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The Alternative

by Victor Saraiva


In our last issue, Leonard Manfred, my colleague and friend, wrote an interesting editorial entitled,  “Our Father who art in heaven…” which elicited some really emotional responses from readers.  Maybe the questions that were cited were too strong for some to bear, in any event it seems Manfred’s essay touched a nerve regarding the doubts that many may be unconsciously repressing, for whatever reasons.

Some interpreted the essay as blasphemous, especially the phrasing of the title and its similar wording in the body of the essay, reflecting the overture to a Catholic prayer, as fodder for an editorial on the perceived shortcomings of God.


Overall, there were two main lines of thought, which encompassed the feedback pointedly rebutting the article;


  1. Evil is not a negation of God’s existence, because in order to know goodness we must have its opposite—evil.  Therefore, the existence of evil cannot be seen as a negation regarding the existence of God;
  2. Some words are sacred and should be respected—there are things, which are outside the realm of investigation and inquiry. One should not question whether God exists-- this is blasphemous.

This second argument is of course anti-science, and in its totality, anti-reason.  Nothing in the realm of existence, nothing in our experience, is beyond question. Nothing. 

However in reference to the idea that there are concepts that are held as sacred, and should not be held to ridicule, by non believers, in such a manner I, as editor, as well as Leonard Manfred, offer our sincere apologies to those readers who were offended by the usage of words that they may consider sacred. 


After some discussion, it was decided that I provide an answer to our readers, rather than Leonard Manfred.  What follows is partly attributed as an answer, but it also reflects an alternate worldview—an alternative to how we live our lives. 


A writer, is a wordsmith who has been taught that words have power and are to be used in order to convey meaning. However, that meaning must be connected to our experience as human beings. It must provide us with a way to dialogue, to build bridges among ourselves; such dialogue should enable us to progress to higher planes of existence.  Words are symbols that are to be seriously evaluated and considered as representations both for what is real and what is possible.   


Words are symbolic interpretations through which we reflect the practical world.  Words can either reflect real constructs or hypothetical constructs, theoretical constructs, alternate possibilities within that same world—this irrespective of whether we can recognize those possibilities or not.  These symbolic constructs have permitted mankind to elaborate mathematics, chemistry, physics, poetry, novels, the short story, medical science, and the myriad of languages that imbue our world with meaning, facilitate learning and communication among human beings.  Think about it, everything in your life that has any meaning can be expressed as a result of some combination of words.


Religion, any religion, relies on the use of  words, to answer certain questions that are universal to human beings—irrespective of whether one is Chinese or French or any other nationality. Such questions for example are;


Why am I here?

How did life come to be?

How is everything in our world related?

Is the universe finite?

What is life’s purpose?

Why do I have to one-day die?

Is there an afterlife? 


Different religions have different answers to these questions, but there are some commonalities. There are classic approaches by theologians to defend the existence of a deity and by necessity such approaches need to neutralize the ‘problem of evil’—the chief argument posed by agnostics and atheists against the acceptance of a theistic alternative.  Both the arguments listed above by our readers are classic examples of counter-arguments to the negation of the existence of God.


Let us also recognize that our words are grounded to a large extent in our empirical world.  This is so, because words are symbols and symbols begin as empirical devices, which enable easy manipulation in our thinking. Or as Henry James says in his final work, Some Problems in Philosophy, “life is in the transitions.” Order in our perspective in our experience, is in the progression, it is always in the making, leading to some higher construct.  Call it experience, call it metaphysics, call it truth, it is in a way the same thing—the gist of meaning is always in the act of becoming. 


Religion gives us meaning, it answers the unanswerable questions.  Why do we suffer?  Why do we struggle?  Why do we live a circular existence leading from birth to death?  Religion answers our questions. It provides us with easy answers. It gives us palatable meaningful answers, which we require to live life with some degree of purpose, leading us to an end that makes sense. 


