Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Does an Atheist Life Have Meaning?

            As we come to the beginning of a new year, a time that many people traditionally treat as an opportunity to take stock of their lives, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on what gives our lives meaning.

            One of the theist criticisms of atheism that seems to come up with great frequency is that atheism makes life meaningless. I always find it odd when this criticism is brought up in debates about the existence of gods, since it’s a complete non sequitur. Whether or not a god can give your life meaning has no bearing at all on whether a god exists.

            But I’m not going to go into a detailed discussion on the problems with that line of argument. This post isn’t about that. It’s about how I, as an atheist, deal with the question of meaning in my life. It’s a question that so many people ask themselves in the course of their lives, and one with many see as an obstacle to adopting an atheistic world view: what does my life mean?

            I’ll come right out and say this up front: atheism cannot tell you what your life means. It cannot even tell you that your life has any objective meaning whatsoever. So, if you’re looking to be told what your life means, it’s not going to happen here. For that matter, I’m not even going to tell you what my life means. And it’s not that I’m keeping anything from you, but rather that I can’t tell you what it means.

            The reason for this is fairly simple: meaning is inherently subjective. Nothing in all the world means anything, unless it means something to someone. What’s more, most anything you can think of won’t mean the same thing to everyone, nor will it mean the same thing to you at different points in your life. As far as I can tell, the whole idea of “objective meaning” may very well be nonsense. I’m not even sure that it’s something that’s desirable, especially not for something as complex as a human life. Can you imagine how unutterably dull it would be for the meaning your life to be able to be boiled down to something simple enough to be understood exactly the same way by everyone regardless of their perspective? Isn’t that what an objective meaning would be? I actually find that idea rather bleak and colorless.

            My life, and its meaning, is constantly evolving even just with respect to me. I understand myself differently now than I did last year, which was different from how I understood myself ten years ago. Everyone whose life has touched mine has left some of their influence behind, and taken away some of my influence with them. The meaning of my life will be different for them than it has been for me. The girl to whom I was a lousy boyfriend in high school will assign different meaning to my life than will my son or daughter. I don’t see any reason to want to erase all that different perspective, the rich interplay of how lives affect each other, how meanings interweave throughout our lives, in favor of some idea of “objective meaning” that I can only think cheapens the whole notion of meaning.

            Some argue that the temporary nature of an atheist existence renders all of this ultimately meaningless. To this mindset, only an eternal existence beyond mere materiality has any meaning at all, by virtue of its permanence. I don’t see it. Given eternity, it’s a virtual certainty that eventually all that can be done will be, all meaning that can be mined will be, and then still you’re left existing on and on. That doesn’t seem any more meaningful to me than a temporary existence. Actually, it seems less meaningful to me.

            In this life, I will never learn what “everything means.” And, probably, nobody else will either. But that’s because meaning will be constantly changing, constantly evolving. There are always new meanings for everyone to find, for everyone to create, and yes, for everyone to forget only to be discovered anew by someone further down the line. I want my life to mean something positive to as many people as it can, but I also want it to mean something different to as many people as it can. Meaning is dynamic, subjective, and yes, temporary. In my mind, that’s what makes it beautiful and, not to put too fine a point on it, meaningful.

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