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Finding meaning in life without religion
Religion does not have a monopoly on meaning.
- Meaning is a relative term, though some religious sects claim to have a stronghold on a definition.
- While meaning is possible through doctrine, there are other ways to find meaning in life.
- The story of activist and model, Halima Aden, highlights how meaning can come from many angles.
Can life have meaning without religion? The common sentiment, expressed by the religious, usually translates as, "How could anyone refute the notion that a rough approximation of the god I believe in exists?" Though oceans of theological disparities exist between religious factions, many rely on doctrine to derive meaning from existence.
Is it actually doctrine, or the community espousing it? Religion can certainly instill meaning into life. Yet "meaning" is widely dispersed. If you ever desire an intentional bout of induced dizziness, glance over the list of Christian denominations—then recall that this is only one religion, with numerous others (also with numerous factions) contributing their own definitions.
To be fair, a handful of common definitions transcend denomination. Perhaps the most often expressed: "something greater than myself." Sadly, this platitude is effectively meaningless, hardly a strong candidate for a consummate definition of meaning. A tornado is certainly greater than me; it can strip my life of meaning should it rob me of my home. Then again, I can rebuild. Meaning can be found in objects, yet often we define it as an inner state.
Instead of big definitions, let's look at a specific example—not so much a synonym, but how meaning plays out in life.
Halima Aden was born in a Kenyan refuge camp in 1997. The Somali Muslim moved to America at age six. Three years ago, she garnered attention for competing in the Miss Minnesota pageant donning a burkini and hijab. Though she walked away without the trophy, she did make the semifinals while infiltrating the media. Flipping conventional American beauty standards over, she said,
"Not seeing women that look like you in media in general and especially in beauty competitions sends the message that you're not beautiful or you have to change the way you look to be considered beautiful, and that's not true."
Model and activist Halima Aden on the importance of uplifting young girls and women
Aden recently reemerged in the spotlight for posing in this year's Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. During the shoot, she discussed her incredible journey back to her homeland.
"I keep thinking [back] to six-year-old me who, in this same country, was in a refugee camp. So to grow up to live the American dream [and] to come back to Kenya and shoot for SI in the most beautiful parts of Kenya—I don't think that's a story that anybody could make up."
Aden then discusses unfair beauty standards placed on women and the notion of self-worth. She champions American values, such as the ability for a refugee, in the face of some of the harshest circumstances imaginable, to become successful while remaining proud of her heritage. Aden found meaning in life when the odds were stacked against her. It is a profound and inspiring story.
Then I made the mistake of sharing the article on social media.
You can also scroll through the comments on her Instagram feed, though you can likely guess what's being expressed. Islamists deride her for lack of modesty—even covered head to ankle she's still showing curves, which is apparently a problem. SI is supposed to be about fitness, says another: they need to loosen up and reveal more of her skin. A woman cries that America is going to hell by allowing such a travesty to occur; Sharia law will soon be installed here, etc.
This is not a pass for the blatant oppression of women in many sects of Islam (or anywhere). But the binary seems to be problematic for the religious. You can be against systemic intolerance and oppression and cheer women that flip the script by being empowered by the symbolism of their culture. In America, secular Judaism is as (if not more) common than Orthodox factions, yet somehow Americans believe the same cannot be true of Islam.
Halima Aden poses for portraits in front of Eniko Mihalik and Julia Restoin Roitfeld (back) at the amfAR Gala Cannes 2018 cocktail at Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc on May 17, 2018 in Cap d'Antibes, France. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/amfAR/WireImage for amfAR)
To be seduced, then enraged, at what is normally expressed as the meaning of Islam is to ignore anyone that derives meaning from their culture on their own terms and not yours. One anecdotal observation: no one that negatively commented on my posts about Aden were Muslim women. The fact that she finds meaning in her presentation of herself does not pass the test of others who prefer their own definitions.
Aden might pimp major fashion brands on her feeds, yet she's also an activist, supporting meaningful causes on a global scale. She was educated in that Kenyan refugee camp by UNICEF. The fact that she now represents the organization and gets to return the favor likely provides more meaning than a holiday photo shoot for Tiffany's.
Is meaning derived from Islam or through helping the next generation of refugees? I can't speak for Aden, but likely both. She writes about modesty in dress and childhood education; she reminds women that beauty is not defined narrowly. Feeling fulfilled from flat abs or a busty chest isn't sustainable, given the transience of biological life; finding meaning in providing clean drinking water to children in a refugee camp can last a lifetime.
Extrapolate from there. Meaning is wherever we focus our attention. Religion doesn't have a monopoly on the term even as it provides one fertile place for definitions. By the very nature of religions, however, any singular definition will be incomplete. The notion that one particular denomination nails it while those tens of thousands of others are off the mark is ludicrous, though it does speak to the tribal sentiments many factions promote among their ranks. So long as my tribe gets the spoils I'm fine spoiling it for you.
