I Asked Atheists How They Find Meaning In A Purposeless Universe
If there's no afterlife or reason for the universe, how do you make your life matter? Warning: The last answer may break your heart.
Jerry Coyne, evolutionary biologist and author of Faith vs Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible:
"The way I find meaning is the way that most people find meaning, even religious ones, which is to get pleasure and significance from your job, from your loved ones, from your avocation, art, literature, music. People like me don't worry about what it's all about in a cosmic sense, because we know it isn't about anything. It's what we make of this transitory existence that matters.
"If you're an atheist and an evolutionary biologist, what you think is, I'm lucky to have these 80-odd years: How can I make the most of my existence here? Being an atheist means coming to grips with reality. And the reality is twofold. We're going to die as individuals, and the whole of humanity, unless we find a way to colonise other planets, is going to go extinct. So there's lots of things that we have to deal with that we don't like. We just come to grips with the reality. Life is the result of natural selection, and death is the result of natural selection. We are evolved in such a way that death is almost inevitable. So you just deal with it.
"It says in the Bible that, 'When I was a child I played with childish things, and when I became a man I put away those childish things.' And one of those childish things is the superstition that there's a higher purpose. Christopher Hitchens said it's time to move beyond the mewling childhood of our species and deal with reality as it is, and that's what we have to do."
Susan Blackmore, psychologist:
"If I get a what's-it-all-for sort of feeling, then I say to myself, What's the point of it all? There isn't any point. And somehow, for me – I know it's not true for other people – that is really comforting. It slows me down. It reminds me that I didn't ask to be born here, I'll be gone, and I won't know what'll happen, I'll just be gone, so get on with it. I find that comforting, to say to myself that there is no point, I live in a pointless universe. Here I am, for better or worse, get on with it.
"I was thinking about this yesterday. I was gardening, out there pulling up brambles, and I thought, Why do I do this? And the answer is, because I'm smiling, I'm enjoying it, and actually I love it. It's because of the cycles of life. I was thinking, What's the point of growing these beans again, because they'll just die, and then next year I'll do the same thing again. But isn't that a great pleasure in life, that that's how it is? The beans come and go, and you eat them and they die, and you do the work, and you see it come and go. Today is the due date for my first grandchild, and I think similarly about that. The cycles of birth and death. Here I am in the autumn of my life, I suppose – I'm 64 – and I'm just going through the same cycles that everyone goes through, and it gives me a sense of connection with other people. God, that sounds a bit poncey.
"The pointlessness of life is not a thing to be overcome. It's something to be celebrated now, because that's all there is."
Simon Coldham, "father, husband, and son":
"Life is a series of experiences, and the journey, rather than the end game, is what I live for. I know where it ends; that's inevitable, so why not just make it a fun journey? I am surrounded by friends and family, and having a positive effect on them makes me happy, while giving my kids the opportunity, skills, and empathy to enjoy their lives gives me an immediate sense of purpose on a daily basis. I can't stop the inevitable so I'll just enjoy what life I have got, while I've got it. I won't, after all, be around to regret that it was all for nothing. "
Dr Adam Rutherford, geneticist and broadcaster:
"To assume there is meaning to the universe is to misunderstand our cosmic insignificance. It's just self-centred and arrogant to think that there might be something that might bestow its secrets upon us if we look hard enough. The universe is indifferent to our existence. But we're not merely slaves to our genes.
"A meaningless universe does not mean we live our lives without purpose. I'm an atheist (inasmuch as that word means I don't see evidence or the need for supernature), but I try to live my life replete with purpose. Be kind; learn and discover as much as you can; share that knowledge; relieve suffering when you can; have tonnes of fun. That's why it's not pointless. We have the power to create life, and to show those lives wonder. Surely that's enough? It is for me."
Gia Milinovich, writer and broadcaster:
"Several years ago I worked on a film called Sunshine which was written by Alex Garland. He wrote the film as an exploration of the inevitable, eventual end. Every day Alex and I would have long, involved discussions about 'the end of time'. One thing he said stuck with me: 'Our problem is that, in an entirely meaningless universe, our lives are entirely meaningful.'
"There is meaning in the universe. My children mean something to me. My husband means something to me. The roses blooming in my garden mean something to me. So, there is meaning in the universe, but it is localised: It perhaps only exists here on Earth.
"When you start to think in universal time spans, your perception of humanity must necessarily change. Differences of opinion seem pathetic. National borders become ridiculous. The only thing that starts to be important to me is material reality and understanding how it operates and how matter itself came into being in the first place.
