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Young Pastor: You speak blasphemy, sir!
Man in the Yellow Suit: Fluently.
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What we Tucks have, you can’t call it living. We just… are. We’re like rocks, stuck at the side of a stream.
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Immortality isn’t everything the preachers crack it up to be.

Quotes from the film version of TUCK EVERLASTING

Back from the Hawkeye State, where I had the temerity to hold a seminar two blocks from the University of Iowa homecoming game. Went well, as did the next day in Des Moines. Met more fabulous folks including Jaime and Brian Sabel and Becky Mason of Iowa Secularists and our very own blogreader Ei! Plus some nice Amish ladies at the airport.

Driving through corn and a lovely plague of black butterflies on the way to Iowa City, I found myself thinking about a question from an earlier seminar — Cincinnati, maybe. A young man introduced himself as a quite recent deconvert from fundamentalism and told me he’d been struggling with the problem of meaning in the absence of eternal life. If we live for a while and then cease to be, what exactly is the point?

The meaning thing is a legitimate problem. I’ve written before about the ways in which we discover meaning, but that’s down here on the local level of our experience. He was asking the larger philosophical question about the Point of It All. And that’s a much more interesting problem.

Thing is, I don’t remotely see how immortality solves it.

If I live to be eighty instead of forty, is my life more intrinsically meaningful? I think most would agree it is not. How about 200 years, or 500? Ten thousand? These are changes in quantity that don’t seem to affect the M&P question at all. No matter how long you live, right up to eternity, the basic M&P question remains in place. In fact, the excellent novel and movie Tuck Everlasting convincingly makes the opposite claim — that immortality actually robs life of its meaning.

Some suggest that religion solves the problem by means other than everlasting life. Our purpose is to do God’s will, and so on. Aside from how deeply dissatisfying this ant-farm model of meaning should be to any thinking person, it only transfers the question up one level: What is the purpose of God, and why, in the grandest scheme, is this hobby of his worth the time spent cleaning our cage?

Meaning is a legitimate human puzzle. The question is whether this abstracted, higher-level meaninglessness troubles you or not. Unlike death, I don’t find ultimate meaninglessness too arresting a thought, though I have seriously struggled at times with local, personal, self-discovered meaning. As I wrote last year (You put your whole self in, 6/5/07):

I don’t imagine other animals have “meaning crises,” but our cortical freakishness makes us feel that we need more than just the lucky fact of being — makes us imagine these enormous, fatal holes and cracks in our meaning and purpose.

Hence the use of God as meaning-spackle.

When I was a kid, my purposometer (purr-puh-SAH-mit-ter), was always in the 90s on a scale of 100. Didn’t even have to try. I knew what I was here for: getting good grades, playing the clarinet, getting Muriel Ruffino to kiss me (Editor’s note: MISSION ACCOMPLISHED, booyah!), getting into college, getting various other girls to kiss and etc. me (mission roughly 17% accomplished). And so on.

Much like your need for a pancreas, you never even know you have the need for meaning and purpose until it begins to fail — which mine did, in no uncertain terms, as I sat black-robed and square-hatted in a folding chair on a Berkeley lawn, not hearing the words of some famous anthropologist standing before me and 150 other black-robed, square-hatted, non-hearing 22-year-olds.

For the first time in my life, I had no earthly idea what was next. It was my first genuine core-shaking crisis of meaning and purpose.

But for reasons I’m not sure about, that larger question — call it cosmic M&P — has never pecked too hard at my consciousness. The best I can do is acknowledge that it is legit and note that religion doesn’t cure it.

Those who aren’t as incurious as I can always imagine themselves in Yahweh’s ant farm — or engage, along with Viktor Frankl and others, in a truly difficult and probably worthwhile bit of philosophical work.

Lemme know how it goes.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.