The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

February 22, 2011

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Meaning from Materialism

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

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8 Comments »

  1. Well put. I enjoyed reading this!

    Comment by Steph — February 22, 2011 @ 9:19 pm | Reply

  2. I’m happy that there are people who can enjoy materialism, because I fail to see how anyone can do that anymore. But yet, I’m selfish, so this world doesn’t satisfy me. Religion doesn’t look exciting either. However, I can’t believe I’m just an animal who can talk. I really don’t see meaning and purpose in materialism.

    Comment by Nathan — February 23, 2011 @ 6:31 am | Reply

    • Perhaps the problem in your thinking is in the formulation “just an animal.” Animals are quite magnificent and our human consciousnesses allow us to do a lot more than talk, although talking is quite fine itself. The meaning and purpose in materialism is found in an appreciation of the material, including the very material experience of living and living as a human in particular. Since the world is all there is, if it does not satisfy you then I fear nothing will, which is a sad state to exist in, I think.

      Comment by SAJohnson — February 23, 2011 @ 10:46 am | Reply

      • It’s difficult to enjoy the world full of competition, greed, hatred, lies. I agree that it’s a sad state to exist in but I used it well. Turned out that there is more to the world than materialism.

        Comment by Nathan — February 23, 2011 @ 11:08 am

      • I could not agree more that greed, hatred and lies weigh down our human society and individual flourishing. Personally, I have more difficulty coming to terms with them than with the material facts of existence–disease, aging, death, geologic and meteorlogic catastrophe. Competition I have more mixed feelings about as I think it has great benefit when appropriately constrained and buffered. A materialistic understanding of existence does not dictate an embrace of unfettered competition or greed, hatred and lies. As I wrote, fleeting and fragile life is precious and a deep appreciation of it fosters compassion. Compassion is a powerful antidote against the ailments of the human condition, including the self-inflicted ones.

        Comment by SAJohnson — February 23, 2011 @ 7:17 pm

  3. I cannot agree more, I posted something very similar like a week ago.

    “I personally find that the absence of external meaning or purpose is quite liberating. Purpose, course, meaning and any other transcendental meta-issues associated with living, if considered outside the manufactured consequentiality typically linked to the notion of human destiny, becomes an individual and creative process. It is not about discovering some hidden, extrinsic ‘answer’, but defining your own framework of meaning and whatever characteristics that collection of interactive beliefs possesses.”

    Exactly like you say, acknowledging and accepting the finite, corporeal nature of our existence allows for much deeper, earnest appreciation of the short time we’re given.

    Comment by devin howard — February 23, 2011 @ 9:51 am | Reply

  4. Excellent! I’m a Mystic, I adhere with your point of view and it rejoins very much my thinking process as a spiritual, not to be confounded with religious belief but where religion stops and sub-conscience takes over. I just had a friend who posted in Fb: “materialism is modern slavery”, I looked back into my own memories and googled it to find you to support my arguments as I understood he confused between materialist and materialism. I think many confuse on that. Finally when I read you I replied: “Poor you, either you want to become a nudist or a monk”, it made more sense than argue and made us laugh. Now where it rejoins is where I think that the universe is an atom filled with energy (I know you didn’t say that). But yes materialism is beautiful and life is precious. Where matter becomes beautiful is where all matter seems chaos when looked from near and a pattern from a distance. I use this principle in my creative process and everyday life.

    Comment by San Beeharry — March 16, 2012 @ 5:43 am | Reply

    • Thank you for your encouraging comment, San. Laughter is often better than argument.

      Comment by SAJohnson — March 24, 2012 @ 12:22 pm | Reply


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