An atheist viewpoint
Why are we here?Let us start our discussion about the meaning of life with a related but arguably more fundamental question: Why are humans here? Why do we exist in the first place?
This question is philosophically very sophisticated. However, it has an almost disappointingly simple answer: Humans exist because we were born. We were born because our parents procreated. Our parents exist because they were born, and they were born because our grand-parents procreated, and so on. Our parents and grand-parents procreated in part because they have a built-in desire to procreate and have children. Quite intuitively, the gene that favors procreation is more likely to be reproduced than the gene that does not, meaning that through the process of evolution all living beings today have this gene.
This process continues into the past until we go so far back in time that your ancestors were no longer humans but resembled Homo Ergaster. The ancestors of these resembled more primitive forms of humanoids, before resembling 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. These 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 down to you and me: reproduction.
I didn’t ask to be made: no one consulted me or considered my feelings in the matter.
Why were we selected to exist?The current scientific world view holds that we are living 13 billion years after the genesis of the universe. We live on one of the billions of planets in that universe. This planet came into existence roughly 4 billion years ago, and we are at the current point of some evolutionary process that has been going since that time. Thus, we are primarily the product of a huge number of random factors that fortuitously combined to lead to our existence.
Why did life evolve on this planet and not somewhere else? Why was it our species that ultimately survived the process of evolution (and not the dinosaurs)? Why was it our species that developed reading, writing, and thinking (and not the apes)? And why is it you and me who made it into the 21st century (and not just some other people)?
To be clear, it’s not that someone chose you to survive and decided to eradicate all others. It is rather that a large number of species were eradicated, and only those who survived could start asking such questions.
Let us illustrate this with an example. Suppose that a ship sinks in icy waters. All passengers are pulled down with the ship. Hundreds of passengers escape the ship and begin swimming to the surface. Because of currents in the water they are all dispersed and will 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 of passengers, one person is lucky enough to hit that spot and survives. All other passengers perish. Now imagine that single person asking “Why is it me who survived?” The answer is plain: “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 meaning of life?” is “What is our purpose of existence?”.
The “purpose” of a thing is the intention that some agent pursues with this thing. For example, the purpose of a chair is to serve as an object that we can sit on, because we (the agents) use the chairs to sit on them.
This purpose of something is usually defined by the individual who created the thing. For example, Thomas Edison produced a lightbulb with the intention that people use it to illuminate spaces, and hence this has become its purpose.
Now how does this transfer to the “purpose of life”? The purpose of life would be the intention that the creator of life pursued with his creation. But 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 creator-given or god-given purpose of life.
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 is the purpose of my life?The “purpose” of a thing is the intention that some agent pursues with this thing. Now if we want to find the purpose of our life, we have to find someone who pursues some intention with us. As we have seen, God cannot take this role in an atheist world view. Now who else could pursue an intention with us?
How about ourselves? Do you have an intention for your life? If yes, then this is the purpose that you have given to your life. For example, 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. Quite plainly, your purpose of life is whatever you choose it to be.
This is not a particularly deep insight. It just follows from the definition of the word “purpose”: your body is a thing, and the purpose of a thing is whatever intention someone pursues with it — on this occasion you yourself.
Some people do not pursue an intention for themselves. For these people there is still a solution. If they refuse to give their life a purpose but keep seeking one, then they will eventually find someone who will offer them a purpose for their life. In other words: If you don’t know what to do with your life, then someone else will eventually tell you what to do with it. There are, for example, lots of cult leaders who are happy to pursue their own purposes with you, and people who are seeking a meaning of life are especially vulnerable to such advances 2.
The problem is that what others tell you might not be in your best interest, in that it might not advance your own well-being on the long run. So you are better off choosing your life’s purpose by yourself rather than letting someone else dictate it. We discuss some popular choices next.
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 should I do with my life?We have seen that it is typically in our best interest to choose our own life purpose rather than have it dictated by someone else . So what should we do with our lives?
