting fall back is to look for something else to provide meaning. In the case of the child and imaginary friend, although the imaginary friend does not exist, it is a helpful and meaningful belief for the child. The imaginary friend allows for the child to take comfort in having a relation with another being that understands their problems, is a best friend, knows them better than anyone else and provides them with a constant source of strength, especially when they lack other real human relationships. In the same way, regardless of whether or not any god actually does in fact exist or not, the belief in god provides for many people a lot of the same comforts.

Atheistic existentialist would argue that god, like an imaginary friend, can be a source of comfort in a lonely world, allowing people to transform their anxiety into a meaningful suffering.When something bad happens, it is for some immensely comforting to say that there is a god who has a reason for this unfortunate event occurring. When hit by a feeling of anxiety about the possibilities of life, it may be comforting to believe there is a plan that will guide one safely through it. When struggling with questions of whether or not there is any meaning to life at all, it may be more comforting to assert that a god has made an absolute meaning than to believe that there is no meaning at all.

Frankl argues that all humans strive to create or to find meaningful answers to our problems, and that as a result it may be as natural for humans to find meaning and comfort in believing in god as it is for a lonely child to find meaning and comfort in their relationship with an imaginary friend. This is all good as long as every believer recognizes that they create and believe in god in the same way that a child creates and believes in an imaginary friend. According to atheistic existentialist, neither the child or the existential believer should really think that the imaginary friend or god exist in reality, while this does not mean they cannot value their beliefs as meaningful since believing in these things is an expression of their own meaning making potential.

Atheistic existentialists would view this belief as good, though, only insofar as believers do not start attributing meanings and values as existing independently of themselves. Just as parents are scared if a child begins claiming to act on the instruction of their imaginary friend, atheistic existentialists are scared by religion when believers start claiming to act in accordance to the purposes of a god.


  1. This is very interesting but there are a couple of points I'd like to add. I think the reason why you said we like having God is because he/she is comforting: i.e. God can control everything so we should worry about nothing. But you also said that an existentialist should not actually believe in God, but recognize the fact that "God" just means this thing that I pretend exists through my profound existential thinking. However, if God really does not exist how can he/she protect the existentialist? It seems that the existentialist should not have any comfort from his idea of God because he does not really believe that God exists and therefore God has no power to provide protection or planning.

    Also, if someone believes that God actually does exist, I do not think that this naturally leads to a more comforting lifestyle than that of the atheist. Although the theist does believe that God exists and is in control of everything, the theist has no control over this God (unlike the existentialist who manipulates his idea of God). This God can not be manipulated and although the theist may try to please or understand God, there is no assurance of success.

    Because of this, I believe that neither the existentialist nor the theist can believe in God and be completely comforted without believing a contradiction.

  2. It is indeed more comforting to propose an absolute meaning for human life through God than to find no meaning at all, but this may be a false dichotomy. Someone like Camus claims to create his meaning through a revolt against a deterministic universe, attempting to create something new, something providing a voice with which future generations can grapple with absurdity (This thought can be found in the final statements of Camus' essay, "The Artist And His Time"). Some find belief in God too difficult to force, and cannot in intellectual honesty adopt the merely comforting conception of God, that is better for life to profess this belief while not actually holding it dear. It seems to me that the historical contingency of widespread belief in God is meeting with a sort of knee-jerk reaction the opposite way as well, a religion of scientism, belief that science can give us all the facts and our attitude about them. This amounts to claiming inherent meaning in facts about the natural world, another form of absolutism in terms of meaning; others throughout philosophy's history have hoped to achieve this absolute meaning through semi-deification of Truth or Reason. The same happens with many self-described Marxists who hypostatize the thoughts of Marx as without variation from what will necessarily occur, giving them a certain unfounded, in one sense deluded, hope.

  3. I felt this needed its own separate comment as it is a different focus from the last:

    It's a good point to recognize the self-creation of this meaning-positing entity, but it may be necessary with this grasp of the world to ignore the possible incoherence of such a practice with what one truly believes or can believe.

    Also, belief in an absolute "plan" may be going to far in the direction of helplessness and a general lack of strong freedom. This comforting, visibly efficacious, self-constructed belief in a God, while ignoring the possible attributes of such a God, or at least the relationship one has with such a God, would probably be attacked pretty harshly by Sartre as another form of bad faith, as a conscious endeavor to self-deception rather than an authentic reaction.

    The "imaginary friend" model would amount to choosing superstition rather than facing a perceived lack of objective verification with what one can experience for oneself. This is of course different for those who have some sort of mystical experience, the direct feeling that God is speaking to them. The problem is, without such an experience, I cannot simply, like William James, see the pragmatic relation between a conscious choice to posit some sort of God and a "better" life without the supposed fatalisms of atheists. Despite recognizing the contingency of my beliefs and desires, I would feel dishonest with myself adopting such a "belief." Another issue one might raise is that the imaginary friend is not accepted as normal throughout life, while a friendly, informal relationship with the ultimate Creator is considered praiseworthy.

  4. I think your first assumption is actually the opposite, the atheistic existentialist would say that the function created by God or even an imaginary friend is bad. Relying on God that does not exist for a source of strength would be almost like acting in bad faith. You are denying the fact that you have freewill, and you are denying your own situation by making up some imaginary being. You do nothing and hope God will fix it. I think that is what Sartre and other Atheistic existentialist would have to say in response.


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