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While most people abhor door-to-door proselytes, I love getting the chance to talk to them. Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, run-of-the-mill Christians, send ’em my way if you want to get rid of them. I invite them in, offer a drink and a snack, and then listen to whatever god they are selling.

I don’t ignore them either, I take notes on what they are saying, and eagerly await the compelling argument that will make me accept the brand of religion they’re promoting. I wait until they finish their script about redemption, damnation, The Good News, or the mysteries that science can’t explain, and then I ask questions. Lots of questions. Not mean questions, not “ridicule-disguised-as-just-asking-questions” questions, not loaded questions, but genuine questions I want them to engage with.

Consistently, these people respond with enthusiasm and have pre-planned responses to some of my questions. In time though, the conversation will turn to why Pascal’s wager doesn’t make sense, why Euthyphro’s Dilemma is problematic, why free will isn’t a good explanation of natural evil—and the conversation becomes less fluid. The religious text of choice becomes more difficult to interpret, the unknowable will of God becomes even less knowable, and the obviousness of claims becomes less obvious. 

Most proselytes will attempt to answer my questions, and the ones that I most love talking to will acknowledge when they are having difficulty doing so. The honest ones will recognize that they have painted themselves into a corner and cannot reconcile things that they believe with their own lived experiences. When they do this, I laud their honesty and sympathize with the challenge of the subject material. These people have exited their echo chamber, albeit briefly, and responded magnificently to having their beliefs challenged.

Soon thereafter, they will pack up their things and leave my home with less confidence than when they entered. Occasionally, to my wife’s chagrin, they will return to continue our conversation.

A minority of these visits are less productive. I can see it coming, and I wait for it. It’s like watching a train derail in real life. I am powerless to stop it once it has begun to happen. There’s a period of stony silence followed by the inevitable: 

“So there’s no point to life, then?” 

This comment-disguised-as-a-question is accompanied by a look that is oddly triumphant. Apparently, this snide remark has somehow rectified their epistemological deficiencies in our exchange. While my standard approach to dealing with this comment was to roll my eyes hard enough to shear my optic nerves, and sigh with such force that the windows in my home shatter, I eventually realized these comments had upsetting implications.

The person saying “So, life is pointless?” is either not being sincere or is being sincere. If it is the case of the former, then whatever. Maybe the comment is meant as a high-caliber zinger to redirect the conversation. Perhaps they want to leave my home (as they often do immediately afterward) but feel as if they must get the last word in. Maybe they are upset about their failed recruitment and have turned to sarcasm to cope. That’s totally cool: He who is without ire cast the first barb. But I suspect that for many of them, the comment reflects how they feel. They believe that the nonreligious are without purpose or meaning because they don’t accept Bronze Age god(s). 

But this also implies that they themselves need divine intervention to have a meaningful life.

A startling implication

This admission is so startling, so profound, so damning, that it should be accompanied by a metaphysical Miranda warning. A person seeing themselves as bereft of meaning unless it is given to them is baffling to me. Denying one’s agency or self-directed purpose or potential for those things doesn’t make me angry, it makes me sad. The profound irony of these exchanges is how far removed they are from reality. I have met atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, and Satanists who believe life is bereft of intrinsic meaning, but they always roll up their sleeves and start their own meaning-making process. People who are intentionally nonreligious are among the most driven, caring, and compassionate people I know. Atheists particularly are active in public debate, in community-building, and in ensuring legal recognition for religious minorities. They are overrepresented in the top echelons of science, literature, and philosophy. 

Asserting that God is necessary for life meaning is like saying a camel is necessary for water-skiing. 

But all of this secular meaning-making is apparently for naught. When irreligious people do report sources of meaning, a bizarre rebuttal is offered: The listed sources of meaning are dismissed outright because they are not from a sacred source. It’s not that family can’t be associated with meaning, it’s that family only counts as meaning if you’ve been told it’s meaningful by God. It’s not that you can’t take joy in your work, it’s that work only counts as meaning if you’re doing it for the glorification of God. 

