Why are we here? The answer to that question is what we mean by "the meaning of life".
I joined the Mormon church decades ago partly because mormons claimed to have an answer to that question. Their answer can be simplified down to: we are here to learn to become like God, so that in the next life we can live like God, which includes producing offspring forever. One assumes that living like God means living a good, happy, fulfilling life. Instead of using mormon jargon for this, I'll just use the acronym GHFL. While I never cared about producing offspring forever, or even at all, living a GHFL did and still does appeal to me. The Mormon church backs up its claims with evidence that initially seems to make sense, seems to form a self-consistent view of reality, at least it seemed to me to do so for decades.
Decades of associating with other mormons has taught me that mormons can have very different understandings about what a GHFL means. Some of those understandings can be profound. They come from individuals' keen understandings of themselves and their lives and other human beings and their lives, as well as scientific knowledge, and much rational thought over decades. Others are so unenlightened that they cause most people to wonder how adult humans could possibly believe this drivel. Their naive views come simply by memorizing what they are told to believe with apparently no attempt at all at understanding what they memorized or at integrating it into a world view that is logically consistent with the evidence they've seen in their own lives.
As I struggled to correlate the church's doctrine with what I've seen in my life, I gradually came to understand the importance of having a personal religion. By a personal religion, I mean one derived from each person's own effort to make sense of his own life and what he knows of the lives of others combined with rational thought about how to fit this all together into a picture that makes sense. I'm making the distinction here between a religion that we choose and one that is chosen for us by someone else--be they our parents, a particular man or woman, an organized religion, etc.
As I learned more about human beings and what makes us good, happy, and fulfilled, I gradually began to see that my understanding of the basic teachings of the Mormon church and other Christian churches is not wholly consistent with my understanding of what actually makes us good, happy, and fulfilled. For example, I have learned that when it comes to happiness, what is going on in our heads is far, far more important than what is going on around us. I strongly suspect that ultimately what is going on around us doesn't matter at all. No matter how badly things are going in our lives, no matter what suffering we are going through, no matter what indignities we are enduring, none of it matters if what is going on in our heads is conducive to happiness. I realize this is a strong statement which few will agree with. Nevertheless, based on the evidence I have, I believe it is true. If it is true, it means that any "Heaven" that is a physical place outside of us will never make us happy. Whether or not there exists a physical place called Heaven, the belief that we will be happy just by being there is completely false. It is as false as the belief that there is an actual man called Santa Claus. Not only that, but it is a false belief taught by people who do not understand themselves. The understanding required to eliminate this false belief from our minds is just one example of the many benefits of having a well-thought-out personal religion.
In the process of developing a personal religion, we struggle to form our own consistent picture of reality--one that is not only self-consistent, but also consistent with the evidences we see in real life. This development process can be a struggle, because it can require sustained thought over our entire lifetimes. This is why many of us either don't attempt it or only do it part way. I imagine none of us do it to the extent to which we are capable. But, the more we do it, the more we learn, and the less we become susceptible to being lead astray by an almost infinite list of available false teachings. In fact, our efforts to understand are our only protection from false teachings, because all around us others are falling prey to them. We can't just look around to see what most people believe and choose to accept their beliefs, because it has been my experience that most people are wrong most of the time. That isn't because most people are stupid or naive, it's because most people have not put in the effort to synthesize more correct perceptions in most areas of life.
One problem we humans have in discussing religion is in deciding what the word "religion" means. Some choose to see anything other than a formal, organized religion with a name as something else--perhaps a philosophy, a value, a world view, a societal consensus, etc. My guess is that some choose the simplest definition possible for the word "religion", because simple definitions of religion make religion easier to slam. If I can claim that a religion is nothing more than something given to me by the pope or a prophet or a religious text, then I only have to find one factually incorrect statement by that source of authority to successfully tear down the entire religion. So, dear readers, I will dispense with any attempt to convince you of my viewpoint and simply define the word "religion" for the purposes of this article. Religion is the total combination of our world view, values system, philosophies, and any other mechanism by which we make choices in our lives, be they based on the teachings of a formal religion, political propaganda, theories obtained from science, or the results of biological or sociological programing. If I could come up with a broader definition of religion here, I would. So when I talk about an individual's personal religion, I mean the sum total by which he makes decisions in his life.
This definition prevents some who are inclined to do so from arguing that since all religions are flawed, therefore, only atheism can be correct. By the definition above, and by that line of reasoning, atheism is part of an individual's religion, and as such, it too must be flawed. My goal here is not to play word games, but merely to show that the word games that some employ to "prove" their points about religion are useless when it comes to getting at the truth.
Accepting that meanings are inseparable from religions, means accepting that the development of a well-thought-out personal religion will lead us closer to a more useful meaning of life. No one can decide what a thing means without first deciding what that thing is and how it affects him. Our religion tells us what the world is and how it affects us. This means that the meanings of our lives are based on our religions. So, meaning either follows spontaneously from religion without thought, or it comes by the person's choosing based on his religion.
I could back up what I'm saying in this article with numerous insightful words from authority figures that have PhD's in psychology and religion and with many quotes from religious texts. But, if you are not already inclined to believe me, I doubt any of it would convince you. I have noticed that ignorant people seem to believe that they are as close to omniscience as a human being can get; therefore, anyone claiming to know something they don't is just arrogant. So, it doesn't matter how many people with PhD's after their names are backing me up, that will not matter to an ignorant person. The only thing quoting other people would likely accomplish would be to increase the length of this article and cause you to take longer to get to the central point that I am trying to make. That is that every individual has two choices. He can take someone else's word for the meaning of life. Or, he can choose for himself what his life means. If he choses the former and never investigates further, he will be stuck at the level of goodness, happiness, and fulfillment associated with that meaning of life and the teachings it is based on. But, most likely, if he lives long enough to accumulate enough life experience, he will be forced to abandon his former choice and look for better meanings of his life. This abandonment may be forced on him multiple times in his life, until eventually he comes to the realization that the only choice left by the process of elimination is the second choice, to decide for himself what his life means. If this happens, he may also eventually realize that choosing the second choice means continually re-evaluating it in the light of new life experiences and more thought for as long as he lives.
In my opinion, each person would be best served by recognizing that it is up to him to choose why he is here and what to do with his life. Allowing someone else to give us these answers will most likely eventually lead to seeing that the answers we have been given are inconsistent with what we observe in our lives. Therefore, they are most likely the wrong answers for us; that is, not conducive to the most possible goodness, happiness, and fulfillment for us.
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