Life after faith – How do atheists find meaning & purpose

When I was in the 6th grade my friends and I were obsessed with collecting Pokemon cards and playing the latest video games. As you can tell, I was a nerd. I was also a fortunate nerd, because one of these friends loaned me his pirated copy of a wonderful game: Age of Empires II.
For this 12 year old boy it was the most immersive and captivating experience he had ever encountered. I played it over and over again, probably thousands of times. I would pretend that I was an ancient ruler trying to actualize my ambitions. Even when I was not playing I would constantly think up new strategies and plans on how to achieve my in-game goal: to build up my marvelous, yet imaginary, empire. It was loads of fun!gaming-age-of-empires-2-hd-screen-2

After over two years of playing this game, I stumbled upon a list of cheat codes. Typing in one of these cheats would instantly give me unlimited in-game resources. Normally one has to try really hard to collect these resources, and work towards some kind of in-game goal, but with cheat codes, everything that I wanted, was immediately available!

It was fascinating for the first ten minutes. And then I stopped playing the game, forever. Once everything I wanted was instantly achieved without effort, there was no point. Winning no longer had any meaning, because it was as effortless as breathing. In fact, I felt like a fool for even playing in the first place. I had devoted so much time to various strategies, when all I needed was a couple of quick keystrokes and the game won itself.

A great terror overcame me.

I realized that the idea of heaven was just like that. Heaven was one giant “cheat code”! All of your goals are instantly achieved without effort, and there are no more goals to work towards! Everything you want, is instantly yours. Everything is unlimited! In heaven, the person who spent 40 years studying the Bible will be not be any smarter than the illiterate drunk who barely repented on his deathbed. Why should I study the Bible for 40 years, if those who don’t study will instantly attain the same knowledge? What’s the point of playing the game of life, if heaven is just like that cheat code, instantly giving you everything you had to struggle towards, whether you worked hard for it or not? And once you’re in heaven, and the game is won, what’s the point of continuing to play? If there are no more goals to attain, what’s the point of doing anything at all? If a painting is perfect, what’s the point of continuing on painting? And heaven, they said, was perfect.

Lo and behold, a video game had brought me to my first serious philosophical crisis. I was twelve. All the other boys were busy discovering the peculiarities of puberty, but I was thinking about the meaning of life.

I’ve been told that my problem is that I think too much.

In this post I would like to share my curse and think out loud with you about the human quest for meaning and purpose. I will first examine what Christians really mean by these ideas, whether there are flaws in their view, and then explain how I, as someone who doesn’t believe in any gods or an afterlife, can have meaning and purpose in life.

A Critique of the Christian Way

1. Do we need an afterlife to have meaning?

Most Christians believe that without an after-life, there can be no meaning to our current-life. It’s common to hear sermons saying “if we live 70 years, and then die, never again to exist, it is like we have never existed!” While I recognize that thinking about death feels absurd and existentially frightening, I don’t think the argument can stand logically. There is no reason something needs to exist eternally in order to be meaningful. Must a great film be eternal for it to have meaning and convey a beautiful story? Must a novel have no ending, for it to be worth reading? No. Every day we engage with things that are not eternal, and we find these things to be very meaningful, even if they don’t last forever.

Lets do a quick thought experiment. Imagine that tomorrow we discovered a new race of gentle childlike beings on some distant island. These beings lived short, yet beautiful lives, filled with music, dancing, giggles, hugs, and other happy emotions. Lets assume that even though you had an afterlife to look forward to, you were absolutely sure these small-yet-happy creatures did not. As you observed these childlike creatures singing a merry song, you saw a large volcano showing signs of eruption. When this volcano erupts, it will spill smoldering lava on these beings, burning off their gentle skin. It will spew forth ashes, choking their small lungs, causing them immense pain, and then death. Would you try to save them? Or would you let them perish? I imagine you would try to save them. But why? After all, they have no afterlife, so according to Christian theology their lives are meaningless. If their lives are meaningless, why not let them suffer and die, it’s no different, right?

Except you would rescue them, because deep down you understand that they would feel pain and lose the ability to enjoy the rest of their lives. You would rescue them because you understand, even if tomorrow doesn’t come, their experiences today do matter, to them! It matters because they feel pain, pleasure, sorrow, and joy. Life matters because we have these experiences, not because of its length.

