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Finding meaning without religion

I’m seeing an unexpected surge in religious uptake these days. It seems like there’s been a counter-reaction to the recent wave of atheist commentary, whereby people originally lost faith and then came back stronger than ever.

I get it. In a world that is increasingly becoming more divided, where everyone at the top seems greedy and psychopathic, and no one can agree on what’s even true anymore, it’s hard to find a reason to get out of bed. People need meaning in their lives or they simply lose the will to live.

I’m definitely an atheist. Atheism is not a belief system, in case you didn’t know that. It’s simply the lack of belief in a god. I don’t believe in god the same way I don’t believe in ghosts or Santa Claus or Harry Potter. God simply hasn’t been proven to me in such a way as to convince me to believe in him/her/it.

I certainly don’t agree with organised religions, and see them merely as ancient doctrine designed to control large masses of people. If getting me to believe in a god is a stretch, convincing me that the Bible, Qu’ran, Torah etc. are anything other than complete fictions is near impossible.

And I’m nowhere near convinced that atheists are amoral. In fact, if you believe that God’s plan can’t be changed, then you’re free to do whatever horrible acts you wish, safe in the knowledge that your God must want it that way. As an atheist, I have no excuse for my harmful behaviour. I have no one to blame but myself.

But this post isn’t an atheist hit-piece against religion. 

Rather, I write to offer an alternative way to find meaning other than believing in something someone else made up based on faith (i.e. something that can’t be proven with evidence or logic).

You see, I do live a deeply meaningful life. I have compelling reasons to get out of bed in the morning. I have an unambiguous set of moral principles that guide my decision-making, and a crystal clear sense of right and wrong. I know who I am, what I’m supposed to do each day, and whether I’m on track.

None of this comes from believing in supernatural forces, a “higher power”, or the writings of ancient superstitious peasants. The only time I follow other people’s rules is when by coincidence they are the same as the ones I’ve created for myself.

I don’t have some arbitrary commitment to any particular philosophy. Unlike many atheists, I haven’t simply filled the religious space with an equally faith-based adherence to another ideology, like Stoicism, Marxism, Epicureanism, scientific dogma etc. 

While I have taken ideas and inspiration from scientific studies, religious stories, and philosophical claims alike, my own personal code of meaning, purpose, and morality actually comes from my life experience; from real data, obtained by experimentation, and interacting with or observing other people in thousands of situations, gleaning from this data a moral code that I cannot help but agree with.

I call this my Core Values.

To help you understand how I figured out my Core Values, let’s try a thought experiment. 

Imagine that somehow, while you were growing up, no one ever tried to convince you of right vs wrong, or any moral codes, laws, rules etc. Imagine that you grew up having to figure this out all on your own.

And let’s assume that you’re logical, reasonable, and healthy. You would therefore seek the truth, choose the healthiest and most practical and successful methods and options, and not be tempted to do unhealthy things just because they felt pleasurable. You haven’t even been conditioned to believe pleasure is the highest goal! You’re emotionally shameless, and just want a high quality of life.

How would you do it? How would you figure out what works? I suggest it would come down to a fairly basic practice.

You would identify how you prefer other people to act, and compare that with what you don’t like. You’d see people do things that you admire, respect, and generally enjoy, and you’d see people do things that you hated, despised or were disgusted by. You’d learn from their mistakes and their successes. You’d keep what works consistently and discard what doesn’t.

And you’d measure yourself simultaneously. There would be actions you take that have a positive effect on your long term quality of life, and others that harm you. When measured carefully, you’d start to see the difference between something that feels good right now and something that is actually good for you in the long term. You’d learn to delay gratification. You’d learn that you need to take care of your future self by rejecting certain unhealthy temptations and coping mechanisms in the present that only provide short term pleasure. 

You’d naturally develop the same goals that any human develops, those of health, creation, and connection. You’d want meaningful and loving relationships with others. You’d want to feel fit, active and strong. You’d want to spend your time doing things that feel productive and helpful and challenging. These are all natural human drives.

