Sunday, March 25, 2007

Q&A: Can an atheist find meaning in life?

As an atheist, isn’t life absurd and meaningless without the promise of an afterlife? What is the point of living if you know your ultimate destiny is dust?

I know that I will someday die, but I don’t believe that any part of me will survive death. I know this sounds depressing, but I have come to a place of inner peace with this realisation that one day I will be no more. I haven’t experienced cynicism or bitterness as a result; rather, life has become more meaningful, every day more special – simply because I know that this is the only life I will ever have. Experiences have become more poignant: to know that I will experience a limited number of sunsets makes the sight of one that much more breathtaking. As an atheist, life has become precious and worthy of living, simply because I know that it will one day come to an end.

Sure, I believe that my brief existence does not matter in the context of history and the greater cosmos. But – and this is the important point – my existence matters to me. Those things that I value in my life – such as relationships, memories, achievements, wonder and discovery – don’t have to be eternal to be meaningful; they can be just as meaningful in the here and now. And I’ve learnt to find meaning in these things for their own sake, rather than in the context of some greater spiritual scheme or plan.

As the philosopher Raymond Bradley writes:

. . . my answer to the question ‘What is the meaning of life?’ is akin to the answer I would give to the question ‘What is the meaning of such and such a book?’ The meaning of a book is to be found in the words, the sentences, the paragraphs, and the chapters it contains. Likewise, the meaning of life is to be found in the meaningful moments, episodes, and achievements that occur within our brief appearance here on earth. A book doesn't lack meaning because it comes to an end on the last page. Nor do our lives lack meaning because they come to an end when all neural activity ceases.”

Am I afraid of death? I’m afraid of the moment of death, of the unknown related to the process of death itself. But I’m not afraid of what lies thereafter. Mark Twain was once quoted as saying:

I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

In conclusion: I do not need the promise of an afterlife to provide me with a reason to live; being alive is reason enough.


acwo said...

I like your blog very much
keep it up!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. I too grew up believing in the ever after. I was brought up a Calvinist and of course had the priviledge of being predestined until I was told by the then minister of the church that I no longer belonged. I guess that was re-assuring when you always thought once you had the status of predestination you could never loose it. So much for that thought. I have rather liked the feeling of being on this earth for the good of me, my family and my community. I think that is the mark or the foot print we leave on this earth, no more, no less.

John K. said...

Well written. I too am an ex-christian now atheist. I have to say that I find much more meaning in each day of life than I ever did as a believer.

CyberKitten said...

Well said.

Zoe said...

Great post Kevin.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm - seems that Kevin has moved from the worship of a God that didn't fit his needs to one that always will .... himself.

Drink deeper, my friend - you are merely sipping the dross of philosophy. You know that these writings do not fulfil your need - you are only shadowboxing.

Anonymous said...


If you say that your life is about the here and now, then I am curious about what kind of funeral you would like when you do die. Do you want prayers said, songs sung or any kinds of readings? Would you want a tombstone at all or any kind of eulogy? I once went to a memorial event (that would be the best way to describe it) of an athiest and it was entirely consistent with the beliefs she held in life. It was interesting. I would be interested in your views, if this is not too personal.

Rebecca said...

This is an excellent post, and I really enjoyed the quote comparing lives to books. I have the same view on life - I know I will die, and am perfectly fine with that.

Skywolf said...

Great post, Kevin. While I don't personally share your beliefs with regard to life continuing after death, I think your thoughts on enjoying the here and now and living life for its own sake are ones we should all bear in mind. Whether someone believes in an afterlife or not, the experiences we have whilst alive here and now should never be taken for granted. There is huge meaning in those things alone, regardless of whether or not there's anything else afterwards.

Cori said...

I like the idea of finding meaning in life and can testify to the fact that Kevin does seek, and often find, meaning in his life.

My one little worry about this post was the implication that one might be able to find more meaning in life without the belief of an afterlife than with it.

I reckon we're in the business of finding meaning, whether we believe in an afterlife or not. And that the idea of life meaning can have so many levels and be a reality for people in so many different ways.

I don't need the promise of an afterlife to give my life meaning. But my life has meaning and I believe in an afterlife.

