If you're an atheist, you've heard it before. How can life have meaning and purpose if there is no god? Most people who believe in a god also believe that such god has a higher purpose of some kind. Maybe your god has a higher purpose especially for you - he specifically put you on this planet to accomplish X. Maybe he has a plan - he let you survive that horrific car accident with merely scratches because it's his plan. Maybe he is everything and everything is him - but you're still working toward some ultimate spiritual goal - to learn from this life so you can learn more in the next, to eventually become one with god, whatever.

The point is, you see an order to things - a universal outline with a zillion subdivisions containing zillions of subdivisions, all meticulously crafted for a certain outcome. It makes you comfortable knowing someone knows what the hell is going on. It may not make sense now, but it will soon be revealed.

Or maybe if you don't see order to things, you see an ultimate purpose. This life on earth is the penultimate purpose of your soul, or some such.

You get atheism - it makes rational, logical sense. There just isn't any evidence for a higher power/god/creator/FSM. You get it, but you can't stand it. You hate it. So you refuse it. Why do you hate it?

does it have something to do with lack of meaning and purpose, with a smattering of life after death?

I know a lot of theists and fence-sitting atheists who say that life is meaningless without god. There is no purpose, no reason: we're all just hurtling through an abysmally, unfathomably huge universe on an insignificant planet in an insignificant solar system, so inconsequential we can't even understand just how absurdly, inescapably nonessential it actually is. Hell, we can barely understand how big our own planet is: did you know that the earth is smoother than a billiard ball if you shrank it down to the same size? (Though no one would want to play with an earth-shaped billiard ball because it is flattened from top to bottom, so it is an ellipsoid, not a sphere)

Here is my question: Why exactly is life more meaningful and full of purpose if there is a god?

Most people believe their god is the ultimate higher power and as such, there is no power higher than god. This means, by definition, that god can't believe in a higher power. Does that make his life meaningless and purposeless? All god is doing is creating his own reality and messing around with it in whatever way theists happen to believe he messes around with it. He doesn't have a higher purpose, just himself and his creation. How come that doesn't work for me and the world I create?

Why does your life have more meaning if god chose you to have purpose X and chose everyone else to have whatever purpose they have? That's like the kindergartner thinking he is so special and important because this week his name was drawn to be the line leader on the way to lunch, while everyone else is doing whatever else they got their name drawn for. Does the kindergartner really have that much more meaningful and purposeful a life because the teacher drew his name this week for line-leader?

Why is a life chosen by god meaningful, but a life chosen by me meaningless? Is it because I am a finite being and god is infinite and thus way bigger? Does cosmic size matter?

If some other being is imposing it's purpose on your life, doesn't that make you a slave - a pawn in some cosmic tabletop wargame with 106 billion people and so many other organisms we aren't capable of counting them? Why is your life so much more meaningful if you are one of the 106 billion who have been given a special purpose than if there is no god? Is your purpose really even all that special?

It would seem to me that if you are competing for value and meaning with 106 billion people (that's the approximate number of all humans to have ever lived or are living) plus all of the humans that are yet to be born, you're life has less meaning than if you're only competing with, say, all the humans than are alive now. Even if god has some special place for you, he also has a special place for everyone else.

One might say that I could find some meaning and purpose in my life as an atheist if I had some impact on the world. But how big does that impact need to be to be meaningful?

Is my life meaningful because I hugged my friend when she felt bad?
How about if I hug 100 friends when they feel bad? Is my life meaningful now?
What about if I invent a new kind of glue? How about now?
How about if I invent a new ind of painkiller? How about now?
What if I cure cancer? Now?
How about if I eradicate racism? Now?
What if I cure all human suffering? Now?
How about if I cure all human suffering and make everyone live to be 300? Now?

I suppose one might say that my life is still meaningless and without purpose even if I cure all human suffering and make everyone live to be 300, because in the end we will still one day be gone. So meaning and purpose still somehow seems to reflect on non-gone-ness.

It seems to me though that an everlasting life would not really make this life more meaningful than an ever-gone life. We're still comparing your mere 80-ish years with infinity. Anything you do in this life will be meager to the point in inanity in your everlasting life, unless it has some consequence on your everlasting life. If when you're dead you're dead, there are no eternal consequences to worry about, only the consequences you leave behind for the living.

So maybe you're right. If there is no afterlife, there is no cosmic or ultimate meaning or purpose. Why is this so bad? Why do you need a cosmic or ultimate meaning or purpose to have a meaningful and purposeful life? Why does something have to last forever or never be lost to be meaningful and purposeful? If it's all about touching something outside of your self, you can do that plenty easily within the confines of something you might be able to comprehend.

I think the problem we have here is a problem of ratio: The things we do look meaningless in a cosmic context. But if you shrink it down to everyday life, things can be very meaningful. My life is surely meaningful to the spider I chose to let live in my apartment instead of killing. My life surely is meaningful to the countless bacteria that live inside of me and depend on my life for theirs.

This is the same argument some people make for not voting. Why bother to vote when your single vote will not matter? So maybe it won't change the outcome of the election. But it will change you. It can change the people around you. It can change the conversation at the dinner table for the night. Why isn't that enough?
Why does pretending we have some huge cosmic goal make people feel better about themselves? Why do they hate the idea of no afterlife so much that they will pretend it is impossible? It's probably the way things are, and that's not so bad.

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Tags: atheism, meaning

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Comment by Mind on May 22, 2009 at 8:24pm
If it's all about touching something outside of your self, you can do that plenty easily within the confines of something you might be able to comprehend.

Maybe it is about touching something outside yourself. But maybe I comprehend something you do not?
Comment by Ziztur on April 11, 2009 at 6:26pm
Good comments! Obviously, I think people make their own meaning in life. I also think that meaning is a little overrated - who cares if my life has meaning? Why does it matter?
Comment by Eli on April 10, 2009 at 5:04pm
To paraphrase a great mind... one you have sufficiently answered the "how" something works, the why usually becomes moot.

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