by Akim Reinhardt
Several co-workers, all of whom have Ph.D.s. An old friend who’s a physicist. Scads of family members of both blue and white collar variety. Numerous neighbors. And of course the well dressed, kindly old women who occasionally show up at my door uninvited, pamphlets in hand.
One can point to general trends about the powerless, the vulnerable, and the less-educated as likelier to believe in God than those full of book learnin’ or living the good life. But But when the vast, vast majority believe, the believers represent a thorough cross-section of society. And so my daily existence, and that of many if not most atheists, involves sharing interactions and ideas with all sorts of people, wealthy and poor, old and young, male and female, well educated and not, who embrace magical thinking to one degree or another. Who believe either quite vividly or a bit vaguely in a supreme, celestial being or force with at least some degree of sentience and even an agenda. A god who sees and hears us. And perhaps a soul or spirit within in us that lives on after our bodies have given out, some ethereal expression of immortality, some mechanism of continuity after this go-around is done, some medium of transcendence into a heavenly (or hellish) destiny, or perhaps into another corpus, whether animal or human yet unborn, and from there a fresh start.
We, the atheists, the ones who, if you are anything like me, cannot believe even if we desperately want to because we find it patently unbelievable, are a small minority around the world. Here in the Untied States we number a scant 3%. All around us, a great majority run the gamut: agnostics (only 4%) who may one day end up like us; a growing number of people who just don’t think about it all that much until they end up in some proverbial foxhole; conscious believers, such as my friend the physicist, who might be like us in countless other ways; hardier believers hungrily gulping up the magic; and ever up the scale eventually peaking with a small number of badly broken and certifiably insane people who think they themselves are this or that saint or such and such deity.
Sometimes as an atheist, the difficult part is recognizing that all humans are on a continuum of which even we are part. That holistic reality cuts against the atheistic tendency to cast ourselves and definitively and fundamentally different from all believers. But of course it’s not as simple as Us and Them because that’s not how a scale works. My physicist friend and I are undoubtedly much closer to each other on these matters than either of us is to someone who thinks they are Jesus reincarnated, or even to a not-mentally-ill yet still hard core devotee. Beyond that, however, there is also something that unites all of us, a central human thread that ties us together. Whether we eschew the supernatural or cling to it, we are all enjoined on a quest for meaning and purpose in life.
Meaning and purpose overlap, but they are not the same things. One’s purpose is what one feels she or he is here to do. For the religious this may include fulfilling the wishes of a god. For all people, religious or not, it likely includes numerous secular goals such as being a successful worker, a loving and loyal family member of various stripes, a good friend, and proficient at one or more hobbies. There are many more life purposes I could list, but in short, it’s The Doing. Or rather, how we interpret and prioritize all that we do and don’t do. What we believe we need to do, ought to do, and want to do. For most of us, self-survival and the protection of deeply loved ones are at or near the top, while the things we must do despite loathing them rank near the bottom, with a panoply of purposeful life acts between them.
Life’s meaning, however, is far more esoteric than life’s purpose. Purpose might help shape meaning, but purpose is not the same as meaning. Meaning is less about the actual doing and more about Why we do and don’t do. Life’s meaning is the superstructure framing the otherwise entropic string of days and nights unfolding before us. If life’s purpose is a tactical arrangement of actions, then life’s meaning is the strategic philosophy that makes senses of it all.
Which is where religion can be quite handy. Religions offer up pre-packaged solutions to the abstract, quizzical nature of life’s ultimate significance. We atheists generally to reject these dogmatic manuals of meaning, which in turn leaves us to find our own meanings of life. However, doing so is not as horrible, painful, or difficult as many religious believers assume. And more importantly, rejecting religion does not free us from pursuing our own purposes and meanings. There are two reasons why are incapable of searching out pupose and meaning, and why such quests are not necessarily painfully impossible.
First, it seems that we, as human beings, are inclined to find meaning and purpose. People are hard wired to find order and meaning in the universe, even where little or none actually exists. We are quick to discern patterns amid chaos, to build up scattered pieces into coherent narratives, to transform coincidence into cause. Afterwards, we are often even quicker to slap labels of meaning upon these fabrications. Good or bad. Right or wrong. Meaningful, in one way or another, or not. And there are sound evolutionary reasons for this. By finding patterns, constructing narratives, and identifying causes, we become cognitively stronger, and more resilient in the face of adversity. And by manufacturing meaning we gain a sense of peace, contentment, and happiness, making life itself more bearable and rewarding.
The second reason is that as human beings raised and living in human societies, we are constantly taught and messaged various forms of purpose and meaning. Societies express themselves through cultures, and cultures offer up mores, ideals, taboos, and various value systems full of purpose and meaning and expressed through various symbols. It’s impossible to escape.
