Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Search Logs: how do atheists find meaning in life?

From time to time I browse through the logs to see how people are coming to this blog. The search strings that bring people here are particularly interesting, and some of them are people looking for material that I don't - or don't quite - manage to cover.

One of these searches was a deceptively simple question: "How do atheists find meaning in life?"

I call it "deceptively" simple because I'm fairly certain that the obvious answer, "By doing things that matter," isn't what the querent was looking for. That is, after all, an answer to the broader and altogether more useful question of how people find meaning in life - and that wasn't what the searcher asked. He, or she, asked how atheists find meaning in life. And that's... interesting.

Just by specifying atheists, the question implies that that sort of people might have (or do have, or ought to have) unusual trouble finding meaning in life. Which, in my experience, is not the case at all - though I don't have any actual scientific data handy, I haven't found that atheists are particularly more or less prone to feeling that life has no meaning than religious folks are. Religious beliefs are the sort of thing that sound like they should make a difference in whether someone feels like their life has meaning, but as a practical matter there's no connection - at least not as far as I can tell.

So there's the second answer: religious beliefs don't correlate to a sense of meaning, so atheists find meaning in life the same way everybody else does. For further clarification, scroll back up to the obvious answer I offered above.

Then there's the Socratic response: answer the question with a question. In this case, I'd ask: "How do Christians[1] find meaning in life?" Consider the following thought exercise:
Christians, as a rule, believe the world was created by a being who is all-knowing. That means that everything you do, God knows about. Everything you're going to do, every decision you will ever make, God already knows about and always has. As far as God is concerned, all your choices are already made. So how can anything you do have meaning?

On top of that, Christians believe that God is all-powerful. That means that anything that needs to be done - spreading the Gospel, helping the poor, teaching immigrants to speak English - He could do, Himself. Sure, the Bible says that God wants his followers to do certain things, but it's pretty much make-work; it's just to keep you busy and let you feel like you're accomplishing something. How could anyone find meaning in that?
If that sounds a little odd, a little off to Christian ears, well... it's supposed to. My point here is that asking "How do atheists find meaning in life?" sounds just as strange, just as wrong.

Look, if you want to get good answers, you have to ask good questions. This one isn't a good question. It's too caught up in its own assumptions. It depends too much on the answers to other questions that haven't been asked yet. But that aside, I hope this post will at least point you off in the general direction of an answer.

What about you? How do you find meaning in life?

1. I assume that the searcher was a Christian. This is mainly because fixating on atheists seems to me to be most common among Christians, and modern American Christians in particular.


  1. How do atheists find meaning in life> Duh, through Google.

  2. As a Christian, I find meaning in life in a couple of ways. First, by what you said about "doing stuff that's important" - when I feel useless on a practical level (as I partly did when unemployed), I would sure "feel" that life lacked meaning, even if I "believed" or "thought" otherwise. Second though, and here's where I diverge from an atheist point of view, I find meaning in the fact that God loves me as well as loves all of creation. As an unconditionally loved creation of God, I feel connected to the rest of the world that would be different than if I did not believe in God at all. For me, finding meaning in life isn't just about me, but in the relationship to everything that surrounds me. That's why my actions matter, even though God could technically do them. He doesn't because my specific place in the bigger whole and what I choose to do with it is important, just like every other thing's specific place and what it chooses to do (or in the case of non-sentient beings just "is") is important.

    Obviously, atheists have relationships with other humans and often, non-humans, but it comes from a different philosophical foundation. What that foundation is varies from atheist to atheist, as I'm sure you know.

    As for the asker of the is most likely that they are Christian. But they could also be a searcher who is questioning their faith and wondering "if I don't believe in God anymore, how do I find meaning in life?" Of course, you can't tell intent through a Google search.

  3. Oh, lovely - thanks for providing a Christian perspective on the question.

    And yes, it's certainly possible that the original searcher was questioning their faith, or even that they weren't and were just wondering, "How do people get along without this?" They might not even have been Christian - I can sort of vaguely imagine a Wiccan wondering the same thing, for example - it's just that I wouldn't bet that way.

    1. I would agree that they're probably Christian too, even if they were questioning as well. If you're brought up in a religion, especially if your family is actively practicing, it's very easy to take "the meaning of life" for granted. It's when you start wandering outside of it and having doubts that you start poking at that idea. I was weird in that - I really came into my faith as a teenager and spent a lot of time actively thinking through what it meant in my life as part of that decision. On the other hand, I think most people who have actively chosen a non-majority faith that they weren't brought up in - like most Pagans - thought through the meaning of life question when they chose that non-majority religion.


Feel free to leave comments; it lets me know that people are actually reading my blog. Interesting tangents and topic drift just add flavor. Linking to your own stuff is fine, as long as it's at least loosely relevant. Be civil, and have fun!