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Religion and the Meaning of Life:
An Existential Approach

Clifford Williams

To be published by Cambridge University Press
March, 2020

“Human beings are hungry for significance. It is intolerable that life should 
consist of one darn thing after another.”  (
John Cottingham, 
On the Meaning of Life)


Introduction                                                                                       1 
1 Why Should We Care about Meaning?                                     8
2 Boredom                                                                                        30
3 Denial of Death                                                                            42
4 Acquiring Meaning                                                                      56
5 Suicide                                                                                            79
6 The Divine One                                                                             97
7 Life after Death                                                                            112
8 Obstacles                                                                                      135
9 How Should We Live So as to Die Well?                                153
Epilogue: Facts the Heart Can Feel                                            174

Notes                                                                                                 176
References                                                                                        179
Index                                                                                                 186

From the Introduction

We humans are troubling paradoxes. We intensely want our lives to be
meaningful, to count for something, to matter not only in individual and social ways but in a “cosmic” way. At the same time, we often evade thinking about meaning and let ourselves be driven by impulse instead of meaningfulness. This paradox is troubling – and puzzling – because it looks as though we undermine the very thing we most want.

This book is about both poles of this paradox. It describes ways of
acquiring meaning plus obstacles to acquiring meaning, including ones we ourselves initiate. It also connects each of these poles to belief in a divine creator. Sometimes this connection will be prominent, and sometimes it will be in the background. Either way, a main aim of the book is to show how meaning is connected to that belief.

Quotations on Themes in the Book

Chapter 1, Why Should We Care about Meaning?

"A person’s life can be meaningful only if she cares fairly deeply about some things, only if she is gripped, excited, interested, engaged. . . . One must be able to be in some sort of relationship with the valuable object of one’s attention—to create it, protect it, promote it, honor it, generally to actively affirm it in some way or other." (Susan Wolf, Meaning in Life and Why It Matters)

Chapter 2 Boredom:

"How dreadful boredom is." (Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or)

Chapter 3, Denial of Death:

“The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else: it is a mainspring of human activity—activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny of man.” (Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death)

Chapter 4, Acquiring Meaning:

“There are many ways to live a good life.” (John Ames in Marilynne Robinson, Gilead)

Chapter 5, Suicide:

"There is but one truly serious philosophical question, and that is suicide." (Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus)

Chapter 6, The Divine One:

“Our scope for doing good or bad becomes much greater if there is a God, and so too therefore does the meaningfulness of our life if we choose the good.” (Richard Swinburne, “How God Makes Life a Lot More Meaningful”)

Chapter 7, Life after Death:

“If personal survival is true, then the eternal joy of God at the good deeds of his creatures would be a joy in which those who have lived well will somehow share.” (John Cottingham, “Meaningfulness, Eternity, and Theism”).

Chapter 8, Obstacles:

“Looking closer at this self of mine, I have found that it is all raging flames and inextinguishable fire, perpetual fighting and war between irreconcilable elements, incurable disease, unabatable anxiety, struggle incessant—except in death.” (Ikhwân al Ṣafâ', Epistles of Ikhwân al Ṣafâ')

Chapter 9, How Should We Live So as to Die Well?

“A whole lifetime is needed to learn how to live, and—perhaps you’ll find this more surprising—a whole lifetime is needed to learn how to die.” (Seneca).

“In my experience, people usually die the way they have lived.” (A counselor, James Braley, “One Last Family Photo”).

Epilogue: Facts the Heart Can Feel:

“I am no longer able to aspire to the highest with one part of myself, and to deny it with another. I do not wish to live like that. I would rather die than live like that.” (Arthur Jarvis in Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country)

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