10 “Unanswerable” questions #6

Today’s “unanswerable” question is another easy one.

6.       If there is no god, how does your life have any meaning?

Easy: God has nothing to do with meaning. Meaning exists apart from God, and comes from the fundamentally-ordered nature of reality itself. But I’m getting ahead of myself. To really answer TodayChristian’s question, we should first examine what he or she is really asking.

When I first deconverted from Christianity, one of the first things I truly appreciated was how hollow my Christian concept of “meaning” had been, when I was a believer. That’s because “meaning,” in the pious sense, is a fairly empty platitude. Usually when a believer refers to “meaning” in this way, they’re thinking of one or two things: either eternity, or their interpretation of day to day events.

Let’s start with eternity. (Don’t worry, this won’t take long.) It’s not uncommon to hear believers speak about “the meaning of our existence” as being that God has predestined us to spend eternity in Heaven. That sounds nice at a superficial level, and really, that’s as deep into it as most believers go, apart from spinning elaborate fantasies about how wonderful that “pie in the sky bye and bye” is gonna taste.

But let’s think about it. The historical/Biblical picture of heaven is that the saved are going to spend eternity praising and worshiping God. That’s such a mind-numbing prospect that even Christians are prone to depart from a strictly revelation-based concept of eternity, and start inventing whatever futures they think will make them happier that just attending that praise gathering that forgot to include a closing hymn.

Remember, too, this is supposed to be a God who has all wisdom, all knowledge, and all power. He could have made the world so that it would turn out however He wanted it to, and He chose to make it in such a way that the vast majority of His “beloved” children would scream forever in the agonies of Hell, while a select few were lucky enough to spend eternity feeding His divine ego with endless fawning compliments. If your idea of “a life filled with meaning” is that you get to be one out of countless thousand or millions of minions singing in that faceless chorus, it’s kind of hard to make the case that a life without “meaning” is really all that bad.

Remember, too, that eternity is a very very long time. After 70 trillion years, anything you did on earth is gonna fade to insignificance. Your whole mortal existence is only going to be one one-trillionth of your first 70,000,000,000,000 years in heaven, but even that huge amount of time is an unimaginably small fraction of eternity. That means that having an “eternal view” of your purpose in life means reducing your entire mortal existence to meaninglessness. In fact you’ll even hear preachers saying much the same thing, and the Bible says so as well. That’s one of the “comforts” religion offers to the suffering: that no matter what terrible things happen to you now, if you compare it to the vast expanse of eternity, it’s nothing.

They neglect to mention that the same principle applies to the good parts of life as well. There is no good deed you can do, no heroic victory you can win, no noble sacrifice you can make, no vile crime you can commit, that has any significance at all once you drown it in the endless oceans of eternity (which, incidentally, is why it is grossly unjust for God to sentence anyone to eternal torment for whatever insignificant things they did during their infinitesimal span of mortal existence).

So the “eternal meaning” you get from faith looks good superficially, but just break the crust a little, and look inside, and it pretty quickly turns out that not only does it fail to add any positive meaning, it actually sucks dry the meaning that real life ought to have. At this point, it’s fair to answer TodayChristian’s question by pointing out that our lives have meaning precisely because we do not allow any mythical gods to deprive us of it.

But the other sense of “meaning” that believers refer to, and perhaps the more common sense, is the “meaning” they ascribe to everyday events because of their faith. This goes back to the nature of religion as perhaps the world’s oldest Live Action Role Playing game, with God as the principle NPC and quest-giver, and various spirits and angels and demons and such filling in the other NPC roles. (Of course, the difference between religion and real LARP games is that the LARPers know it’s a game.)

The way it works is that the believer takes anything that happens in life, or anything that they want to happen in life, and make it part of their inner “spiritual kingdom/realm” by praying about it and then pretending that God is interacting with them through whatever happens next. Naturally, they don’t admit even to themselves (ESPECIALLY to themselves) that this is what they are doing, and that adds to the excitement and fun they get from the gameplay. It adds “meaning” to their life in the sense that they enjoy it, and feel that this imaginary context gives an extra measure of significance to everything that happens.

Thing is, while this added “meaning” does enrich their experience just like any other good role-playing game (or any good book or good movie that you really get immersed in), this is purely a subjective benefit. If the believer’s car won’t start on a morning when they’re late for work, they may decide that God, in His inscrutable wisdom, determined that it was in their best interests not to show up on time for work. Maybe being on time would have landed them in the middle of a fatal accident, or maybe God wants them to get fired because He has a better plan for them. Or God is disciplining them for sinning. Or suffering builds a godly character. Whatever strikes their fancy and makes them feel better about the experience.

Meanwhile, the atheist whose car won’t start is likely to conclude that it means they forgot to turn off the headlights when they parked last night, so they go out and invent a device that will beep to remind you if you forget to turn your headlights off.

The atheist’s meaning is more useful to others than the believer’s meaning, because the atheist’s meaning is reality based. There’s a fundamental order to reality, which is that reality is consistent with itself, in two ways: it does not contradict itself, and every part of it is interconnected many times over with other aspects of reality.

