The Atheist Bible
Chapter on the Sense of Life
IntroductionThis chapter discusses the most fundamental conundrum of humanity: “What is the meaning of life?”. Some people say that science will never be adequate to address this question — or, for that matter, the other great existential questions of life, death, love, loneliness, loss, honor, cosmic justice, and metaphysical hope. However, the alternative to “religion” as a source of meaning is not “science”. No one ever suggested that we look into ichthyology or nephrology for enlightenment on how to live. [Stephen Pinker: Enlightenment Now] Rather, the alternative to “religion” is Humanism — together with the entire fabric of knowledge and creativity that humans have produced. And with this, we can give answers to some of the bigger questions. This chapter attempts this in the following two sections:
- An atheist view: Describes an atheist view on the meaning of life, including our reason for existence, our purpose on Earth, and our life after death.
- Questions: Treats objections to that view.
An atheist view
What is the sense of life?“What is the sense of life”, or “What is the meaning of life” is certainly the most fundamental question that humanity can ask itself. The question can mean different things Meaning of Life:
- Why are we here?
- What is the purpose of life?
- What is the purpose of my life?
- What should I do with my life?
- Why am I doing all of this?
You asked me for the answer to “The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything”. The answer is 42. I checked it very thoroughly, and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question was.
Why are we here?One of the interpretations of the question “What is the sense of life?” is “Why are we here?”.
I know that this will probably not satisfy you, but here is the scientific answer to this question: We exist because we were born. We were born because our parents had sex. Our parents had sex in part because they have a built-in desire to have sex and to have children. This is because the gene that wants sex is more productive than the gene that doesn’t want sex, meaning that all living beings today have this gene. Our parents exist because they were born, and they were born because our grand-parents had sex and so on. This process continues into the past until we go so far back in time that your ancestors were no longer humans, but resembled more the Homo Ergaster. The ancestors of these resembled more primitive forms of humanoids, before resembling the Ardipithecus, and so on. When we go further and further back in time, we come to life forms that consisted of only a few cells, and finally to life forms that consisted just of a single cell. The cells came into existence by chemical processes that we detail in the Chapter on the Universe. Starting from these cells, the reason for existence has always been the same, all the way up to you and me: reproduction.
Why were we selected to exist?The scientific world view holds that we are at the current point of some evolutionary process that took 4 billion years. If we are to believe the theory of evolution, then we are mainly the product of lots of random mutations. So the fact that I am writing this book, and that you are reading it, is largely due to a combination of an incredibly large number of random factors. So, why is it us who made it into the 21st century? Why did life evolve here, and not somewhere else? Why was it our species that developed reading, writing, and thinking?
The answer to all these questions is the Anthropical Principle. It says:
Let us illustrate this with an example. Suppose that a ship sinks in icy waters. All passengers are pulled down with the ship. Those who survive try to get out of the ship, and hurry to swim to the surface. Hundreds of people start swimming to the top. Through drifts in the water, they are all dispersed, and reach the surface at different points. Unfortunately, the surface of the sea is completely covered with thick ice. There is only one hole in the ice, large enough to allow a single person to get out. Out of the hundreds, one person is lucky enough to hit that spot, and survives. All others perish. That single person asks: Why is it me who survived? And the answer is: There is no specific reason why it was you. It could have been any other person. But since you are asking, it was you.
The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.
What is the purpose of life?The usual interpretation of “What is the sense of life?” is “What is our purpose of existence?”.
The “purpose” of a thing is the intention that some agent pursues with this thing Merriam Webster/Purpose. In many cases, this agent is the creator of the thing. For example, Ikea produced a chair with the intention that people sit on it. Hence, the purpose of a chair is to allow people to sit on them. Now how does this transfer to the “purpose of life”? The purpose of life must be the intention that the creator of life pursued with his creation. Now, unfortunately, there is no such creator in the atheist world view. Thus, the notion of “purpose of life” in the sense of “the intention of the creator” is undefined in the atheist world. For atheists, there is no god-given purpose of life.
It matters not how strait the gate
how charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
What is the purpose of my life?The “purpose” of a thing is the intention that some agent pursues with this thing Merriam Webster/Purpose. Now if we want to find the purpose of our life, we have to find someone who pursues some intention with us. Then we ask that person for that intention, and this is our purpose of life. We have already seen that, in the atheist world view, God cannot take this role. Now who else could pursue an intention with us?
How about yourself? Do you have an intention for your life? If yes, then this is the purpose that you have given to your life. If your intention is to make money, then making money is the purpose that you are giving to your life. If your intention is to be happy, then being happy is the purpose that you have given to your life. Congratulations, you now have a purpose of life! It is, quite plainly, whatever you choose it to be. You are the one who chooses what to do with your life.
