Many people, ascribing to several different faiths, endeavour to give their lives meaning and structure by adhering to a particular set of religious preachings or guidelines for living a “good life” (as defined by their chosen religion). Some of them may seek to persuade others that religious faith is the only way to understand the meaning of life. But do I need religion to give my life meaning?
I should preface the following by making clear that I am familiar with the social convention that one should never discuss sex, politics or religion at a dinner party – for fear of offending other (rather sensitive) guests. I also fully appreciate that many people are wholly unwilling to discuss their religious preferences and views, and that some people take great offence from anyone who so much as implies that their chosen religion might be in any way wrong or not the one true religion. However, I also fully appreciate the value of the freedom of speech, and believe that everyone is entitled to their own opinion on any given subject. So, if you don't want to read my opinions about religion, stop now...
The answer to the question posed may well depend upon how broadly we define "religion". One might attempt to define religion very broadly to mean a set of beliefs that attempt to explain our existence and the meaning of life. In that case, it seems almost axiomatic that I need religion to give my life meaning (because the term “religion” would then refer to the beliefs that comprise my answer to the question that I was asking myself). However, most of us use the word religion to refer to one of the major, organised religions; to refer to the belief in, and worship of, a god or gods. It is this latter definition that I refer to when I query whether I need religion in order to give life meaning.
If a particular religion is necessary to give my life meaning, the clear implication is that I cannot give my life meaning unless I follow the teachings of that religion. However, at least in predominantly secular societies (such as the UK), a person's religious beliefs are often (but not always) a matter of personal choice, much like any other choice they might make about their lives: Where should I live? What job shall I take? Who shall I spend my time with? When religious preference is so easily chosen, it seems to me that whether or not I choose to follow a particular religion is only one way of many in which I might seek to give my life meaning – the very fact that I have a choice about what to believe means that no particular set of beliefs (or prescribed way of living a “good life”) can objectively guarantee to give my life meaning. If it could, wouldn't we all follow the same religion?
Even if I were to accept that the only way to give my life meaning was by leading my life according to religious principles and teachings, which religion is the correct one to teach me how to live a meaningful life? There are 19 major religions (20 if you include Scientology, and why should we ignore it just because it's the most recently developed?). 20 different (albeit occasionally similar – at least when considering general principles and overarching themes) religions, each offering a different system of beliefs and teachings. It stands to reason that they cannot all be correct or the only way that I can give my life meaning (particularly when several contradict each other and propound that followers of other faiths are wrong to do so).
Religious beliefs appear to give some believers real comfort. They also purport to offer answers to questions that we cannot (yet) answer – deep, meaningful questions, like: Why am I here? What is the meaning of life? Is there one correct way to live my life? The very fact that so many people follow organised religions demonstrates that each religion must surely offer benefits to those people who (freely) choose to follow them. Followers of each religion doubtless benefit from feelings of shared experiences with other believers of the same faith; from the emotional and psychological comfort offered by being part of a large, collective belief system; from the structure and direction offered by regular gatherings, lectures and discussions. All of these benefits are no doubt very real to the people who enjoy them, and are most likely craved by many people who feel directionless in life, or who question the purpose of being. But is religion the only way that I can give my life meaning?
In my view, there are a plethora of ways to give one's life meaning. Just for example, by contributing to the advancement of human understanding or knowledge; by improving the lives of others; simply by endeavouring to achieve one's own personal goals in life. For me, following the teachings of a particular religion is just an additional way of seeking to understand more about life.
It seems to me that there is more than one way to live a meaningful life, just as there is more than one way to be happy and fulfilled. Religion (whichever one a person may choose – or be required - to follow) is just one way in which a person may seek to give their life meaning; to understand more about who they are and why they're here. It seems clear to me, though, that I don't need religion to give my life meaning, and, even if I did, how would I ever know for sure which religion was the right one – the only one – to teach me how to live a meaningful life.
Religion, of course, is a belief system. To the extent that a person does not cause others to suffer as a result of his or her beliefs (whether religious or otherwise), then what that person thinks or believes should be entirely a matter for them to decide. As indeed should be their personal decisions about the right way for them to go about living a meaningful life. If religion has taught us nothing else, it has taught us that there is no single right answer to the question “what is the meaning of life?”