For an infinitely long life to have a meaning, a finitely short life needs to have meaning. Because if you take a zero and multiply it infinite times, you will still have zero. If you take a 100 year long lifespan, and say it’s it is meaningless, and then simply stack up an infinite number of these lifespans, the sum will be just as meaningless as each of the parts.

2. Do we need someone above us to have purpose?

Another thing Christians often say is that in order to have a purposeful life, you must live it for someone other than yourself. That someone can’t be an equal, but needs to be the kind of being that you can be subservient to. Other Christians simplify it like this: “if you only live for yourself, your life doesn’t have a purpose, you need to serve a being higher than yourself to have purpose.” So is this really the case? I don’t think so.

If the only way to obtain meaning and purpose, is to receive it from someone higher than ourselves, who does God receive meaning from? He has nobody above him. Does God not have a purpose for his existence? So if your purpose comes from a purposeless being, then isn’t your purpose, ultimately purposeless?

There are a couple of possible answers that Christians might give to this dilemma.

First, perhaps the Trinity explains this. Maybe each member of the Trinity is subservient to each other in order to find purpose. Perhaps the purpose of Jesus is to exist for the Father and so forth? If this is the argument, it demonstrates that ‘living for another being who is equal to yourself’ can provide meaning. So two persons living for each other can find meaning from their relationship, without the existence of a third being who is above them. If we allow this for divine persons in the Trinity, we must allow this for human persons as well.

Second, others might answer that God exists for himself and derives his purpose from his being. This is the classical Calvinist answer: “God exists in order to glorify himself.” The principle that follows is “self-promotion is a source of purpose.” But if we use this principle for infinite persons like God, there is no reason we cannot apply it to finite persons, like humans. Certainly Gods purpose would be infinite, because he is infinite, and human purpose would be finite, because we are finite. But accepting this answer regarding God’s purpose, lets us apply it to humans just as well.

Third, still others might say that “God doesn’t need purpose, it’s enough that he just exists.” If this is the answer, then why do humans need purpose? Perhaps it is enough that we just exist. After all, existence is a marvelous thing in itself, why should there be purpose for the primitive thing we can call human-existence, if there isn’t any for the most advanced form of existence, God-existence?

Fourth, (and be warned this is a bit technical, you may want to skip it) some might say that the answer lies in the metaphysically necessary nature of God’s existence, juxtaposed against the causally dependent nature of contingent beings like humans. The premise is that if God exists, he would be a necessary being, meaning that his existence would be causally independent from all other things. Humans, on the other hand, are contingent upon prior events and prior causes. Some might argue that God derives purpose from his necessity. However, this reasoning would also apply purpose to humans, albeit a qualitatively different kind of purpose. If God’s purpose, derived from his metaphysical necessity, is to be a necessary being, it would also follow that man’s purpose, derived from his metaphysical contingency, is to be a contingent being. To simplify this, if someone says “God’s purpose is to be God,” then we can just as well say “man’s purpose is to be man.”

A Presentation of the Humanist Way

1. The difference between meaning and purpose

Most Christians that I have heard speaking about this topic tend to equate ‘meaning’ with ‘purpose.’ I think this is a big mistake. Humans use words to express ideas, and these two words express uniquely distinct ideas. Let’s examine this in detail:

Steve, a distant relative of Sisyphus, works all day long, every day, in the world’s tallest hotel. There he functions as the elevator boy. His role is to open the elevator doors, allow guests to enter, and click on the button corresponding their desired floor. All day, every day, he rides up and down, countless times. He has been working this job for sixty years now, never taking a day off. During all this time, his purpose is to click the button, move guests up, and then move guests down. He is the elevator boy, his purpose remains very clear and well defined. But is it a meaningful purpose? Does he derive meaning from this dull and monotonous purpose? I don’t think so.

