January 8, 2010

Atheism and the Meaning of Life

English: Tibetan endless knot Nederlands: Tibe...
Tibetan endless knot (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I was happy to see a recent post by Stefan at EXchristian.net in which he shared his existential pain over the meaninglessness of life after discarding his Christian faith. I am not sure how many ex-Christians face a similar struggle, but I applaud Stefan's willingness to share what had to be a difficult post to write. This is a subject that I have neglected and one which I believe deserves more attention.

Many Christians report that their faith provides them with a powerful sense of meaning and purpose. So go so far as to suggest that they would be lost without it. I am generally content to take them at their word.

Unlike Stefan, I was never a "religious fanatic" and recall no desire to evangelize. While I do remember a sense of comfort in my prior faith, I never experienced the sort of all-consuming purpose from it that he describes. For me, religion was a context, a stable and reassuring presence, but it was only one of the avenues on which I found meaning. Perhaps this difference made my de-conversion process easier than his, although I can relate to most of what he describes quite well.

When Stefan refers to "the utter pointlessness of it all," I know exactly what he means. In many respects, life is thoroughly void of meaning and can indeed be described as pointless. However, this is true only if we limit ourselves to external sources of meaning over which we have little control. I am convinced, now more than ever, that the search for meaning must come from within the individual and that it is up to each of us to make our own meaning. Those who offer to provide us with meaning and purpose are false prophets at best.

I find this realization liberating, exciting even. But yes, it is also more than a little intimidating because it means that I have nobody but myself to blame for my failings.

For more on this subject, see Atheism and Meaning Revisited.