The meaning of “meaning,” and why atheists have it

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.


10 thoughts on “The meaning of “meaning,” and why atheists have it

  1. Noel

    Interesting post. I just wrote a similar one. But I think that, even though we may create our own purpose in life, my purpose would cease to exist once I die. That would be the end of it. If that is something you can live with, so be it. I believe that we are spiritual beings that have a greater purpose. If the purpose of life is given from something above me, then it would mean that the reason I live has a purpose beyond my physical death. Feel welcome to read and comment on my latest post.

    1. John

      It seems that still has a qualitative problem. In your conception the purpose may be eternal, but it is not your own purpose. Many people who only believe in this life are able to “live with it” and very happily. It doesn’t really matter if you can conceive of a “better” purpose, all that matters is reality. Some people are happy believing all sorts of things, but for those concerned with reality they focus on what’s real and make the best of it. Even if there are negative consequences, it doesn’t change the facts. It just so happens to be that there can and is purpose without belief in unsupported things and people find meaning and happiness in their purpose.

      1. Freethinking Jew Post author

        Hey, thanks a lot for reading and commenting, Noel.
        When you say, “If that is something you can live with, so be it.” What if it’s something you cannot live with? It could still be the case, right? I mean I can’t live with the fact that there’s cancer, starvation, murder, and torture in the world today, but it doesn’t mean I can just make like that’s not reality. Can I? Should I?
        Isn’t it better to figure what really IS and then react and build our lives accordingly, rather than deciding the way we’d like to imagine things are?
        I know it’s easier said than done to accept the harsh realities of there not being a loving father in heaven or an afterlife, and perhaps I made it sound easy in my post. But as tough as it is sometimes to adjust to these realities, I’d still rather deal with the way things really are than live a life based on false beliefs. Wouldn’t you?

        1. Noel

          I don’t think I choose to believe in a transcendent meaning and purpose because I could not live with the other possibility (that there is no meaning except what I create myself). I truly believe we are designed by a higher being. But the difference between me and many traditional believers is that I no longer claim to know for sure what God or Higher Power is. I do believe we are called to serve one another with genuine love. And this calling came from above. Thanks for commenting back.

  2. John

    Great post! Very thorough and with a great chidush as regards purpose. I have trouble understanding how religious people understand that they have purpose. Doing what a powerful being says you should do is purpose? So slaves and serfs have purpose too. At the end of the day why does that make the purpose good or meaningful. Maybe the all-powerful lord is not good. There is no way to know. So just as a slave may be serving an evil master and there is actually no good value in his service, so too here.

    1. Freethinking Jew Post author

      Thanks, John! I hope you made sure to do the yeshivish gesture with your thumb when you said, “Maybe the all-powerful is not good” and said the last sentence of your comment with the proper yeshivish niggun. 🙂

  3. m

    Interesting post!
    Have you read Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” ? It’s one of the most profound and moving works on the subject that I’ve ever read.


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