The problem of what people “should” do is a problem of morality. So we need a moral framework to judge what we should do. Where do we get our moral framework from? We typically inherit our moral framework from our parents, and then enrich it by what we learn and think on our own. (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 a moral framework, one 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 avoid causing harm to others. From the perspective of Humanism, the world would be a much better place if people just followed this rule.
Another 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 an ambulance. This is what you “should do”.
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. But our moral framework (hopefully from a Humanist perspective) does not tell us which job to choose, whom to marry, or where to go on vacation. So what “should” we do with respect to these matters?
There are some hard-wired intentions that most of us share: We all have (to varying degrees) the desire to survive. We also typically have (to varying degrees) 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:
- 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 3
- find the love of your life; once you found him or her, you will stop worrying about the meaning of life 4.
- bring something into the world that wasn’t in the world before. It doesn’t matter if it’s a table or a film or gardening - everyone should create. You should do something, then sit back and say, “I did that”. 5
- know more today about the world than you knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others. 6
- live your dreams 7
- stand for something and make some difference in having lived at all 7
- seek happiness and flourish 7
- live as long as possible 7
- seek wisdom and knowledge 7
- leave the world a better place than you found it 7
- make other people happy 7
- seek peace 7
- seek pleasure and avoid pain 7
- be moved by the tears and pain of others and try to help them out of love and compassion 7
- eat, drink, and be merry 7
- live, love, and learn — i.e., take care of yourself, be kind to others, and try to know a little more each day.
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.
Why am I doing all of this?Every day, we get up, wash, have breakfast, work, come back, eat, and sleep. Some people’s lives are more difficult than this: They have to take care of elderly relatives, they are looking for a job or a place to live, they suffer from an illness, or they are unhappy in life. But no matter how challenging your life circumstances are, one can still ask why do we do any of these things?
This question also has a rather simple 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 a feeling 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 good. We do things that bring us pleasure such as meeting with friends, drinking beer, eating chocolate, or engaging with technology.
- Sometimes we do things 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 or is morally obligatory.
- 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 money, which he wants 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 doing anything else. Others are forced to do something or pushed into doing something by peer 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 often 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.
That may seem hard to understand. Here is an analogy: Let us suppose that we take Lego bricks and build a small airplane. It’s a model plane, but we can agree that it exists. Now we 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 ceased to exist. It is saved nowhere. From an atheist perspective, the same happens to humans after death. The body decomposes and it disappears. .
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. But where does the human soul go after death? For that matter, where do all the memories, capabilities, thoughts, and wishes go – where does personality, consciousness, and character go?
The atheist answer is that (like the body) they go nowhere. They cease to exist. What we consider the “personality” or “consciousness” or “character” of an individual is in fact not a physical thing that goes somewhere. Rather, it is a process. When the physical conditions needed for this process are no longer present (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 that the candle burns to the end and the flame goes out. Where did it go? Well, it went nowhere. The flame is not a physical thing that goes somewhere. Rather, it is a physical process. When the candle wick burns to its end, this process stops. From the perspective of a positive atheist, the same thing happens to the human “spirit”. It is a process that stops when the human dies. It’s just gone. Consciousness is turned off forever – a state that is sometimes called eternal oblivion.
Now where does the soul go? From a physical perspective, the human brain is a big chemical reaction. Thus, for most atheists, 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. Marshall Brain has argued that the concept of a “soul” was invented by religions because many people have trouble facing their own mortality. Positing the existence of a soul makes people feel better, but the concept is a fabrication 8.
It is worth observing that people commonly have no trouble understanding this idea with respect to animals. For example, some people develop a deep relationship with their dog. They know its wishes, traits, and the personality, and 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 the unique combination of its personality and consciousness just ceased to exist. Most atheists believe that this is the same with humans.
This may be a troubling view to some. We all like the idea of going to paradisal afterlife much better than the idea of non-existence. However, this does not make the idea of such a paradise true. While this may seem depressing, it has an interesting side effect: It makes our life on Earth much more precious. This is because from an atheist’s perspective our life on Earth is the only life we have.
