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.


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Want to forge stronger social bonds? Bring beer.

New research shows that a healthy supply of locally-sourced beer helped maintain Wari civilization for 500 years.

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  • A new analysis of an ancient Wari brewery suggests chicha helped maintain the civilization's social capital for hundreds of years.
  • Civilizations throughout the ancient world used alcoholic drinks to signify kinship, hospitality, and social cohesion.
  • The researchers hope their findings will remind us of the importance in reaffirming social institutions and sharing cultural practices — even if over coffee or tea.

Beer is history's happiest accident. Though the discovery probably happened much earlier, our earliest evidence for beer dates back roughly 13,000 years ago. Around this time, the people of the Fertile Crescent had begun to gather grains as a food source and learned that if they moistened them, they could release their sweetness to create a gruel much tastier than the grains themselves.

One day a curious — or perhaps tightfisted — hunter-gatherer hid his gruel away for a safekeeping. When he returned, he found the bowl giving off a tangy odor. Not one to waste a meal, he ate it anyway and enjoyed an unexpected, though not unpleasant, sensation of ease. By pure happenstance, this ancestor stumbled upon brewing.

That's one possible origin story, but we know that our ancestors learned to control the process, and beer took a central role in Fertile Crescent civilizations — so central that Professor Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that beer, not bread, incentivized hunter-gatherers to relinquish their nomadic ways.

Beer may also be proof of a God who wants us to be happy (Dionysus?), because the beverage* would be independently rediscovered by peoples across the ancient world, including those in China and South America.

One such peoples, the pre-Inca Wari Civilization, made beer, specifically chicha de molle, a critical component in their religious and cultural ceremonies. In fact, a study published in Sustainability in April argues that the role was so important that beer helped keep Wari civilization intact for 500 years.

Brewing social capital

Twenty years ago, a team of archaeologists with the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, discovered a brewery in Cerro Baúl, a mesa in southern Peru that served as an ancient Wari outpost. The brewery contained original equipment, clay storage vessels, and compartments for milling, boiling, and fermentation.

The team recently analyzed these on-site vessels to uncover the secrets of the Wari brewing process. Removing tiny amounts of material found in the spaces between the clay, they were able to reconstruct the molecules of the thousand-year-old drink. They then worked alongside Peruvian brewers to recreate the original brewing process.**

Their molecular analysis revealed several key features of the beer: The clay used to make the vessels came from a nearby site; many of the beer's ingredients, such as molle berries, are drought resistant; and though alcoholic, the beer only kept for about a week.

These details suggest that Cerro Baúl maintained a steady supply of chicha, limited by neither trade nor fair weather, and became a central hub for anyone wishing to partake. The Wari would likely make such trips during times of festivals and religious ceremonies. Social elites would consume chicha in vessels shaped like Wari gods and leaders as part of rituals attesting to social norms and a shared cultural mythology and heritage.

"People would have come into this site, in these festive moments, in order to recreate and reaffirm their affiliation with these Wari lords and maybe bring tribute and pledge loyalty to the Wari state," Ryan Williams, lead author and head of anthropology at the Field Museum, said in a release. "We think these institutions of brewing and then serving the beer really formed a unity among these populations. It kept people together."

The Wari civilization was spread over a vast area of rain forests and highlands. In a time when news traveled at the speed of a llama, such distinct and distant geography could easily have fractured the Wari civilization into competing locales.

Instead, the researchers argue, these festive gatherings (aided by the promise of beer) strengthened social capital enough to maintain a healthy national unity. This helped the Wari civilization last from 600 to 1100 CE, an impressive run for a historic civilization.

Bringing people together (since 10,000 BCE)

A Mesopotamian cylinder seal shows people drinking beer through long reed straws. Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Of course, the Wari weren't the first civilization to use beer to reaffirm bonds and maintain their social fabric. Returning to the Fertile Crescent, Sumerians regarded beer as a hallmark of their civilization.

The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the adventures of the titular hero and his friend Enkidu. Enkidu beings as a savage living in the wilderness, but a young woman introduces him to the ways of civilization. That orientation begins with food and beer:

"They placed food in front of him,
They placed beer in front of him,
Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food,
And of drinking beer he had not been taught.
The young woman spoke Enkidu, saying:
"Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land."
Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,
He drank the beer — seven jugs! — and became expansive
and sang with joy.
He was elated and his face glowed.
He splashed his shaggy body with water
and rubbed himself with oil, and turned into a human

Tom Standage, who recounts this scene in his History of the World in 6 Glasses, writes: "The Mesopotamians regarded the consumption of bread and beer as one of the things that distinguished them from savages and made them fully human." Such civilized staples not only demarcated their orderly life from that of hunter-gatherers, they also served a key role in their culture's unifying mythology.

Furthermore, Standage notes, Sumerian iconography often shows two people sipping from waist-high jars through reed straws. The earliest beers were consumed in a similar fashion because technological limitations prevented baking individual cups or filtering the beverage. But the Sumerians had the pottery skills to make such cups and filter the dregs. That they kept the tradition suggests that they valued the camaraderie brought by the experience, a sign of communal hospitality and kinship.

The ancient Greek's similarly used alcohol as a means of maintaining social and political relationships — though their drink of choice was wine.

During symposiums, upper-class Greek men would gather for a night of drinking, entertainment, and social bonding. In Alcohol: A history, Rod Phillips notes that symposiums were serious affairs where art, politics, and philosophy were discussed throughout the night and could serve as rites of passage for young men. (Though, music, drinking games, and sex with prostitutes may also be found on the itinerary.)

Of course, we can amass social capital without resorting to alcohol, which has been known to damage social relationships as much as improve them.

In the 17th century, London's coffeehouses stimulated the minds of thinkers with their caffeine-laden drinks, but also served as social hubs. Unlike the examples we've explored already, these coffeehouses brought together people of different backgrounds and expertise, unifying them in their pursuit of ideas and truths. Thus, coffeehouses can be seen as the nurseries of the Enlightenment.

Relearning ancient lessons

The Field Museum archaeologists hope their research can help remind us the importance social institutions and cultural practices have in creating our common bonds, whether such institutions are BYOB or not.

"This research is important because it helps us understand how institutions create the binds that tie together people from very diverse constituencies and very different backgrounds," Williams said. "Without them, large political entities begin to fragment and break up into much smaller things. Brexit is an example of this fragmentation in the European Union today. We need to understand the social constructs that underpin these unifying features if we want to be able to maintain political unity in society."

So, grab a beer or coffee or tea, spend some time together, and raise a glass. Just try not focus too much on whether your friend ordered Budweiser's swill or an overpriced, virtue-signaling microbrew IPA.

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