I’m an atheist. I have been for most of my life. I’m sure as a child I believed in god at some point, and I briefly dabbled in Wicca as a teenager, but otherwise I’ve always been an atheist. Being non-religious isn’t a big deal in the UK, but I’m aware that’s not the case everywhere, specifically in the US. I’d never attempt to deprive someone of their right to believe whatever they choose, however it might seem to me, and I happen to think there’s some value in people believing what they need to be able to get through their life and be fulfilled, but honestly… I just don’t get religious belief, and I’m not sure I ever will.
Anyway, one of the criticisms I often see thrown at atheists from those of faith is that without god there can be no point or beauty to life. Atheists are purely material thinkers, with nothing spiritual or wondrous in our minds. Our lives are empty without god: meaningless. And, frankly, I find that not only intensely irritating, but also extremely arrogant and self-righteous. So for those of faith who may be reading this, here is what I have to say about the beauty and meaning in atheism…
For me, as an atheist and something of a science-geek, there is no ultimate point to life. And for some, that idea is overwhelming. I find it terrifying sometimes, and have spent a great deal of time wrestling with existential angst. I’ve studied bits of philosophy in a desperate effort to find an idea about life I can connect with. Without the idea of a god, a grand plan and an afterlife, it can be difficult to come to terms with life and death, and we can struggle to find meaning. I’m still on this journey and expect I always will be. And I still give it a great deal of thought and continue to read philosophy.
But as much as I might like to hope there is an ultimate point to life, and that there is life after death, I can’t bring myself to believe it. I can’t suspend disbelief like that, and besides: believing something doesn’t make it true! I can hope, but I can’t believe it in any way. I can’t close my eyes to reality and keep my fingers crossed that it’s not all for nothing. My mind just won’t allow it.
So where is the meaning and beauty without a grand plan and a creator? I tend to hold with Sartre in believing we have to make our own meaning. Rather than finding this scary we should see it as liberating! There is no ultimate point to life, therefore we’re free to find our own purpose! I guess some people never do, and fill their lives with trivialities. But that doesn’t mean that no one does and that meaning can only come from faith! Our lives are our own, free to lead how we choose and fill with what we will. No one has the right to judge our choices!
The meaning in my life is to truly live and to love. To learn about the universe and wonder at it. To be a mother and a partner and a friend. Not because there’s any long-term, bigger point, but just because I’m here and that is what makes me happy. Yes, happiness is a good one. Not the type of happiness people think they want: material wealth or status. But genuine, almost spiritual happiness, free from convention. When I look at my life I don’t consider whether I’m a good person in the eyes of god. I consider whether I judge myself to be a good person. I do kind things because they bring me contentment, not because I believe I’ll be rewarded in the afterlife. I marvel at the rules of nature and the efforts of mankind and that this all operates exclusive of a creator. I try to get my head around the origins of life and the universe, and strive to learn more just so I can stand in awe at this life and see it for the amazing opportunity it is. Beauty surrounds us, and the more we know about it, the more beautiful and amazing it becomes!
And I cherish every moment that I get to be alive. To be dead will be sad. My brief opportunity at life will be gone and the universe will carry on regardless. I might wish there was something after death, just so I can cling to life and love and never have to leave this precious, precious existence. But then, what would make life special if it were endless? There’d be no incentive to make the most of life! And I guess that’s one of my main issues with religion: if you honesty believe there is life after death, you might treat this life as though it doesn’t matter. It’s just an interlude to the finale of heaven or whatever. And to an atheist, who believes this is IT, that’s insane beyond belief! I’m not a betting person, but I’m hedging my bet that there isn’t an afterlife, so making the most of this one! If I’m wrong, so be it, but at least I’ll know I lived life to the full. I wouldn’t be so keen to bet there is an afterlife and waste the life we’re living now on it! I know religious people say they’re not wasting their lives, but to me believing a falsehood and inhibiting your freedom through fear of hell is a waste of your life!
When it comes to parenting Nookie, I don’t deny that meaning in life is something I’ll struggle with. Without the fall-back of god and heaven and all that stuff, I’m not sure how I’ll help her to cope with her inevitable existential angst. I’m still not at peace with it myself, and helping Nookie to deal with these tricky questions will be perhaps one of the greatest challenges I’ll face as a parent. I only hope I can instil in her the idea that life really can have meaning and beauty if you choose to give it meaning and choose to see beauty, and that deciding that meaning for yourself is one of the most liberating things you can do as a human being!