How would we behave, how would we react if we found out that God does not exist?  How would you face your life if you knew, knew for certain, that there was no preordained higher purpose or design behind our existence—that there was no higher intelligence?  Faced with such a scenario, I would argue that one would imagine a fork in the road of one’s life path and that such a bifurcation would present us with two alternate, yet opposite, paths of possibility to follow:


  1. If there is no God then our lives have no meaning, and our struggle is absurd.  The Existentialists would say this.  Albert Camus used the example of the 'Myth of Sisyphus' as a comparison to man’s struggle in life.  Camus reasoned that we live our lives in quiet desperation, we struggle to earn a living to pay our bills, and to be able to eat--in short we struggled to survive.   During our lives we continually experience minor defeats, and small victories, and ultimately we die—the ultimate defeat.  The summit to life, our life, no matter how insignificant, or laudable, ends similarly for all in the obliteration that is death.  Camus’ Sisyphus, had the duty to roll an enormous bolder up a mountain, only to see it roll down the other side.  Then, he would again roll the same bolder up the mountain and again see it roll down the opposite side.  Over and over, Sisyphus was destined to labor in this way for all time.  According to Camus and many Existentialists this is the best characterization of man’s existence.  If accurate, then our life is absurd, and meaningless.  The often-quoted expression, “He who dies with the most ‘toys’ wins” is a reflection of this type of thinking.  In such a world, there are no rules; everything is possible and just as valid as the traditional Judeo-Christian thinking of how to live one’s life. In such a world, the hedonist philosophy becomes the alternative of choice, it is individualism taken to the extreme.  In such a world, ethics, morality vanish, because rules and laws are brandished, with hipocrisy, as methods of oppression and control. In such a world corruption is the norm.


I would argue that although, most citizens in America, and in most modern ‘first world’ consumer oriented capitalist societies say they believe in God and live their lives according to the principles of some religion, they instead secretly embrace hedonism as their raison d’etre (their reason to exist). In such a world view, materialism rules supreme, and “hey if it feels good do it, to hell with everyone else,” such is their motto.





  1. The other alternative to a ‘Godless’ existence forces the human being to Create Meaning amid absurdity. I would refer to this second alternative as Humanism.  Humanity becomes the center of existence, but not in an hedonistic manner. Mankind, I would prefer to use the gender-neutral term humankind, takes center stage, according to a Copernican perspective; the universe does not revolve around us, and we are not the zenith of life.

Humanism;  Creating Meaning


In the remainder of this essay, I will elaborate on this second alternative for Humankind, in the spirit of Copernicus, to construct meaning in life by defeating absurdity, hedonism and existentialism.  According to this perspective, God does not exist, never existed and shall never exist.  Humans are simply one species, which is related to all other life forms. In this way, given our high level of ‘intelligence’, we have a responsibility to all life in a manner very similar to Jainism, a far Eastern religion that repudiates all violence, and accepts a responsibility to do no harm.


The responsibility for one’s life is reflected amid all of humanity because unlike the specter of existential absurdity which haunts all of humanity, by creating meaning we can resolve the perennial questions that previously were answered by religion.


How? Well, science is an example of this manner of creating meaning.  Before the development of scientific thinking, humanity relied on modes of superstition, alchemy, and astrology to explain why events developed in the practical world of nature. As with religion, such methods attempted to assuage the fears of not being able to control one’s life.  Carl Sagan, the late great astronomer, teacher and scientist wrote an eloquent exposition regarding this very topic; on the opposing forces of science and anti-science ( The Demon-Haunted World, Ballantine Books, 1996 ), I would refer you to Sagan's elaboration concerning the value of science in solving many of the problems facing humanity--his book really deserves to be read.


With the development of science and empirical approaches to the study of our world, humanity has been able to achieve a fundamental level of understanding that has provided us with an ability to predict or control some of the events in our lives, but the larger questions still remain unanswered.  So how to approach the answers to such questions, and how do we create meaning? 