"Accepting that not only will I die, but so will everyone I know and everyone I don't know – and humanity, and the universe itself – brought me a very deep and profound peace. I don't have to run away from the fear of oblivion. I am not afraid. I celebrate reality. I don't have to pretend that there will be some magic deus ex machina in the third act of my life which will make it all OK and give me a happy ending. It is enough that I exist, that I am here now, albeit briefly, with all of you. And it's an amazing, astonishing, remarkable, totally mind-blowing fucking miracle."
Robyn Vinter, journalist:
"I try not to ache my brain too much about how vast the universe is and what life's all about. I think it's OK not to spend time wondering what the point of human existence is. All I know is we're here and we might as well not have a horrible time, if we can help it. I do feel that life is ultimately pointless, but I honestly don't care. I'm just squeezing as much happiness out of it as I can, for me and the people around me."
Kat Arney, biologist and science writer:
"I was raised in the Church of England. As a teenager, I 'found Jesus' and joined the evangelical movement, probably because I desperately wanted to feel part of a group, and also loved playing in the church band. I finally had my reverse Damascene moment as a post-doctoral researcher, desperately unhappy with my scientific career, relationship, and pretty much everything else, and can clearly remember the sudden realisation: I had one life, and I had to make the best of it. There was no heaven or hell, no magic man in the sky, and I was the sole captain of my ship.
"It was an incredibly liberating moment, and made me realise that the true meaning of life is what I make with the people around me – my family, friends, colleagues, and strangers. People tell religious fairy stories to create meaning, but I'd rather face up to what all the evidence suggests is the scientific truth – all we really have is our own humanity. So let's be gentle to each other and share the joy of simply being alive, here and now. Let's give it our best shot."
Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe, molecular biologist:
"I think there are two things about living in a godless universe that scare some people. First, there is no one watching over them, benevolently guiding their lives. Second, because there is no life after death, it all feels rather bleak.
"Instead of scaring me, I find these two things incredibly liberating. It means that I am free to do as I want; my choices are truly mine. Furthermore, I feel determined to make the most of the years I have left on this planet, and not squander it. The life I live now is not a dress rehearsal for something greater afterwards; it empowers me to focus on the here and now. That is how I find meaning and purpose in what might seem a meaningless and purposeless existence; by concentrating on what I can do, and the differences I can make in the lives of those around me, in the short time that we have."
Dr Pete Etchells, lecturer and science writer:
"Whenever I get involved in conversations about the meaning of life, and where everything's headed, I can't help but feel that there's an underlying assumption that because these are 'big' questions, they necessarily need big answers. There aren't any, though. We're not here for a universal purpose, and there is no grand plan, no matter how tempting it is to believe it.
"But that's absolutely fine, because it means that if there aren't any big answers, the little ones are all the more important. So every day, I take my dog for a walk in the field near my house. Sometimes I get to see a pretty sunset, but usually it's either bucketing down and I get soaked, or cold, or the field is full of mud and bugs and dog turds, and it's a pain to navigate through. Whatever the situation, though, my dog has the most ridiculous fun ever, and being a part of that little moment of joy is what it's all about. So be nice to the people and things around you – it doesn't cost anything, and generally makes the world a nicer place to live in. Focus on the little answers."
Alom Shaha, physics teacher and author of The Young Atheist's Handbook:
"Yes, of course I know that life is ultimately without meaning or purpose, but the trick is not to wake up every morning and feel that way. Cognitive dissonance? Embrace it. Create a sense of meaning and purpose by doing something useful with your life (I teach), being creative – I don't mean that in a poncey hipster way, I mean make a curry, build some bookshelves, write a poem.
"And most importantly, find people you like and love and spend lots of time with them. I regularly have people over for dinner, throw parties for no other reason than I just want to spend time surrounded by the people I love. And if you're really stuck, eat rice and dal. Physically filling yourself with the food you love really does fill the emptiness you may feel inside."
Richard Smyth, writer:
"It's honestly never bothered me. I suppose that's because my definitions of 'meaning' and 'purpose' are pretty thoroughly rooted in the world I know. I know what happiness is, and love, and fulfilment and all that; these things exist (intermittently) in my short earthly life, and it's from these things I derive my ideas of what a meaningful, purposeful existence is.
"I am, like anyone, staggered when I consider my tininess in the multi-dimensional scheme of things, but – and I know this sounds a bit silly – I don't really take it personally. Meaning has to be subjective; atheism actually makes it easier to live with this, as who is better placed than me to judge the meaningfulness of my work, or my relationship, or my piece of buttered toast?"
Tracy King, writer and producer:
"The notion of an eternal afterlife, particularly one based on a meritocracy, is for me the opposite of purpose and meaning. If I'm going to heaven or hell because of my trivial actions (depending on which religion you choose) on earth, then I don't really have much choice about what I do, which somewhat minimises my free will and personal autonomy. I can't find any purpose in that. Life is not a rehearsal or test for something else, and it's anathema to 'doing your best' to treat it as such.
