Where Do Atheists Get Meaning in Life?

Where Do Atheists Get Meaning in Life?
Scott Sommerdorf/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP
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Christian apologist William Lane Craig once wrote, "If there is no God, then man and the universe are doomed. Like prisoners condemned to death, we await our unavoidable execution. There is no God, and there is no immortality. And what is the consequence of this? It means that life itself is absurd. It means that the life we have is without ultimate significance, value, or purpose."

Craig's sentiments have been echoed by evangelical pastor Rick Warren, who wrote in his 60-million-copy bestseller The Purpose Driven Life, "You were made by God and for God, and until you understand that, life will never make sense."

Craig and Warren's shared opinion is overt: Without God, there is no meaning.

Atheists and the collectively nonreligious dispute that claim, however, and a new study published to the journal SAGE Open presents some empirical data to back their assertions.

A team of researchers lead by University of New Brunswick psychologist David Speed looked to the 2008 American General Social Survey to explore whether atheists and nonreligious people reported greater feelings of nihilism and fatalism than their religious counterparts. Nihilism was measured by subjects' level of agreement with the statement, "In my opinion, life does not serve any purpose." Fatalism was measured by subjects' level of agreement with the statement, "There is little people can do to change the course of their lives." The researchers also measured "endogenous meaning" – the notion that meaning is derived internally – by subjects' level of agreement with the statement “Life is only meaningful if you provide the meaning yourself."

Speed and his co-authors found that atheists and nonreligious persons did not differ statistically from believers in feelings of nihilism or fatalism. Moreover, atheists were far more likely than religious people to believe that meaning in life is endogenous – it is self-produced. (See figure below. "Level of agreement" is on the y-axis on a scale from 1 to 5.)

Developmental biologist and science communicator Kat Varney explains this viewpoint very well. "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."

The current finding does slightly clash with a global Gallup survey from 2007 which featured 1,000 respondents each from 84 countries. When asked the question "Do you feel your life has important meaning or purpose?" those affiliated with any religion responded in the affirmative 92% of the time, while those who were secular, nonreligious, atheist, or agnostic responded in the affirmative 83% of the time. This difference does make some sense given the wider sample population, as it may be more difficult to derive meaning in life internally and without religion in less-developed countries with fewer opportunities than in the United States, where the current study's survey was focused.

Still, Speed's research suggests that atheists aren't the purposeless, depressed bunch that many believers brand them to be. More and more, people seem to be finding that out for themselves. Prominent surveys are showing that belief in God and religious affiliation is waning in America as well as most of the rest of the world.

Source: David Speed, Thomas J. Coleman, III, Joseph Langston. What Do You Mean, “What Does It All Mean?” Atheism, Nonreligion, and Life Meaning. SAGE Open. Volume: 8 issue: 1. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/2158244017754238

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