Is it better to believe in pleasant falsehoods or unpleasant truths?
Having a sense of purpose in ones life leads to better cognition, resilience to trauma, positive self-image and lawful behavior, as well as longevity. This has been utilized by programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous – the insistence on accepting a higher power and devotion to helping other struggling alcoholics and addicts is said to be the key to the success of these programs. What this doesn’t say is whether someone’s chosen purpose has to be true (or even morally good, but that may be a topic for another article). In other words, even if the purpose for which one has devoted their life is false, it could still have positive benefits for the individual.
Religious people have bemoaned the decreased emphasis on religion because it leads to dissatisfaction and unhappiness. It’s also possible that this loss of higher purpose has led to sociopolitical woes – in the absence of higher meaning, people seek purpose in other, less healthy outlets, such as drugs and sex. But it could also explain the rise of identity politics – without a sense of higher purpose, people find meaning in their various intersecting identities. Being female, or male, or gay, or straight, or transgender, or black, or white, or working class, or disabled, or liberal, or conservative…these things begin to provide the meaning that people no longer get from religion. Unfortunately, as is playing out, these sources of purpose are divisive and provide no overarching, unifying narrative to give meaning and purpose to everyone as a whole. Instead, our chosen purposes put everyone at odds.
But what if something like religion is no longer able to give meaning? What if belief in a higher power that gives us an overarching, unified meaning is now obsolete or impossible? This may be the legacy of globalization, multiculturalism, and scientific progress – a strange concoction of moral relativism and materialistic reductionism. So we find out that God doesn’t exist (or, at least, has yet to intervene and set us straight on the issue at hand) and we are condemned to freedom. As such, people have come to different conclusions on how to live The Good Life here on earth – each of them the flawed brainchild of human beings in all our biased thinking, all of them equally valid without an ultimate authority, mutually incongruous, and yet unable to avoid one another in a world shrunk by globalization and constant connection, leading to polarization, division, and conflict.
So what’s the answer? Do we continue believing the truth – that there is no ‘right’ answer to the question “what is my/our purpose in life?” and that we are permitted to do anything, no matter how bad it is for ourselves and those around us? Or do we take the Leap of Faith that Soren Kierkegaard suggested – that, given what we know in our modern times, we tell ourselves Sweet Little Lies – that will make our lives better? The former has obvious real world consequences, as discussed above, but the latter requires us to commit what Albert Camus called philosophical suicide by attempting to make transcendental meaning out of meaninglessness (to his credit, I imagine Camus would also condemn something like identity politics as a source of purpose as philosophical suicide, too).
This discussion may seem somewhat academic, but I contend that it has very important ramifications. How will we reconcile the truth that meaning is merely what we make it with the need for a higher purpose? I hope I am being melodramatic when I say that our civilization may depend on this reconciliation, but more and more I feel like this isn’t too much of an exaggeration.