Science, and education are the tools, which must be used.  Such tools are the anti-thesis of superstition and help to lay the groundwork, the foundation for understanding the world. Only an informed and educated mass of humanity can progress to the next stage, which is the empathic recognition that all of humanity shares the same problems; be it in one form or another.  The origin of such problems can be reduced to the concreteness of the struggle for survival, an endemic struggle which is locked within the basic confines of our biological, physical existence. But there is another level to that struggle for survival, the other level necessitates a spiritual resolution, one that seeks to make sense of the direction of one’s life—a teleological formulation which resolves the problem of meaning for each human being.  In other words, how each person resolves their own grappling with the problem posed by the ‘Myth of Sisyphus’. 


Humanism provides us with the following resolution to both levels of conflict.  Science and reason should be used to resolve the basic concern of survival.  This concern is addressed in the myriad forms that science partakes in; education, medicine, pharmacology, physics, engineering, etc., etc.  In other words, science and reason, become the tools not of corporations to create products for mass consumption, in order to generate profits for corporate boards and investors in the hedonistic game of amassing wealth.  Instead science should be used in a progressive manner to solve the problems of humanity vis-a-vis its survival—by ameliorating the conditions for life and eliminating its threats.


Once such threats to survival, both to the individual, as well as to humanity are resolved, then we progress to the higher plane of survival and its accompanying questions of meaning—'what for, why.'  In other words once we assure our mutual survival, equally for all, then we must subsequently address the questions created by the paradox of our existence in a world absent of any predefined meaning. 


Humanism resolves such questions by embracing the concept of equality for all persons.  In such a concept, humanity labors for the benefit of all, rather than for the benefit of oneself.  Let me state this in another way; only by 'escaping' from one's self-centered wants and desires, by substituting the needs of humanity can an individual  ultimately be 'saved' from the constaints of egoism.  


If humanity’s concern were for the benefit of all, environmental issues would easily be resolved, labor issues, civil rights issues, and many of the conflicts currently facing humanity would be resolved quickly.  In such a world corruption would not be tolerated, it would have no place.


Meaning for existence would be satisfied by the idea that we were all in the same boat, that we all worked for the benefit of all; meaning would be found in the idea that humanity progressed together, hand in hand, and that our reason for being was to be found in the world being built in unison.  Those who who came before, had helped build a better existence, in fact they had built the buttress that today supported us.  So, in turn, we today had a similar obligation to those of the future, to continue to build on past achievements. In this way, humanity would live for its own reason, to be found in its own survival, and in its amelioration.  By so doing, all human activity becomes progressive, and history becomes a recounting of human development, rather than a sick overture of man’s past exploits of destruction, oppression and conquest.


Albert Schweitzer in his philosophical exposition  The Philosophy of Civilization  eloquently makes a similar case to the one I have attempted to delineate here, but much less awkwardly.  He states the following;


“But that men should be released from responsibility for self-devotion as men to men, the ethics of reverence for life will not allow to be legitimate. They demand that every one of us in some way and with some object shall be a human being for human beings… one with another we all have to recognize that our existence reaches its true value only when we experience in ourselves something of the truth of the saying: ‘He that loseth his life shall find it.’ ” ( p. 322-3 )

“ Feeling ourselves responsible to the civilized way of thinking we look beyond peoples and states to humanity as a whole.  To anyone who has devoted himself to ethical world- and life-affirmation, the future of men and of mankind is a subject of anxiety and hope.  To become free from this anxiety and hope is poverty; to be wholly surrendered to it is riches.  Thus it is our consolation that in a time of difficulty and without knowing how much we may still experience of a better future, we are paving the way, solely by our confidence in the power of the spirit, for a civilized mankind which is to come.” (p. 343-4)



© 2005, Victor M. Saraiva, This essay was constituted in part from a chapter entitled “Musings on Meaning”, from the book  When America Lost Its Way, (not yet published).  All Rights Reserved.


Victor Saraiva is senior editor, he can be reached by email

Posted  October 31, 2005

URL:                     SM 2000-2011         


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