A recent reader located my blog by inquiring “what gives meaning to the atheist or purely material minded person?” I think this question reflects a common concern that strict materialism* takes the joy, color, sense of purpose out of life. The harshly absurdist take of existentialist atheists like Sartre and Camus did not do us materialists any favors in correcting this bad mis-impression.
The simple answer is that atheists by and large find meaning in the very same things that theists do–their family and friends, personal activities and accomplishments, contributions to their communities. None of these depends on a belief in a god or soul or superstition.
I am confident that my consciousness is embodied in my brain and will cease with my corpus. I do not imagine that I will be reunited in some ethereal form with loved ones or participate in the world in any way after my death. My “extinctivist” position does not dampen my sense of meaning in life. It may in fact heighten it, as my life–and the lives of others–are precious in their fragility and fleetingness.
I believe in no mandates from on high. No God imbues my life with some special significance. I fully recognize my cosmic inconsequence. I am one of billions of humans that have lived and will live, and humans are just one of millions of species that have lived and will live on Earth. Earth is not the center of anything, not even our own solar system. I am one little being in one tiny corner of what may very well be an infinite multiverse. None of this bothers me a bit. My life is just as important to me and my friends and family and community regardless of my/our cosmic insignificance.
Truth be told, contemplating the vastness of existence exhilarates, not depresses, me. I feel quite privileged in being able to grasp the magnitude of the cosmos and how its unthinking mechanisms likely work. And I’m grateful that indifferent evolution vested others with the math talents to figure it out.
Having read a lot of popular science, I know I am not the only one who finds the view from materialism beautiful, astonishing, inspiring. Creation is a marvel to behold. Life is a dear resource. Our incredible consciousnesses enable us to take it all in. Belief in God or eternal souls or magical occurrences are not necessary to experience the wonder of existence or meaning in it and our individual lives.
*To be clear, by materialism I mean a non-dualist (i.e., no mind/body problem because mind emanates from body) philosophical stance that existence is physical and natural, not metaphysical and supernatural. Materialism is an outgrowth of an empirical, or scientific, approach to life, which embraces knowledge based on perception and physical testing of our beliefs drawn from perception. I decidedly do not mean materialistic in the common sense of what matters in life is money and fast cars.
copyright 2011 S. Anne Johnson