Eventually, all of this investigation and experimentation would come together to form a code of practice; a set of principles; a formula to follow that best achieves your goals for a high quality of life and makes you feel like you’re the kind of person you wish other people would be.

Nothing would be based on faith. All of these principles would be thoroughly tested and proven to be consistently more effective than alternatives. You’d split-test alternatives against each other, and ruthlessly discard anything ineffective in favour for a better approach. You’d engage in a never-ending experimental process to constantly seek better ways to live.

Remember, no one else has interfered. No one has shamed you, or guilt tripped you, or tried to manipulate you for their own gain. No one has sold you their ethical or moral code. No one has told you how to live. No one has convinced you to settle for comfort or social conformity. You’re completely free of that influence. (I know, it’s hard to imagine). You’re free to go with what works without any attachment to what doesn’t.

What would that list of principles look like?

You can actually answer this question now, even though your actual life has been tainted by the influence of others. But it requires a bold sacrifice: you must be willing to let go of everything you’ve been told, taught, and manipulated into believing, and start over with a fresh slate.

If you fear that you’ll lose your religion through doing this, just remember: if it is indeed the truth, it will survive this test. If it doesn’t survive, then it must have been at least partly a lie.

You must take a pen to this blank piece of paper with a new rule: whatever goes on here must be proven to work!

And to know if something “works”, we must first identify what it would be working towards. What does it mean for you to have a “high quality” life? I can’t answer that for you. But when is the last time you sat down and brainstormed what the answer to this question is? Let it be an answer without influence from others and their ideas, including mine!

What kind of person do you wish you were? What kind of relationships and connections would you like to have with others? What’s the most satisfying and meaningful activities and actions you can imagine taking? What does “healthy” mean to you? What do you want to experience before you die?

Draft out an idea of what the answers to these questions are, as if you had never been told what the answers should be. Look at the people you admire and respect, as well as the people you think are doing it all wrong. Let go of what your parents and priests and friends and politicians told you is “good”, and give yourself permission to decide for yourself based on evidence and rationality.

Then, once you have that picture, even if it is just a first draft, you can start to use reason, logic, role-models, meaningful experiences, intuition, and deduction to figure out your Core Values. What principles, ethics, codes, rules and beliefs would you need to have to behave in such a way as to make that high quality life a reality? What’s the recipe?

You’ll probably need to do some research, especially if you’ve never experienced a particularly satisfying quality of life before. You might need to learn how healthy relationships are created, or how people do what they love for a living, or the best nutrition and exercise plan for the kind of physical health you desire.

You will often find that the answers go against what you’ve previously been told, especially things you’ve been told by people who don’t have the quality of life you desire.

You’ll need to shamelessly identify where you’ve been misled and lied to. You’ll need to admit that while certain influences in your life may have wished the best for you, when you look at them from a detached perspective you can see that they’re not the kind of person you want to be, and therefore they cannot be trusted for advice and guidance. You’ll need to make a separate list of everything you must unlearn; the old ways that you must now sceptically question and carefully investigate.

I grew up being conditioned to believe that I must be “nice”. This meant I had to make people feel happy and make them like me. This was to be achieved by being agreeable, entertaining, emotionally comfortable to be around, and impressive.

So I hid my emotions. I pretended to be cool and easygoing. I put in huge efforts to excel at school, even though I found most of the subjects boring. I tried to always make people laugh. I hid any emotions that might cause discomfort, displeasure or conflict. I tried to fit in with the cool kids while also standing out for all the right reasons. Like water, I took the shape of whatever vessel I was in; I adjusted myself to each person and situation to be as likable and pleasing as possible.

In my mid-20s, I finally realised that while I was good at this approach, my quality of life was clearly nowhere near what I wanted it to be. I wasn’t healthy, socially connected, fulfilled, or self-confident. Clearly, what I had been taught simply DID. NOT. WORK.

