Isn’t life pointless? Why should the atheist bother? It’s all just going to end anyway, right? How does the atheist’s life have meaning?
The mere fact that consciousness exists, that some person exists who can see and know and create and manifest everything good for others and find happiness in living, is the most astounding thing of all. It does not matter if it is brief, for merely the opportunity itself is priceless and our being here, to acknowledge it, to study it, to know it, and to love it, gives the universe meaning. If we did not exist at all, then the universe would indeed be pointless, but since it becomes meaningful the moment we come to know and appreciate it, our lives share in that meaning and become the most valuable thing that can ever exist. From a point of view outside of time, everything, past and present, exists eternally: our lives sit forever like pearls on a string of time. What we do with our life, what we make of it, how we enjoy it, can never be taken away. It becomes a part of what exists, adding to its value, like gems in a purse.
The sages have said it for millennia, and it is true. It really is love that is key: love of learning, love of doing, love of others, love of ideals, love of country or cause, anything, everything, is the foundation of meaning. If we lacked that, we would be miserable and our lives pointless even if we lived forever. Even if we droned on with praises for a supreme being in heaven for all eternity our existence would be superficial, trite, unsatisfying, and ultimately a torture. Thus, the key lies in finding your loves and pursuing them, manifesting that love in defiance of a universe that won’t. What is worth loving? The potential of humanity, the power of reason, the comfort of another’s love, the pursuit of knowledge and truth, the beauty and joy of human experience, and the nearly unlimited power of the human will to endure almost any hardship or solve almost any problem. And that is just the short list. How many wonderful people do we know, or could we know if we sought them out, who are worth loving, loving merely for the fact that we wished there were more of them in the world, and that they alone would give us a meaning to live? Even when I look at something magnificent in nature, the stars, the wilds, the musculature of a sea lion, the beauty of a nebula, I think to myself “How fantastic!” How pointless that beauty would be if I didn’t notice and appreciate it. How valuable I am because I can.
Immortality is inconsequential in this equation. We have no ground to fear death, for death is the end of fear itself, and what is to fear in that? We live for only one reason: because we love life, all of it, any of it. And if it disappoints us that there is not enough happiness in the world, not enough goodness, we can contribute toward rectifying that, and that is what gives our lives meaning. The more good things we can create or teach and thus leave behind for others, the more lives we can light up with our company and companionship, the more precious our short existence will have been, and the more satisfied we will be that we used our bank account of life well, and thus deserved our measure. I have faced death on a few occasions, and yet I was always calm and accepting. On the one hand I knew I would no longer have any worries or pains when I no longer exist, and on the other hand I had lived a good life and done some small good, things that would never have been had I not existed at all, and my short span of knowing, enjoying, loving it all was well worth it. By making the universe that little bit brighter and more meaningful, my own life had value and meaning as a consequence.
For those who want to know more about how one can be happy in the face of death, I always recommend Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness. It was written for a social climate that has changed somewhat, but the fundamental ideas are universal, and well-put. I also always recommend a twenty-four-hundred year old epistle that remains as poignant today as then: Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus. Avid readers might consider a wealth of other things that might be worth looking up. E. D. Klemke has also compiled numerous essays on the subject in his book The Meaning of Life, and previous authors have also touched on the issue here on the Secular Web: see Keith Augustine’s Death and the Meaning of Life, and James Still’s Death Is Not an Event in Life (to which Christian critic Kevin D. Huddleston responded in Afterlife and Meaning). In addition to all this, on love I have written more myself, in Of Love, Brunettes, and Biology. And I have written more on the reasons to live a moral life in Does the Christian Theism Advocated by J.P. Moreland Provide a Better Reason to be Moral than Secular Humanism? Others have recommended the essays of a man who really looked into the Abyss and addressed it more honestly and directly than any other: Albert Camus, especially The Myth of Sisyphus.
But when you seem trapped by depression, you are probably as unwell as you would be with a dangerous flu, and the reaction should be the same: to seek medical help. The cure often requires a professional touch. Therapy can help you discover (or rediscover) what you love about life, and to come to terms with your fears. For example, an atheist, Dr. Albert Ellis, is the father of REBT (Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy) for the treatment of depression and other problems. On this matter, David Burns has written a book for the layman called Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy that comes highly recommended. However, sometimes the emotions that torture you are a chemical or other biological malfunction and thus need medications to correct, and thus professional diagnosis should always be sought when things get bad. If you feel you need a counsellor with a secular perspective, you can seek a referral through the American Humanist Association or the Humanist Society of Friends. But even as you seek help, also keep in mind home remedies that supplement the professional. Eat well and exercise. Take long walks in nice places. Take up a cause you feel good about and work to help others in some way that comes easily or comfortably to you, do any sort of good works. And above all, seek to maintain a happy, social interaction with other people. Studies have proven that people with a cause they care about and who have even a small but enriching social life live longer, happier, and healthier, and if it’s good for your health it’s good for your mind.
For I can summarize all of this in one sentence: a healthy mind in a healthy body, pursuing and manifesting what it loves, is the meaning of life.