Atheism and the Meaning of Life

I would like to add a bit more to my earlier discussion of the charge often made by theistic apologists that life must be meaningless for atheists:

An argument frequently deployed in popular attacks on atheism is the claim that atheism makes life meaningless. Without God, without a transcendent source of meaning and purpose, human life amounts to little more than the life of a flea, so the argument goes. If there is no God, then T.S. Eliot’s despairing little ditty must have it right:

Birth, copulation, and death:

That’s all of the facts,

When you come to brass tacks.

Birth, copulation, and death.

Or, as the bumper sticker put it less poetically: “Life is a bitch. Then you die.” But, intuitively, we strongly feel that there is much more to life than birth, copulation, and death, and that a human life is, or should be, far more significant than a flea’s. So, atheism, by seemingly going against some of our deepest intuitions, seems highly implausible. Noted Christian philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig, puts the argument from meaninglessness this way:

If God does not exist, then both man and the universe are inevitably doomed to death. Man, like all biological organisms, must die. With no hope of immortality, man’s life leads only to the grave. His life is but a spark in the infinite blackness, a spark that flickers, and dies forever. Compared to the infinite stretch of time, the span of man’s life is but an infinitesimal moment; and yet this all the life he will ever know…. For though I know now that I exist, that I am alive, I also know that someday I will no longer exist, that I will no longer be, that I will die. This thought is staggering and threatening: to think that the person I call “myself’ will cease to exist, that I will be no more (Craig, Reasonable Faith, 1994, p. 57)!

My first reaction is that his objection seems to be motivated by a monumental degree of egotism. What possible excuse could you have for thinking that you are of such transcendent importance that you should be an exception to cosmic law and that you should survive when planets, stars, and galaxies are gone? Yes, says atheism, it is a fact: Someday the cosmos will be forced to confront the stark reality that you are no more. Amazingly, it will continue to tick along almost exactly as it did before. Your absence from the universe will matter about as much in the whole scheme of things as the removal of a single grain of sand from the Sahara. Deal with it.

The basic premise behind Craig’s argument seems to be that life is meaningless unless it is unending. What could possibly justify that premise? Why not draw the opposite conclusion and say that because life is short you had better make sure that you don’t fritter it away and instead strive to fill the days, hours, and minutes with meaningful activity? Further, the idea that all genuine meaning in life comes “from above” is not only false but degrading. Occasionally I used to encounter a tract, put out by the Campus Crusade for Christ, which contained “four spiritual laws.” Law One was “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” Of course, God’s “wonderful plan” for some people’s lives is that in infancy they are burned to death in house fires. But suppose God’s plan for me really is “wonderful”: Maybe he wants me to make billions managing hedge funds and then to use part of my fabulous wealth to fund right-wing think tanks and creationist institutes. Still, shouldn’t I have some choice in the matter? What if I do not care for God’s “wonderful” plan for me? It is no good telling me that God is much wiser than I and that I should trust his plans for my life rather than make my own. I want to make my own plans—and I’ll willingly suffer the consequences of my own mistakes—rather than have a plan given to me, even if it is given by an infinitely wise and loving being. Being allowed to discover one’s own meaning in life and make one’s own choices seems to be essential to human dignity.

In general, what sorts of things make life meaningful for the atheist? Pretty much the same things that makes life meaningful for the theist: A career that makes a contribution to human well-being and which offers you opportunities to employ your intelligence, talents, and creativity; close, loving, and mutually giving personal relationships with family and friends, and even with non-human animals; opportunities to serve our local communities, country, or the global community; fighting oppression, injustice, poverty, ignorance, disease, cruelty, or any of the other many ills afflicting human life; freedom to indulge our natural curiosity and use our minds in finding out about the natural and human worlds; occasions to enjoy the beauty of nature and of art; and enjoyable pastimes and hobbies that enrich our lives. Of course, atheists do not have the same sorts of spiritual rewards as theists (We have different ones). But, then, I observe that very many theists don’t really seem to get much meaning out of their religious activities. As Mark Twain observed, even an hour a week sitting in a pew is tedious for many believers. Having formerly been a church-goer myself, I used to notice that many would sigh, fidget, yawn, check their watches, and snooze during the minister’s homily—clearly anxious that church should end so that they could attend to the far more important matters of Sunday dinner and the big game. Further, during the 167 hours of the week when they are not in church, many nominally religious people don’t seem to think much about it at all. As for those who do take their religion seriously, for many it is an unhealthy obsession, a preoccupation that permeates even the most mundane considerations. Even the devout should be able to give it a rest every now and then. So, religious belief is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for finding meaning in life, and, in fact, too often becomes an unhealthy obsession that detracts from the quality of the believer’s life.