This is not a particularly smart insight. It just follows from the definition of the word “purpose”: your body is but a tool, and the purpose of a tool is whatever intention someone pursues with it — on this occasion you yourself.
But maybe you do not pursue an intention with yourself. Then don’t worry! If you refuse to give your life a purpose, and if you keep seeking for a purpose, then you will eventually find someone who will offer you a purpose for your life! Plenty of people are happy to pursue their intentions with you. They will tell you what is your purpose of life! In other words: If you don’t know what to do with your life, then others will tell you what to do with it.
Asking “If there is no God, what is the purpose of life?”
is like asking “If there is no master, whose slave should I be?”.
What should I do with my life?At some point of our lives, we wake up and ask ourselves: What should I do with my life? From an atheist perspective, this question is even more burning, because the answer to this question defines the “sense of life” in the atheist world view.
The problem of what people “should” do is a problem of morality (see the Chapter on Morality). So we need a moral framework to judge what we should do. Where do we get our moral framework from? De facto, we mostly inherit our moral framework from our parents, and then enrich it by what we learn and think ourselves. If you would like to choose your own moral framework, you are warmly encouraged to have a look at the one we discuss in the Chapter on Morality. It is a liberal moral framework that will get you a long way.
Once we have the moral framework, the first thing that we “should do” is avoiding behavior that is immoral in our framework. This is just the definition of the word “should”. As a Humanist, you have a liberal moral framework, and thus the main thing that you “should do” is avoiding harm to others. The world would be a much better place if people just followed this rule. The next thing that we “should do” is to pursue behavior that our framework labels morally obligatory. Again, this is just the definition of “should”. For example, if you see a car accident and people are injured, then most likely your moral framework tells you that you should call the police and the ambulance. This is what you “should do”. Again, the world would be a much better place if people actually did it.
When we look for things in life like love, meaning, and motivation, we tend to think that they are sitting behind a tree or under a rock. It is not until late in life that we discover that we have to create our own love, manufacture our own meaning, and generate our own motivation.
What should I do with my life, apart from being moral?We have seen that we should do what our moral framework requires us to do. This holds just by definition. Now, our moral framework (hopefully) does not tell us which job to choose, whom to marry, or where to go on vacation. So what “should” we do?
There are some hard-wired intentions that most of us share: We all have (to some degree) the desire to survive. We also have, to some degree, the desire to help others in need. We probably also have the desire to be happy. These are good starting points. Beyond this, we can give our own purpose to our lives. We are completely free in this choice.
Here are some popular options Meaning of Life:
- try to be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations Monty Python: The Meaning of Life
- find the love of your life. Once you found it, you will stop worrying about the sense of life (Y. N. Harari: 21 lessons for the 21st century).
- live your dreams
- stand for something, make some difference that you lived at all
- seek happiness and flourish
- live as long as possible
- seek wisdom and knowledge
- learn as many things as possible in life
- leave the world as a better place than you found it
- make other people happy
- help others, and help one another
- seek peace
- seek pleasure and avoid pain
- love those who mean the most
- be moved by the tears and pain of others, and try to help them out of love and compassion
- eat, drink, and be merry
- know and master nature
And since we’re at it, here is one more: “Live, love, learn”, i.e., take care of your life, be kind to others, and advance your knowledge. Now it’s your turn: Choose one of the above as your purpose of life. Or come up with a new one. And remember: If you don’t choose a purpose for your life, then someone else will. So you better do it yourself.
I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.
Why am I doing all of this?Every morning, we get up, wash, have breakfast, work, come back, eat, and sleep. Naturally, we ask ourselves why we are doing this every day. Some people’s lives are even more loaded than this: They have to take care of their children or their elderly parents, they are looking for a job or a place to live, they suffer from an illness, or they are unhappy in life. So then, why on Earth are we doing all these things?
Again, I know that this will not satisfy the reader, but the question has a very plain answer. There are several reasons why people do things:
- We all have a built-in desire for survival. If we don’t eat, we feel hungry, which is what we want to avoid. If we don’t earn money, we can’t eat. Therefore, we take a job and earn money.
- Moral obligation
- There are quite a number of things that we do out of moral obligation or for reasons of conscience. We discuss reasons why people follow moral rules in the Chapter on Morality.
- There are some things that we do just because they make us feel better. These are pleasant things such as going on vacation, but also near-sighted things like drinking beer or eating chocolate, as well as egoistic things such as showing off with the new phone.