Bella has never been a lucky girl, she spent most of her childhood in poverty and alone, but one day she won the luckiest of all drawings. She received a ticket to the magical place they call Neverland. Upon arrival she was greeted by hundreds of wonderful children, all of whom were happy to meet her. She was lavished with many wonderful gifts, not the least of which was a beautiful pink dress that would never wrinkle or grow old. And so for the last sixty years she has been gleefully enjoying the marvelous sights, sounds, and activities of Neverland with her new friends. She does not have a clear or defined purpose there, but she does have lots of fun. She may not be able to say what her purpose is, but she is definitely having a very meaningful and happy life.

  • So what do we mean when we talk about purpose? The word evokes ideas of a destination, goal, or function. A person may have a goal or function, but it may not be a meaningful one. For example, Christians believe that the vast majority of people alive will have only one function: kindling for the fires of hell. That’s a very terrible and meaningless existence, but yet, one that has an official purpose (people in hell have only one purpose, receiving punishment).
  • What do we mean when we talk about meaning? This conjures up notions of significance and value. Something may be very significant and valuable, but not have an obvious or significant purpose. For example, think of the melody from your favorite song, does it not cause a swell of wonderful emotions? Is it not tremendously precious and meaningful to you? That melody may not have much of a purpose, if any, but it certainly has a great deal of significance. Listening to that song is worthwhile and very meaningful, even if it serves no grand purpose.

2. Where did ideas about meaning & purpose come from?

This may sound like a very strange question, but bear with me. What if you opened your eyes tomorrow morning to find yourself completely alone and outside of space-time. (Yes, that is a weird thing to imagine, but let us continue). Instantly you realize that you are an eternally existing being, a god, who has infinite power and knowledge, what would you do? Of course, you’ll want to protest, and say this is a stupid question and that you can’t answer it because you have never been a god before, and I’ll grant you that. But we are, after all, talking about how humans think about meaning and purpose, so we only need your human imagination.

So what would you do?

What would become the source of your meaning or the ultimate goal of your existence? What purpose would you devote yourself to? It’s a wildly frightening question. Wild, because of the infinite possibilities you can hardly begin to imagine; frightening, because you would have absolutely nothing to ground anything on, no script, no plot, and nothing to base your existence on. And you would have to figure everything out, all by yourself. There would be no father figure that would give you all the answers. If only you could push the difficult questions onto someone else? On someone wiser and stronger?

I would argue that the human quest for meaning was probably something just like that. If the naturalistic understanding of the world is correct, our ancestors long ago found themselves experiencing the world and having subjective experiences. It was thrilling and terrifying at the same time! They felt these strange things called feelings, emotions, sensations, and thoughts. They had no answers for these strange sensations and explosions of sentient thought. They had no answers for their own existence. They had no answers for anything.

And so, they began to push all the difficult questions onto someone else, the gods. At first these gods were little more than animal spirits, though over time, as philosophy advanced, so did the gods. Where does lightning come from? From the gods! Why does rain come from the sky? The gods! Where did the world come from? The gods! Why do humans exist? For the gods! And so “the gods” became the explanation for anything that humans didn’t know. Over time, most of these “god did it” explanations have been replaced with far better explanations produced by science and philosophy.

3. How does an atheist derive purpose?

  • My purpose can be fundamentally derived from my nature. The kind of thing that I am, dictates my purpose, my goals, and my function. A calculator processes mathematical calculations. That is its purpose. It doesn’t matter if it’s made by aliens, evolves on it’s own in some kind of supercomputer simulation, or has always existed as a brute fact; its nature defines its function. If there were a God, it too would derive its purpose from its own nature, for it would have nowhere else to look!
  • My purpose can also be established by my role among other sentient beings in the community I belong to. First, I am a part of the living creatures of earth. Second, I am a part of the species of sentient beings we call humans. Third, I am a part of the nation of the United States. Fourth, I am a member of various local communities, clubs, businesses. Fifth, I am a member of my extended family. Sixth, I am a member of an intimate romantic relationship. All of these roles define my purpose. If there was a God, it would also seek to define its purpose from his relationships with others, i.e. as a father, shepherd, judge, ect. These are all relational roles.
  • My purpose also includes making our world a better place. I belong to a vast continuity of humans before me, that will also continue after me. As a member of this immense collective of sentient beings I can do things that (a) help, (b) hinder, or (c) don’t affect humanity. I am by nature a social being, who cares about the welfare of others, so it gives me great purpose to contribute to helping our human race.

