Atheism and meaning

(As is my custom this time of year, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some old favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. The POST SCRIPTS will generally be new. New posts will start again on Monday, January 5, 2009. Today’s post originally appeared in October 2007.)

People often think that atheists do not have a life affirming philosophy. They have sometimes taken the quote by prominent atheist Richard Dawkins (Scientific American November 1995, p. 85) that “The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference” to argue that atheism leads to a philosophy of hopelessness and despair. I have heard several talks by intelligent design creationism advocate Michael Behe and he repeatedly uses this quote to get a laugh at the expense of atheism by saying that Dawkins must be a real downer at parties.

But anyone who has seen interviews with Dawkins and read his writings will come away with the contrary impression, that he is a witty, courteous, and engaging man with a mischievous sense of humor. One can well imagine him livening up any party. Dawkins was merely making a factual observation about the nature of the universe, saying that it is futile to try and obtain our meaning and purpose externally from the universe, although we can observe it with awe and wonder. We can, and should, construct meaning and purpose for our lives.

The idea that atheists “suffer” from a “lack of meaning” is a curious preoccupation of religious apologists. For example, a Catholic priest called Jonathan Morris talks with sympathetic interviewers on Fox News and trots out the same old tired and discredited arguments for the existence of god, including the eye. Although he seems to have very little understanding of science himself, he has the audacity to suggest that people like Richard Dawkins don’t know science. He also suggests that atheists suffer because they know that “the world makes a whole lot more sense if god does exist”. Morris does not, of course, provide any evidence that atheists are more unhappy than believers.

In actual fact, the world makes a lot more sense if you think that god does not exist. It is religious people who have to repeatedly resort to the ‘mysterious ways clause’, invoking the actions of an inscrutable god when confronted with the numerous awkward contradictions that are raised in trying to understand a world that has a god in it.

Every atheist I know is relieved that they don’t have to try and make sense out of absurd religious doctrines or have to reconcile the vast number of contradictions that immediately arise as soon as you postulate the existence of a god with anything close to the properties usually claimed for it. When atheists do have regrets about the non-existence of god it is usually because it is usually because it precludes the possibility of meetings one’s dead loved ones again in the afterlife or, as philosopher Colin McGinn says, because it means that the people who do real evil and create suffering will likely escape punishment in this world. I admit that it would be nice to think that such people will get their comeuppance in the next. But the evidence is so overwhelmingly against the existence of god and life after death that to cling to it is to indulge in escapism. In the long run it is better not to take refuge in illusions but accept reality and use that knowledge as a spur to work for peace and justice in this world.

Religious people are given a philosophy of life and a sense of meaning packaged in with the religious teaching they imbibe from childhood. Atheism, on the other hand, is not itself a philosophy, any more than disbelief in fairies or unicorns (afairyism? aunicornism?) are philosophies. But atheism does have implications for philosophy.

Since atheists do not have off-the-shelf philosophies and meaning that they can adopt as a package the way that religious people do, they have to create their own. Thus atheists have to do some reflective introspection to construct a philosophy of life, and in that sense, being an atheist requires a certain level of intellectual effort. Most naturally tend to be attracted to versions of humanist and existential philosophies. Ethicist Peter Singer in his book Writings on an Ethical Life (2000) outlines some ideas about what kinds of meanings and moral and ethical values an atheist might adopt. (I hope to write more about these some day).

That search for meaning in the absence of god can produce wonderful results. In the British TV program The Root of All Evil, the writer Ian McEwan says:

We are the very privileged owners of a brief spark of consciousness and we therefore have to take responsibility for it. We cannot rely, as Christians or Muslims do, on a world elsewhere, a paradise to which one can work towards and maybe make sacrifices, or crucially make sacrifices of other people. We have a marvelous gift, and you see it develop in children, this ability to become aware that other people have minds just like your own and feelings that are just as important as your own. And this gift of empathy seems to me to be the building block of our moral system.

If you have a sacred text that tells you how the world began or what the relationship is between this sky god and you, it does curtail your curiosity. It cuts off a source of wonder. The loveliness of the world in its wondrousness is not apparent to me in Islam or Christianity or the other major religions.

Richard Dawkins adds:

By disclaiming the idea of a next life we can take more excitement in this one. The here and now is not something to be endured before eternal bliss or damnation. The here and now is all we have, an inspiration to make the most of it. So atheism is life affirming in a way religion can never be. Look around you. Nature demands our attention, begs us to explore, to question. Religion can provide only facile, unsatisfying answers. Science, in constantly seeking real explanations, reveals the true majesty of our world in all its complexity. People sometimes say “There must be more than just this world, than just this life.” But how much more do you want?

Atheists have one huge advantage over religious people that more than compensates for the fact that they are not handed a philosophy of life by religion. Because they do not have to deal with all the intractable logical problems that belief in god entails and for which religious believers have to repeatedly invoke the ‘mysterious ways clause’ and shut down further investigations, they are free to pursue intellectual inquiry with no restrictions. Unlike religious believers, on the road to increased knowledge they do not have to obey signs that cordon off some areas saying “No admittance by order of religion.” They are free to go anywhere and explore and investigate anything. The world is wide open for them.

And that is a wonderfully liberating feeling.

POST SCRIPT: Year in review

Here is the second part of Tom Tomorrow’s year in review. (The first part is here.)


  1. Roger says

    Good post. It’s all so obvious, isn’t it. I always wonder why apologists etc. fail to see it.

  2. SimonJM says

    “The world is wide open for them.”
    Yes and no, atheists still have to deal with their own personal and cultural biases. Not believing in a god doesn’t mean one escapes from this.

  3. Matthew says

    I have really enjoyed reading your post, Mano.

    I often like to say we are all aspects of the universe knowing itself. To me, it is very exciting, precious, and at some point ineffable.

    Best wishes,

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