It comes up constantly. Without a god, without an afterlife, how can life have any meaning? Atheists and agnostics have traditionally responded with impassioned, often simply fantastic essays about the meaning they do find in their lives. You would think that would be answer enough: a brute reality that defies all the accusations.
And yet, hostile theists are rarely convinced by this: they paint such expressions as, at best, their fellow human beings illicitly “stealing” the fruits of their own supposedly special ideology. They want to know, they demand to know how this meaning can be “justified,” implying that they possess the one unique answer themselves.
How can folks find meaning without God? Instead of another appeal to empathy with my own story, I want to strike at the heart of the argument itself.
Meaning without God? The question itself is both backwards and premature. To see why, we must ask how one supposedly finds meaning with God. I won’t, in fact, be arguing that one cannot. Rather, my contention is that any believer that seriously tries to answer this question will be forced to admit that the philosophical liberties and assumptions they make to reach their sense of meaning are no more or less justified than those they ridicule as insufficient or unjustified in non-believers. We are all inescapably in the same boat when it comes to meaning and purpose.
The Incoherently Incompetent Thought
First, we need to examine “meaning” itself, and expose a mistake, a very basic mistake, in how many people think about it.
To say that some event means something without at least some implicit understanding of who it means something to is to express an incomplete idea, no different than sentence fragments declaring that “Went to the bank” or “Exploded.” Without first specifying a particular subject and/or object, the very idea of meaning is incoherent.
Yet too often people still try to think of meaning in a disconnected and abstract sense, ending up at bizarre and nonsensical conclusions. They ask questions like: What is the meaning of my life? What does it matter if I love my children when I and they and everyone that remembers us will one day not exist? But these are not simply deep questions without answers: they are incomplete questions, incoherent riddles missing key lines and clues. Whose life? Meaningful to whom? Matters to whom? Who are you talking about?
Once those clarifying questions are asked and answered, the seeming impossibility of the original question evaporates, its flaws exposed. We are then left with many more manageable questions: What is the meaning of my/your/their life to myself/my parents/my children? These different questions may have different answers: your parents may see you as a disappointment for becoming a fireman instead of a doctor, and yet your children see you as a hero.
But the one fact that becomes abundantly clear is that no one can ultimately judge the meaning of your own life other than yourself. Your parents can have purposes in mind for you: find meaning in, say, a dream that you will become the professional baseball star that your father could not. But these purposes are their purposes: they are not fundamentally your own: not inherently meaningful to you unless you decide to take them up yourself, or even just find meaning in understanding their hopes even if you cannot agree with them.
This, then, is the existential heart of the matter, the reason that theism as a doctrine cannot provide any extra or unique route to meaning that is not already present in any being capable of experiencing it.
An Eternity of Nihilism, a Second of Truth
I’ll come back to that last point in a second, but we also need to do away with another common sticking point: the issue of permanence. Many sincere searching souls have fretted about eternity, worrying that without their own everlasting experience or even an eternally unbroken chain of memories, their acts cannot have meaning. This worry is, of course, profoundly human: we are such obsessively social beings that we cannot help but frame everything we are and do in terms of what others think and remember about us (including what we think and remember about ourselves). Without this reference point, without other people judging and approving, we struggle to comprehend anything at all. This is core to our identity.
But as an understanding of meaning and how it works, these fears are not only deeply flawed logically, but self-refuting emotionally.
The flaw in logic comes with the idea that a life lived or an experience and memory that ends has no meaning but one preserved for eternity does. But the math here simply doesn’t work. Either even the briefest span of thoughts and actions can be meaningful all on their own, or an eternity of them can never add up to anything. Zero multiplied by infinity is still zero: a life without meaning on its own terms, meaning moment to moment, does not gain meaning from eternity. It simply becomes an eternity of meaninglessness: a nihilistic pursuit of mere length rather than quality.
The flaw in emotion is simply that only a caring being could ever care so deeply about caring. Beings who find no meaning in their existence cannot fret about the question to begin with: the very act of worrying itself answers the question more powerfully than any argument I could make. Would you carelessly torture a person because they would not have any memory of it later? Could you really deny the existence of the suffering you would inflict in the here and now because it would be one day forgotten?