Thus, given our inherent proclivities and the relentless social messaging that bombards us, it is nearly impossible to detach ourselves from endless pursuits of purpose and meaning. Between our own inclinations and the constant social messaging and pressure, purpose and meaning become like the air we breath: omnipresent, absolutely integral, and largely unnoticed even as it is impossible to escape.
This is what we, the atheists, have in common with the godly. We justify what we do and filter our existence through meaning. Our one big difference is that we don’t use religion to do so. That rejection of religion and the supernatural is the primary, fundamental difference between atheists and the religious, nothing else. And even that is limited. Religious values from major creeds such as Islam and Christianity have so permeated the societies they dominate that we can’t help but absorb some of their values.
Thus, in the end, all of us humans are doing the same thing, day in and day out, defining and interpreting our existence and the world around us, and there is in fact much overlap among the purposes and meanings we end up embracing, even as a small number of us consciously shun magical or supernatural explanations and frameworks when doing so.
Perhaps our defining characteristic as atheists then is less about our attitude towards the supernatural and more about our willingness to reject certain (but not all) dogmas of purpose and meaning, while often still accepting other dogmas.
This has occasionally led to frustrations for me. Not because I defiantly demand that my atheistic values be completely different from religious values. That, quite frankly, strikes me as childish and equally dogmatic. Rather, it is because I, like some other atheists, have concluded that there actually is no meaning.
Some years ago it occurred to me that all meaning and purpose is imagined. Neither meaning, nor any other idea, is anything but a creation of the human mind. I stare into the void and see nothing because, I believe, there is nothing to see. There are collections of matter and energy, but there there is no meaning to any of it.
Of course the universe is vast and largely unknowable, so meaninglessness certainly cannot be verified. Even physicists have to scratch their head and shrug to some degree at some of their own concepts, such as quantum entanglements and infinite expansion. However, given what we little we do know, it seems quite likely to me that all meaning is human fabrication, and that it is in every form an invention of our own devising and for our own purposes, clever fictions that we are very prone to creating, quite adept at using in mutable and flexible ways, and which are given to fabulous payoffs even (especially?) in the direst of circumstances, helping us to soldier on, to make necessary sacrifices, and to occasionally find some peace.
And it is precisely this intersection that so frustrates me. My ongoing need, second nature, really, to continue identifying purposes and meanings even after I have concluded that all meaning is nothing more than cerebral window dressing or our own design, a gauze we drape over our eyes, blinding us to what we do not wish to see and softening and distorting that which we still perceive. I want to stop finding meaning, yet I have been unable to do so. And thus, I am in a constant struggle with myself, sometimes meandering along with various meanings as my interpretive guide, and sometimes openly confronting the infinite meaninglessness of it all. Certain moments have a way of snapping me into the latter frame of mind. For example . . .
“Everything happens for a reason.”
This is a popular saying in the United States, often offered in the form of condolence or consolation. The adage is so vague and widespread that it never rings in my ears as a clear assertion, but rather as a desperate, threadbare defense against the obvious conclusions to be drawn from a child getting cancer or someone being struck by lightening: that absolutely nothing happens for a reason, because there are no reasons. Yes, there are certainly causes, always, but in this aphorism, “reason” is a direct substitute for “meaning.” “Everything happens for a reason” asserts a grand plan full of meaning, even if you cannot always discern it.
But of course whenever someone utters this cliché, it immediately shakes me out of whatever stupor of possible meanings I was indulging, and reminds me that there are no cosmic plans, no meanings big or small, discernable or otherwise. That there is no morality or ethics, just our fabrications of them, and that there is certainly no Master Plan through which our lives unfold like pieces on a chessboard.
And in those moments I often feel very alone, not because of the stark reality of meaninglessness, but because I am talking to someone who thoroughly embraces meaning, and am not inclined to puncture their fantasies. Why? Because if there is one of these artificial meanings that I tend to live my life by, it is the effort to avoid causing unnecessary pain. To not be cruel. To not cause someone else’s lived experience to be needlessly awful. And so when someone tells me that everything happens for a reason, I do not respond with a brief treatise on life’s ultimate meaninglessness.
Perhaps this is ironic given that I am a professor, and it is my life’s profession to teach people. Even more ironic, perhaps my silence is itself a form of unintended cruelty; perhaps people would be better off facing the truth of it. Or perhaps I should just fall back on the one thing I know to be true: either way, it really doesn’t matter. For that is not a cop out; that is nothing more and nothing less than the long and the short of it. Indeed. Absolutely nothing matters.
Akim Reinhardt’s website is ThePublicProfessor.com