4. How can an atheist live a meaningful life?

  • My life is meaningful because I exist and I experience the world around me and within me. We can call this: sentience, self-awareness, or subjective experience. Descartes said “I think , therefore I am.” Well, in my case, “I experience, therefore it matters what I experience.” It matters whether I spend the next hour writhing in pain, or listening to a heartwarming musical masterpiece. It matters, because I feel that difference directly and in a significant way. Sentient experience is the fundamental grounding of meaningfulness. If God were to exist as a personal being, he would derive meaningfulness and significance from his own subjective experience of reality. 
  • The quality of my life’s meaning comes from engaging in activities that I find immensely satisfying and rewarding. I derive meaning from living an examined life, which includes spending time contemplating the nature of reality and existence. I derive meaning from helping others to overcome difficulty, pain, and various trials. I derive meaning from passing on my knowledge and skills to others. I find significance in many other qualitatively meaningful experiences. If God were to exist, the level of meaningfulness in his life would also be determined by the quality of his experiences. For example, if he decided to simply spend all eternity counting to infinity, that might be less meaningful than other, more creative activities.
  • My life is made even more meaningful by inspiring others to make their lives more meaningful and significant. We all share in the sublime beauty that is our universe and our playground. But often our passion, excitement, joy, and triumph is extinguished by daily monotony and dull thinking; it is my personal passion to help people overcome this and discover the elegance of our curious existence.

13 responses

  1. Thanks for writing this Yuriy. This was very well written, and eloquently / succinctly explains an issue that I’d wondered about oftentimes myself. Both about you, and about atheists in general. Helps me along my quest to understand life and humanity and whatnot.

  2. Yuriy,
    I appreciate your honesty about this subject. And now I will be honest with my assessment of your post: I think that you have the wrong notion of the essence of Christianity. For example, in describing how heaven is like attaining the cheat code to a video game – this shows that you believe the earthly Christian life to be one of getting ahead of others in ways such as accumulating Bible knowledge. Nothing could be further from the truth. The goal of the earthly Christian life is to become more like Christ and to serve Him. In heaven we will be rewarded based upon those merits. Therefore, those who do not serve Christ lose out in this life and the next: they do not become closer to their Creator during life on earth and they lose out on rewards in heaven. I do not become envious of those who repent on their deathbed and receive eternal life – instead I feel both joy and sadness. Joy that they will be with Christ eternally and sadness that they did not get to live for Him in this life.

    Now, regarding meaning and purpose. If we have no designer, no Creator then life would ultimately be purposeless. Before you protest I did not say that your life is meaningless and purposeless for it certainly does have meaning and purpose. What I am saying is that there is a God and therefore everyone’s life has ultimate purpose and meaning whether they know it or not. But if the world is merely random then the only purpose and meaning we can derive from life is that which we invent. In fact many atheists and humanists borrow from the Christian worldview in order to have meaning and purpose. And if the world is random (no designer) then who is to say that a man such as Hitler is wrong. What if he derives meaning and purpose from eliminating Jews and others?

    You say that the Christian worldview does not match reality but I think the opposite is true. Humanism has to invent fancy answers to the questions of origins, meaning, justice, love, and morality whereas these are an inherent part of Christianity. If there is no designer then we can do as we please and no one can say otherwise. But I guarantee that if someone harmed your precious wife that you would seek justice. But are you seeking something that you made up in your worldview or are you seeking the actual reality of justice. I believe that justice is real and it cannot come from a random world.

    In summary when I look at the world I see a perfect reflection of the Christian worldview: one that is full of meaning and purpose, but tainted with the effects of sin and evil, but striving for something better – something that Christ promised would never happen in this lifetime or this world but that would ultimately be revealed in heaven. But first we must repent of our sins, call out to the Lord, and live for Him. You won’t be disappointed in that ambition.
    -David

    • David I would reply to your post, except it appears you have not read further than the introduction. You make a significant number of unsubstantiated assertions, all of which I dealt with in this post. For example you say if we have no creator then life would be ultimately purposeless, a modus ponens argument grounded on unjustified premises, which is covered in this post.

