The Meaning of Life and Religion

Over at The Point, Raymond Geuss ruminates on the possibility of “A World Without Why?”  After lamenting that his job as a philosophy professor is mostly about equipping students with the tools they need to engage in sophistry and serve the system, he gets to the nub of the issue:

A world utterly without “why” can have one or the other of two very different aspects.  It can seem a deeply contemplative, even if not necessarily thoroughly pleasant, place….The other, potentially diabolical, aspect of this construction is the one which presented itself to Primo Levi when he realized that in Auschwitz there was no “why.”

I noted yesterday that students in my anthropology of religion class are convinced that one of the explanations for religion is that it gives life meaning.  This contention makes sense only if one assumes that humans are universally inclined to ponder the meaning of life.  One must assume, in other words, that people in all places and at all times are asking themselves: “Why?”

When I read historical and ethnographic accounts of hunter-gatherers, I nearly always come away with the impression that this question — “Why?” — is neither central to their lives nor consuming.  This, in turn, suggests to me that “Why?” is not a human universal.  Without doubt, “Why?” is central to Western thought and religions.

With this in mind, I think it important to ask why this question is asked.  Under what circumstances do people begin obsessing over “Why?”  It seems to me that this question about telos or purpose becomes central when people sense that their lives are meaningless.  One rarely finds such a sense among hunter-gatherers.  One often finds such a sense among people living in large-scale societies.  What accounts for this difference?  It could have something to do with different modes of production, social relationships, kinship networks, and ecological settings.

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