We’ve all heard it: “If you don’t believe in God or an afterlife, life has no meaning!”
Let’s put this one to rest, once and for all.
What do people mean when they say “meaning” in this context?
Seems to me, when people talk about “meaning,” they mean it in one of three ways:
1) Something that makes you want to keep living. Something you’re passionate about. Something that makes you want to wake up every day.
E.g. “My volunteer work gives my life meaning.” “Raising my kids gives my life meaning.” “Seeing the look in my student’s eye when he understands something for the first time… traveling and seeing new places and new people… going fishing with my dad… getting together with my longtime friends once a week… give my life meaning.”
One notices right away that none of these examples – nor any of the other infinite number of examples we could insert – requires God or an afterlife to provide the meaning therein.
2) Value. That is, when people say, “Without God, your life, this world, it’s all meaningless!” they often mean, “It’s worthless.”
Here the assumption is that if something is temporary – such as a person’s life without an afterlife, then it has no real value.
As with #1, this myth is quite simple to dispel. Feeding a hungry child is anything but worthless, even though the food I gave her is temporary. Neuroscientist Sam Harris gives a great example of a parent holding a baby:
But the next time someone tries this one on me, I think I’ll just tell them:
“You know I drove for 3 hours to Six Flags, and I’m waiting online for a half hour for the roller coaster, and then the guy in front of me informs me: ‘Just so you know, you can’t stay on the roller coaster forever. Actually it lasts only for a few minutes.’ I was so upset that I left right then and there and went home!”
3) Purpose. That is, when people say, “If you don’t believe in God or an afterlife, life has no meaning,” they often really mean, “If you don’t believe in God or an afterlife, life has no “purpose.” The assumption here is: In order to have a purpose, some being had to have created you with a purpose. An air conditioner has a purpose – to blow cold air, because someone made the air conditioner with that purpose. But if no one made you, and you just evolved over billions of years from stardust, then you have no purpose! Right?
My answer? That’s great news!!! If you had a choice between being created specifically to blow cold air or being born with a whole unlimited array of options of who you can be and how to live your life available for you to choose, is there even a question which option I would prefer? It’s liberating to discover that I have no pre-determined purpose!
It seems to me that those who maintain – and often spread – the illusion that having a pre-determined purpose is somehow preferred are living their lives walking on crutches and want everyone else to do the same. It may be easier to spend one’s whole life under the illusion that he has a purpose – e.g. to serve the ancient Israelite god Hashem by following the commandments written in a bible as precisely as possible, or by having a fortune teller that tells him what his purpose is supposed to be and what exactly he should do to fulfill that purpose. But just because it’s easier, doesn’t mean it’s a better, happier, or more noble way to live.
But physicist Sean Carroll said it better and more concisely than I could (at 1:11:55 of this video):
So do our lives have meaning? Religious or not, if I have things in my life that give me meaning (things I’m passionate about) and people, places, things, and ideas in my life that have value, my life has plenty of meaning.
Do our lives have a pre-determined purpose? Based on all we have learned from the sciences, logic, and modern Biblical scholarship, highly unlikely – and it’s a truly wonderful thing.