Every act done, every second of time, is unique. It may not be remembered for eternity any particular person (indeed, many of your daily acts will not be specifically remembered by you even in your own lifetime, yet you still found meaning in them at the time), but it is once and forever a inextricable part of eternity. This concept was best expressed in the fable of eternal recurrence. This is the imagination of all existence replaying itself over and over: that every choice and action you make you will make again and again each time through (so you’d better make them good ones, something worthy of eternity!). The idea is purely an emotional exercise, not a claim about what actually happens, but meaning is an emotion. And imagining eternity in this way provides a compelling insight into how moments can resonate eternally, even if they pass and are forgotten.
The God Ruse
So now we come back to the claims of theists: that only with their picture of reality can “meaning” mean anything. Few theists who make this claim will actually explain how that works: as with most things asserted to be supernatural, the claim is meant to quietly avoid any burden of explanation rather than meet it. God does this and God does that because God can do anything, but we are never told what the process is, what the specific capacity is and used in what specific way. Without the functional specifics, any case that it is impossible without God falters.
The supernatural’s disappointing and systematic failure to explain is really a matter for another time. Luckily, on this subject we already know the claim to be unfounded in any case. Nothing about the situation of a God existing can alter the position that individuals are in with regard to finding meaning in their lives. No fact about the external world, no matter how weird and supernatural, can alter the situation we find ourselves in internally as thinking beings making value judgements.
As I explained before, speaking about the “meaning” of one’s life is insufficient: whose meaning are we talking about? The original question was about you finding meaning in your own life. And thus we see that even the knowledge of a God existing and having a purpose for your life is not enough: for this to be meaningful, it still requires you to find it so. We can imagine that it might not, just as we can imagine a child who finds its parents’ purposes for it uncompelling and without meaning.
Now of course, theists may well declare it wrong that someone would not find God’s meaning compelling, but in that accusation they have changed the topic of discussion, which was about the process of an individual finding meaning in the first place, not someone else’s judgement about the end result. Many theist apologists will likewise paint the idea of individuals having to judge what is meaningful as usurping God’s authority (failing, I suppose, to successfully hypothesize the position of a non-believer, who sees no God around to usurp).
They’ve all missed the point. Even were there no question of a God existing, one must still first assume/choose to believe/judge that the perceived God is indeed a good and trustworthy being and that it’s purposes are worth caring about. This is simply an unavoidable step before accepting God as a guide to morality and meaning, deciding that a life living for God is what’s meaningful. I certainly don’t want to begrudge believers that meaning, or even assert that, in a world with a good God, that a good God’s purposes couldn’t be a compelling choice for meaning. I’m simply arguing that the process of getting there is the same with or without God as the end result.
Apologists are generally convinced of the superiority of their doctrine on this score simply because they neglect to mention or consider the role an individual plays in judging what is meaningful. They pretend that they can get a free ride on unspoken arguments about a creator God’s overarching authority. They cannot: those arguments, when made explicit, expose the exact same weakness they claim to find in non-theistic explanations of value. Instead, there is no free ride for anyone, no shifting the original and foundational duty of judgement off of oneself. Power and authority can only be meaningful to you if you first judge power and authority compelling and important.
The best I think that the doctrine of theism could attempt in response is to argue that their God forced us by our very design to find meaning in this or that… but this then would admit that our particular design is the key to experiencing value and meaning, and so if that design existed in a world without God, it would still be sufficient.
As I said at the start, we are all on the same boat when it comes to finding meaning the world. To me, that idea is humbling and unifying: a source of empathy, rather than emnity.
Addendum on “Justification”
I realize, of course, that I haven’t really answered the challenge as to whether meaning is “justified.” My purpose here was merely to argue that meaning, whatever it is, is not explained or rationalized any better by theism than without it: theist and non-theist meaning come from the same functional foundation either way. With or without a God, if their basis is weak and unjustified, then they are both so, equally.
The other part of the reason I haven’t even attempted to answer the question about “justification: is that I’m not entirely certain it makes sense to speak about meaning that way in the first place. It’s an experience, an emotion, not an assertion of fact. You either find your life meaningful or you do not, but it’s not even clear to me how one would even attempt to show that someone’s experience of meaning or lack of it was a mis-perception, let alone be outright false. What standard would you compare it against? If someone were to claim that your life isn’t meaningful to you, how would they prove it? How would you prove it to them, beyond merely expressing it? What would an argument even look like?
If anyone can answer those questions, then perhaps we could have an argument about whether subjective meaning can be somehow objectively justified. In the meantime, I remain skeptical.