In this month’s Roundtable, David Baggett, Paul Copan, and Paul Gould have been elaborating on various arguments in Clifford Williams’s book Existential Reasons for Belief in God: A Defense of Desires and Emotions for Faith. In this week’s post, Clifford Williams himself concludes our discussion and extends an argument in his book for the need for meaningful human experiences by adding an “enhancement thesis”: namely, “we can acquire a higher level of meaningful experiences by believing in God than by not believing.”
In addition, we’re also pleased to announce that Dr. Melissa Cain Travis has joined our team as a regular contributor. Melissa is a member of the Affiliate Faculty at Colorado Christian University's Lee Strobel Center, where she teaches a graduate course in scientific apologetics. Over the years, she has also taught undergraduate and graduate courses in philosophy, apologetics, and ancient literature. Her academic interests include the history of Western philosophy, science fiction cinema and literature, and the Inklings. She is the author of Thinking God's Thoughts: Johannes Kepler and the Miracle of Cosmic Comprehensibility (forthcoming, 2022), Science and the Mind of the Maker: What the Conversation Between Faith and Science Reveals About God (Harvest House, 2018), and a contributor to The Story of the Cosmos: How the Heavens Declare the Glory of God (Harvest House, 2019). She serves as President of the Society for Women of Letters (societyforwomenofletters.com) and as a member of the Contributing Writers team at Christian Research Journal. Look for Melissa’s first article in our November newsletter.
Postscript to Existential Reasons for Belief in God
By Clifford Williams
In the three previous articles in this roundtable on Existential Reasons for Belief in God, David Baggett, Paul Copan, and Paul Gould each focus on a specific need that faith in God meets—the longing for immortality, the need for forgiveness for guilt, and the desire for a larger life. I shall do the same for the need for meaningful experiences by integrating an “enhancement thesis” into the existential argument for believing in God: believing in a loving creator enhances the meaningful experiences one has.
A couple of things stand out about the need for meaning. It is not just some meaning that we need, but a high degree of meaning. We need this so as to outweigh the suffering nearly all of us experience, to deal with hard times we go through, and to say with assurance at the end of our lives that, overall, they have been meaningful. A small amount of meaning won’t do for any of these. In addition, we need to experience meaningful activities as meaningful. Simply doing meaningful activities without recognizing them as meaningful is also not enough for believing that they outweigh suffering and hard times and that our lives, beginning to end, have been meaningful.
The enhancement thesis speaks to this need for a high degree of meaning. It says that we can acquire a higher level of meaningful experiences by believing in God than by not believing. We can, accordingly, construct an existential argument for believing in God that incorporates this need:
1. We need a high degree of meaningful experiences.
2. Faith in God satisfies this need.
3. Therefore, we are justified in having faith in God.
Faith in God satisfies the need for a high degree of meaning because the meaningfulness of one’s life is enhanced significantly by having faith in God. Before explaining why, I need to state two characteristics of meaningful experiences. The first is that meaningful experiences must be based on an objective value—the objective value of our activities, personal interactions, thoughts, or emotions. It would hardly do to say that one had a truly meaningful experience if it was based on something perverse or trivial. The second characteristic of meaningful experiences is that we must be engaged with the objectively valuable activity, interaction, thought, or emotion—we must be captivated by it, engrossed in it, or at least interested in it. Again, it would hardly do to say that one had a truly meaningful experience if one had no positive attachment to a worthwhile activity or was totally uninterested in it. One must want to engage with the activity in some way. In general, one must have desires for intrinsic goods and right pleasures.
Meaningful experiences can be enhanced by having faith in God in four ways:
There is a wider context for the meaning of one’s life with faith in God. With theism, this wider context consists of the fact that God gave humans the ability to experience intrinsic goods and right pleasures, plus the desire to experience these goods and pleasures. And God desires that humans satisfy this desire. This wider context enhances the meaningfulness of experiencing intrinsic goods and right pleasures simply because the meaningfulness of anything is enhanced when it is part of a broader context. As Lars Svendsen put it, “Meaning consists in inserting small parts into a larger, integrated context.” In addition, this wider context provides an additional motive to pursue intrinsic goods and right pleasures, namely, to please God. Having this additional motive increases the engagement with goods and pleasures and, therefore, the meaningfulness of experiences of them.
One can experience additional intrinsic goods and right pleasures with faith in God. Among these goods are reverence toward God, a sense of belonging to God, love for God, gratitude to God for being able to experience intrinsic goods and right pleasures, joy at the fact that one is loved by God, and a sense of cosmic security that is ensured by God. These clearly cannot be experienced without faith in God. With faith in God, though, one can have a higher quantity of significantly meaningful experiences.
One can fulfill the urge to “transcend” oneself in additional ways with faith in God. Although we humans are filled with self-absorbed desires, thoughts, and behavior, which sometimes slip into selfishness, there is something in nearly all of us that wants to step outside ourselves. This can be done without faith in God by exemplifying the virtues of compassion, generosity, and justice toward other humans. But with faith in God, there is someone else to whom we can direct our virtues. The other-directed experiences of intrinsic goods and right pleasures listed in the previous paragraph can significantly enhance the meaningfulness of our lives.
Faith in God helps cure everyday and whole-life boredom. It does this partly because with faith in God one wants to please God and partly because with faith in God one wants to experience the additional intrinsic goods and right pleasures mentioned above. Everyday boredom occurs when one does not want to do what one is currently doing, and whole-life boredom occurs when one does not want to do anything at all—nothing interests one, nothing captivates one. With additional motives and desires, one is less likely to become bored, and, therefore, more likely to have meaningful experiences.
This meaning-of-life existential argument for believing in God asserts that humans have an intense need for a high degree of meaning and that faith in God can satisfy it significantly better than by not having faith in God. It concludes that it is legitimate to satisfy the need by believing in God (provided that the satisfaction of the need is supplemented with various kinds of evidence).
 Lars Svendsen, A Philosophy of Boredom, trans. John Irons (London: Reaktion Books, 2005), 29.
 The enhancement thesis and these four ways are taken from my Religion and the Meaning of Life: An Existential Approach (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), Ch. 6, “The Divine One,” 97–111.
— Clifford Williams is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Trinity College in Deerfield, Illinois. He is the author of Religion and the Meaning of Life: An Existential Approach (2020).
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