Is Meaning Possible in a World Without God?

I was going to do a series about meaning but as I was studying and writing the series on morality I realized that there is a whole lot of overlap in the 2 subjects.  They are both based on values which would explain that.  Many of the things I wrote about morality could also be written about meaning.

One example of this is in the question of God being the answer to meaning.  Just as in thinking about morality, the question is obvious here as well – where did God get his meaning?  If he is not disturbed by the fact that there isn’t something outside of himself that provides meaning then why should we be?  Why does adding another conscious entity to the equation solve the problem of meaning?  If it turns out that there is no God does that remove all meaning from our lives?  I discussed these kinds of questions when discussing morality as well.

I won’t write too much about the idea that we can create our own meaning in life – it has been hashed and rehashed many times, and I certainly agree that we can create our own meaning in life.  I think it is important in discussions with theists to make a distinction between a simple practical and “ordinary” usage of the word “meaning” versus a more “cosmic” or “outside of humanity” kind of meaning.  Most atheists including myself are willing to admit that there may not be this kind of cosmic meaning, but in practical terms we can still have meaning in our own lives, and the foundations for this are just our own values that we may have.  For example my children give great meaning to my life – I don’t see this as a cosmic, “outside of humanity” meaning, but just meaning in the sense that they are extremely important to me.

Also, just as in the discussion on morality, I believe there is a possibility (again the possibilian in me) that some kind of meaning exists in “the fabric” of reality, and perhaps it is even beyond the current capability of humans to understand (i.e. transcendant).  I do not see why It is logically necessary to believe in gods to believe in this kind of possibility.  Perhaps this is a bit mystic or spiritual, and I don’t mind getting “kicked out” of the atheist community for expressing this kind of idea. 😉  I don’t claim belief in this kind of meaning, but I do see it as possible.

And furthermore, on a bit less less of a mystic tone, for me, while the big questions seem unanswerable given what we as humans know at this point in time, and I have embraced that, I also can’t know for certain that there won’t be a day sometime in the future that this changes due to the increase in human knowledge about reality (as well as the changes that may occur from further evolution).  While this seems unlikely to me, I can’t deny the possibility that humans will obtain concrete answers to these questions, and therein lies a great deal of meaning and purpose for me.  The constant pursuit of truth and facts with the express purpose of helping the people who might live many many years from now is actually very inspiring for me and it is one reason why I blog about these kind of things.  But in the pursuit of truth, if it really is truth that we are seeking (and for me it definitely is), we must constantly apply rigorous objective methods, and also must question our most cherished beliefs and allow others to try and falsify the claims that we make about what truth is.  That is the primary way as humans we will get closer to what we are seeking, given that this kind of process will help to overcome the biases that all of us are so plagued with.  And the possibility that this leads humans in the future to real answers to these big questions is a huge driver for meaning in my life.

If you are an atheist, agnostic, or just plain doubter but are struggling with a sense of a loss of meaning, there are a lot of resources out there for getting a better grip of this subject.  As a small starting point I would recommend this post by Richard Wade on the Friendly Atheist blog.  There are a couple of other links to videos on there as well that you may want to watch.

20 thoughts on “Is Meaning Possible in a World Without God?

  1. Camus has the answer. Well, no one really has the answer. Camus comes closest. Well, he does the best job of explaining why we should live with the fact that there is no answer. Something like that…

  2. Hi Mark. What work of his or summary of his work does a good job of explaining that in layman’s terms?

  3. Objectively I see no evidence of spiritually beyond the experience which occurs in the human brain. Yet, it is true that we do not understand a great many things. I prefer to wait for more information. I feel we have sufficient information to reject all present religions.

  4. Hey Mark. You’re bringing back memories of my senior year in high school when we read stuff like “Waiting for Godo” (which bored me to tears). We did a whole series of existentialist stuff like Sisyphus and some of Kafka’s writings too. I find the statement at the end of this page to be a bit interesting: “While Camus acknowledges that Kafka’s work represents an exquisite description of the absurd condition, he maintains that Kafka fails as an absurd writer because his work retains a glimmer of hope.” I guess I’m not sold on the idea that there definitely is no hope. But perhaps Camus would say that until one “deals” with that reality they cannot “rise above it”. Maybe he’s right and I’m just missing it.

  5. I prefer to wait for more information

    I’m with you on that one drenn. Here’s to more information in the future!!

  6. Well said! And I agree completely with your point that if being the ultimate life-form of the universe would mean that we have no meaning, then if God is the highest form, he has no meaning either. How is it we see things so similarly? 🙂

  7. Thanks Nate! Yeah, that’s funny how we see eye to eye on a lot of these kinds of questions. Found another blog the other day – “godless in dixie” – you may want to check it out too. his views are similar as well. He’s got a really cool video on there of a talk he gave at a church on “National interview an atheist at church day” (which totally cracked me up that there is such a day!!)

  8. That blog sounds familiar… I may have run across it before. I’ll definitely check it out. I’m especially interested in hearing the speech you’re talking about. And “National interview an atheist as church day” is new to me too!

  9. I’ve thought a lot about the issue of Meaning w/o God…well, since I started seriously doubting the whole God thing back in like ’07 or something. I got SERIOUSLY depressed for a while…but after that, I started thinking more critically about it. It seems to me that having “meaning” in one’s life through the idea of “God” actually robs the world of a lot of good…

    Example: Where do we find meaning in a world w/o god? Create your own. If “meaning” is interpreted as “something beyond or bigger than yourself”, then “meaning” can certainly include such things as donating time to charities, helping in Community Projects, donating to Disaster Relief…just generally being the change we want to see in the world. However, I think, if we’re satisfied with “god” as the “meaning” in our lives, then far fewer people will be motivated to do any of that stuff.