- Sometimes, we do things just to be good to other people. This can be out of a built-in feeling of empathy or love for the other person. It can also be because helping another person makes us feel good.
- Intermediate goals
- In many cases, we are pursuing some goal just in order to achieve a final goal. For example, an intern makes coffee in order to please his boss. He wants to please his boss in order to get a good reference letter. He wants a good reference letter in order to get a good job, which he wants to earn good money, which he wants to in order to eat, and in order to enjoy a higher social status.
- Foreign control
- Some people also do things because it is the path of least resistance. They do things because other people tell them to, because they have always done them, or because they cannot think of anything else. Again others are forced to do something or tricked into doing something by brainwashing or psychological pressure.
The struggle itself [...] is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
Where do humans go after death?One of the questions that people routinely ask themselves is what happens after death. Where do humans go?
Most atheists believe that humans go nowhere after death. They just cease to exist as a person. That may seem hard to understand. In fact, this idea that a human being simply ceases to exist upon death drives many people absolutely nuts. They cannot imagine it. “Me? Die? I am going to totally cease to exist?” WhyWontGodHealAmputees.com. And yet, this is what will happen. Here is an analogy: Let’s suppose I take Lego bricks and build a small airplane. It’s a model plane, but we can agree that it exists. It can move and turn. Now I disassemble the plane, and use the same bricks to build a car. Where did the model airplane go?
The answer is that the model airplane is simply gone. It is saved nowhere. The same happens to the human after death. The body decomposes, and it disappears. This is for the body; read next for what happens to the human spirit.
Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It’s the transition that’s troublesome.
Where does the spirit go after death?Atheists believe that the human body goes nowhere after death. Now, where does the human soul go after death? Where do all the memories, capabilities, thoughts, and wishes go, where do the personality, the spirit, the consciousness, and the character go?
The answer is, likewise, that they go nowhere. They cease to exist. Life ends. Consciousness ceases. What we consider the “personality” or “consciousness” is in fact not a physical thing that goes somewhere. Rather, it is a process. When the physical conditions for this process are no longer there (because the body died), the process stops.
If that is difficult to understand, consider a burning candle. Its flame gives warmth and light, and it has been frequently taken as an analogy to the human spirit. Now suppose there is a wind and the candle goes off. Then where did the flame go? Well, it went nowhere. The flame is not a physical thing that goes somewhere. Rather, the flame is a physical process. When the wind comes, this process stops. The same happens, in a positive atheist’s view, to the human spirit. It is a process that stops when the human dies. It’s just gone. Consciousness is turned off forever. This state is called eternal oblivion Eternal Oblivion.
Now where does the soul go? From a physical perspective, the human brain is a big chemical reaction. There is no “soul” mixed in with the chemicals, just like there is no soul in a bacterium, a mosquito, a mouse, a dog or a chimp. The concept of a “soul” has been invented by religion because many people have trouble facing their own mortality. It makes people feel better, but the concept is a fabrication. GodIsImaginary.com Note that people commonly have no trouble understanding this for animals. For example, some people develop a deep relationship with their dog. They know the wishes, traits, and the personality of their dog. When the dog dies, it is as if a good friend died. Yet, few people think that the dog’s spirit went somewhere. People understand that it just ceased to exist. Positive atheists believe that it is the same with humans.
This may be a troubling insight. We all like the idea of going to paradise much better than the idea of inexistence. However, this does not make the idea of paradise true. While this insight may seem depressing, it has an interesting side effect: It makes our life on Earth much more precious. This is because our life on Earth is the only one that we have for sure.
My worst nightmare is not my own death.
It is that of the people I love dearly.
DemystificationIn this chapter, we have learned some very plain facts:
- We exist because our parents reproduced
- The purpose of your life is the intention that you pursue with it. If you don’t pursue an intention with your life, someone else will.
- You do your everyday work mainly because you would like to survive, have pleasure, or help others — or because you’re being controlled by someone else.
- Life is a process. At death, this process stops irreversibly.
Now these are very unromantic facts. All the blah blah that is commonly associated with the sense of life has been cut away, and what remains are just very obvious conclusions. We have thus completely demystified the question of the sense of life — much like we have demystified the notions of Free Will and Morality before.
Les morts ne nous demandent pas de les pleurer, mais de les continuer.
(The dead do not ask us to beweep them, but to continue them.)
How do atheists get hope?Some people live mainly with the hope to have a better life after death. That is not how atheists see it. Interestingly, the absence of a life after death gives this life an extraordinary significance — it is our only life.
