As I have noted on occasion, there are three values systems competing for world dominance: Islam, European style secularism/socialism and Judeo-Christian values. As the competition in America is between the second two (in Europe, Judeo-Christian values are dying while Islam is increasing its influence), my columns on Judeo-Christian values have concentrated on differences between Judeo-Christian and secular values.
Perhaps the most significant difference between them, though one rarely acknowledged by secularists, is the presence or absence of ultimate meaning in life. Most irreligious individuals, quite understandably, do not like to acknowledge the inevitable and logical consequence of their irreligiosity -- that life is ultimately purposeless.
Secular and irreligious individuals raise two immediate objections:
1. Irreligious people, including atheists, are just as likely to have meaningful lives as any religious person. They need neither God nor Judaism nor Christianity nor any other religion to have meaning.
2. Secular and irreligious are not the same as atheistic; many secular individuals believe in God and therefore whatever meaning accrues from having a belief in God, they, too, have. They do not need religion or Judeo-Christian values to give their lives meaning.
The first objection denies a fact, not a subjective judgment: If there is no God who designed the universe and who cares about His creations, life is ultimately purposeless. This does not mean that people who do not believe in such a God cannot feel, or make up, a purpose and a meaning for their own lives. They do and they have to -- because the need for meaning is the greatest of all human needs. It is even stronger than the need for sex. There are people who lead chaste lives who achieve happiness, while no one who lacks a sense of purpose or meaning can achieve happiness.
Nevertheless, the fact that people feel that their lives are meaningful -- as a parent, a caregiver, an artist, or any of the myriad ways in which we feel we are doing something meaningful -- has no bearing on the question of whether life itself is ultimately meaningful. The two issues are entirely separate. A physician understandably views his healing of people as meaningful, but if he does not believe in God, he will have to honestly confront the fact that as meaningful as healing the day's patients has been, ultimately everything is meaningless because life itself is. In this sense, it is far better for an individual's peace of mind to be a poor peasant who believes in God than a successful neurosurgeon who does not.
If there is no God as Judeo-Christian religions understand Him, life is a meaningless random event. You and I are no more significant, our existence has no more meaning, than that of a rock on Mars. The only difference between us and Martian rocks is that we need to believe our existence has significance.
Now to the second objection, that you don't need religion or Judeo-Christian values, just a belief in God or, as is more popular today, in "spirituality" to imbue existence with meaning. Theoretically, one can posit the existence of the God of Judeo-Christian religions without actually believing in any of those religions or in any of their holy works. There is, however, some absurdity in believing in the God made known through texts whose authenticity one rejects. "I believe in the God made known to the world solely through the Old Testament but not in the Old Testament" is not logically compelling.
Whatever the logical inconsistencies or theoretical arguments in either direction, the fact remains that while secular individuals can believe that their own lives have meaning, secularism by definition denies that life has meaning. The consequences have been devastating to mental health and to social order.
Among these have been increased unhappiness and depression, increased reliance on drugs and numbing entertainment to get people through life, moral confusion, belief in nonsense (such as Marxism, fascism, communism, male-female sameness, pacifism, moral equivalence of good and bad societies, and much more), and perhaps most ubiquitous, political meaning as a substitute for religious meaning.
Given that the need for meaning transcends all other human needs, its absence must create havoc individually and societally. In government, secularism is a blessing; but most everywhere else it is not.
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