Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
LIMITED TIME ONLY: Discounted Pint Glass/Tote Bag Combo at $10 sustaining member level.

Is There Existential Meaning Beyond Religion?

A man reaches for a wooden cross in the sea during an Epiphany ceremony in the Greek port of Thessaloniki on January 6, 2011.
Sakis Mitrolidis
AFP/Getty Images
A man reaches for a wooden cross in the sea during an Epiphany ceremony in the Greek port of Thessaloniki on January 6, 2011.

Religious beliefs are often (though not always) comforting. The idea of an afterlife can be attractive. Ideas like fate and destiny — or simply things happen for a reason — can make it easier to cope with difficult situations. It's nice to think that humans have a purpose, that we were put here for some reason, that the natural world is meaningful.

Science is rarely seen as offering these existential and emotional benefits. While some wax poetic about the wonder of nature, a naturalistic worldview is often described as stark and bleak; as painting a portrait of nature devoid of meaning.

In a passage from Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette?, one of the main characters describes her experience on a trip to Antarctica:

We'd pass icebergs floating in the middle of the ocean. They were gigantic, with strange formations carved into them. They were so haunting and majestic you could feel your heart break, but really they're just chunks of ice and they mean nothing.

I like this passage because it highlights a tension — on the one hand appreciating the natural world and embracing a strong emotional response to it, but on the other hand seeming to divest it of meaning.

Can a scientific, naturalistic worldview actually offer the existential and emotional benefits of religious beliefs?

In a recent article at the Boston Review, "Can Science Deliver the Benefits of Religion?," I take up this question in the context of human evolution and what it suggests about our place in the natural world. I invite 13.7 readers to take a look and respond!

You can keep up with more of what Tania Lombrozo is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Tania Lombrozo is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, as well as an affiliate of the Department of Philosophy and a member of the Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences. Lombrozo directs the Concepts and Cognition Lab, where she and her students study aspects of human cognition at the intersection of philosophy and psychology, including the drive to explain and its relationship to understanding, various aspects of causal and moral reasoning and all kinds of learning.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.