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Meaning, or the Lack Thereof
Existentialism: The Apotheosis of Secular Philosophy

Faced with the enormous amount of evil and suffering in our world, the rational, critical thinking man is tempted to conclude that there is no meaning to be found within the universe apart from the limited and temporary meaning of living and maximizing one's own fulfillment and that of other temporal humans. This evil and suffering has seemingly gone on for as long as human life on the earth, and no one escapes the end of life's withering, decaying or dying process unless one is cut down "in the quick." Even if Jesus is God, this evil seemingly has swallowed up even the Christian God himself, and with the claimed exception for mystical personal experiences he hasn't been heard from for over two thousand years.

One writer characterized life as dealing with the three bedeviling demons of: 1) lack of meaning, 2) evil, and 3) death.  The first demon, the lack of meaning to our lives, stares us in the face much of the time.  For most of us “privileged” citizens of the USA who have the necessities of life,  the second demon, any significant tangible evil, is outside our house staring in through the window seeking a way to get in and at us.  Finally, the demon of death is always looking over our shoulder, inexorably coming ever closer. This is one way to sum up the current human condition.

We will begin with what James Haught says in Free Inquiry, April-May 2013, p.16:

“When I came of age and slowly began to think about life, I developed a strange feeling that the world is senseless, irrational, and chaotic.
     Forty million people had just been killed in World War II and everyone said how noble and heroic it was. The "Big One” was only the latest in thousands of gory wars reaching back before the earliest records began. The number is impossible to know, and the reasons for many are poorly understood. But some are dubious, at best. Honduras and El Salvador fought a war in 1969 over a soccer match. England fought with Spain in the 1700s because a British ship captain's ear was cut off by some Spaniards. I wondered: Is this what people do—send their patriotic young men to kill other young men who feel just as patriotic for the opposite side, no matter what the cause?
     Also in the 1950s, I saw three-fourths of humanity praying to invisible spirits and hoping to go to magical heavens. All politicians invoked the gods. But there was no evidence that any of it was real. I thought: it's crazy to worship something that probably doesn't exist, yet billions of people do it.
     I saw breast cancer killing women, leukemia killing children, hawks ripping shrieking rabbits, sharks slashing baby seals, and pythons crushing pigs—and everyone said that these things happened according to the divine plan of the all-loving, all-merciful Father Creator. Good grief!
     I saw the cruel unfairness of life: how some people are developmentally disabled, blind, abruptly ravaged by cancer, slowly dragged down by wasting diseases, paralyzed by strokes, or killed by drunken drivers, while others are not. What an incomprehensible lottery—spin the wheel to see whether you'll have a long, healthy life or die early and perhaps in agony.
     … Sometimes I felt like a visitor in a vast asylum, baffled as I watched unusual behavior.
     …I decided that the universe doesn't care whether we live or die or whether we're virtuous or sinful. Nature simply doesn't give a damn.
     …Somehow, existentialism seems a perfect philosophy for secular humanists…

How can one disagree with the author’s point? It is hard not to rant, hard not to get apoplectic in denouncing the idea of this being the plan of a loving creator, or to say that this creator imposed this upon us because of an allegorical forefather, Adam, disobeying an arbitrary demand. Elsewhere on this site the context of our lives has been stated thusly: "We are born into a dirty, messy, pathologic, troubled, dangerous, insane world under a sentence of death." It should be well understood that hate is not the opposite of love. Indifference is! And the message that comes to us as humans from the physical universe is not one of affirmation for our wonderful human dimensions but one of relentless indifference.

What the author is saying above is that there is seemingly no sensible purpose, no meaning to which humans can relate in the wider universe as we experience it. This is the essence of “Existentialism”, that there is no meaning or purpose that can be found “out there” and that the individual must accept what exists as apprehensible to us—“What is”—and create or manufacture our own meaning. The above author’s brand of existentialism is that of Camus, one where “what is” makes looking for a message or meaning from God absurd, and that we should have the courage to admit this and soldier on while creating our own meaning.

Nietzsche in his own way, philosophically disassembled the existing theologies or God-belief systems and built the foundation for the “God is dead” movement. He lays down the challenge for us—in the face of the aforementioned absurdity of the world—to have the courage to become paragons of virtue, supermen with honor, virtue and integrity, to be all that we can be. Stirring, I’m sure, but no cigar, for his nihilism and lack of any larger meaning were probably the means that drove him insane! Not to put too fine of a point on it, it didn't work for him by my criteria for success.

A word about Paul Tillich, a so-called "theistic existentialist": Tillich, born and raised under a Lutheran Pastor father, became a theology professor in Germany. After coming into conflict with the Nazi movement and being dismissed from his position, he wound up in America where he published a number of books concerned with integrating Christian theology and existentialism. He was obsessed with ontology, the philosophical study of being, of what it means to exist as a finite, mortal, vulnerable human being in this absurd context. The point that he missed in his multifarious books and ocean of words is that it doesn't mean a whole lot! There is nothing to get very excited about if our only option is to "man up" while we suffer the "slings and arrows" and slowly wither and decay—IF WE'RE LUCKY!

Besides, Tillich should have understood that theism and existentialism are incompatible or mutually exclusive at the foundational level.

This is the best that existentialism offers, a challenge to have the courage to create some temporary “meaning” and make the best of it, a challenge to be so-called “authentic” men. For the rational man who eschews superstition, the myth-based world religions, and the multifarious mystical systems, and who does not see the possibility that men to this day have not seen the rational, logical reasonable purpose and meaning that have been demonstrated, existentialism is the only road left to travel upon. But it is NOT the only road for the reasonable man open to unparalleled goodness. Good grief!

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