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:
- You exist because your 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 might.
- You do your everyday work mainly because you want to survive, you want to enjoy pleasure, you feel empathy, or you are being controlled by someone else .
- Life is a process, and at death this process ends irreversibly.
Now these are very prosaic insights. All the philosophical depth that is commonly associated with these questions has been cut away, and what remains are just very obvious conclusions. We have thus demystified the question of the meaning of life — much like we have demystified the notions of Free Will and Ethics before.
Charlie: We live only once, Snoopy!
Snoopy: Wrong! We only die once. We live every day!
Where do atheists find hope?There are people who live mainly with the hope to have a better life after death. Atheist cannot have such a hope. So where do they get hope?
Atheists believe that they have only a single life — their current one. This gives their life on Earth an extraordinary importance: they have only a single chance to live it. There is no way to live a better life later in heaven or in the next cycle of re-incarnation. There is no way to make up for missed pleasures, to say what one did not dare say, or to bring to justice a villain who got away. For atheists this means: live your life thoughtfully and enjoy its pleasures now while fighting injustice where you see it – don’t pin your hopes on eternal happiness and judgement.
Marshall Brain perhaps said it best when he quipped 9: “The truth is this simple: when you die, you die. Some people have a tremendous amount of trouble wrapping 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.”
They always say that time changes things. But you actually have to change them yourself.
How do atheists see their life?It is impossible to make a universally applicable statement about how atheists see their life. However, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the founder of American Atheists, compiled a definition of atheism for the Supreme Court of the United States that will probably appeal to many atheists and offers some insight into this question 10:
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 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.
Science cannot answerSome people say that science will never be adequate to address the question of the meaning of life. It is also impossible to use science to address the other great existential questions: those of life, of death, of love, of loneliness, of loss, of honor, of cosmic justice, and of metaphysical hope.
That may be true. However, atheists do not maintain that the alternative to “religion” as a source of meaning is “science”. No one ever suggested that we look into ichthyology or nephrology for enlightenment on how to live 1. Rather, an atheist alternative to religion is Humanism — together with the entire fabric of knowledge and creativity that humans have produced. With it we can offer answers to some of the bigger questions we have encountered in this chapter.
Why don’t Atheists just kill themselves?Atheism does not see any god-given meaning in our lives. The question arises why they 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 11. 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, extreme sports, and drunk driving or driving without a seat belt are all on the table. However, most people don’t do that.
The reason that most 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.
I am an atheist.
That doesn’t mean I have nothing to live for.
It means I have nothing to die for.
Why do we act at all?We have argued before that the human brain consists just of neurons. Thus, the human brain cannot take decisions other than those that are dictated by the laws of nature (a position known as hard determinism). Now does that not mean that there is no use doing anything at all, because anyway everything is determined by chemical processes?
This reasoning is closely linked to the idea of fate (the idea that all events are predetermined), and in particular fatalism (the idea that human agency cannot change the course of life). The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, the ancient Roman statesman Cicero, and the early Christian scholar Origen have developed this idea into the Argument of Idleness, which says there is no need to do anything because everything is predetermined anyway:
In the example of the doctor, the laws of nature determine indeed whether the patient will recover or not. However, since these are the laws of nature, they will determine also that the patient recovers only if she takes the necessary medicine. She will receive this medicine only from the doctor, and the doctor will give it to her only if she consults him. So if we assume that the course of events features the recovery of the patient, then this course of events must also feature her consulting the doctor. Thus, her brain must have given the impulses that entailed the visit to the doctor — which is what we commonly call a decision. In this way, it was still her decision that entailed her recovery. She took this decision not out of her free will, in a completely undetermined way, but because her life experiences, education, and own reasoning led her to believe that this action serves her goals best.
So if you do not feel well, please do consult a doctor, as this will impact your chances of recovery considerably. That, too, is the law of nature.
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. Is our life thus absurd?
