I am sure that all of you reading this have at some point or another witnessed, heard of, or perhaps even been, a religious person attempting to convey how empty a life without God is. For the faithful, God is the centre of their universe. Belief in God is their most important value, their most primary function, and the seed from which their perspective on the world grows. And so it’s no surprise that whether or not you believe in God is likely what the religious consider to be your most important value, too. It’s how they look at the world, and it’s inevitably how they wish to frame you.
For atheists, of course, it should be relatively easy to recognize that a person’s perspective on God may be utterly irrelevant to his or her daily life; for people are composed of more than just their religious or nonreligious beliefs. But by maintaining that a person’s perspective on God is the most important aspect of their being, the religious are not only failing to see people outside of their own narrow scope of vision, they are also making an attempt to force upon atheists the idea that atheism is the dearth of purpose and meaning -- that atheism ultimately leads to degeneration, to decay, to nihilism and moral abandon and a life of pointless pursuits -- for if you don’t believe that God exists, then what are you worth to those who do? To them, you’re lost, you’re deluded, and you’re going to burn.
And so with this nefarious idea, religious people will often feel they have forced us to subscribe to their false dichotomy: we either believe in god and give our lives “true purpose” or we do not believe in god but suffer a meaningless existence and an infinity of torment thereafter. What I would say in response to them is this: it is in fact entirely possible to be a compassionate, caring atheist who finds tremendous meaning and purpose in life.
For me, the major difference between the religious and the atheistic concepts of purpose is that the atheistic position leaves the specifics of individual purpose up to us. We get to decide what’s important to us. Atheism contains no demands nor consensi on purpose, nor does it enforce any universal meaning. There is no atheistic, existential reason for all human existence. Yes of course there are likely to be similarities that we atheists share: most if not all of us find evolution rather than creation correct for instance. But such similarities are simply a common by-product of atheism’s core and sole tenet, which is nonbelief in God. It is not technically necessary to believe in evolution in order to be an atheist. And while most of us also believe in the concept of materialism -- that everything is made of a tangible substance or convertible force; that all is an energetic exchange - notice again that it is not necessary to believe that things work by the exchange of electrons in order to be an atheist. It just so happens that atheists tend to be more intelligent than the religious, and therefore are more likely to believe in logical, scientific theories and facts, rather than in unprovable superstitions and dogma.
It is these kinds of factual, scientific observations, and of course the conclusions drawn thereof - those about the structure and form of our universe - which the religious will deride as nihilistic, dark, depressing, lacking any higher moral authority, and as being devoid of any cosmic directive for life. How can a person’s life have meaning if they weren’t hand crafted; if they just got here by accident? If we are just energy, then what is point of anything? If there is no God, from whence does our morality come; why don’t we just run around killing and robbing each other? But such questions miss the forest because of the trees.
The fact that everything is at its most basic level a godless exchange of energy need not be succeeded by the idea that humans are “just” energy, for such an inflection is designed to strip us of value, and value is something which we are free to ascribe at will. Nor must that we recognize morals are subjective phenomena mean that we are cold, immoral creatures, for we still experience emotions like compassion, joy and love regardless of our philosophical positions on them. Likewise, that we do not believe that we were designed painstakingly by a man in the sky, does not mean that there is no beauty in our existence.
Think of this: every piece of energy that makes up our bodies has existed since the beginning of time itself. We are part of the universe, yet we are also a witness to it. Therefore, every time we look into a mirror, that is the universe seeing its own reflection. Such a thing results from the random culmination of energy that composes us begetting its own consciousness, and in reflecting on this, there are particles in our left eye which may well come from different stars than the particles in our right. Of all of the matter in all of the conceivable universes which does not emerge into realizing its own being, we on this little planet are an exception -- the only one we currently know of, in fact. Yes, one day it will be over, but rather than deny this reality — or worse: ignore these important enquiries entirely — is it not better to accept the endless evidence, concluding that we are a temporary occurrence and like the dying stars which preceded us, we will eventually fade out of the night sky, after a rare existence having experienced both pain and joy, and rain and sun?
Ultimately, all of us humans are faced with the reality of our insignificance in the vastness of space, in knowing that we live a mortal life and in seeing that we’re impotent to do anything to change that. Whereas the religious person in the wake of this realization turns toward the sky seeking God to save him from his mortality and from his impotence, we atheists need only look around us and recognize that none of this makes us impotent in the lives of our lovers, in the lives of our families and in the lives of our fellow human beings.
Intrinsic value is not afforded to human life by gods or by religions whose teachings belittle our mortality, but by the realization that we are mortal, that we are godless, that this makes each and every one of our lives invaluable: for on this little planet in the middle of empty space, amidst a vast and godless universe, our lives are all that one another have to share within it.