Atheists often snidely dismiss religion as nothing but a fairy tale. Allegedly, religion is a self-created mythical crutch to comfort people who are unwilling to face the stark realities of the universe. As one famous atheist put it, religion “is the opiate of the people.” By this Karl Marx meant religion is a tool to anesthetize the masses so they can be oppressed.
Atheists portray themselves as arch-rationalists who embrace reality without flinching. As I explain in my recent book, “The Death of Humanity: And the Case for Life,” many prominent atheist thinkers, such as Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, have insisted that because there is no God, there is also no cosmic purpose, no objective morality, and no transcendent meaning to life. The atheistic Duke University philosophy professor Alex Rosenberg dismissed meaning and morality as an illusion in a 2003 article, “Darwin’s Nihilistic Idea: Evolution and the Meaninglessness of Life.”
But then many of them flinch. Just a few weeks ago the online magazine Real Clear Science announced that famous Christian pastor Rick Warren and Christian scholar William Lane Craig were mistaken to claim that without God, life has no meaning. This article claimed that a new empirical study verified that atheists do find meaning in life. The subtext seems to be: See? Atheism isn’t so bad after all.
This is not an isolated phenomenon. The prominent atheistic evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne has also expressed dismay that anyone would dare suggest that atheists don’t have any meaning in their lives. But if you dig deeper—for example, by actually reading the empirical study—you find that atheists who insist that non-religious people can find meaning in life have changed the meaning of the word “meaning.”
Life Does Have Meaning. I Just Invent It
The 2018 study in question by David Speed, et al, “What Do You Mean, ‘What Does It All Mean?’ Atheism, Nonreligion, and Life Meaning,” used surveys to try to figure out if atheists find meaning in life or are nihilistic. This survey defined someone as nihilistic if he or she upheld the position: “In my opinion, life does not serve any purpose.”
This study found that atheists and non-religious people are not nihilistic, because they claimed that they did have a purpose in life. This is an interesting finding that seems to refute the oft-repeated charge (levied by religious folks) that atheists are nihilistic.
However, there is a problem with this finding. The survey admitted the meaning that atheists and non-religious people found in their lives is entirely self-invented. According to the survey, they embraced the position: “Life is only meaningful if you provide the meaning yourself.”
Thus, when religious people say non-religious people have no basis for finding meaning in life, and when non-religious people object, saying they do indeed find meaning in life, they are not talking about the same thing. If one can find meaning in life by creating one’s own meaning, then one is only “finding” the product of one’s own imagination. One has complete freedom to invent whatever meaning one wants.
This makes “meaning” on par with myths and fairy tales. It may make the non-religious person feel good, but it has no objective existence.
I Find Meaning in Self-Contradiction
There is a long history of atheists wrestling with the question of the meaning of life, and it usually ends the same way. In 2015 the online periodical BuzzFeed interviewed atheists about how they found meaning. While they uniformly denied that there was any overarching meaning to life or the universe, they insisted that they find meaning and significance in their own personal lives. Many also implied that certain moral positions are objectively better than others, even though they presumably do not believe in objective morality.
One example was the response of the atheistic scientist and journalist Kat Arney. She said her rejection of religion “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.”
Arney’s position powerfully illustrates the problem many atheists seem loathe to confront. The “scientific truth” does not tell us to be “gentle to each other.” It doesn’t tell us anything about how we should live (and obviously many people are not gentle to each other, so there is nothing empirical to suggest that being gentle to each other is the way of nature).
But apparently many atheists and non-religious people have a hunger for meaning and a sense of moral rectitude that their worldview cannot satisfy. Sure, they are free to invent their own meaning and morality, but then they should be honest and admit that their meaning and morality has no advantage over the meaning or morality religious people put forward —or for that matter, it has no advantage over the meaning and purpose evil people invent. Their self-created meanings are every bit as much “fairy stories” as the religious ones they like to lampoon.