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If Atheism Is True, Does Life Still Have Meaning?

Jennifer"If everything that we call heroism and glory, and all the significance of all great human achievements, can be reduced to some neurons firing in the human brain, then it’s all destined to be extinguished at death. And considering that the entire span of homo sapiens’ existence on earth wouldn’t even amount to a blip on the radar screen of a 5-billion-year-old universe, it seemed silly to pretend like the 60-odd-year life of some random organism on one of trillions of planets was something special. (I was a blast at parties.) By simply living my life, I felt like I was living a lie. I acknowledged the truth that life was meaningless, and yet I kept acting as if my own life had meaning, as if all the hope and love and joy I’d experienced was something real, something more than a mirage produced by the chemicals in my brain."
                                                         - Jennifer Fulwiler


Yes. Because despite all of them being dead for centuries, this year my life has been enriched by Tycho Brahe, William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Artemisia Gentilleschi and the women who embroidered a fine velvet kirtle in Firenze in the 16th century.

Yes. Because the genes of all my dead ancestors live on in me and on in my niece, nephews and grand-nephews, not to mention an endless stream of cousins and second cousins.

Yes. Because I can see the impact of my works on the world, from creative ones that exist in a world of connected artworks, to acts of charity that bear fruit in better lives for others, each making a contribution that without me would be missing.

Yes. Because the fact that we are sentient beings in a universe partially chaotic and partially made of numerically exact ordered beauty puts us in an unrivalled position to marvel at and celebrate the beauty of the world.

Yes. Because my cat just crawled into my lap for a pat, and a galah flew alongside me as I rode to work yesterday, and a lorrikeet was drunk on hot nectar in my garden last weekend and for almost all of us there are moments of absolute delight that are filled with meaning, and joy.

Atheism need not equate to nihilism. And, though this is terribly cheesy, to paraphrase JK Rowling, just because something is in your head, why shouldn't it also be real?
Beautifully put!
You said it, far better than I could.
This absolutely.

Beautifully put.
Thank you blamebrampton. Questions like these are frustrating to me and you put it so beautifully. Far better than I could. I get defensive when asked things like this. It feels like an insult.
I think that most of the time, this sort of question is asked in good faith: from what I have learned about people it seems to me that some naturally are inclined to a religious belief, some are naturally not (I count myself in this set) and others fall in between and can be intellectually persuaded to one position or another, or else muddle along cheerfully in vague agnosticism.

Just as my brain has always told me that religion is connected to culture and that this connection means that it arises out of the culture, so the brain of one of my dear friends tells her that this world is so astonishing that it must be a result of created grace. She and I have not irregular chats about things, because it's interesting to see how someone who you feel close to can be so very different. She worries that I might despair in the absence of a God, I reassure her that it comforts me.

I do agree with you that it is a question that can be used as an insult, especially when it comes out of the mouths of politicians, but I feel that when it comes from an individual, it's best to take it at face value unless proven otherwise. If for no other reason that I like to have as few cross facial wrinkles as possible ;-)
Since I've come out as an Atheist, I've had many people question me about all sorts of things and I welcome it. Things like, "What if you are wrong?" or what happened in your life that you turned your back on god? or "If you don't believe in heaven or god, what do you think happens when a person dies?.
All those questions are honest and its obvious the people are curious and some are very concerned for me.

I appreciate all of that. But to question whether an Atheist's life has meaning is just plain expecting us to justify our existence. If a person unknowingly said something racist to another person and they knew it was just coming from ignorance, I would hope they would answer the question gently but at the same time it would be appropriate to point out why it was racist.
Its the same situation here but I refuse to justify my existence. That is on a whole 'nother level. I will always answer questions and love to have discussions about Atheism and religion but I do get awful tired of "turning the other cheek".
I like that. 'Coming out as an Atheist.' I'm hiding behind the Agnostic label since I tell myself I cannot possibly know what, if anything, comes after death, but I am finding myself increasingly irritated with those who throw their religion as though it had the equivalency of scientific fact. Just a suggestion, if you do ultimately tire of "turning the other cheek", choose to present them with a cheek (or cheeks) which also reflect your appraisal of them. Of course that would require the dropping of drawers so I expect circumstances would dictate whether you perform the act literally or figuratively. Cheers.
HAHAHA!! "Just a suggestion, if you do ultimately tire of "turning the other cheek", choose to present them with a cheek (or cheeks) which also reflect your appraisal of them."

That was great :) Thank you!

Well, first of all she forgot that the world has only been around for a couple of thousand years.
At least that's what the Religious Far Right would have you believe. lol...........
Hugs, Jon
6000 I believe and that's due to a misunderstanding of the bible!
And a problem of those people that cherry pick and believe the parts that they want to believe as fact.
Just so.

I don't notice many people refusing to eat prawns or do market gardening or rushing to sell their daughters into slavery- there's good biblical basis for those things after all.

Fwiw I am a believer of sorts- a Quaker.
Sadly, too many people perfer to use the Good Book for hate rather then love.
Funny how they spend all their time looking for the nasty bits in the old Book rather than seeing what the Prophet had to say in the new one.
Totally. :(
An argument can be made that, if this is all there is, life had better be treated as important.

And based on quasar evidence (which is being handwaved away for reasons related to, I kid you not, "global warming"), the Universe is more like 23 billion years old.
I'm catholic, but I don't think, that life without Church and Faith should be definatly sensless. The communities and even people in unique are producing they own meaning for all things, and for they lifes too. By generating they own faith. It mustn't be very profound, just enouth to give everything a little sens, that shows a direction for an action.
Well based faith and hope is more useful, oh yes! :)
Life is meaningless, it has no inherent value or purpose of it's own... which means we are free to give it whatever meaning, value and purpose we wish. It's all a matter of scale. On the cosmic scale we're all dust-motes with no more point than the random dance of brownian motion... on our human scale is another matter entirely.

