Religion and the Meaning of Life:

An Existential Approach

Clifford Williams

Published by Cambridge University Press


“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

"Written with analytic acumen and empathic warmth, this engaging book is a must read for all those interested in the meaning of life. This is the first book on the meaning of life focused on the description of experiences that reveal obstacles to meaning, as well as the paths to attain it." Mirela Oliva - University of St. Thomas, Houston, Texas

"Though life's meaning is on the map in analytic philosophy in ways it has never been before, philosophers who write from an explicitly religious persuasion occupy a relatively small portion of the field. Clifford Williams's new book is a welcome addition that is, at once, analytically rigorous, existentially attuned, and religiously thoughtful. Unlike many other works on life's meaning, it treats this topic with the vitality it rightly deserves, engaging desires of both heart and mind. Williams demonstrates a deep understanding of the human condition, the widespread hunger for meaning, and the unique and powerful ways that religion can satiate that hunger." Joshua Seachris - University of Notre Dame

"An insightful exploration of what makes life meaningful, and its connections with belief in a God of the sort worshipped by the Jewish, Christian and Islamic religions." T. J. Mawson - University of Oxford

"This book thoughtfully explores issues related to the meaning of life from a religious perspective without being dogmatic. Because of this, it should be of great interest to those concerned with how spirituality intersects with meaningfulness. The book constitutes a significant contribution towards one of the important dialogues of our era: between secular and religious conceptions of our lives as humans." Garrett Thomson - College of Wooster, Ohio

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)