‘How do atheists find meaning in life?’

Pretty relevant to the discussion we were just having on morality, Paula Kirby writes a great article in the "On Faith" section of the Washington Post online about atheists and the meaining of life. She writes

Life cannot be meaningless so long as we have the capacity to affect the well-being of ourselves and others. For true meaninglessness, we would need heaven.

I couldn't agree with the sentiment more! The full article is as follows:

How do atheists find meaning in life?’

The correspondent was blunt: “Why don’t you atheists just go out and kill yourselves right now?”

True, most Christians phrase it rather more delicately, but atheists are regularly informed by a certain kind of believer that our lives can have no value if we do not believe in their God. What is the point, they ask, of being kind or loving, caring about suffering or doing anything at all, if one day we just die?

It is true that in the absence of a divine plan our lives have no externally determined purpose: an individual is not born for the purpose of becoming a physician or creating a spectacular work of art or digging a well in an arid corner of Africa. But are the sick less cured, the pleasure to the art-lover less intense, or the thirst of parched villagers less slaked, simply because a man sought his own purpose rather than following a diktat from on high? Do we really need a deity to tell us that a life spent curing cancer is more worthwhile than one spent drinking in the gutter?

Why should we not find satisfaction in alleviating suffering or injustice, just because we’re all going to die one day? The very fact that this life is all we have makes it even more important to do everything possible to reduce the suffering caused by poverty, disease, injustice and ignorance. To describe such attempts as meaningless is to say that avoidable suffering does not matter, hardly a moral stance.

Many Christians claim we have no reason to care about others if there is no God. But this is itself a religious claim, arising from the theological concept of Original Sin, which declares humankind fallen and corrupt. We can safely ignore it, for in reality we do not need childish stories of eternal reward or damnation to coerce us into being good: research shows that the least religious societies have the lowest incidence of social ills, including crime and violence. Healthy humans have empathy built in, and the explanations for this lie in psychology and evolutionary biology: no gods required.

Life cannot be meaningless so long as we have the capacity to affect the well-being of ourselves and others. For true meaninglessness, we would need heaven.

In the state of permanent, perfect bliss that is the very definition of heaven, ‘making a difference’ is ruled out. If the difference made an improvement, the previous state could not have been perfect. If it made things worse, the result would not be perfect. In heaven, neither is possible. Even being reunited with loved ones could not add one jot to their bliss or yours, for heaven would be, by definition, a state that could not be improved on.

Just consider for a moment the hellish pointlessness of heaven. At least in our real existence our actions have an effect, for better or worse, and it is therefore worth trying to get them right. In an eternal life where we can have no effect whatsoever, we might as well be dead.

If you have ever claimed that your life would have no meaning if it weren’t for your faith in God, do you really believe your family and friends have no worth in their own right? Can you really not see the point in striving to protect and nurture your children, even if there is no eternal life? Really?

If you do, then it is you, not atheists, who debase humanity, and it is Christianity, not atheism, that diminishes the real value and meaning of life. We atheists find purpose in the world as it is, and in our real lives; we see living beings as valuable in their own right, deserving of our concern and compassion simply because they share our capacity for pain and pleasure. It is hard to imagine a position less moral, less conducive to empathy, than this inherently warped and uncharitable view of humanity proposed by Christianity.

This is a perverse view of reality. After all, if the only valuable thing about existence is that God gave it to us, then that must mean the gift is not worth having in its own right. God’s creation would be the equivalent of a shapeless, baggy sweater of dubious color that you would never willingly wear but which you nevertheless can’t bring yourself to throw away because it was a gift from Granny. This approach in effect says you’re grateful for God’s gift, but you don’t actually like it very much; that, were it not for your belief that there’ll be an eternity in heaven to compensate you for having had to endure it, you can see no reason why you’d ever want it.

Theistic religion reduces life to something that has no value other than as the creation of an imagined deity. It decrees that purpose and meaning can only be found in being that deity’s puppet, having no purpose but its purpose and no value other than as its handiwork. Theistic religion looks on all that is best and most noble in human impulse and endeavour and dismisses it as meaningless and worthless --or worse: corrupt --unless done in the name of God. It is time to abandon this baseless worldview. It is time to reject theistic religion and start viewing ourselves and others with real dignity, as beings with value in our own right and not just as the distorted shadows of a fictional creator.

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