CyberKitten said...

Does life *need* to have a meanning?

Sze Zeng said...

HI Kevin,

Amen! People dont need 'God' or promised eternal life to have meaning. No doubt about that.

Whether the 'right' or 'left' meaning is another thing.


Patrick said...

About 3 years ago I dropped into a black hole – four months of absolute terror. I wanted to end my life, but somehow [Holy Spirit], I reached out to a friend who took me to hospital. I had three visits [hospital] in four months – I actually thought I was in hell. I imagine I was going through some sort of metamorphosis [mental, physical & spiritual]. I had been seeing a therapist [1994] on a regular basis, up until this point in time. I actually thought I would be locked away – but the hospital staff was very supportive [I had no control over my process]. I was released from hospital 16th September 1994, but my fear, pain & shame had only subsided a little. I remember this particular morning waking up [home] & my process would start up again [fear, pain, & shame]. No one could help me, not even my therapist [I was terrified]. I asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on me & forgive me my sins. Slowly, all my fear has dissipated & I believe Jesus delivered me from my “psychological prison.” I am a practicing Catholic & the Holy Spirit is my friend & strength; every day since then has been a joy & blessing. I deserve to go to hell for the life I have led, but Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, delivered me from my inequities. John 3: 8, John 15: 26, are verses I can relate to, organically. He’s a real person who is with me all the time. I have so much joy & peace in my life, today, after a childhood spent in orphanages [England & Australia]. Fear, pain, & shame, are no longer my constant companions. I just wanted to share my experience with you [Luke 8: 16 – 17].

Peace Be With You

Patrick said...

Truly there is a God, although the fool has said in his heart, there is no God [Psalm 14]. And it assuredly exists so truly that it cannot be conceived not to exist. For it is possible to conceive of a being which cannot be conceived not to exist; & this is greater than one which can be conceived not to exist. Hence, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, can be conceived not to exist, it is not that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, but this is an irreconcilable contradiction. There is, then, so truly a being than which nothing greater can be conceived to exist, that it cannot even be conceived not to exist; & this being you are. O Lord our God. [St Anslem]

Peace Be With You

CyberKitten said...

Patrick - What an amazing piece of... prose from St Anslem.

I must admit though that it lost me after about the 3rd sentance.....

Skywolf said...

Yes... me too. *scratches brain*

Kevin Parry said...

Anonymous wrote
If you say that your life is about the here and now, then I am curious about what kind of funeral you would like when you do die

This is an interesting question, and to be honest I’ve never given it much thought before. I believe the living are more important than the dead, so when I die I do not want to leave my family or spouse with the huge financial burden of an extravagant burial. Cremation is the most cost effective option, so this is the option that I will take. A small gathering of family and friends; a few words about my life from those that I loved – that will suffice. Because of my religious beliefs (or rather, a lack of them) I would not want any sermon, prayer, preacher or list of hymns. The funeral should reflect what I was as a person.

All the best

HeIsSailing said...

I recognize that piece of ... prose from St Anselm. Let me try and restate it a little simpler:

If God did not exist, then his existance would be inconceivable. Therefore God exists.

Can you imagine a perfect being? That is God. Can you imagine something even more perfect then the perfect being in your imagination? No? Therefore God exists.

Yeah, I'm not biting either.

Is there more meaning in life without the belief in the afterlife? I'm not sure. I find plenty of meaning with and without the presence of God in my life. I guess the main thing is that many Christians live the the hereafter. I used to have some school friends whose parents left them locked in the house because they were convinced the rapture would happen very soon. It took them a week or two for them to come to their senses - this was in the early 70s. There is too much emphasis on the hereafter, and relatively little paid for the here and now.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Kevin,

I want the same sort of funeral like yours too except that i want an interesting sermon. I dont want any of those typical 'dull evangelistic' preaching. But rather something intersting and exciting.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi heissailing,

It got to my nerve whenever i heard fellow Christians giving too much emphasis on the after-life and neglected the current here and now.

My conviction is this, if Christianity is true, it has to be relevant to the NOW. If there isn't much can be done in the NOW, it is almost useless to talk about after-life, isn't it?

Lui said...

