“Why is there something rather than nothing?” This is said to be the fundamental question at the base of all philosophy, though perhaps a question just as key to us and related to this is “What is the meaning of life?” When someone asks me this, my instinctive response is to distinguish between meaning OF life and meaning IN life. It’s changing just one word, but like Christianity’s distinction between believing IN God and believing ON God, one merely believing with intellect, the other believing with faith, it communicates a difference that many Christians fail to recognize. Meaning OF life is external and imposed by some agent outside of the universe. This phrasing almost necessarily implies one’s belief in God. Meaning IN life is internal and varies depending on each person’s search for it. There are other synonyms besides purpose that are useful to consider as well, such as value, significance and function, albeit the last suggests something more along the lines of our biological nature and what that compels us to do, spread our genetic material to the next generation. These are the three points I’d like to consider most about atheism as it relates to meaning and value as a result of being human: why theistic meaning is flawed, why atheistic meaning is superior and why one should be clear about the multiple understandings of meaning that can be applied to life as experienced by humans.
The idea that life has a meaning irrespective of humanity’s search for it as existential beings, yearning for purpose and value in their actions and beliefs, is troubling for a few reasons. Theists may accuse atheists of being nihilists on the grounds that since they most likely don’t believe in an afterlife, there is no purpose to their life since they will just disappear after they die and they will have ultimately made no effect or change to human society and history. But this presumes that meaning is only certain and/or important if it lasts forever. If the value of anything hinges on its permanence, then why do we appreciate flowers so much, or our pets or any physical things? They all pass away, some quicker than others and some by human efforts. Meaning should not be determined by something outside us, nor should it in any way relate to the amount of time it lasts. The best ideas survive because of their merit, not because the people behind them live on forever themselves. If there is some meaning of life outside of any human’s discovery of meaning as an individual, then it seems to render any particular purpose they found worthless. While we may have certain functions or purposes as biological and psychological beings that we cannot avoid, this doesn’t mean that the meaning and value in life must be determined by others or by any source outside ourselves. We each find meaning first internally as we value people and ideas. Many times, those meanings are shared with others even if we don’t realize it. Atheists and theists alike would probably agree that we need both freedom of and freedom from religion in that we can practice any or no religion and that we do not need the government to endorse any religion or utilize it as the basis of legislation. Other so called inalienable rights could be agreed upon by believers and nonbelievers alike, such as freedom of speech. So I don’t see why anyone feels the need to have meaning or value imbued from outside when they naturally would determine what is right without the declaration of any deity.
When you determine meaning by your own experience and discernment of value, it doesn’t mean that you condone or advocate postmodern relativism; that everyone’s value and meaning are always equally valid. If someone finds meaning in murder or the like, then there is a demonstrable problem, since they find value in violating other people’s rights and ignoring their search for meaning to advance their own, which constitutes egocentrism. But most people would find value in the same things: family, friends, love, music, art, etc. While we may not all share exactly the same things that give us meaning: some especially find meaning in science’s search for answers, while others find fulfillment through performance in theater. And all of these pursuits are justified and meaningful as a whole, since they are not infringing on other people’s rights and can be appreciated by others even if they don’t find the same degree of significance as other people do. As you find meaning from within yourself and what you appreciate, you can also understand implicitly or explicitly that other people are seeking value in life, finding purpose through some activity or community. In this way, you recognize the individual and shared nature of meaning as an existential phenomenon and don’t automatically resort to applying a stock meaning to everyone as if we’re mechanical in nature. The dynamic and organic process of discovery over a lifetime is not only more effective, but would create more vivid and persistent meaning for a person than just being told something and believing it, which is the tendency of theism in that you’re created for a purpose. That is not only demeaning, but dehumanizing in believing that you yourself don’t primarily find meaning as a human, but are instead just handed a purpose and if you rebel, you are not pleasing to your maker.
It should be said that there are at least a few meanings in life that we consider as humans, not the least of which is the values we find. But alongside that is the significance of life as well as the functions we serve, both societal and biological. Value, as I’ve mentioned already, is probably the biggest thing to consider, right alongside significance in life. Once we have values, those suffice as significant in itself, since we are able to discern things that are useful and beneficial to us in the same instance. Laws might feel restrictive, but they also protect rights that we have in terms of actions, so there is a sort of balance established. The distinction of positive and negative liberty might be a good example of this. While there are restrictions on freedom of speech, they pale in comparison to the scale of things one is permitted to do, however offensive they may be. Significance of life is important only in the general valuation of life, so it’s admittedly subsumed in a way by our more basic human tendency to appreciate things and then find purpose through acting on those values and spreading their goodness to others through education and action. Our functions are another way we find meaning in life, albeit not always, since we can be compelled to do things that are otherwise unfulfilling. The various functions we serve in society: familial, friendship, employee/employer, etc, all give us a sense not only of shared interpersonal relations, but also an understanding that we are not bound by these roles in such a way that we cannot hold seemingly contradictory states and still be consistent. A role one takes in a particular situation and context is not negated or rendered less important by our taking on an unrelated duty that has its own value. A father does not cease to be such when he shifts to his responsibilities as an employer or employee, but takes one as more primary at that moment in time. The biological function all humans possess in one sense or another can be more frustrating, particularly if one is infertile either by accident or birth. But I would contend that we are not purely ruled by biology, since we have the capacity to place value and worth on ideals and people irrespective of their relation or lack thereof to us. I would be willing to help someone in danger, particularly that of being beaten because they are GLBT, even if I had never met them before that time. The fact that there may be things we cannot fix or eliminate that are biologically determined to a great extent is no reason to become a nihilist or say there is no point to your life. If you want to raise a child, a natural impulse for any human being, you can adopt. If you feel you want to have a child of your own, but are unable to have children with your spouse, surrogacy is a promising option. And there are plenty of other fulfilling things we can do as humans in place of something we may not be able to do regardless of medical science or because we can’t afford it. Giving aid to animals and fellow humans are both good venues. Many might contend that because atheists believe humans are nothing more than evolved animals, that we cannot be consistent in saying we have purpose in life, since we are accidentally in the state we are in now. Not only does this misunderstand evolutionary theory, but it ignores the very fact that we are sufficiently evolved animals that have developed society, culture and amassed a wealth of knowledge through language. I may be an animal, but I also possess characteristics that distinguish me from other animals that have brains either underdeveloped or too small to have the capacity of complex thought. But I cannot deny that I have similarities to animals which are both impulsive and natural, such as the urge for sexual pleasure and seeking out patterns where there are none. These don’t render me meaningless, especially if I can recognize that.
Meaning, value, purpose, function, significance: all these words have their own usefulness in our lives as we seek out answers to those burning philosophical questions. But we shouldn’t simply stop searching when we think we’ve found one satisfactory purpose that we can apply forthwith to all humans. Perhaps you find fulfillment in Jesus Christ, in the teachings of Mohammed, or other charismatic human beings. But what about your purpose, what about your needs, your wants, your experience? Our meaning should neither deny the input others can bring nor the output we ourselves contribute to the journey. The destination is always unknown, but that makes our travels that much more interesting. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.