Without religion, how do you find meaning? How do you live well? How do you find out how to live well? What is life about, anyway?
Throughout her book Doubt: A History, Jennifer Michael Hecht weaves the idea of a “graceful-life philosophy.” These life philosophies are formed after a region becomes more cosmopolitan—many cultures living next to each other. Since you can’t escape being confronted with challenges to your own beliefs, this confrontation of views leads to doubting whatever your accepted religion is. But losing your religion, eating, drinking, and being merry aren’t satisfying for most people. The graceful life philosophies provide that meaning. In fact, Hecht calls them “secular religions” since they serve many of the functions of religions.
This week I’d like to talk about these “graceful life philosophies.” In future posts, I’ll talk about how to go about adopting such a philosophy. If you’re anything like me, you might get overwhelmed by the quantity of choices. I recommend starting with curiosity. “Oh, that’s interesting,” instead of, “I need to get started now!!”
The following “secular religions” provide answers, or at least guidelines for:
- Making sense of how the world works.
- What life is about; what’s the big picture.
- What we should spend our time doing.
- What it means to live life well.
- How to handle life’s challenges.
- How to prepare for death.
Some philosophies of life are more fully-formed and can replace religion for most things. Not only how do you pursue a good life, but also how to live with others, how to eat, dress, etc. They may provide community and events. Examples include:
- Stoicism: fulfillment and happiness come from living according to our nature as humans. This happens when we live as the best humans we can: thinking and acting rationally and living for the good of ourselves and others.
- Non-theistic Buddhism: you should pursue the Eightfold Path toward a better life for you and those around you.
- Epicureanism: pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain are natural and normal, so go with the grain and do that well. You can achieve ataraxia (mental and emotional tranquility) if you do.
- Secular/atheistic versions of established religions, like Christianity, Islam, or Judaism
Some philosophies may be less fully formed but might form the solid core of a life philosophy you build yourself over time. The fact is, we all cobble together our own philosophies of life as we gain experience. These might provide fewer answers to mundane questions about how to eat, dress, etc., but they’re helpful places to begin. Examples of these partial philosophies include:
- Secular Humanism: We’re human, so let’s work to develop and help humanity and the world around us.
- The teachings of Ecclesiastes: There is no absolute meaning, no life after death, but life is still good, and one’s own work is good. (Doubt, a History, p78)
- Existentialism: Ut is up to each individual to create her own meaning and values in life by engaging in the world, by pushing back against oppressions that threaten to limit our possibilities and by getting out there and doing things—not just contemplating what you might do. (How to Be Authentic, Skye Cleary, xii)
- Absurdism: There is no intrinsic meaning, but we crave meaning anyway. We must face this absurdity by constantly keeping it in front of us and acting against it, living life to the fullest. (The Myth of Sysiphus, Albert Camus, throughout)
- Pragmatism: What works is more important than what accurately reflects a complex, incomprehensible reality (How to Live a Good Life, p245 and following)
- Effective Altruism: We should dedicate at least some of our resources to making the world a better place and ensure these resources get put to the best uses they can. (How to Live a Good Life, p256)
- The Satanic Temple: “The mission of The Satanic Temple is to encourage benevolence and empathy, reject tyrannical authority, advocate practical common sense, oppose injustice, and undertake noble pursuits.” (The Satanic Temple website)
Even the teachings of Jesus could be included here if you ignore 2000 years of religious cruft. In his book Jesus for the Non-Religious (which I haven’t read), John Shelby Spong describes Jesus as breaking tribal and religious boundaries and prejudices.
Starting to Get Started
As you’re coming out of religion, wondering what to do, it may be worth learning about various philosophies of life. Here are a couple caveats to bear in mind:
- You are not behind! You’re not starting from scratch.
- There’s no race to some finish line. This is about your life, so you can take the necessary time.
- None of the philosophies are perfect. They all have limitations.
- They are not one-size-fits-all. You will build your own philosophy of life anyway, and it may be cobbled together from multiple. My philosophy is a strong dose of Stoicism, plus a good helping of Christianity, Epicureanism, Buddhism, and Skepticism.
- Learn to distinguish life-hack from a life philosophy. We’ll get more into this over time.
- Jennifer Michael Hecht: The Wonder Paradox GAP Episode
- Jennifer Michael Hecht: Doubt A History GAP Episode
- Sasha Sagan: For Small Creatures Such As We GAP Episode
- Why I am a Humanist—David’s description of his Humanism
- How to Live a Good Life—A helpful survey of a number of philosophies of life