Source: Why Evolution is True
Author Tom Chivers sometimes writes at Buzzfeed, where he’s a welcome exception to the usual clickbait-compilers at that site (see my post on his nice article about how doctors would like to die). His latest effort involved interviewing several of us heathens about how nonbelievers find meaning in life. As you well know, theists seem deeply puzzled by this question, a sign that they can’t think outside the God Box, and can’t even see what’s around them.
Chivers’s piece, “I asked atheists how they find meaning in a purposeless universe,” surveys a broad spectrum of scientists, writers, and humanists. The answers, I hope, will put an end to this persistent and annoying question. Here’s my answer, which was given by phone so is a bit choppy:
Jerry Coyne, evoutionary biologist and author of Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible:
“The way I find meaning is the way that most people find meaning, even religious ones, which is to get pleasure and significance from your job, from your loved ones, from your avocation, art, literature, music. People like me don’t worry about what it’s all about in a cosmic sense, because we know it isn’t about anything. It’s what we make of this transitory existence that matters.
“If you’re an atheist and an evolutionary biologist, what you think is, I’m lucky to have these 80-odd years: How can I make the most of my existence here?Being an atheist means coming to grips with reality. And the reality is twofold. We’re going to die as individuals, and the whole of humanity, unless we find a way to colonise other planets, is going to go extinct. So there’s lots of things that we have to deal with that we don’t like. We just come to grips with the reality. Life is the result of natural selection, and death is the result of natural selection. We are evolved in such a way that death is almost inevitable. So you just deal with it.
It says in the Bible that, ‘When I was a child I played with childish things, and when I became a man I put away those childish things.’ And one of those childish things is the superstition that there’s a higher purpose. Christopher Hitchens said it’s time to move beyond the mewling childhood of our species and deal with reality as it is, and that’s what we have to do.”
The subtitle of Chivers’s piece is “If there’s no afterlife or reason for the universe, how do you make your life matter? Warning: the last answer may break your heart.” So of course I’ll put up the last answer:
Jan Doig [JAC: I’m not sure who she is, but she’s wonderfully eloquent]:
“Three years and nine months ago I would have declared myself agnostic. Then my husband died without warning at the age of 47. My life fell to pieces. This is no exaggeration. As the terrible days passed in a fog the same question kept forming. Why? Why him? Why us? I was told by well-meaning friends that it was part of God’s plan and we would simply never know what that was. Or from friends with a looser definition of religion, that The Universe had something to teach me. I had lessons to learn.
“These thoughts caused me great fear, anger and confusion. What sort of God, even if he had a plan for me, would separate a fine. kind, gentle man from his children. Why would God or the Universe look down and pick on our little family for special treatment? Why a good man with not a bad bone in his body who had never raised a hand to anyone. My best friend for 29 years. Any lesson the Universe had to teach me I would have learned willingly. He didn’t have to die!
“I thought about it a lot. I was raised Catholic so guilt ran through me like writing through a stick of rock. Had I been a bad wife? Was he waiting for me? There were days when if I had been certain of a belief in an afterlife I might have gone to join him. It was a desperate time. I needed evidence and there simply wasn’t any. I just had to have faith and believe.
“One day as I was sitting on his memorial bench in the local park I suddenly thought: what if no one is to blame? Not God. Not me. Not the Universe. What if he’s gone and that’s all there is to it? No plan. Just dreadful circumstances. A minor disturbance in his heart lead to a more serious and ultimately deadly arrhythmia and that killed him in a matter of moments. It is a purely scientific view of it. I may seem cold or callous but I found comfort in that. I cried and cried and cried, but that made logical sense to me and brought me great peace.
[JAC: This reminds me of Christopher Hitchens’s statement after his diagnosis of cancer. As he said at the time, “To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?”]
“My heart and head still miss my husband every day. I treasure everything he gave me and I love him as much today as the day he died. But I can remember him happily without wondering what we had done to deserve this dreadful separation.
“So I declare myself atheist (and humanist by extension) and my friends shake their heads. I stay on the straight and narrow without the guiding hand of a creator or any book of instructions.
“I’m not a religious or a spiritual person. (For some reason many of my female friends are shocked by this admission!) I don’t believe in God or the Universe. I don’t believe in angels, the power of prayer, spirits, ghosts or an afterlife. The list goes on and on. I think there is a scientific meaning for everything even if we don’t understand it yet. I find meaning in every day things and I choose to carry on.
“The sun comes up and I have a chance to be kind to anyone who crosses my path because I can. I make that choice for myself and nobody has to tell me to do it. I am right with myself. I try my best to do my best, and if I fail, I try againtomorrow. I support myself in my own journey through life. I draw my own conclusions.
“I find joy in the people I love. I love and I am loved. I find peace in the places I visit. Cry when I listen to music I love and find almost child like joy in many things.This world is brilliant and full of fascinating things. I have to think carefully for myself. I don’t have to believe what I’m told. I must ask questions and I try and use logic and reason to answer them. I believe that every human life carries equal worth. I struggle with how difficult the world can be but when we have free will some people will make terrible decisions. No deity forces their hand and they must live with that.
“Life is a personal struggle. Grieving is never an easy road to travel. It’s painful and lonely at times but I use what I know to try to help when I can. I try to be loving and caring with my family and friends and have fun. I will cry with friends in distress and hear other people’s stories and be kind because it does me good as well. I listen and I learn. It helps me to be better. Life without God is not a life without meaning. Everything, each and every interaction is full of meaning. Everything matters.”
Among the others interviewed are Susan Blackmore, Gia Milinovich, Jennifer Michael Hecht, and Adam Rutherford. There’s a commonality among the answers—I’d like to echo Darwin in saying that “there is a grandeur in this view of life”—and the common theme is that we all recognize that there is no ultimate purpose or meaning of life, at least in the theists’ cosmic sense, but that we find meaning in our activities and relationships.
That’s not much difference from how theists find meaning in their quotidian life; note the convergence between what many of the atheists consider their “purpose” (“Be kind to loved ones and strangers”, “Do something good for society”) and the so-called Meaning Given by God. In the end, the quotidian life is all we have.
Chivers’a article should be bookmarked as the definitive response to a nonsensical question that religionists raise time and time again. They may not like the answers, but, given what we know about the universe, they happen to be true.