Or maybe there simply isn't a meaning of life, but many meanings over many days that extend (hopefully) for many decades. Such a mindset seems more consistent with the evidence than discovering an elusive proverbial needle in an earth-sized haystack.
Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.
- Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
- As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
- The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?
- A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
- It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
- The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
Welfare as an investment<p>The <a href="https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/hendren/files/welfare_vnber.pdf" target="_blank">study</a>, carried out by Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser of Harvard University, reviews 133 welfare programs through a single lens. The authors measured these programs' "Marginal Value of Public Funds" (MVPF), which is defined as the ratio of the recipients' willingness to pay for a program over its cost.</p><p>A program with an MVPF of one provides precisely as much in net benefits as it costs to deliver those benefits. For an illustration, imagine a program that hands someone a dollar. If getting that dollar doesn't alter their behavior, then the MVPF of that program is one. If it discourages them from working, then the program's cost goes up, as the program causes government tax revenues to fall in addition to costing money upfront. The MVPF goes below one in this case. <br> <br> Lastly, it is possible that getting the dollar causes the recipient to further their education and get a job that pays more taxes in the future, lowering the cost of the program in the long run and raising the MVPF. The value ratio can even hit infinity when a program fully "pays for itself."</p><p> While these are only a few examples, many others exist, and they do work to show you that a high MVPF means that a program "pays for itself," a value of one indicates a program "breaks even," and a value below one shows a program costs more money than the direct cost of the benefits would suggest.</p> After determining the programs' costs using existing literature and the willingness to pay through statistical analysis, 133 programs focusing on social insurance, education and job training, tax and cash transfers, and in-kind transfers were analyzed. The results show that some programs turn a "profit" for the government, mainly when they are focused on children:
This figure shows the MVPF for a variety of polices alongside the typical age of the beneficiaries. Clearly, programs targeted at children have a higher payoff.
Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser<p>Programs like child health services and K-12 education spending have infinite MVPF values. The authors argue this is because the programs allow children to live healthier, more productive lives and earn more money, which enables them to pay more taxes later. Programs like the preschool initiatives examined don't manage to do this as well and have a lower "profit" rate despite having decent MVPF ratios.</p><p>On the other hand, things like tuition deductions for older adults don't make back the money they cost. This is likely for several reasons, not the least of which is that there is less time for the benefactor to pay the government back in taxes. Disability insurance was likewise "unprofitable," as those collecting it have a reduced need to work and pay less back in taxes. </p>
What are the implications of all this?<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="ceXv4XLv" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="3b407f5aa043eeb84f2b7ff82f97dc35"> <div id="botr_ceXv4XLv_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/ceXv4XLv-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/ceXv4XLv-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/ceXv4XLv-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>Firstly, it shows that direct investments in children in a variety of areas generate very high MVPFs. Likewise, the above chart shows that a large number of the programs considered pay for themselves, particularly ones that "invest in human capital" by promoting education, health, or similar things. While programs that focus on adults tend to have lower MVPF values, this isn't a hard and fast rule.</p><p>It also shows us that very many programs don't "pay for themselves" or even go below an MVPF of one. However, this study and its authors do not suggest that we abolish programs like disability payments just because they don't turn a profit.</p><p>Different motivations exist behind various programs, and just because something doesn't pay for itself isn't a definitive reason to abolish it. The returns on investment for a welfare program are diverse and often challenging to reckon in terms of money gained or lost. The point of this study was merely to provide a comprehensive review of a wide range of programs from a single perspective, one of dollars and cents. </p><p>The authors suggest that this study can be used as a starting point for further analysis of other programs not necessarily related to welfare. </p><p>It can be difficult to measure the success or failure of a government program with how many metrics you have to choose from and how many different stakeholders there are fighting for their metric to be used. This study provides us a comprehensive look through one possible lens at how some of our largest welfare programs are doing. </p><p>As America debates whether we should expand or contract our welfare state, the findings of this study offer an essential insight into how much we spend and how much we gain from these programs. </p>
Finding a balance between job satisfaction, money, and lifestyle is not easy.
- When most of your life is spent doing one thing, it matters if that thing is unfulfilling or if it makes you unhappy. According to research, most people are not thrilled with their jobs. However, there are ways to find purpose in your work and to reduce the negative impact that the daily grind has on your mental health.
- "The evidence is that about 70 percent of people are not engaged in what they do all day long, and about 18 percent of people are repulsed," London Business School professor Dan Cable says, calling the current state of work unhappiness an epidemic. In this video, he and other big thinkers consider what it means to find meaning in your work, discuss the parts of the brain that fuel creativity, and share strategies for reassessing your relationship to your job.
- Author James Citrin offers a career triangle model that sees work as a balance of three forces: job satisfaction, money, and lifestyle. While it is possible to have all three, Citrin says that they are not always possible at the same time, especially not early on in your career.