Alternatively, and somewhat more inanely, the secular person is told they only take meaning from those activities because God has made it possible. These rejoinders do not move the goalposts so much as pack up the field and relocate to another city. In the conversations that I have had on the topic, I have been told repeatedly that God-given purpose is infinitely superior to self-made purpose. 

In a similar vein, I wonder if cheering for the Montreal Canadiens only counts as fandom if your parents instructed you to cheer for them.

In 2018, I co-authored a paper with Joe Langston (now a PhD candidate at Ohio University) and the late Dr. Tommy Coleman III exploring the relationship between religion, belief in god(s), meaning-making, and purpose in a sample of Americans. Conventional wisdom at the time held that religion provides meaning to people and that the nonreligious may experience deficits with meaning. Regardless of whether you find this perspective objectionable, it is a great scientific hypothesis because it is testable.

Our approach was straightforward: We accessed data from the 2008 General Social Survey and explored whether various nonreligious identities were associated with deficits in meaning-making. This was to the best of our knowledge the first academic study of this nature, which surprised me given that there is an enormous academic study of psychology and religion. 

We compared atheists to theists, the nonreligious to the religious, and the religiously-raised to the nonreligiously-raised.  We were really interested in measuring endogenous meaning (whether a person produced their own meaning) and how these groups differed with respect to nihilism (~no point to life) and fatalism (~your life has a predestined course). Both atheists and the nonreligious reported higher levels of endogenous meaning compared to their comparators, while being raised in religion was functionally irrelevant to predicting endogenous meaning. Okay, so no real surprises here.

But what about nihilism and fatalism—did the nonreligious succumb in greater numbers to existential despair? They did not. The nonreligious and atheists reported similar levels of nihilism and fatalism relative to their comparator groups.

This isn’t a “one-off” either. Below are similar analyses using more recent data from the 2018 General Social Survey. The results describe nonreligious atheists and Christian theists. This categorization may seem redundant, but it is helpful to point out that some people are atheists but still identify as being a part of a religious tradition (this may seem weird, but it happens a lot). As can be seen, atheists were more likely to believe that meaning in life was self-produced and were less likely to believe that meaning was God-given. These results make sense and align with our original study.

Let’s again look at the consequences of these worldviews: atheists and theists disagreed about the source of meaning in life but tended to agree that life had meaning. If you take your average Godless Gus and Godly Gary, they tend to agree that one’s life has purpose and that decisions in life matter.

When we interrogate the findings of the graph a little more, we see something subtle in the values and easy to miss. While atheists reported higher self-made meaning than did theists, theists tended to be neutral about self-made meaning, not opposed to it. In other words, if you ask the average god-fearing Christian whether meaning came solely from within, they would be noncommittal. There isn’t a blanket denial of self-made meaning, but, and I’m speculating here, the perspective that God is also able to provide meaning. Even when cherry-picking Christians going to church “more than weekly,” there was only mild disagreement that meaning is solely self-produced.

What is wild though, is that the average Christian only showed modest endorsement of the notion that God is necessary for life to have meaning.

The implication of these numbers is clear, belief in God is incidental to perceptions of purpose and meaning. Irrespective of affiliation or non-affiliation, there is a general awareness that religion isn’t the only game in town for meaning-making. In essence, religion is a Rube Goldberg machine for meaning: Yes, you end up arriving at life meaning, but a lot of extra steps were included in the process.

When I’m talking with that subset of proselytes who break out, “So there’s no point to life, then” comment, I’ve recently skipped the exasperation for something more productive. I ask them to describe what makes them happy in life and to give examples of what brings them meaning. I then ask if they were to become nonreligious tomorrow, whether they would still love their family, enjoy their hobbies, and feel the need to accomplish something in their day-to-day lives. The answer I inevitably receive is, “Well, obviously…” 

And the implication dawns on a lucky few.

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David Speed is an associate professor at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John teaching program evaluation and statistics. He holds a Master’s in applied research and a PhD in social/health psychology.