Home > Uncategorized > The “Meaning of Life” Question

The “Meaning of Life” Question

A student, one of the good ones, asked me a question last week as we were wrapping up a discussion of religion and politics. He asked me what he can read to give him an answer for the meaning of life from atheist standpoint. I don’t know if he thinks that I am an atheist or is just asking because he knows that I’ve read a lot of things. Neither of these issues actually matter as the question, what does an atheist use to give life meaning is the issue that he’s actually asking about. Of course, he could be just asking to show that there is no answer for an atheist and thus there lives are utterly devoid of meaning.

The latter is possible but I think it’s improbable. He explained that he was talking to an old teacher of his who explained that their religious faith gives their lives meaning and he had no response. So either he was forced into a devil’s advocate position in order to bolster religious apologetic arguments or they were having the argument. Either case is fine because, again, the question is what matters.

This was Thursday night during my office hours and I told him I would come back with answers or at least something to read on Monday. It was a question I was unprepared for. Is there a book that has given me meaning in my life? Is there one book that has defined my life in such a way that if people want to understand me they should read it? Is there an answer I can give that wouldn’t make me look like either an academic snob or a hipster? Does anyone read Proust other than for the reason to brag that they have read it?

Either way I can’t point to any particular book and say ‘this book is what I identify with.’ I can’t really point to any particular life philosophy either. Detractors will argue that because I’m an atheist my life must be full of atheism related things, like eating babies and throwing tantrums when someone prays/wishes me a merry Christmas/or wears a cross. Yet it’s not. I devote a couple of hours a week to really being an atheist and that’s in writing these entries once a week. The rest of the time I rarely think about unless someone brings it up or a news event about something horrible that religious people have done gains my attention. The problem with the detractors is that they are coming from their own perspective wherein their lives are defined by a particular book so to them, everyone must have a similar perspective but that’s objectively incorrect.

I suggested that the student read the letters of Epicurus and ironically, the book of Ecclesiastes (which I contend was written by an Epicurean). Otherwise I couldn’t think of anything. There are some books out there which have the theme he’s asking about, but, he can always find them himself–which is something that he pointed out. He wanted my suggestions.

As our discussion proceeded  I came to an interesting revelation: why do we cede the importance of “meaning of life” as a concept? It’s a question that I think we accept as legitimate without considering the meaning of the question. What does a “meaning of life” mean?

This person my student was arguing with answered with her religious faith. I however disagree because their religious faith is only concerned with the next life. They can’t have meaning of life in this world because their life is viewed as being in a state of transition. That would be like asking how someone’s life is in an airport. No one is in an airport, they are merely waiting to be somewhere else. Ask a suicide bomber what the meaning of life is, because there answer is going to be to go to paradise. Which is the same answer as any religious person that wants has an afterlife.

Whether it’s service to god, service to other people in the name of god, or simply faith the goal is still the same so how does that give this life, the present existence any kind of meaning? It can’t because no matter how good the airport is, you’re still only there in order to get to the place you actually want to be. Say what you want about us atheists but at least we value this life as more than just a testing period.

So this meaning question just seems to be a filler question. Something we consider to be a meaningful statement but actually doesn’t have any substance. The meaning of life is that we live it, there’s nothing else to it. If you find yourself devoid of purpose maybe you’ll find one, but just as much, maybe you won’t. However this is the only life we get, spending the whole time in pursuit of meaning is missing the point and involves seeking that which is externally elusive. We can’t find a meaning in our lives without first accepting it ourselves as being the meaning. A meaning for our lives can be anything, from helping other people to collecting all of the Pokemon but the religious people think they have a monopoly on the subject. However they only do because they control the question as they’ve owned it for so long.



Categories: Uncategorized
  1. March 29, 2016 at 7:17 pm

    My first response is that the “meaning of life” isn’t something you have given to you or something you find. It’s something you make for yourself. (And that’s the real Good News™)

    However, he could read some books about how other atheists have gone about creating meaning in their lives, and understanding their place in the universe. I’d recommend watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos as a good place to start. Or, Dan Barker has written a book directly on point: “Life Driven Purpose, How an Atheist Finds Meaning”. (Disclaimer, I have not read this book yet, but I generally like what I’ve heard from Dan Barker so far.)

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