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.