June 7, 2020

Atheism and a Meaningful Life with Purpose

boy in a Batman costume

If I told you that I derive all meaning in my life from Batman, most of you would be skeptical. If I continued to insist that this was the case, you might begin to think I was serious; however, it seems very unlikely that any of you would join me in basing your lives on Batman. The kind "souls" among you might point out that Batman is a fictional character in an effort to have me rethink my position. As silly as this all sounds, I am not convinced that it is meaningfully different from the countless people we all encounter who claim to derive all meaning from Jesus.

It isn't that there aren't some differences, though. The big one is that I'd be far more likely to be mocked for making claims about Batman and praised for making even wilder claims about Jesus. Claiming to derive meaning from Jesus is socially acceptable in a way that making similar claims about Batman or any other fictional character isn't. But since meaning is something we make for ourselves and not something external to ourselves that we must find, I'm not sure that someone deriving meaning from Batman is really any more absurd than doing so from Jesus. What do you think?

Atheists Making Meaning

Think about all the things different people find meaningful and the almost limitless ways people create the purpose. For some, it is family. For others, it is work. And for others, it is hobbies, interests, and all sorts of other things. I am sure that there are people who really do derive meaning from Batman. Perhaps they attend conventions, wear costumes, collect Batman items, and so on. And why the hell not? If they love it, why shouldn't it play an important part on the meaning they make for themselves? People create meaning from their favorite music, films, games, and all sorts of interests.

Some atheists who were formerly religious believers describe a disorienting loss of meaning as they transitioned from religious believer to atheist. This does not seem to be a universal experience, but it is one that I've heard about often enough to suspect it is relatively common. I've always thought that this makes sense. One does not spend years or even decades trying to center one's life around Jesus and then suddenly move on to something else without some adjustment. One does not spend considerable time pursuing external meaning and then abruptly let go of it without feeling a bit lost.

When it comes to meaning and purpose, I think that many atheists are too hard on themselves. The sooner we let go of the search for external sources and recognize that it is up to us to create it, the better. I realize this is often a bit intimidating at first, but that is because it comes with so much freedom and flexibility. The atheist does not have to search for (or pretend to find) Jesus; the atheist is free to craft their own meaning and not limited to any one source.

Consider an atheist who does not have any family because her fundamentalist Christian family-of-origin disowned her. Maybe she's not in a romantic relationship and has no interest in having children. None of that means that she's doomed to a life of meaninglessness. Even if family does not end up being important to her, there are many other possibilities. Friends serve a similar function for some people, and many find meaning in their education and work. But again, even if we set all of that aside and say that none of it fits for a particular person, that still leaves plenty of options.

Some Advice to Those Who Are Struggling

And now I am going to offer a bit of unsolicited advice for any atheists reading this who might be having a hard time with feelings of meaninglessness or purposelessness. I think you might be making it far too complicated. Meaning and purpose do not have to be the big things we sometimes expect. There doesn't need to be one huge thing I point to as where I find my meaning.

There are plenty of days when I drag myself out of bed, dreading most of what I think the day has in store for me. On the way to wherever I am going, I often ask myself what kind of person I want to be. The answer usually comes quickly:

I'd like to be the kind of person others look forward to seeing. I'd like to put a smile on their faces and improve their day. I'd also like to be someone who is not content to leave the world as it is but is always looking to improve it in whatever small ways I can.
For me, it does not have to be any more complicated than that. If I can come close to that most days, I know I'm on the right track. Admittedly, this is not the only thing that makes my life meaningful; however, it is one of the bigger ones that I try to focus on when I'm not feeling great and things seem bleaker than usual. Most of the other things I find meaningful are various interests, preferences, and things I enjoy. That's really about it, and it is enough.

I suspect that very few atheists find sufficient meaning in atheism, but some certainly find it in humanism, secular activism, freethought, and/or skepticism. These things are not synonymous with atheism and provide much more in the way of content suitable for making meaning.