January 26, 2020

Atheism and the Meaning of Life

meaning of life

In 2010, I came across a post by Stefan at EXchristian.net in which he shared his existential pain over what he experienced as the meaninglessness of life after discarding his Christian faith. This got me thinking about how many ex-Christians have faced a similar struggle, and I applauded his willingness to share what had to be a difficult post to write. I realized that this was a subject I had been neglecting and one which deserves more attention. I suspect many of us who are ex-Christians have experienced this but in very different ways.

Many Christians report that their faith provides them with a powerful sense of meaning and purpose. Some go so far as to suggest that they would be completely lost without it. Although I am sometimes content to take them at their word, I usually suspect that they are being overly pessimistic and self-critical here. Plenty of ex-Christians manage to navigate life successfully, and some even report being fulfilled as they do so.

De-Conversion as a Loss of Meaning

Unlike Stefan, I was never a "religious fanatic" and recall no desire to evangelize. Evangelism was never expected of us by our clergy, and my immediate family would have been horrified if I had gone down that road. While I do remember a sense of comfort in my prior faith, I never experienced anything like the all-consuming purpose from it that Stefan described. For me, religion was more of a context (i.e., a stable and reassuring presence) and not the only avenue through 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. There was a sense of loss as I realized I no longer believed in gods.

For the most part, this sense of loss had to do with realizing that much of what I had previously thought I knew was wrong and would need to be replaced. I was not sure what I'd replace it with, and I was used to being told what to believe rather than figuring it out for myself. My initial efforts failed because I was stuck in the mindset that meaning was "out there" somewhere and I needed to find it. I'd eventually realize that it was going to be up to me to make my own meaning, and that put me back on track.

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. But 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 it is also more than a little intimidating because it means that I have nobody but myself to blame for my failings.

The Meaninglessness of Atheism

One of religious believers' favorite questions for atheists has to do with our thoughts on the meaning of life. They typically assume that we must have a meaningless existence because we do not believe in their preferred gods. Not only is this the height of arrogance, but it reflects a lack of understanding about the nature of meaning, atheism, and all sorts of other things.

When we point out that there are no external sources of meaning, this does not mean that life is meaningless. It means that meaning is not something "out there" that we must find; it is something we have to create for ourselves. We accept responsibility for making our own meaning. This can be scary at times, but it is also liberating in many ways

Atheism itself is meaningless. Atheism refers only to a lack of belief in gods. As such, it does not aim to provide any meaning. An atheist is someone who doesn't believe in gods, and that tells us nothing about what he or she believes, values, or where he or she might derive meaning. In that limited sense, atheism is meaningless. But since atheism is not a worldview, ideology, philosophy, or anything else along those lines, I am not sure why we would expect any different.

Meaning Comes From Within

I am convinced that every person, religious believer and atheist alike, must create his or her own meaning. There are no external sources of meaning because we all filter the world through our minds. Religious people may claim to find meaning through gods, but they are merely imbuing religious concepts of their choosing with meaning. That is, they are making these particular concepts meaningful to themselves.

The difference between the religious and the non-religious is not that one group has meaning and the other lacks it. The difference is also not that one group derives meaning from gods and the other does not. In this context, the difference is that atheists do not find the use of god concepts necessary or even relevant when it comes to meaning. From what I have observed, we have much the same sense of meaning and purpose as do the religious, but we get there without the religious baggage.

For both the theist and the atheist, meaning comes from within. The difference is that the atheist recognizes and accepts this reality while the theist does not. In a sense, the theist prefers to externalize and personify the process of meaning-making by creating gods.

But Then What Is the Purpose of Life?

There isn't a purpose of life; there are many different ones crafted by many different people. What is the purpose of my life? That is up to me. It is my responsibility to figure that out for myself. What do I live for? That too is up to me. What provides meaning for me? Nothing but me and my awareness that my time here is limited.

Personally, I'd like to leave the world a somewhat better place than it was before I came into it. I'd like to use the few talents and skills I possess to help others grow and develop. I work toward these ends in my professional life as well as my hobbies, free time, and personal life. I consider it a fundamental part of who I am, and I think it would be fair to say that it is how I have given my life meaning.

When I first left Christianity behind and gradually accepted that I was an atheist, I lost some things. I certainly lost some people and some sources of support. There is no denying that. But one thing I never lost is my sense of meaning or purpose. Perhaps that means that it never had anything to do with religion even though I once thought it did.

This post initially appeared on Atheist Revolution as two separate posts written in 2010 and 2011. They were merged into a single post, revised, and expanded in 2020.