Normalizing Atheism is an active Facebook page I recently joined. It is a surprisingly respectful forum for atheists to “come out” and for religious people to ask questions of atheists. On April 13, someone named Brian C. made this post:
“I’ve been pondering something lately: Is it possible to live without meaning or purpose? If so, how? How does one maintain a will to live without it? How does one orient oneself or make decisions? Would appreciate any thoughts on these questions.”
I expected atheists to give some sort of existentialist responses along the lines of Sartre. Instead, I was quite shocked to see this most popular reply from a woman named Vernie:
“I have never felt any need for a [god] or anybody else to help me or guide me. I have also never felt a need for meaning or purpose in my life. I guess I just live more for the moment. As I go through the different situations in my life, I find that maybe I want to improve or make a change in some area, and I will make a plan and accomplish that most of the time. That would be my purpose for the moment. I just don’t think our lives are that grand or important. We are here and then we’re gone.”
Quite a contrast with Sartre who wrote, “Life has no meaning a priori… It is up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing but the meaning that you choose.” Or Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl: “The meaning of life is to give life meaning.”
What about you, dear reader? Do you have a life purpose? Do you seek new life purposes? Or do you think it is better just to wander through life and take whatever comes your way? Some gave exactly that reply.
Michael F. Steger created a very short “Meaning in Life Questionnaire” (MLQ) which you can complete for yourself. Pew Research did an extensive “Where Americans Find Meaning in Life” survey in 2018. The top answer for most Americans? Family. Followed by: Career, Money, Spirituality and faith, Friends, Activities and hobbies, Health, Home and surrounding. Learning was in last place at 11%.
I love and support my family, but I can’t say that family should be the primary source of meaning in life. There is such a vast universe of need and opportunity beyond family. And for too many people, family is a source of stress if not actual injustice.
Some people find it helpful to write a personal “Mission Statement” to help them condense their life purpose into a single phrase or sentence. Some years ago, I condensed mine into these three words: “Enjoy, explore, improve.”
As conscious, feeling beings we should enjoy life. But enjoyment is transitory. We need to explore, grow, and learn to expand our horizons. It is important for me to feel a sense of purpose, but also important to seek new meaning and purpose as I learn more. I want to understand the true nature of reality and consciousness.
In my recent article “Why Follow the News?” I suggested balancing the time spent following the news with time spent taking action on it. That is the “improve” part of my personal mission.
“Helping others improves mental health” gets over a billion hits on Google. Many studies back this up and I do feel good when I help others. But for me, I need something more enduring to feel a sense of fulfillment and meaning. “If the purpose of life is helping others, then what is the purpose of the others?” I can’t find the source of this, but I do feel there is a limit to helping others as a source of meaning.
Much of my life has been devoted to science and engineering. I like the idea of building on the foundations of knowledge and technology of those who came before us. And leaving better knowledge and technology for those who follow us to build on. Connecting and working with others may be more important than “helping.”
There won’t be much of an enduring future if we don’t solve the Climate Crisis, species mass extinction, and threats of nuclear war. These must be prioritized.
But we also must make time for what gives life meaning. Perhaps if people felt more of a sense of meaning, connection, and purpose, we would be more motivated to solve current urgent crises and look far beyond to a better future?