" Truly there is a God, although the fool has said in his heart, there is no God"

As I said on another blog, the weak minded will always invent myths to not have to deal with the harsh realities of this world, because that would include having to get out from beneath their self-centred comfort blankets. If you want to believe in God, that's your business. But don't slur other people who don't partake in your comforting delusions. How selfish can you get?

Sze Zeng said...

Hi lui,

I'm weak-minded and that gives me more reasons that i shouldn't stop using my mind to continue to learn about this strange world.

Believing in 'God' demands some sort of commitment(or commision), just like any other faith. Whether it's Christian or non-Christian (or even non-theist), IMHO, there is one sort or another kind of commitment involved.

'Delusion'? Isn't that aphorism rather Foucaultian?


*adelaine said...

i agree. being alive is the reason for living. :)

~GreyMatters said...

I agree completely. The number of people who've not been born outnumber those who are; you wouldn't be seeing this right now. You wouldn't be experiencing this, whether good or bad. It is better to feel something and enjoy something while you have it. Life is great and valuable in that reason. This reminds me of the fact that the brain perceives its own awareness and perception as something separate from itself;a separate entity, and because of this, it is difficult to imagine that we won't continue, that there is no soul, and that you are you, and not him, because you can only be you. But why value illusion more than truth? It is useless, as you will accomplish nothing with it, and will be of no use. I give you two thumbs up.

Anonymous said...

the only reason I even thought about believeing in God is because DEATH cancels out the real value of Life. Who cares who you love, if you die. Who cares what money you make, if you die, Who cares what disease you cure, if you die. Who cares what you do or how you do it, if you die? I didnt. Nothing you could ever say would ever have value if the end result is death eternal. And I wouldnt give a crap about being good to you or anybody else & who care what you think. Take it to your grave punk. (if it wasnt for the concept of eternal life & having to meet a righteous God, I would behave without care or measure & Nothing you could say or do would ever matter to me)

BB said...

@Patrick: Thank you for sharing your testimony. I went through my own hell of depression and suicidal thoughts. I was a born-again Christian at the time. I had been one for close to 20 years. My own downward spiral was inspired by my thoughts that God was mysteriously absent in the midst of my suffering, but I convinced myself that God was using my suffering to conform me to the image of Christ. I was also convinced that God would show himself. I continued believing because I knew the indwelling Holy Spirit would never leave me. After many months of debilitating, crippling depression, my prayers turned into begging. I begged God every day to take me home, because I didn't want to live anymore.

Then, the depression suddenly lifted, along with all my conflict, torment, sadness, and emptiness. What's more, all those thoughts and feelings had been thoroughly tied to my relationship with God, so I no longer believed in God either. I felt free. I had stepped out of the frictional framework that had trapped me, and I could see what was real. I no longer warred with myself. I now live from moment to moment. No longer do I want to die. Some would call that a miracle. I just thank my brain and the awareness it gave me to live more fully in the here and now.

I did not set out to leave God. When my depression lifted, I thought, "Shouldn't I be on my knees thanking God?" Curiously, God was nowhere to be found. I felt untethered. I simply realized, finally, that my "magical thinking" was causing me a great deal of cognitive dissonance, conflict, frustration, anger, and depression, and that my unjustified belief in God caused me to use my own energy to sustain his existence.

I attribute my "miracle" not to survival of the fittest, but survival of the individual. Life does indeed find a way. I suppose this is how plants can grow out of rocks! Well, if cancer can spontaneously go into remission, then perhaps it was the same with my depression. I conclude nothing. In that, I am free to wonder and to seek truth without defaulting to a supernatural, unprovable explanation. Many organisms practice self-preservation. It was my way of preserving my own existence.

There are many believers who try to bring me back into the fold. Trust me, if I even had a spark of belief in a god, I would still be following him. Faith is a curious thing. You either have it or you don't, and you can't talk someone into believing anything if you don't have any evidence.

Cheers to everyone, believers and unbelievers alike!

Denise said...

My husband describes me as an atheist who believes in God. Which is to say I don't believe in much of anything else related to Christianity. That includes the afterlife. As my belief system evolved and the silliness of hell then heaven fell away I actually found more meaning in life than ever before.