Does life have meaning?
Atheists are routinely accused of denying that there is any meaning to human life. This accusation is based on a couple of characterizations. First, atheists do not believe in a creator who has established a long-range plan for humanity. Therefore, there is no ultimate goal--heaven, salvation--to work for or to look forward to. Second, most atheists accept that we are nothing more than sophisticated collections of chemicals whose behavior and destiny are driven by the same blind laws of chemistry and physics as everything else in the universe. That means that our lives are short and when they are over, they are over, and it doesn’t matter what happens after we are gone--we won’t know about it.
I would agree with both characterizations, but that is not the end of the story.
To return to the original question of whether life has meaning, I believe theists and atheists are using the term “meaning” in two different senses. When persons of religious faith uses the term “meaning,” I believe they are referring to an “ultimate meaning.” They are stating that our lives are really part of a larger plan established by God, a plan that prescribes a code of conduct for this life, as well as an ultimate goal, salvation, for a next, eternal life. And in this sense it is certainly true that atheists believe that there is no ultimate meaning to life. Instead, when atheists use the term “meaning,” they are referring to “personal meaning,” the meaning that we make of this, our one and only, life.
If we are taught that this life is really just the beginning, that through God’s plan there is the opportunity after this life for another life of eternal uninterrupted happiness, then it would seem critically important that we conduct this life in such a way as to ensure entry into the next, in accordance with the divine plan. But what if we come to believe that there is no “ultimate plan,” that this life, as short as it is and as troubled as it can be from time to time, is all that there is? Frightening? Devastating? Actually, not.
The fact that life is short and ultimately meaningless is what makes it so valuable. Rather than being pawns in some sort of overarching divine plan, we are able to establish our own plan and our own personal meaning. And we have plenty to work with. There is the joy that we derive from our love and regard for fellow humans. And we still have so much to learn about the world. Moreover, there are still so many problems confronting the human condition that need solution. We’ve only just begun, really. The fact that through science and rational thinking we have been able to make substantial progress should give us great optimism, as well as a roadmap, going forward.
© 2013 John M. Phillips