Thus, the disbelief in afterlife teaches us something: It means that we have only one single chance to live our life. There is no way to live a better life in the next cycle of re-incarnation and there is no way to make up for missed pleasures. Also, there is no way to make the bad guys pay for their sins in the afterlife. To atheists, this means: Live your life now, fight the ill and don’t hope for eternal judgement. Live your life thoughtfully and enjoy its pleasures.
Maybe Marshall Brain says it best by summarizing: The truth is this simple: When you die, you die. Some people have a tremendous amount of trouble getting their arms around this fact of life. If you live to be 82 years old, what you have is approximately 30,000 days of existence. You are not going to then commute to “heaven” to live for eternity. 30,000 days is all that you’ve got.
That’s it. Now that you understand that your death is final, you may look at your life in a different light. WhyWontGodHealAmputees.com
I am an atheist.
That doesn’t mean I have nothing to live for.
It means I have nothing to die for.
What is the spirit of life for atheists?It is certainly impossible to make a statement about the atheistic “life spirit” in general. However, the American atheistic community has compiled a definition of atheism that will probably appeal to most atheists Murray v. Curlett, 374 U.S. 203, 83 S. Ct. 1560, 10 L.Ed.2d (MD, 1963):
An Atheist believes that he can get no help through prayer but that he must find in himself the inner conviction, and strength to meet life, to grapple with it, to subdue it and enjoy it.
An Atheist believes that only in a knowledge of himself and a knowledge of his fellow man can he find the understanding that will help to a life of fulfillment.
He seeks to know himself and his fellow man rather than to know a god. An Atheist believes that a hospital should be built instead of a church. An Atheist believes that a deed must be done instead of a prayer said. An Atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death. He wants disease conquered, poverty vanquished, war eliminated. He wants man to understand and love man.
He wants an ethical way of life. He believes that we cannot rely on a god or channel action into prayer nor hope for an end of troubles in a hereafter.
He believes that we are our brother’s keepers; and are keepers of our own lives; that we are responsible persons and the job is here and the time is now.
Why don’t you just kill yourself?Atheism does not see any god-given meaning in our lives. Then the question arises why we don’t just kill ourselves.
As Barry Puzzle remarks, this question is usually asked by people whose religion insists that this world is a world of sin and suffering and when they die they will be delivered to an eternal paradise Atheist Cartoons/p. 14. People who think that the current life is a pitiful existence in the expectation of a much better life elsewhere would indeed have good reason to speed up the transition from one to the other. If killing yourself is not an option, refusing food, drunk driving, extreme sports, or driving without a seat belt are all on the table. However, people don’t do that.
The reason that people (theists and atheists alike) usually don’t kill themselves is that we all have a strong urge to stay alive. This is because the gene that urges us to strive for survival had better evolutionary success than genes that induce suicide. Therefore, we all have a hard-wired desire to stay alive.
Religion is basically an advertisement for death.
Isn’t life without god absurd?“The Absurd” refers to the conflict between (1) the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and (2) the human inability to find any Absurdism. Is our life thus absurd? And if so, is it possible to live our life with satisfaction?
Søren Kierkegaard spoke about a “leap”, arguing that life is full of absurdity, and one must make his and her own values in an indifferent world. One can live meaningfully (free of despair and anxiety) in an unconditional commitment to something finite, and devote that meaningful life to the commitment, despite the vulnerability inherent to doing so. Absurdism
In other words: If you give a purpose to your life, then your life has a purpose. Millions of people have done that and do not feel the need for an external purpose. On the contrary, they take pride in defining their own lives.
The universe will not give you a meaning.
You give the universe a meaning.
But what happens to the villains?In the atheist view of the world, there is no afterlife. This means also that there is no hell and no heaven. In particular, this means that the villains will not get punished in the afterlife. They live their evil life, and then they die just like everyone else. Isn’t that a horrible injustice?
Yes, that is indeed horrible injustice. This is the reason why we have to punish the villains. It is our job to bring justice to this world. It does not help to wish that evil people will be punished in the hereafter. As long as there is no evidence for that, this remains just wishful thinking. It is even dangerous wishful thinking, because if we believe that these people will be punished in the hereafter, we can justify to let them go in this life.
Therefore, most atheists, and certainly the Humanists, insist that bad behavior must be punished in the here and now.
Atheism doesn’t say that humans can bring peace to the planet.
It says that nobody else can.
Aren’t atheists victims of randomness?It is one of the fascinating (and sometimes frightening) facts of life that so many things are outside our control: accidents, illnesses, deaths, but also admissions to university, winning the lottery, or just being lucky — all these things happen without us having a hand in the matter. Atheists are helpless in face of this randomness. They cannot see any higher power that would explain this randomness, let alone a power to which they could pray to help them find their way.
