One of religious believers' favorite questions for atheists concerns 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.
When I last wrote about the subject of meaning and purpose in the lives of atheists, I barely scratched the surface. I noted that there are no external sources of meaning and that it is up to each of us to make our own meaning. I said that I found this liberating, but I did not go into nearly enough detail about what I meant. I'll try to elaborate a bit here.
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 truly 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. Nor is it 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. From what I have observed, we have much the same sense of meaning and purpose as do the religious but 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 personify the process of meaning-making by creating gods.
What is the purpose of my life? That is up to me. What do I live for? That too is up to me. What provides meaning for me? Nothing. Only myself and my awareness that my time here is limited.
So what meaning or purpose have I created for myself? I'd like to leave the world a somewhat better place than it was before I came into it. Specifically, I'd like to do that by using the few talents and skills I posses to help others grow and develop. I strive to 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.
When I left Christianity behind and accepted my atheism, I lost some things. That much is true. But one thing I never lost, not even for a moment, is my sense of meaning. It never had anything to do with religion in the first place.