An article on NPR’s website — “An Unkillable Myth About Atheists” — brings up a criticism of atheism that I encounter every so often — without god, where does the meaning and purpose of life come from? I’ve seen it described as the question atheism can’t answer. The thing is, the question is answerable, just not in the way that the religious would like. This nearly decade-old blog post, for instance, is probably my best attempt at it.
Despite my attempts at answering the question, I actually see it as a nonsensical question. First, the question assumes that life must have meaning and purpose, which is an unwarranted assumption. Next, it assumes that people are incapable of deriving meaning from life on their own and must have it defined for them; I don’t need someone to tell me the meaning I should get from The Great Gatsby, for instance, because I’m capable of deriving meaning from it on my own. Finally, the question assumes that atheism needs to offer meaning; this misunderstands what atheism is, which is a negative answer to the question on the existence of gods, nothing more, nothing less. Hence, a nonsense question. Its very premise is flawed.
This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with the religious, those who use their god or gods to make sense of the world, to find meaning and order in the chaos, to give them hope, to give them happiness, to give them strength. There isn’t. That’s not a choice I made. That’s not a choice I could make. But for those who make that choice sincerely, they made the choice I did make — they found meaning in their lives. They chose to find that meaning in a a different place — a god — than I did. Whether the religious would recognize it or not, their choice — to find their life’s meaning in a god — is a personal choice. It’s not innate. Culturally. they might be biased one wsy or another — people generally retain the religion of their parents, usually uncritically — but the meaning they hold and value is still a choice.
The choice I made — existential nihilism — is not a choice I would not recommend to anyone because it can be psychologically disorienting and devastating for those who are unprepared for the implications of a universe without god. (Damon Linker had a good article on this in The Week a few years ago.) This is why I’m not militant in my atheism; there are people who should never, ever have the curtain torn away.
Atheism isn’t about meaning. It never was. It’s about whether or not gods exist. That’s all.