Long story short, after much exploration (this part is where many people settle on religion), I decided to start over with a blank sheet of paper. I realised that other people, especially those who told me who to be and how to live, didn’t know what they were talking about. They were miserable too. They were unsuccessful, or unable to enjoy their success. Their relationships were a nightmare. No one seemed to actually have a fucking clue how to live well.

So I had to figure it out for myself.

I studied psychology and philosophy. I spent hundreds of hours comparing healthy and confident people against people who clearly suffered and failed to enjoy life. I spent thousands of hours experimenting with different approaches to socialising, creativity, work, healthcare, and every other area of life. I learned how to identify someone who was living the way I wished to live, and then learned how to reverse-engineer their methods, beliefs, habits, and principles.

I eventually noticed something fascinating.

The principles and practices – the Core Values – that were emerging from this work were all things I knew as a child!

My earliest memories of childhood included a clear sense of what I wanted, who I was, and what was right vs wrong. It seems I knew what a meaningful life was before everyone else got their hands on me and moulded me into something else. These same values were now being reflected in my role-models, and the opposite was being demonstrated by the people I despised or pitied.

Honesty. Courage. Curiosity. Respect. Responsibility. Acceptance. Compassion. Humour. Duty. Humility. 

Integrity.

Each of these contradicted some religion or another. Each of them displeased authority figures in certain situations. There was no philosophy that exactly matched my list. These were all mine.

There was nothing really all that new emerging. This was something I’d known all along, but been taught to forget, to go against, and to compromise.

And all of these values had practical applications. Honesty meant speaking your mind regardless of the potential conflict. Courage meant doing things you find emotionally uncomfortable. Duty meant doing what was right rather than what was easy. Respect meant letting people live their lives but not letting them interfere with yours.

I was clearly against violence unless defending someone else. I was clearly against greed and excessive consumption. I was clearly against blindly following rules without question. There was no religion that aligned with my Core Values.

This was a simple decision-making guide. And when I experimented with it – when I compared living in accordance with these values against doing the opposite – the results were undeniable. When I lived according to these principles, my quality of life increased. When I failed to live by them, there was pain, regret and preventable suffering. To this day, the results are incredibly consistent, to the point where I can clearly connect any suffering I have to recent breaches of my values within 30 seconds of contemplation.

I didn’t need faith. I didn’t need other people to agree with me. I didn’t need 2000-year old books to validate my findings. 

My Core Values proved themselves.

I don’t share these to convince you that they should also be your Core Values. I’m merely sharing the process for discovering your own. You may and probably should arrive at different conclusions to me. You’ll have different preferences; different ideas of what “quality of life” means.

That being said, I have helped many people figure out their Core Values over time, including people who are actively religious and people who come from completely different cultural backgrounds to myself. And what blows my mind is how often they arrive at the same conclusions, without any pressure from me. In fact, I push them to contradict my values if it’s right for them. Even the criminal offenders I’ve rehabilitated – people who have never lived by values like these – still often said that this is how they wish they lived.

I believe this is because human suffering and quality of life is largely universal. We are all almost identical physiologically, so it makes rational sense that we’d share similar ideals on what it means to enjoy life, and what it means to suffer. Therefore, we’d arrive at similar conclusions as to how a meaningful life is achieved, if we are freed from the influence of others.

Some philosophers will claim that there’s no objective morality, that it’s all justifications and fiction. And yet, if I refuse to live by these values I suffer, and if I align with them I enjoy my life. How is that not objective? I even try to contradict my values occasionally, try to prove that they’re wrong, and I just get hit by such bad results that I’m only further convinced that I don’t get to choose my morality – my quality of life chooses it for me.

But that doesn’t mean you “should” agree with any of my values, or those of anyone else. In fact, I recommend you begin with conscious permission to not arrive at the same conclusions as others, but also not to resist arriving at those conclusions if the truth takes you there.

Try it out for yourself. It is a lifetime’s worth of work, but then again, what else have you got to do?


Get in touch if you want help with it, dan@brojo.org

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