      You presented nothing that not already covered thoroughly in the post, so I don’t think your comment warrants any further reply.

      All the best.

      • In all honesty you have made a lame response to my comment. I pointed out that your view of Christianity is warped and works-based and has nothing to do with a relational aspect with Christ because you never had a relationship to Christ. You might have thought you did but it is now evident that you did not. If you say that you had a relationship with Him then you are admitting that He is real. Again, the most you can say is that you thought you had a relationship with Him.

        Additionally I said that life without God would be ultimately meaningless with the key word being “ultimate”. It is not a baseless argument because it stands on the necessity of having a designer behind the universe in order in impart purpose. Think about it, if there is no designer to the world then what would be giving your life ultimate purpose besides that which you invent? To say otherwise is to imply that there is a design, and order, and purpose behind life. The fact that you are trying to use laws of logic is evidence that you believe in this order and design but at the same time you break these same laws of logic in saying that the universe is without a designer and therefore without design. If no design then everything, including your words are meaningless.

        You say that your purpose can be derived from your nature. You then go on to state that a calculator’s origin is meaningless because it’s purpose is to calculate. But you forgot that a calculator was designed by a human with the purpose to calculate. So the question of origins is not meaningless – it is of utmost importance. ORIGIN DEFINES PURPOSE. Purpose does not come from what gives you pleasure or what makes a better world in your opinion or any of your other suggestions. Again, if we go with that argument then no one can say a thing against Hitler. But if we do try to say something against the Hitler’s, the ISIS, the Stalin’s of our day then we are implying that there is such a thing as ultimate purpose, design, and therefore virtues such as justice.

        So you can say that there is only self-defined purpose but when ISIS heads your way, please don’t try to say that there is a universal concept of good and evil. You can say that you don’t agree with them but in their mind they are doing a good thing. Who then is right?

          • Sophie, I don’t think you understand the logic of the argument so your snide remark adds nothing to the conversation. If someone claims that they “were” a Christian but now does not believe in God then they never could have been a true Christian. The reason is that it’s impossible to say that God is both real and not real at the same time. One can only have been a true Christian if God is real. To the atheist God is not real and Jesus Christ is not Lord therefore what were you at the time? At the most you thought that you were a Christian. Additionally, we are told in the Scriptures that if someone walks away from the faith it is evident that they were never truly saved in the first place. Jesus knows those that are His and nothing can pluck them from His hand.

    • It never ceases to amaze me. As soon as someone departs from the faith, even if they were faithful for decades, they are addressed as if they never knew anything. The christian seems to believe that deconversion somehow involves a demonic brainwash which steals every last parcel of prior theological knowledge. This is especially true when it comes to motivation, and that is what is at the heart of the ‘no true christian’ fallacy.

      I am reminded of one of my favorite sayings, which goes something like this:

      “We tend to judge others by their actions, but we judge ourselves by our intentions.”

      So since a deconversion involves changing one’s mind, departing from the faith, that *action* causes a believer to judge such a person harshly. The problem with this is that all prior actions by said deconvertee might show them to be one of the most devout christians on the planet! But past knowledge and devotion and intention are all ignored once a deconversion action occurs.

      David might be surprised to learn that many theologians would debate him regarding salvation. The debate has been ‘raging’ for centuries, according to CARM (https://carm.org/what-is-once-saved-always-saved). I guess this means that Yuriy and I, despite our deconversions, have an escape hatch. If we die and discover that god is real, voila! Off to heaven we go. Unfortunately, we probably won’t particularly enjoy it…

      • Glen,
        Regarding some of your words, “But past knowledge and devotion and intention are all ignored once a deconversion action occurs.” This is exactly what Jesus said, not me. He said, “If you deny me, then I will deny you before my Father.” A “deconversion” involves denying both the Father and the Son. If you deny a gift then how could you receive it? It’s impossible. Therefore, according to Jesus’ own words, and not theologians, there is not such thing as an escape hatch to heaven. Jesus said that only he who endures to the end (continual faith in Him) will be saved. That is plain to see in the Scriptures.
        Please read my above post to Sophie to see how you are breaking the Law of Non-contradiction regarding the claim to be a Christian at one point in time. Essentially, it’s impossible to say that there is no God and then to say that you at one time followed God. Either God is real or he isn’t. To say that you were a Christian is to say that God is real today and that at one time you followed Him. To say that there is no God means that you never could have been a Christian because there never was a God. At the most, you thought that you were a Christian at one time but now it is evident that you were never a true Christian. I don’t know why people have such a hard time understanding this simple truth. It’s like they want the best of both worlds which is to break the Law of Non-contradiction. You can call me judgmental if you want, I am just stating the facts that Jesus taught regarding salvation.

