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Atheism, Meaning, and the Absurdity of It All

Can life have meaning without belief in God?

One of the most common criticisms of atheism is that life can have no meaning without God-belief. I’ve always found this argument puzzling, because even if true it does absolutely nothing to prove the existence of God. What the believer is saying is that God-belief gives him or her the feeling that life has meaning. Well, that’s great, but your feelings don't prove anything.

In fact, while believing in God helps some find meaning, thanks to a fine new book called A Better Life: 100 Atheists Speak Out on Joy and Meaning in a World Without God, believers and nonbelievers alike have strong evidence that the godless can and do enjoy lives of rich meaning. The author, Chris Johnson, is also a marvelous photographer, so his numerous interviews and profiles are accompanied by high-quality photographs that make the book a perfect coffee-table conversation piece. (Full disclosure: yours truly is one of Johnson’s subjects.)

A common theme emanating from the book is that atheists have little trouble finding purpose in their lives. Having rejected myth and ancient texts as authorities for defining life's purpose, nonbelievers get meaning and joy from family, friends, loved ones, nature, art and music, and their work. "My life would be nothing if not for love, laughter and learning," says Washington journalist Jamila Bey, one of the book's subjects (p. 33). "There is absolutely nothing supernatural required."

Actress and comic Julia Sweeney (p. 25) expresses similar sentiments. Coming from a religious background, Sweeney says she found atheism to be an adjustment at first. "But after a while, the understanding of my particularly small place in the natural order of life deepened, and my appreciation for this short stint - to be alive and aware - was activated."

This awareness of our limited time, with no eternity tagged on the end, can makes atheists alert to the importance of living a full life, says Rice University Professor Anthony Pinn (p. 172): "You have to drain from every moment as much as you can so at the end of life you can say you've lived."

Musician Shelley Segal from A Better Life

One could argue that religious believers somehow attach more meaning to life than do atheists, but such claims are highly suspect. A believer can claim that his life is part of God’s plan, that this connection to the divine bestows a grand meaning on life, but in reality this is often empty rhetoric. After all, if God’s message is truly the driving force that gives meaning to the believer, why is not that message the defining factor in the believer’s actions? Why are not believers fully throwing themselves into the religious message of the Bible: evangelizing constantly, abandoning material life and focusing on the spiritual, working for charity and doing little else? If eternal salvation hinges on these things, and if the religious message of the Bible is what gives their lives meaning, wouldn’t this be visibly reflected in what they do?

Instead, most believers spend their days and hours just as most nonbelievers do: working, paying bills, driving kids to soccer practice, socializing, catching a movie, shopping, etc. Meaning? Yes, they find it, or more accurately they create it, just as atheists do. But it takes some imagination, or cognitive dissonance, to attach biblical "meaning" to the modern western lifestyle.

There is a school of thought, called absurdism, that focuses on how humans naturally seek to attach meaning to a world that offers none. If you’ve ever enjoyed a good Kurt Vonnegut novel you may appreciate how absurdism can effectively blend humor and profundity. We struggle through life, try to make sense of it all, experience joys and sorrows along the way, only to ultimately make our exit. In the end, no matter what your philosophical outlook, there is an element of absurdity in it all.

That said, as some believers claim their ancient books convey absolute truth from an all-powerful and all-knowing divinity, it’s hard to conclude that the atheist is any more absurd than the theist.

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