"I don't pursue purpose or meaning or even happiness, because I suspect those things, like religion, lead to complacency. If the bath is the perfect temperature, why would you ever get out? Instead, I actively try and push myself to achieve things that contribute to society in a positive way (for my particular skillset, that's science animation), that give me a sense of a job well done and a benchmark to improve on. Social achievements that have a small chance of outlasting me, but if not, it doesn't matter. I won't know about the world forgetting me, 'cause I'll be dead."
Dan Griliopoulos, games journalist:
"There's no inherent meaning in life, but that doesn't mean that it's meaningless. First off, you're raised, deliberately or accidentally, with an array of beliefs, values and prejudices by family, school, and society, that mesh or clash with the things you biologically like – that is, nature and nurture shape your preferences. So there's already things that you value, more get put on you fairly quickly, and you get to spend your life exploring their precedence, their acceptability to society and its laws, and whether you really like them or not.
"So, what I'm saying is that value is inherent to us all, which provides a grounding to meaning. I'm not saying that such a meaning is justified, but if you're smart, lucky and/or ruthless it might be internally coherent by the time you hit adulthood, which is more than most off-the-shelf meaning systems out there (whether that's philosophies, health systems, or religions). Meaning is a human thing – to go looking for it in the alien, unconscious universe is nonsense on stilts."
Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association:
"People ask how you can find any meaning in life when you know that one day you'll be dead and in due course nothing of you will survive at all – not even people's memories. This question has never made sense to me. When I'm reading a good book, or eating a good meal, or taking a scenic walk, or enjoying an evening with friends, or having sex, I don't spend the whole time thinking, Oh no! This book won't last forever; this food will be gone soon; my walk will stop; my evening will end! I enjoy the experiences. Although it's stretched out over a (hopefully) much longer time, that's the same way I think about life. We are here, we are alive. We can either choose to end that, or to embrace it and to live for as long as we can, as fully and richly as possible.
"Obviously this means that we all have different meanings in our lives, things that give us pleasure and purpose. The most meaningful experiences in my life have been relationships with people – friends and family, colleagues and classmates. I love connecting with other people and finding out more about them. I enjoy the novels and histories that I read for the same reason and I like to feel connected to the people who have gone before us. I hope that the work I do in different areas of my life will make the world a better place for people now and in the future, and I feel connected to those future people too, all as part of a bigger human story."
Stephen Knight, host of the Godless Spellchecker podcast:
"When we reject the imagined supernatural meaning from our existence, what we're left with is far from a consolation prize. Sure, it'll be messy at times, sometimes joyous, sometimes miserable, but it's all we'll ever know. And it's ours. We invent comforting lies to distract us from one simple truth: Oblivion looms. So, what are you going to do about it?
"I choose to live, laugh, love, travel, create, help others, and learn. And I'm going to do as much of this as I can manage, because the clock is ticking. We create our own meaning, and there's more than enough to be had. Seize it where you can."
Jennifer Michael Hecht, author of Doubt:
"I spent many years of my life sad about there being no divine meaning, but having learned the history of doubt and unbelief, and thought it over for the next decade and a half, that issue isn't on the table for me, in that way, any more. What I believe now is that we think we have a meaning problem because we recently got out of a relationship with a character named God, whose given traits included being the source of human meaning.
"Most people through history have not believed in an afterlife: We have records of the first time the ideas of an afterlife appeared in our culture and others, which means that people before lived without an afterlife. You don't hear them calling death an abyss. The horror we have about there being no afterlife is entirely local to people from a culture that used to believe that everyone went on living after death, and these are an absurd anomaly.
"If I ask myself 'What is life for?' I have to answer: 'Wrong question.' You don't ask how your foot knows to push the blood in your toes back up to your heart. It happens, but your foot doesn't know how it knows to do it. Life isn't for anything, but it does matter. We are a witness to the universe. We are the witnesses to each other. We believe each other into being. We generate things and people that matter to us and to others. Human life is such a bizarre, endlessly complex riot of emotions and processes; it is amazing to be one."
Michael Marshall of Merseyside Skeptics:
"Often people of faith assume that because atheists don't believe in a master plan or an afterlife we have no purpose in life, but I couldn't disagree more. I find the fact that there is no external force in charge of us all makes the life we do have much more interesting. We get to derive our meaning, and create our own purpose, and that makes it a much richer experience than playing out pre-written scripts for the amusement of an omniscient almighty. That we all just get one life to live means we don't have the safety net of a do-over, and it makes the time that we do have more meaningful to me.