  10. Interesting comment. I’ve never thought of it from that angle. I think I can see that both ways. It also seems that a lot of people who believe in gods do participate in those kinds of things, perhaps because they connect those altruistic actions as somehow connected with the whole god concept – whether it means that their god requires it or maybe even that he has simply created a world where those actions are more meaningful.

  11. “where did God get his meaning? If he is not disturbed by the fact that there isn’t something outside of himself that provides meaning then why should we be?”
    Hi Howie, I guess that depends on whether you think God has needs the way we do, or not. And independent necessary existence rather than dependent contingent existence as we do.

  12. Hi Uncle E – you’ve found it to the forest of Truth is Elusive – welcome! What you have written is a good clarification. You are right, we could hypothesize that there is a God that doesn’t have needs and that meaning is either part of his nature or has somehow been imparted from him unto the universe or perhaps even multiverse. If he doesn’t have needs then he wouldn’t need to question the meaning that “exudes” from him. I’m re-wording what you have written to have it make sense to myself, but I realize what you believe might be a little different from my wording. I’m not totally sure how contingent versus “necessary” existence helps with thinking about meaning, but that’s ok it may not be relevant to your main point. I also realize that this is much more than just a hypothesis to you, but to be honest that is the level it reaches for me. I could hypothesize or guess at other scenarios as well. For example I could hypothesize that there are multiple gods that all don’t have needs and also have meanings as well – but yet the nature or description of what their meanings entail differ. I could also guess that there is one God that has no needs but also has no meaning either. I could also guess that there are actually no gods at all. (etc., etc.) I’m sure you have very well thought out reasoning for why these hypotheses are inferior to yours. For myself, I haven’t figured out an objective way to put percentages on these things. I’ve never interacted with any gods on anywhere near the level that I have interacted with things that I know to exist, and that is why I have a hunch that the there are either no gods, or there are god(s) that have no interest in interacting with me. That is why I call myself an implicit (or “negative” if you prefer that term) atheist.

    We could also formulate guesses about what the meaning or meanings that derive from these gods actually entail. They could possibly involve things that affect humans and/or animals in a positive, neutral and/or negative ways.

    The main point of my post was trying to think about whether or not we could have meaning if it turned out that there are no gods that exist in reality. I offered a couple of possibilities given that scenario. I’m sure there are others. Returning back to my original question – if we could formulate the idea in our mind of a conscious entity outside of ourselves that is not bothered by the fact that there isn’t something outside of himself grounding his meaning, then is it possible for us to not be bothered by the fact that there isn’t something outside of ourselves grounding our meaning? Perhaps your answer is “no, and if you try you’d only be fooling yourself”; my answer is “yes, but it is very difficult”; and I know others who answer this with a resounding “yes, and why is that so difficult for you?” (my wife is one of those people).

  13. Hi Howie,

    Yes, I picked up on a small part of your post. I don’t find long and extensive arguments to be very helpful, but sometimes clarification of a small point is worthwhile. So I am happy with your response to my small point.

    “The main point of my post was trying to think about whether or not we could have meaning if it turned out that there are no gods that exist in reality.”

    I can see all the points you make. I think one of the difficulties is that it is hard to give an objective meaning or content to “meaning of life”. It is very subjective, and obviously non-believers find meaning in all sorts of things. So I think the question is whether we can live for something more than just our own personal feeling of meaning. Positive psychology says that the greatest contributor to wellbeing and life satisfaction is living one’s life in the service of a cause greater than oneself.

    Whatever the definitions, I think (FWIW): (1) being a christian gives my life a deeper sense of meaning and wellbeing than if I wasn’t, but (2) in the end we have to choose what we think is the truth, not simply what makes us feel comfortable, but (3) what makes us have a better life must be a factor in deciding what is truth.

  14. I think you make some excellent points here and I think it is well said. You are very right about the subjectivity of this topic, and I also think that is part of what makes it a difficult one to discuss and think through. As for your numbered points, I don’t doubt #1 is true for you. My best response to #2 is “amen!”, and #3 is fair enough and worded well as “be a factor” (as opposed to being “the” factor). Another interesting thing I’ve noticed about myself is that coming closer to what I believe to be #2 brings me great meaning in my life, and so #2 and #3 are in some ways a bit interdependent. Thanks for your comments!

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  17. An interesting post for sure. Many things give my life meaning. But sometimes life doesn’t make sense or have meaning. At such times, my faith in God gives me meaning and gives more meaning to the things that already have meaning. I guess I am a simple person. I don’t need empirical data or evidence for my beliefs beyond what I know. Only this morning I was involved in a discussion on the curve balls that life has thrown my family this year. And I added, “Trust requires unanswered question. It is the nature of trust.” Is there a dimension to life beyond what we access with our physical senses? My answer is yes. I have tasted it, but may not be able to prove it. As usual, many nuggets to chew on. 🙂

  18. Thanks Timi. I appreciate your added input. I find it nice in a lot of ways that we are all so different and see the world in different ways. Sometimes it gets frustrating when trying to communicate across a divide of different views, but overall I still find the variance of worldviews to add flavor to life. Thanks for adding yours here.

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