Of course, some people have a hard time accepting responsibility for their own life, so they make up imaginary friends to blame it all on, then belittle the universe because the scale of it scares them.
I don't understand why a scientific explanation belittles meaning. Chemicals, sure, but OH WHAT CHEMICALS.

Or to put it another way, if God can be a beard in the sky, why can't he be a dancer among the molecules as well?

Frankly, a beard in the sky is more belittling, in my never humble opinion.
Beautifully said.
I do not understand how the thoughts and emotions produced by 'the chemicals in my brain' (actually by an extraordinary electro-chemical interactions, and by outside influences) are any less real or have any less or more meaning than anything else in the universe. At least I have evidence that this truly extraordinary biological creation of evolution is real and functions (albeit sometimes not very well.)

I do not even understand what Fulwiler means by 'meaning'.
can't speak for the meaning of *her* life. but *mine* doesn't depend on a superpowered observer for to be ineffable and unique, glorious, brilliant, and poignant.

i'm also not lying when i say i'm a blast at parties :)
Life has what meaning we give it, through our own efforts, regardless of the verity of various folklores.
Some of these responses are very eloquent!

As I waded through the rather turgid prose you posted, I kept thinking - "What's god got to do with this?"

To me the great mystery is - If the human brain has been a constant (and I don't know if it has) how come in the 18th century people were using candles and rush lights and 200 years later there were neon lights?

What a splendid thing the human brain and the human spirit is!
I'm not an atheist, but I don't believe atheism leads to life having no meaning. That's just nihilism brought about by too much attachment to the illusion of the self. Is the life of an acorn without meaning? I think not.
Thank you all for your thoughts on the matter in question.

When I awake in the morning my faith in God and his law gives me an understanding of who I am and how I should behave and thus enter into the promise of a still more glorious life and relationship with God after death. The
whole universe is there to allow me to achieve this.

My question is: how would an atheist briefly sum up his/her meaning and outlook on life.

Edited at 2014-01-08 13:58 (UTC)
I'm not an atheist
I have given up thinking about is there or isn't there

I wake up in the morning and think about my day
I look out my window at my world
I have my own belief system - it is what I know by instinct not by intellect
I thank my knowing and try to know and understand my world.
My meaning is the family and work I have been given
I have this day to be and do the best I can - it won't be perfect
If I harm none it will do

No, I don't believe in a life after death
This is all I have
So, best make the best of it today

Today is glorious
Still cold but the sun on the ice on the rocks is glowing
The cat we rescued is contentedly washing her paws stretched on the bed
My husband is in the kitchen cooking something special
I have dealt with the problem of the day from my office
I pay my taxes - deal honestly with the people I meet
Smile at strangers

Seek peace and follow it

Long may you last to enjoy it all.
Thank you
Of course, there are problems
every life has trials and problems
my belief in the goodness within helps me meet them

may you have a life filled with peace
Life itself is the ultimate miracle gift. All life. If just being alive is not enough meaning, then such a person would, in my view, be failing to appreciate that basic fact.

I don't need the fear of being seen by all knowing eyes to behave myself. My moral compass is firm and guides my actions. Yes, I was raised in a religious household, but I have seen others raised in such a setting engage in the most despicable actions against others. I also find most non-religious people I meet to be thoughtful, kind and generous.

This is a very strange place, wonderful and frightening, and though everyone's situation may be less than ideal, this is also the only place in the universe which we know that can nurture and sustain us. It pains me that we are doing our utmost to render that status exanimate.
In my world view, meaning is socially constructed. I used to find meaning in things. These days, it's in people. But meaning is so very subjective; it's nature varies for different people. It may be my anthropological background, but I'm skeptical that there can be any universally true idea of what is meaningful, or not, about life.

I believe that things are transient, and what is important the experiences that I and other people have. Meaning, then, is trying to make those experiences more positive and less negative. Acts that accomplish that have significant meaning, and help create a meaningful life.

Am I an atheist? I don't know. In a way, I don't know that the question is actually relevant to me. I don't think the existence or non-existence of some kind of divinity would alter my thinking on this.

Edited at 2014-01-08 22:18 (UTC)
I take umbrage with her idea that atheism means that life has no meaning.
Of course it does.
I'm an atheist and think that all humans who find their purpose in life is adding to the life of others.
Yes, of course it does. And the question is as insulting as "If you're an atheist, where do you get your morals from and why don't you go around raping and murdering?"

My question is, why would life only have meaning if a person's chosen religion was true, and how come their lives would be the only ones *with* meaning?

A human life is always a blip, religious or no. You have to *make* it meaningful. Try to make the world a better place, try to connect with as many people as you can and try to be as happy as possible.

The universe did quite well without me and will do just fine when I die. But I am made of star stuff and I am making the most of my time in between.
Well, her outlook is interesting, and I rather suspect she's got a depressive nature. I'd counter her quote with this:
One hundred years from now
It won't matter
What kind of car I drove
What kind of house I lived in
How much money I had in the bank
Nor what my cloths looked like
The world may be a little better
Because, I was important
In the life of a child.

And I'd counter your "Does life still have meaning" question with this thought, if you agree with her statement that, without faith, life has no meaning - then surely those who can not have children can never expect to be remembered after their death?

Obviously both questions are logical fallacies. My life has meaning because I choose to be.