Atheism-Theism Debate – On Meaning

‘I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.’

Umberto Eco.

It’s claimed that life is meaningless without religion and it’s an accusation often levelled at atheists. They deny that the cosmos has any intrinsic meaning or purpose so their lives must be the same it’s argued.

Atheists see such an attitude as both condescending and a failure to understand.

Theists assume other people are like them, with the same values, fears and hopes. Such ignorance and insecurity distort their thinking and poison their interactions with non-believers.

But do atheists have no meaning in their lives? Is society really bereft of purpose, and must it remain so? Are our lives fated to be doomed and pointless?

As a non-believer and a Buddhist, I don’t need God-based explanations. I can be happy, successful, compassionate, and loving without a deity. We can look at the lives of non-believers in other parts of the world to see there is meaning and purpose beyond the belief in a god.

Impermanence is the meaning

The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it,
move with it, and join the dance

Alan Watts.

The puzzling thing I see with people who strive after meaning (also Truth with a capital T) is that it has to be permanent. Yet meaning exists in the present moment. We value the moments because they don’t last; scarcity is what drives value. In a finite existence, our time is treasured more because we will die.

Western Philosophy and culture will have us pursue permanence and perfection. Such a quest leads to dissatisfaction, Dukkha or suffering. Eastern cultures accept impermanence as the play of life.

Yet we seem perpetually absent-minded and forget that meaning can be found in front of us. It’s all around us in our lives, it shows up every day. We’re always looking outside ourselves for someone to tell us the meaning. Can’t you figure this out for yourself? 

But consider Ikigai (生き甲斐, a reason for being’,) the Japanese concept towards meaning or purpose in life. It’s a feeling of accomplishment and fulfilment as people follow their interests and passions. Meaning arises through their work, family, and culture, just like the rest of us.

Seeking meaning in transience is part of the Japanese philosophy of Wabi Sabi.. It appreciates beauty and its impermanence. A popular example of this is the The Japanese Cherry Blossom festival (Hanami) The cherry blossom is new life, but it’s also fleeting, only lasting about four weeks. A sunset is no less meaningless for being over by the darkness. A flower is no less beautiful for one day wilting. Our friends and family are no less important for one day passing on.

‘Impermanence is the Meaning’

To thrive and grow also requires risk, change, and ultimately death; we create meaning in the living of our lives; it’s not bestowed upon us from the outside. Permanence would be the death of meaning. We appreciate and value fleeing moments like a sunset.

Meaning in this debate has gone beyond what’s true or false toward a question of values. Some want beliefs that make them feel safe and give answers; for others, faith in God is neither needed nor sought.

Meaning is found not in the transcendent but in the here and now, in the weeds and flowers of life. Life is full of meaning, it’s in front of your face.

A purposeless cosmos is not a problem.

This quest for meaning reminds me of pursuing happiness over a decade ago. If you make happiness or meaning as something ‘over there’, a destination to arrive at or an object to capture, you don’t have meaning here and now.

We fool ourselves into thinking we can possess meaning just like happiness. By making meaning and happiness a carrot to chase after, you have the causes for suffering or Dukkha in Buddhism. Absurdly we seek more meaning to make the suffering worthwhile, thus perpetuating the cycle of suffering or Samsara.

Seeing life as a problem to be fixed makes for a desperate, unsatisfactory life. But life is not some competition or a to-do list to fill out; it’s not a problem to be solved.

The solution is to think less about ourselves and more about our connection to the world. The paradox is solved when we let go and look beyond the narrow confines of our self in doubt. Meaning, then, is not what’s grasped but arises through what we do and our connection.

Philosophy of the Void

‘Not everyone who stares into the abyss, the seeming purposelessness of existence, is horrified by it. Some smile.’

All this talk on meaning and purpose brings us to another question ‘what is Philosophy for?’ To the theist and many philosophers, the quest is to have a metaphysical narrative of the cosmos. To answer questions like ‘How does it work?’ and ‘why we are here?’

Some atheists seem more like Buddhists; no need for need grand metaphysical theories to provide answers. There’s no need for an explanation of existence, but instead, learn to enjoy the mystery as life happens.

The Existentialists tell us the same as the Buddhists; we create meaning in life’s embedded existence, interrelations, and history. It’s Life-affirming, Amor Fati, ‘Love your fate’. The willingness to accept uncertainty and ambiguity is part of existence.

Emptiness reveals what matters in stark contrast, that’s the usefulness of emptiness. Just as we see a light more clearly in the darkness, and we learn to enjoy the dark.

Such freedom demands responsibility, which is why this path can be difficult. Rather than think your life is what an authority tells you you find it, make it your own.

Believers shouldn’t begrudge people who don’t need explanations or answers, and non-believers shouldn’t begrudge people who do. God as the only way is a selfish notion that topics such as meaning and purpose are only within the purview of Theists, a sort of Theistic imperialism.

“If we are merely matter intricately assembled, is this really demeaning? If there’s nothing here but atoms, does that make us less or does that make matter more?” ― Carl Sagan, The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God

If this life is the only one we have, it matters more. You take pleasure in simple things—a nice cup of tea, the wind in your face, great art, nature, pleasant company. The moments are treasured more because we know they won’t last, and we can only be sure of this life.

Do not aim for the world beyond, do better in this one, feel the life, the hustle, the bustle: love and dance and play in the world.

Closing thoughts

Life is full of little meanings that add up to a lot.

I’ve been considering my own Existential crisis. As a younger man, I was lost and alone.  I had, (still, have) such a passion, a yearning for something in my life that could guide me. I felt desolate inside.  I had to go through that phase in order to come out of the other side; I had to learn how to die.

I have come a long way from the desolation I once had. But i learned to in that desolation the first seed of a happier life can grow. I learned to live life more with passion, I began my quest to find out what mattered to me the most and find the meaning in my life.

We believe that when it comes to finding our purpose, it’s something outside of ourselves we need to grasp or, from inside, we need to excavate. We treat purpose as if it’s an object to possess.

Meaning matters to both sides, but where Atheists see meaning in their lives, theists need some divine rubber stamp to give their lives meaning. I don’t accept that non-believers have no meaning; the absence of answers to the big questions isn’t an indicator of a failed, erroneous, or incomplete worldview.

It’s an indicator of a worldview that accepts the ambiguity of life and therefore doesn’t need those answers. The cosmos is not obligated to meet our expectations, including making sense. It makes both the question and the answer seemingly absurd.

‘A new pride my ego taught me, and this I teach men: no longer to bury one’s head in the sand of heavenly things, but to bear it freely, an earthly head, which creates a meaning for the earth.’

Thus Spoke Zarathustra: Part One, “On the Afterworldly”

Consider dancing; the aim or intention of dance is not about where you end up on the dancefloor. The purpose is to enjoy the dance; the formal term here is Autotelic; own purpose. The same goes with music and art; there’s often no need for a message; it’s there to enjoy.

The change in the material world doesn’t undermine meaning; it’s playing in this world that gives meaning. In the east Emptiness is an essential part of their worldview.  The absence of a cosmic purpose means life matters more.

‘The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.’

Alan Watts