In an atheist view of life, it does not make sense to “seek” for an external meaning to our lives. But that does not imply that there isn’t any. It rather implies that we have to construct this meaning ourselves. Once we have given our life a purpose, it has a meaning. Millions of people have done that, and have thus lifted themselves out of the absurd.
The universe will not give you a meaning.
You give the universe a meaning.
But what happens to the unjust?In the atheist view of the world, there is no afterlife. This means also that there is no heaven – and no hell. In particular, this means that villains will not get punished in the afterlife: they live their life and then they die just like everyone else. Isn’t that a horrible injustice?
If villains get away without being punished, that is indeed a horrible injustice. For this reason, atheists believe that it is up to human to punish villains in this life. It is our job to bring justice to this world. It does not help to believe that evil people will be punished in the hereafter. For an atheist, this is 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 not pursuing justice for their victims in this life.
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 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.
In contrast, many believers hold that it is their god who makes some if not all of these things happen. In other words the supreme coordinator makes things happen as per his decisions. Thus, there is a reason why things happen. However, the creator is sovereign in his decisions: He may choose to do things that appear random or even harmful to humans. Thus, the very same problem appears again: Things happen that cannot be understood by humans. In such instances it makes little difference whether humans accept the randomness of nature or the sometimes incomprehensible decisions of a supreme being. In the end, we are all victims of the very same randomness — atheists and believers alike.
As Nassim Taleb has argued, randomness is just lack of knowledge about what will happen 12. It does not help control the randomness in any way if believers imagine a supreme being on top of it. On the contrary, the hypothesis “God gives our life a sense” is unfalsifiable, and thus meaningless.
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.
Religious meanings to lifeReligions offer different answers to the Meaning of Life. Let us take a look at the most common ones, and see why atheists usually find them either contradictory or incomplete (and therefore unconvincing):
- 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. There are actually evolutionary reasons for this. Thus, morality is not the purpose of our existence, but one of the factors that facilitated it in the first place.
- People exist to worship and love God
- Some religions (the Abrahamic ones in particular) assert that God created humans to praise him. Atheists then wonder why a god who is almighty, omniscient, and wise anyway would be so desperate for human devotion. But perhaps the most persuasive argument against this position is found in the religion itself. The Abrahamic religions teach that God hampered our task deliberately by subjecting us to earthly pains and by making us inclined to doubt. Thus, he prescribes us a purpose that he himself then thwarts deliberately — 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. In this view, life on Earth is unpleasant and cumbersome compared to Heaven. As a Christian Web page puts it 13, 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 on its own merits.
- Life is a big test for the afterlife
- In this view, life is a sequence of temptations and we as humans are told 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 seemingly gives our life a meaning, but it does not explain why we are born at all.
- People exist to be fruitful, and multiply, to fill the earth, and subdue it
- This is the view of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (Bible/Genesis 1:28). But as noted before, species that do not multiply die out. Hence all species that have survived until today have an inclination to multiply, including humans. It is therefore incorrect 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. Unfortunately, these roles are beyond human control in Hindu philosophy. Thus, this world view tells us that our lives have meaning, but is incomplete in that 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.
- Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, 2018
- Ira A. Lipman: “How to be Safe”, 2012
- Monty Python: The Meaning of Life, 1983
- Yuval Noah Harari: 21 lessons for the 21st century, 2018
- Medium.com: “Ricky Gervais on Chasing Your Dream, Doing the Work and Living a Creative Life”, 2019-08-04
- Neil deGrasse Tyson: “I am Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ask Me Anything...”, 2011
- Wikipedia: “Meaning of life/Popular views”, 2021
- Marshall Brain: “God Is Imaginary, Proof #27 - Think about life after death”, 2017
- Marshall Brain: “Why Wont God Heal Amputees / Chapter 27 - When you die, you die”, 2017
- Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s opening statement in the case “Abington School District v. Schempp”, 1963
- Barry Puzzle: Atheist Cartoons, 2021
- Nassim Taleb: The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, 2007
- American Life Helping Institute: “What is the meaning of life?”, 2019