Meaning comes from this consistent interconnectedness between the various aspects of reality. That’s why science works. Science is a technique for following the connections from the things we know, to the things we are discovering. Science does not invent those connections. The connections are already there, and science simply follows them. And those relationships are what meaning is.

For example, a volcanic eruption is related to the presence of magma below the surface of the earth. The behavior of the magma is related to the principles of heat transfer, fluid dynamics, pressure, chemistry. It’s related to the nature of the surrounding geology and water table, and to the tremors that accompany the movement of the magma. A properly-trained scientist can then measure the tremors and other signs, and based on their knowledge of the relationships between all the different factors, can reliably conclude that they mean the volcano is about to erupt. The meaning comes from the relationships that exist in the real world itself.

And the world is filled with reality-based meanings. I feel hungry, and that means I should probably eat something. Or it means I’ve become accustomed to a calorie-rich diet, and I should exercise some self-control. Reality-based meanings are complex! But there’s no shortage of them. A high fever means I should see a doctor. If someone frequently lies to me, it means I should not trust them. If I enjoy working with computers, and my attempts at coding are generally successful and satisfying, and programming jobs pay well, then it means I should probably consider a career in programming. And so on.

My life is full of meaning, and it’s not merely rewarding, it’s also practical and helpful—unlike the kind of meaning I used to get from faith-based, superstition-based meaning back when I was a believer too. But here’s the twist: even though my life is already full of reality-based meaning, I can enjoy those other types of meaning too. In my case I can get them from reading a good book, or playing an online role-playing game, or just pretending. The kind of “meaning” Christians get from their faith is really trivial to indulge in, once you understand what it really is.

Let’s see, it looks like the next question on the list is going to be

7.       Where did the universe come from?

One of my favorites. I’m guessing TodayChristian won’t be expecting my answer at all.


  1. Naked Bunny with a Whip says

    This question has long struck me like asking how you can enjoy a good meal or movie unless it never, ever ends. That actually sounds awful.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      And the related question, What’s the point of eating when you know you’re only going to get hungry again later? That’s the beauty of being an atheist: you can understand why things don’t need to endure forever in order to be meaningful now.

      • jh says

        Or else Girl Scout’s Thin Mints. If I had them available year round, I wouldn’t appreciate their evil deliciousness or anticipate their arrival with barely disguised glee and anticipation. It is the very transitory natural of this divine treat that makes it so much more special than a normal candy bar or cookie that I can buy or bake.

  2. thebookofdave says

    That interconnected relationship of events goes both ways. If god exists, but remains invisible, intangible, and communicates with us only in cryptic signals indistinguishable from random natural processes, he is essentially providing no meaning anyway. Under those circumstances, does our creation and existence provide him with any meaning. Who gave him that?

  3. Menyambal says

    In addition to the excellent point about infinity of duration, God is infinite in power, knowledge and duration (he was around for all of eternity before creating the world), so our lives cannot even be a blip to him, in duration or importance.

    If you are getting meaning from your life by contributing to the greater glory of God, you have to ask who that glory is going to impress, and how much you are helping. I mean, God and Satan had a bet about Job – is this life just another bet between those two? If you do all you can to win for God, what piddly fraction of the world’s-duration-population have you accomplished?

    If you honestly believe that God works in such a way that you, personally, matter to him personally, that doesn’t add up to any more than your own parents caring about you, or you caring about you, or someone that you haven’t yet met who will love you for life.

    Seriously, what meaning exactly does God give to you life? Write it down coherently, making sure that every other God-believer can understand it and will agree with it. And could you work it so there’s a quantity, please, for comparison, not just a meaning/not-meaning check box? Thanks. Oh, and define “meaning” for us – I’ll be happy to use your definition in accounting for my own atheistic “life”.

    Meanwhile, to me, right now, the meaning of my life is in the raising of a young person. My goals are to teach, help, shelter, aid, and just be the best parental person I can be. That’s gone very poorly, by the way, so I feel my life lacks meaning. And I can live with that.

  4. rietpluim says

    If there is a God, how does life has any meaning?

    Seriously, what is meaningful about being the amusement of a supernatural being? The puppet in a play that was written before the beginning of time?

    The religious confuse meaning with purpose. You know what life is very purposeful? The life of a cow. Its purpose is to breed and provide milk and meat. Very purposeful, to humans. But meaningful, to herself? Very little I reckon.

  5. jh says

    In other words – a basic calculus question concerning limits where the numerator is a constant (say 70 years) and the denominator is x as x approaches infinity.

  6. Megamoya says

    High up in the North in the land called Svithjod, there stands a rock. It is a hundred and sixty kilometres high and a hundred and sixty kilometres wide. Once every thousand years a little bird comes to this rock to sharpen its beak. When the rock has thus been worn away, then a single day of eternity will have gone by.
    —Hendrik Willem Van Loon

    Of course, Crowley’s version is funnier.

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