The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

April 21, 2012

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Am I An Existentialist?

A friend asked me this question over dinner (with a lovely bottle of wine) at my favorite San Francisco restaurant when she was shocked to find out I am an atheist.  I had no ready answer.

Existentialism, like atheism, has an ugly reputation.  Something is really not quite satisfying about smiling through an eternity of uphill boulder-pushing, or hell being other people.  Is my experience like an absurdist Oscar the Grouch, occupying my dustbin knowing the game was always already played out?

I don’t believe in God or that people have any ultimate purpose, and I do not live in a state of existential despair.  It is only in having ever supposed that meaning comes from some external source that the erasure of that source entails the loss of meaning.  I never really believed in God.  I never expected my subjectivity to surpass death.  I never imagined people must have a divine purpose to have any purpose at all.  So I don’t feel cheated that these things are not true.  And as difficult as some of my life circumstances have been, they certainly have not been so unremittingly painful (and neither were Camus’) to feel that my mortal, hopefully 70+ years of sentience are a toiling condemnation.  In this regard, I am not an existentialist.

I do believe that individuals make their own meaning.  I think this is true even in religion.  Individuals choose to adopt or not the traditions and mores in which they are raised.  If the Catholic God does not suit them, they move to a Protestant one.  If the Lutheran God is not a good fit after a while, they may elect Quakerism.  Having tried a range of what Christianity has to offer, with a catastrophic life event thrown in for good measure, they may migrate to Buddhism.  Individuals have always made their own meanings–by embracing or rejecting or refining the available belief systems.  There are 7 billion subjects, each with her/his own tale, nattering about the Earth at this moment.  No single purpose from on high unifies us all.  In this regard, I am an existentialist.

What about morals?  Are there also 7 billion arbiters of what is moral?  Indeed.  Religion or no, each of us has always been the moral decider for our own life–by either embracing, rejecting or refining the prevailing communal moral code.  To myself, I reserve the ultimate moral judgment over my own life.  I acquiesce to the legal and social norms I agree with–or can at least tolerate.  I would break those I found unpalatable and accept the consequences without acknowledging society’s moral condemnation.  I claim both ultimate moral freedom and responsibility.  In this regard, I am an existentialist.

Minus the despair-inducing circumstances of the 20th century’s first half, existentialism isn’t so bad.  To the contrary, it is empowering.

copyright 2012 by S. Anne Johnson



  1. You’ve pretty well described my feelings on the subject too. I’ve always thought the existentialist view of the human situation to be an obvious one. In fact I found myself holding this type of view before I had even heard of existentialism. The despair thing I have never had a problem with, though it’s undoubtedly in the background. I think it’s obvious that most humans have evolved/developed enough cognitive and emotional tools to see beyond the despair.

    Isn’t it a wonderfully liberating experience when you realise that you have no preordained ultimate purpose to your life? That you are free to choose from the smorgasbord, and even create a new dish of your own to share with others?

    Comment by telltaleimages — April 22, 2012 @ 7:45 am | Reply

    • TellTale,

      Thanks for your comment. It’s always heartening to know when my efforts at communication are successful.

      “Liberating” was the word other than “empowering” I considered for the end. True individual freedom of self-definition is liberating. And when we claim it, not being sociopaths, we don’t turn into criminals, indifferently killing another on a beach in the sun’s glare.


      Comment by SAJohnson — April 22, 2012 @ 10:29 am | Reply

  2. I feel the same way. I understand and relate to existentialism, but always hit a roadblock at the “despair” part. I’ve never understood why it’s so depressing to have no purpose in life. Why would that cause one angst? Do people really have a hard time believing that we’re all just tiny, worthless specks in this universe? Why is that a difficult pill to swallow? I’ve never felt any despair over this. Rather, it IS absolutely liberating to not have a role, a purpose, a meaning. As I see it, life is full of pleasures and joys. Why worry about what any of it means, when I could be enjoying it? I’m on this Earth for a certain amount of time, and I plan on spending that time enjoying every single moment of happiness, and seeking as many of these moments as possible. Sure, I don’t mean anything. I’m insignificant. So what? That fact doesn’t make music any less enjoyable, food any less delicious, art any less beautiful, or family any less loving. People are so concerned with implications, and spend their whole lives analyzing. Carpe diem! Make the right choices and build yourself a life full of joys, and enjoy every last minute.

    Comment by Kaylee — April 26, 2012 @ 4:02 pm | Reply

    • Thanks for your comment, Kaylee. I too find it difficult to understand what pains people so much about being insignificant in the larger scheme of things. At the same time, there is a middle ground between the need for external meaning imposed from on high and hedonic indulgence. We should absolutely enjoy the lived experience but I also do believe in good works.

      Comment by SAJohnson — May 6, 2012 @ 11:13 am | Reply

  3. Sorry that you (we) encounter this “shock” thing even in S.F. My response to reading that, may not be much help but I spent the first half of my 60 years in the U.K. So I would hope to offer just the knowledge that your position is not only unshocking in truth, but there are many societies where it would be unremarkable statistically as well. The number of people there who if pestered in a faith-survey push the “atheist” button is 40%. This doesn’t include others who are so estranged from religion that they can’t even relate to the question, nor those alleged members of a religion who don’t go to church etc.
    In short you have every right to know that your position already FEELS like normal in many flourishing and humane societies (and has done for generations).
    But meanwhile in the U.S. you serve a good role; what will it take to move us out of the Dark Ages here?

    Comment by chrishigh1 — April 28, 2012 @ 1:34 pm | Reply

    • Thank you for your reassurance, Chris. I always imagine it is more civilized across the pond. I am very troubled by the right-wing trajectory of the U.S. I wish I knew what the key to reversing it is. My worldview is so divergent from the right’s I don’t think I can provide much insight into an antidote. People of all political persuasions still in touch with reality need to counter the rightward pull into deep delusion. Bill Maher directly does this with his “Dispatches from the Bubble” segment–naming the retreat from contact with reality for what it is.

      Comment by SAJohnson — May 6, 2012 @ 11:22 am | Reply

  4. Dear SAJohnson, thank you so much for your blog. I consider myself a spiritual existentialist — as opposed to a Christian existentialist since I no longer consider myself Christian. I agree with you about the extreme right wing being removed from reality, and am also very troubled by this. Have you ever seen the movie Port Djema? It’s not available on DVD or video, so you’d need to catch it at an art film theater or festival. When I saw that movie, I just knew it was existentialism right before my eyes. I hope you can see it. In case you are interested, you can go to my blog called A Jungian Blog for You and Me.

    Comment by Marian — August 4, 2012 @ 6:01 pm | Reply

  5. In the U.S. we live in a society where we are discouraged from acknowledging and embracing uncertainty. How many elected officials are avowed non-believers in this country that supposedly honors freedom of religion? Apparently, such freedom does not include the choice not to believe in a higher being. To be an atheist or agnostic in the U.S. is to be put on the defensive; most of the time we choose not to disclose our questioning beliefs as others would respond with anxiety, bewilderment and fear. Americans as a whole are active frontiersmen; unreflective, simple and pragmatic folk, suspicious of intellectual discourse, easy prey for charlatans who espouse harsh authoritative answers and actions in response to life’s difficult challenges. Fortunately, in this otherwise inhospitable neighborhood we have our incongruent cosmopolitan niches such as San Francisco – the “Left Coast City” – where freedom of thought and belief is culturally valued. As in Europe, here we are (nearly) all existentialists, in that we believe we cannot yield personal responsibility for our actions to religious or governmental authority.

    Comment by Craig — August 26, 2012 @ 12:35 pm | Reply

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