Finding Meaning

Image credit: Merelize at Stockvault.

Image credit: Merelize at Stockvault.

I came across this article over at NPR about the myth that atheists have a meaningless worldview. It explores the nature of the myth, as well as some of the reasons why it persists. When I was growing up, it was one of the many things I was told about atheism. Like everything else I’d heard at the time, it wasn’t true.

First off, what am I talking about when I mention “meaning”?
Here, “meaning” describes an existential purpose or intent of whatever it is that I do. Within the framework of what I believe, this meaning is subjective to myself alone, enhanced by whatever perspective, knowledge, and emotions I have at the time. I could take a look at a stellar nursery, for example, and see how potentially millions of worlds will eventually form. The meaning I place on it is that whatever time I have is finite, but somewhere else in the universe things will continue to exist.

Other meaning that other people find doesn’t do anything to negate the significance of what I aspire to. It’s like building myself a house; I don’t do it with the expectation of other people living in it. People can think it’s ugly or too big or too small, but it doesn’t matter because they don’t have to live there. What matters is when I look out the windows at the world around me. And everyone does this too.

Christianity tries to stretch this definition further.
While it’s fine if they believe that, what isn’t mentioned too terribly often is that nobody else has to accept it if they don’t want to. That happens for a bunch of reasons, but sometimes it gets used as a way of threatening other people if they leave the faith. Conceptually, it’s like threatening to rip a bandage off. Some Christians dwell on the idea that if the deity isn’t real, then life is going to hurt more.

I can say with some experience that it doesn’t happen that way. People are great thinkers, and when they lose one set of beliefs, they can go find others. Losing a deity was only scary for me until I actually accepted that I didn’t believe; from there on out, I discovered there was plenty of meaning to be had. The world didn’t stop spinning, my life didn’t get worse, and reality didn’t implode. Every single promise about meaning and satisfaction in life that I was handed as a Christian turned out to be false.

They turned out to be false because I could express joy at planting a tree, at watching a new biosphere flourish where there was once just open field. I did something that would affect the lives of potentially millions of living creatures, from simple bacteria to complex plant structures. Focusing on what I’ve accomplished in my life changes hoping for some meaning to eventually arrive to driving me towards new things. No afterlife or promise of divine reward is necessary to have the joy at helping others. So many examples exist which contradict what Christianity told me.

Life is just as beautiful without a god as it is with one.
There will always be people who find safety in the thought of a divine partner. I really don’t begrudge them trying to catch their breath in a turbulent world. But their perspective is not mine. For me, I find satisfaction in contemplation, of considering things independently, of having the ability to confirm or refute that which is handed to me. Everyone has this ability.

Atheists can, do, and shall always find meaning in what they do. This is because people can, do, and shall always find meaning in what they do. Whatever we do doesn’t have to be eternal. The attempt is enough.

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21 thoughts on “Finding Meaning

  1. Atheism is content free. It has nothing to do with “meaning.” Meaning can be found in anything emotionally satisying. Did Jonas Salk have to be religious to find great meaning in his work? Does any artist? Architect? A-theism also doesn’t rule out spiritualism. Buddhists are atheists. Atheisst can believe in panpsychism.

    It’s a nonsense argument theists propograte to make themselves feel special.

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  2. Atheism is the same as religion: their core tenet is an assumption; that assumption, for atheism, being deities not existing. You got proof either way? Agnosticism is the only way to go.

    That being said, while I don’t refute deities existing, I do refute humanity’s current deities existing. Not because I have proof of their nonexistence, but because there’s plenty of proof of how damn crazy the overwhelming majority people are, and how often that insanity expresses itself in delusion.

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    • “Atheism is the same as religion….”

      By your reasoning, anything with a core tenet based on an assumption would be a religion. Some research assuming the validity of scientific theories would be religious (like the Theory of Gravity), along with fans of sports teams who assume their teams are the best teams in the sport.

      Another way of looking at things is that atheists make assumptions about what is acceptable evidence, but not about the conclusions they draw from whatever they accept. In this way, atheism is really a statement of not being convince about deities, and nothing more complicated than that.

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  3. Hope for you yet. Yes, I failed to include “assumptions which are treated as facts”. My apologies. By that reasoning, any “scientist” who view humanity’s collection of knowledge as anything but a working theory, are superstitious, little better than atheists or the religious who’s believes are built on assumptions treated as facts.

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  4. I don’t’ think meaning is something you find. (And certainly not something you need to be given!) Meaning is something we get to create for ourselves. And that’s way better news than any “good news” the religionists have.

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