The believer, in contrast, believes that it is their god who makes these things happen. This is an understandable conjecture. It is assumed that the supreme coordinator makes things happen through his own decisions. These decisions cannot be influenced by humans. They are outside the realm of human comprehension. Thus, the very same problem appears again: Things happen that cannot be understood by humans. The arbitrariness of the supreme coordinator is itself a kind of randomness. It makes little difference whether humans are surrendered to the randomness of nature or to the arbitrariness of a supreme being. In the end, we are all victims of the very same randomness — atheists and believers alike. Randomness is just lack of knowledge about what will happen (Nassim Taleb: “The Black Swan”). It does not help control the randomness in any way if believers imagine a supreme being on top of it.
In other words: There is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers — though the discrepancy between the laws of probability and the workings of cognition may explain why people believe there are [Stephen Pinker: Enlightenment Now, p. 394].
Much like phlogiston was mentally added to all materials, God was added to all events: chance becomes a purposeful story through God’s planning; revenge against a criminal becomes punishment through God’s justice; a statement becomes an oath by God’s name.
Religious meanings of lifeReligions offer different answers to the Meaning of Life. Let us take a look at the most common ones, and see why atheists don’t find them convincing:
- People exist to love their neighbors / People exist to live a moral life
- Most religions consider it the purpose or at least the duty of human beings to behave morally. This view is nothing specific to religions: Even though their motivations may differ, virtually all world views, including Humanism, want humans to behave morally. Thus, this Meaning of Life applies to atheists and believers alike.
- People exist to worship and love God
- Some religions (and the abrahamic ones in particular) assert that God created humans to praise him. If that were true, then we would be nothing more than the toys that an almighty being created to in order to please himself. Furthermore, atheists wonder why a god who is almighty, omniscient, and wise anyway would be so desperate for human devotion. Last, the abrahamic religions teach that God hampered our task deliberately by subjecting us to earthly pains and by making us inclined to doubt. Atheists wonder why people on Earth have to suffer from misery only to ensure that an almighty God gets his devotion — a problem that we discuss in the Chapter on the Abrahamic God.
- People exist to reach Heaven
- Again, this view appears predominantly in the abrahamic religions. It says that Heaven should be our ultimate goal and that our life on Earth is our qualification for entrance. Although this is currently not the official view of the big Christian denominations, it has been an influential view in the past and is still commonly encountered today (search the Web for “Meaning of Life”). If the goal of our lives lies in the afterlive, then life on Earth is just an intermediate stage in our life, which we should overcome as quickly as possible. Thus, such a view de facto devalues our life in Earth. Furthermore, compared to Heaven, life on Earth is unpleasant and cumbersome. As an unofficial Christian Web page puts it Meaning-of-Life.info, God, in his infinite goodness, has arranged a way for us to return to Paradise; all it requires is a short stay in this hard world of temptation and pain. This Meaning of Life inspires a view of life as an unpleasant, temporary and unimportant step — which atheists find deplorable, given the joys that life offers to those who love it. Furthermore, there is no reason why a loving god would subject us to the misery on Earth in the first place.
- Life is a big test for the afterlife
- In this view, life is a sequence of temptations and we as humans are to resist them. If we succeed, we go to Heaven. To atheists, it is unclear why God would want to test his own creatures — given that he is omniscient and knows the outcome anyway.
- People exist to reach Nirvana
- The Indian religions (Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism) hold that we exist to go through a cycle of rebirths, until we are finally pure enough to reach Nirvana. Nirvana is a state of eternal peace of mind. This philosophy explains what will happen, but it does not tell us why. For example, the theory does not explain why we are born at all.
- People exist to be fruitful, and multiply; fill the earth, and subdue it
- This is the view of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (Bible/Genesis 1:28). Species that do not multiply die out. Hence all species that have survived until today have an inclination to multiply. Hence humans have an inclination to multiply. Hence it is futile to prescribe being fruitful as a purpose for our lives: It is not the purpose, but the cause of our existence.
- People exist to “play” the game of life
- This notion is e.g. found in Hinduism, where it is known as the principle of “lila” (literally, “play”). It explains the universe as a cosmic puppet theater, in which people are assigned roles by the gods Lila. Unfortunately, these roles are beyond human control in Hindu philosophy. Thus, this world view tells us that our lives have meaning, but it does not tell us which meaning.
What if our religion was each other
If our practice was our life
If prayer, our words
What if the temple was the Earth
If forests were our church
If holy water—the rivers, lakes, and ocean
What if meditation was our relationships
If the teacher was life
If wisdom was self-knowledge
If love was the center of our being.