One of the most pervasive misconceptions about atheists is that we lack any purpose in life by virtue of not believing in a higher power (be it a monotheistic God, transcendent spiritual force, or some other supernatural entity or concept). Moreover, this lack of belief is said to not only deprive us of meaning, but also leaves us devoid of morality, happiness, and self-fulfillment — e.g. the angry, nihilistic atheist trope.
As an agnostic atheist myself, I can certainly attest to this not being the case. Not only do I adhere to the values of secular humanism — which include a firm, universal commitment to promoting the flourishing of the human species — but I find purpose in the beauty and experience of life itself: art, love, discovery, creativity, compassion, and more. The joys of connecting with people, improving the lives of others, broadening my sensory and intellectual horizons — these are what drive me to enjoy every day of my finite but fortunate experience.
Of course, I am but one person, so thankfully, an enterprising photographer named Chris Johnson has taken the stereotype to task by directly asking 100 atheists from where they derive joy and meaning in life. He plans to compile these answers in a book, A Better Life: 100 Atheists Speak Out on Joy and Meaning in a World without God, which will hopefully go a long way to dispelling this widely held notion.
Salon has highlighted 20 of these inspiring quotes, which I have listed below.
“Knowing there is a world that will outlive you, there are people whose well-being depends on how you live your life, affects the way you live your life, whether or not you directly experience those effects. You want to be the kind of person who has the larger view, who takes other people’s interests into account, who’s dedicated to the principles that you can justify, like justice, knowledge, truth, beauty and morality.” – Steven Pinker, cognitive scientist
“In the theater you create a moment, but in that moment, there is a touch, a twinkle of eternity. And not just eternity, but community. . . . That connection is a sense of life for me.” – Teller, illusionist
“We are all given a gift of existence and of being sentient beings, and I think true happiness lies in love and compassion.” – Adam Pascal, musician and actor
“Being engaged in some way for the good of the community, whatever that community, is a factor in a meaningful life. We long to belong, and belonging and caring anchors our sense of place in the universe.” – Patricia S. Churchland, neurophilosopher
“For me the meaning of life, or the meaning in life, is helping people and loving people . . . The real joy for me is when someone comes up to me and they want to just sit down and share their struggle.” –Teresa MacBain, former minister
“Joy is human connection; the compassion put into every moment of humanitarian work; joy is using your time to bring peace, relief, or optimism to others. Joy gives without the expectation—or wish—of reciprocity or gratitude. . . . Joy immediately loves the individual in need and precedes any calculation of how much the giver can handle or whom the giver can help.” – Erik Campano, emergency medicine
“Raising curious, compassionate, strong, and loving children—teaching them to love others and helping them to see the beauty of humanity—that is the most meaningful and joyful responsibility we have.” – Joel Legawiec, pediatric nurse
“Anytime I hear someone say that only humans have a thoughtful mind, a loving heart, or a compassionate soul, I have to think that person has never owned a dog or known an elephant.” – Aron Ra, Texas state director of American Atheists
“I find my joy in justice and equality: in all creatures having opportunities for enjoyment and being treated with fairness, as we all wish and deserve to be treated. . . . While I enjoy the positive feelings of self-improvement, this fire pales compared to the feeling of joy that comes from having contributed something to the greater good.” – Lynnea Glasser, game developer
“You’re like this little blip of light that lasts for a very brief time and you can shine as brightly as you choose.” – Sean Faircloth, author, lawyer, lobbyist
“Play hard, work hard, love hard. . . .The bottom line for me is to live life to the fullest in the here-and-now instead of a hoped-for hereafter, and make every day count in some meaningful way and do something—no matter how small it is—to make the world a better place.” – Michael Shermer, founder and publisher, Skeptic Magazine
“I hope to dissuade the cruel parts of the world from their self-imposed exile and persuade their audiences to understand that freedom is synonymous with life and that the world is a place of safety and of refuge.” – Faisal Saeed Al-Mutar, writer
“I look around the world and see so many wonderful things that I love and enjoy and benefit from, whether it’s art or music or clothing or food and all the rest. And I’d like to add a little to that goodness.” – Daniel Dennett, philosopher and cognitive scientist
“I thrive on maintaining a simple awe about the universe. No matter what struggles we are going through the miracles of existence continue on, forming and reforming patterns like an unstoppable kaleidoscope.” – Marlene Winell, human development consultant
“Math . . . music .. . starry nights . . . These are secular ways of achieving transcendence, of feeling lifted into a grand perspective. It’s a sense of being awed by existence that almost obliterates the self. Religious people think of it as an essentially religious experience but it’s not. It’s an essentially human experience.” – Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, philosopher and novelist
“There is joy in the search for knowledge about the universe in all its manifestations.” – Janet Asimov, psychiatrist
“Science and reason liberate us from the shackles of superstition by offering us a framework for understanding our shared humanity. Ultimately, we all have the capacity to treasure life and enrich the world in incalculable ways.” – Gad Saad, professor of marketing
“If you trace back all those links in the chain that had to be in place for me to be here, the laws of probability maintain that my very existence is miraculous. But then after however many decades, less than a hundred years, they disburse and I cease to be. So while they’re all congregated and coordinated to make me, then—and I speak her on behalf of all those trillions of atoms—I should really make the most of things.” – Jim Al-Khalili, professor of physics
Note that most of these statements are hardly exclusive to atheists; I am sure many spiritual and religious folks can relate with the sense of wonder that is inherent in the world around us, and derive their purpose from the pursuit of knowledge, experience, and a better world. But for atheists and others who do not find meaning from a higher power , these motivations and activities are potent enough in themselves, in essence taking the place of any religious or spiritual prescriptions.
I could go at length about this complex and personal topic, but as always these days, time is short, so I will leave you all to reflect on these quotes and perhaps share your own thoughts and motivations. As always, thanks for reading.