"It also means that because there is no 'right' answer to life, there are far fewer wrong answers – if you're doing something you love, and you aren't harming other people, you're basically on the right track. I find compassion in atheism: It makes me want to help people, because the idea that I stood by and watched someone's one shot at life go badly in a way I could have prevented makes me enormously sad. It's also why I reject the idea that atheism leads to a selfish mentality; it leads me to the feeling that we all have the same vanishingly short time to enjoy, so it's incumbent on us all to try to make society work for everyone.
"It's true that in a century or two my existence will be forgotten, but I find it comforting to know that everything we stress over will be lost in the merest blip of cosmological time. The universe doesn't care about my mortgage; our obscurity and irrelevance can be a blessing as well as a burden."
Martin Dixon, photographer:
"The idea of some higher meaning to life is so ingrained in our culture that I think we approach this from the wrong angle. I don't believe there is any great meaning or purpose to life, but rather than see this as a lack of something, why not look at what's actually there? I find meaning in my relationships with friends; I find meaning in music, literature, art, and what they reveal of the minds, lives, and values of the people who created them. I find meaning in the ever-increasing understanding forged by scientists and philosophers. I find meaning in the actions of others, how people choose to interact with the world.
"All this sounds like I spend my time extracting meaning from things, but I mostly spend my time eating things, wandering about, doing things I need to do, and being entertained/annoyed by cats.
"Things don't happen for a reason. The world exists in the moment for its own sake and we just happen to be able to observe, experience, and reflect on it. What matters is how you live day to day."
"Three years and nine months ago I would have declared myself agnostic. Then my husband died without warning at the age of 47. My life fell to pieces. This is no exaggeration. As the terrible days passed in a fog the same question kept forming. Why? Why him? Why us? I was told by well-meaning friends that it was part of God's plan and we would simply never know what that was. Or from friends with a looser definition of religion, that the Universe had something to teach me. I had lessons to learn.
"These thoughts caused me great fear, anger, and confusion. What sort of God, even if he had a plan for me, would separate a fine, kind, gentle man from his children? Why would God or the Universe look down and pick on our little family for special treatment? Why a good man with not a bad bone in his body who had never raised a hand to anyone? My best friend for 29 years. Any lesson the Universe had to teach me I would have learned willingly. He didn't have to die!
"I thought about it a lot. I was raised Catholic so guilt ran through me like writing through a stick of rock. Had I been a bad wife? Was he waiting for me? There were days when, if I had been certain of a belief in an afterlife, I might have gone to join him. It was a desperate time. I needed evidence and there simply wasn't any. I just had to have faith and believe.
"One day as I was sitting on his memorial bench in the local park I suddenly thought, What if no one is to blame? Not God. Not me. Not the Universe. What if he's gone and that's all there is to it? No plan. Just dreadful circumstances. A minor disturbance in his heart led to a more serious and ultimately deadly arrhythmia, and that killed him in a matter of moments. It is a purely scientific view of it. I may seem cold or callous but I found comfort in that. I cried and cried and cried, but that made logical sense to me and brought me great peace.
"My heart and head still miss my husband every day. I treasure everything he gave me and I love him as much today as the day he died. But I can remember him happily without wondering what we had done to deserve this dreadful separation.
"So I declare myself atheist (and humanist by extension) and my friends shake their heads. I stay on the straight and narrow without the guiding hand of a creator or any book of instructions.
"I'm not a religious or a spiritual person. (For some reason many of my female friends are shocked by this admission!) I don't believe in God or the Universe. I don't believe in angels, the power of prayer, spirits, ghosts, or an afterlife. The list goes on and on. I think there is a scientific meaning for everything, even if we don't understand it yet. I find meaning in everyday things and I choose to carry on.
"The sun comes up and I have a chance to be kind to anyone who crosses my path because I can. I make that choice for myself and nobody has to tell me to do it. I am right with myself. I try my best to do my best, and if I fail, I try again tomorrow. I support myself in my own journey through life. I draw my own conclusions.
"I find joy in the people I love. I love and I am loved. I find peace in the places I visit. Cry when I listen to music I love and find almost childlike joy in many things. This world is brilliant and full of fascinating things. I have to think carefully for myself. I don't have to believe what I'm told. I must ask questions and I try and use logic and reason to answer them. I believe that every human life carries equal worth. I struggle with how difficult the world can be, but when we have free will some people will make terrible decisions. No deity forces their hand and they must live with that.
"Life is a personal struggle. Grieving is never an easy road to travel. It's painful and lonely at times but I use what I know to try to help when I can. I try to be loving and caring with my family and friends, and have fun. I will cry with friends in distress and hear other people's stories and be kind because it does me good as well. I listen and I learn. It helps me to be better. Life without God is not a life without meaning. Everything, each and every interaction, is full of meaning. Everything matters."