What is meaning?

PZ Myers has an interesting post discussing the motivations of people who join ISIS, and which attributes similar motivations to the alt-right. In short, it’s about people “who feel a lack of significance in their lives”, people “who felt culturally homeless”. People start “from vague dissatisfaction, and desire for social status and sexual success” and become radicalized.

For the most part, I feel powerless to do anything about the radicalization of men. The world is big and incomprehensible–and also I live in California. So the reader may forgive me if I turn this more introspective.

What even is this desire for “significance”? I feel that we in the atheist community have been discussing it for years, usually in the context of discussing the appeal of religion, and calling for the atheist community to fill the void that religion has left. If PZ is correct, some of those atheists went on to fulfill that need by joining the alt-right. But for all that discussion of “meaning”, I don’t think I understand it. I don’t know if this is something I feel myself.

You might say to me, “But Siggy, you are clearly passionate about a wide range of interests, and identify with a number of labels as well as the communities they’re attached to!” Well, yes, perhaps I do not feel the pull towards greater meaning, because I already have plenty in my life. But for what it is worth, it doesn’t feel like I have meaning so much as it feels like I don’t understand what that is. It couldn’t possibly just be about having enjoyable things to occupy my free time?

On a related subject, don’t you find it fascinating how one of the biggest insults in the alt-right is “cuck”? Literally, it refers to someone whose wife cheated on them, someone who has spent their life raising children not their own. At first the insult seemed merely incoherent. But perhaps it names one of the greatest fears of the men who use it. They fear that their life lacks meaning, where meaning is apparently derived from a faithful wife and biological children.

Deriving significance from a heteronormative family–although this is a value I now abhor, I feel like I understand it better. I understand it because I had to abandon it in 2009–the year I came out.

Tangential thought: if meaning is often derived from people’s identities, calling for the end of “identity politics” seems an especially misguided way address the lack meaning in people’s lives.

My thoughts are all over the place, and I don’t understand anything. Dear readers, any thoughts? Does the idea of “meaning” make any sense to you? How do you fulfill it?


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    Does the idea of “meaning” make any sense to you?

    Not personally, no. It seems to be a way of marking one’s existence on the universe; “look at me, see what I’ve done!”. The universe doesn’t care, and people only care to the extent that your actions are accepted or rejected. So it seems to be based in insecurity.

    I initially typed a lot more, but it seemed unclear and open to misinterpretation, so I’ll give it more thought. In other words, a good topic.

  2. EveryZig says

    “Does the idea of “meaning” make any sense to you?”
    The way I see it is this (extrapolating from my own experience rather than actual psychological expertise):
    Most people have multiple ideals they consider inherently valuable, such as justice, knowledge, the well being of themselves or others, individual social status or the social status of a group you care about. These are the things that have meaning/value to someone (with varying prioritization depending on the person), and an action that furthers these ideals is a meaningful action. It is important to note, though, that many people experience contradiction between what they value on a more emotional level and what they on a more conscious level think they SHOULD value. (Of course, the things valued on a conscious level have their own subconscious influences, but I am not able to describe the difference better than that.) For example, I (and I suspect many other people) value personal enjoyment fairly highly on a more emotional level but value it much lower on a conscious level (to the point where I am somewhat uncomfortable calling it an ideal at all) due to some mix of valuing non-selfishness and having anti-hedonistic cultural baggage. This sort of contradiction can lead to cognitive dissonance between what someone likes and what they value on a conscious level, and as it gets more extreme can become thought of as a struggle of “trivial desires” versus “greater purpose” or “vice” versus “virtue”. For example I enjoy playing video games and spend a lot of time on them, but I do not consider doing so a meaningful action as it does not further any ideals I prioritize as meaningful. Something I would consider meaningful but not enjoyable would be donating blood, which is inconvenient and somewhat unpleasant but furthers my ideal of the general well-being of others.

  3. says

    The conscious vs emotional distinction resonates with me. I don’t think I really valued having a heteronormative family on a conscious level, and in fact I didn’t realize how much I valued it until I had to let it go. I don’t think any amount of progressive politics could have ever been as effective at changing my values as being queer did.

  4. snuffcurry says

    Hmm. Do you find a distinction between activism (which rarely results in complete and unerring success, and often is not fun at all, though it does pass the time, sometimes to the chagrin of all) and a life imbued with purpose or what you call “greater” meaning (greater than oneself, I imagine)? I have to admit, I don’t see the distinction, myself. I may be wrong, because I was raised in an utterly secular community, but I think some secular, atheist, and agnostic people react strongly against suggestions of “meaning” because so often “meaning” has euphemistic, spiritual connotations or represents a supernatural or omnipresent, pantheonic influence over human affairs.

    I agree that reactions against powerlessness and hopelessness vary, and the pull towards local, highly regimented, political projects — sometimes reactionary, often idealistic but unrealistic, usually associated with a partially objective or imaginatively constructed community identity that may or may not require the temporary or permanent stripping away of all individual eccentricities — is one such reaction, but recognizing that is separate, I hope, from offering up apologia for paramilitary, white supremacist groups, for example, which are hardly constructive, and mostly offer up easy solutions and what their members apparently desire (structure, “fraternity” of a sort, a pat and superficial narrative that casts them as heroes and their enemies as wholly irredeemable, providing them a clear course of action with realistic if not grim goals, and someone to pick on and persecute and scapegoat).

  5. EveryZig says

    I do think of things as “meaningful”, and I would classify activism as meaningful when its for a cause I believe in. Even if it is ultimately unsuccessful, among my values is the concept that an honest attempt to do good is itself a good thing.
    As for “greater” meaning, I don’t think I would refer to something as a “greater” meaning myself; that part was an extrapolation. My speculation is that “greater meaning” is like “meaning” in that it refers to something you value and think you should value, but is more intense than “meaningful” in the sense that you consider this particular value to be really super important, a much higher priority than other values and therefore “greater” than them.
    It is true that “meaning” is often used in religious contexts and carries some baggage from that, but “meaning” can still be a useful concept. I think the dissonance between what you want and what you think you should want can explain some of the vague dissatisfaction people can feel when they have material goods, because they have things they want in a way they don’t find meaningful while lacking things they would consider meaningful.

  6. says


    Do you find a distinction between activism (which rarely results in complete and unerring success, and often is not fun at all, though it does pass the time, sometimes to the chagrin of all) and a life imbued with purpose or what you call “greater” meaning (greater than oneself, I imagine)?

    Let me put it this way. When you describe activism in that way, it makes me feel like a piss poor activist. I have no real passion for it. My approach to activism is to apply interests and abilities I already had, which most people do not have. I like math and analytical writing, so I do data analysis and I blog. I can’t stand to do most other kinds of activism. Which is fine, we all play to our strengths.

  7. says

    Meaning in this sense is kind of like meaningful/valuable, importance. “Meaning in life” is usually meant to refer to participating in the achievement of things that are of high importance (especially to others as well as yourself, not just yourself).

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