        • Davi,

          It depends on what Jesus meant by “deny me.” Did he mean simply to decide not to follow him, or did he mean to decide that he didn’t exist? I find it hard to believe that he was referring to a denial of his existence since he was, in fact, speaking to physical people from a (supposedly) physical body. Therefore he was referring to one’s profession of faith — if you ‘confess’ him before men, he will confess you before God. If you don’t, he won’t.

          Also, see the link I provided and the discussion on Colossians 2:14 and many other verses. I know you don’t agree, but many of your fellow believers (who will be in heaven with you) think salvation can’t be lost.

          But let’s back up a step. For over forty years, I was a christian — even by *your* definition of a christian. Up until the day I decided that the bible was pure mythology and that the entirety of the supernatural realm didn’t exist, I was a christian. And according to the ‘once-saved-always-saved’ crowd, I still am. I realize that you disagree, but your disagreement doesn’t make it true.

          Of course to me this is all a silly discussion. I might as well be arguing about the backstory of characters in a fiction novel. But from my viewpoint I was a true christian. Also, see this:

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_true_Scotsman

          • Glenn,
            It seems that you are arguing for two contrary things. On the first account you are arguing for the fact of “once saved always saved.” This argument would say that you are still a Christian since only Christians are saved. At the same time you are trying to say that you are no longer a Christian since you have “deconverted”. Do you see how that doesn’t make sense? You can’t be a Christian and a non-Christian at the same time. Whatever you were at one time (we won’t continue the argument) – what matters is where you stand today.
            Jesus makes it plain by saying this, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already…”
            I think Jesus makes it clear that you must believe in Him as Lord to be saved. By your own admission you do not believe in Him and therefore you stand condemned (according to Jesus). That’s a state I wish upon nobody. I would ask you to reexamine your life and what you are basing your eternity upon.

          • David,

            You said:

            “It seems that you are arguing for two contrary things. On the first account you are arguing for the fact of “once saved always saved.” This argument would say that you are still a Christian since only Christians are saved.”

            I’m not arguing that, I’m simply pointing out that it is a valid theological position. Many, many have made that point over the centuries. Earlier you were talking as if this position didn’t exist, and I was simply attempting to bring it up as a valid counterpoint. Me, personally — I think we’ll all turn into dust and disappear when we die. But a lot of theological-types think that even I, having once confessed and repented and made a profession of faith, am still saved. I am not arguing that point, they are.

            As far as my life and eternity, I got to this point by doing exactly what you suggest. I reexamined the Bible. My eventual conclusion was that it held no more value or truth than any other so-called ‘sacred’ writing. You and I would agree in our rejection of every other religion and every other god. I just reject one more god than you.

  3. Yuriy,

    Quite a few years ago (5+) we met. Your wife might remember me as being the one at a bonfire held at hump day’s house, being able to correctly answer the riddle of weights with no scale.

    Felt a connection to you/that “life” today despite the many years we havent seen or spoken. AOE was equally formative in my life. There is a lot would want to say, just from a friendly perspective, its sometimes terribly interesting where life takes everyone. Wishing you a warm holidays, perhaps we may chat someday (though I terrible agree, time is wasted on discussing some of the things we could talk about, so perhaps we chat when we are in our old age).


    just a hobo

  4. If one is born again, one now has the ability to operate within the sphere of genuine (godly) love. Isn’t it possible for such a one to be motivated to do good to the glory of God? Yes, when glorifying God we do experience satisfaction, since that is how God wired us as creatures. But that then is a consequence, not a motivation. Yes?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *