Monday, January 13, 2014

Finding Meaning and Fulfillment

“So you believe in nothing?” is a common question I get when I tell people I’m an atheist and Secular Humanist. Often these theists believe that life has no meaning without God, and they consider the purely naturalistic view of the universe to be bleak, heartless, and devoid of emotional resonance. What these people simply do not understand is that humans are fully capable of having meaningful and fulfilling lives without resorting to supernaturalism.

As physicist Lawrence Krauss put it, “Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics: You are all stardust. You couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded, because the elements - the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, all the things that matter for evolution and for life - weren’t created at the beginning of time. They were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars, and the only way for them to get into your body is if those stars were kind enough to explode. So, forget Jesus. The stars died so that you could be here today.”[1] As if that wasn’t amazing enough, somehow this stardust learned to self replicate, and after billions of years of evolution, humanity emerged. Unlike any other species on our planet, ours has the capacity to understand our cosmic and evolutionary origins as well as a variety of other secrets of the universe. As Carl Sagan once said “we are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

Life and Death

When we die, our consciousness will cease to exist. While many people find this idea to be frightening, in reality, our existence will be the same as it was before we were born. There will be no joy, but there will also be no suffering. Given the finality of life, Secular Humanists realize that our time on Earth would be better spent finding fulfillment and leaving a positive legacy, rather than seeking the favor of imaginary beings to get into an imaginary afterlife. After we are dead, the only surviving aspect of our selves will be in the memories of the living, and in the work we’ve done to make the world a better or worse place. In all honesty, this is why I’ve spent hours of my life researching and writing for this blog. At least in some small way, if I can help people reject backwardness in favor of reason and compassion, humanity will be better off than it would have been had I never existed. Fulfillment from Awe

As atheist and marathon swimmer Diana Nyad once explained “I can stand at the beach’s edge with the most devout Christian, Jew, Buddhist, go on down the line, and weep with the beauty of this universe and be moved by all of humanity — all the billions of people who have lived before us, who have loved and hurt and suffered.”[2] All psychologically healthy humans, regardless of our religious background, are capable of awe. Psychologists explain this emotion as a result of being overwhelmed by vastness, which leads to a feeling of expanded time as well as a momentary increase in life satisfaction.[3] To me, knowledge and experience are the keys to experiencing awe. This is because vastness is something you both perceive and comprehend. Sure, the night sky might be beautiful on its own, but what makes it truly awesome is the fact that the light we see comes from massive balls of fire millions of light years away.

Finding Fulfillment from Pleasure

Secular Humanists realize that as long as we seek enjoyment responsibly, there is no reason to feel guilty for experiencing pleasure. This is one of the best parts of being an atheist, since we don’t have to worry about upsetting any deities as a result of our merriment. As the infamous UK atheist bus campaign slogan proclaimed “There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”[4] Do you like sports, books, games, inebriants, meditation, massage, sex, music, art, food, travel, etc? Go for it. Life is short, so you might as well have a good time while you’re here.

Finding Fulfillment from Relationships

Humans are social creatures and need quality relationships to be psychologically healthy. This is why people who experience chronic loneliness tend to be less adept at handling stress, which can lead to a myriad of health issues including high blood pressure and even reduced cognitive functioning.[5] Romantic relationships are especially good for us. They lead to general psychological health, a greater capacity to deal with pain, better stress management, longer lives, and a greater level of life satisfaction.[6] Fulfillment from Work

Work is good for us. Our brains evolved to pursue goals, and we get positive emotional feedback whenever we achieve them.[7] Depending on the nature of the work, it can have some really positive effects on people’s physical and mental health.[8] This is one reason why those who are unemployed tend to have higher rates of sickness, disability, mental health problems, and decreased life expectancy.[9] It feels good to get things accomplished and to be a productive member of society.

The Meaning of Life

Questions such as “why are we here?” and “what is my purpose?” are not taken very seriously by Secular Humanists. The reason: they presume that some sort of conscious entity put us here for a reason. Since we understand that the existence of such an entity is highly improbable, the questions are meaningless (forgive the pun.) This isn’t to say that life doesn’t have any meaning to us. We ultimately seek to live a fulfilling life, and whatever combination of awe, pleasure, relationships, and meaningful work resonates with us as individuals becomes our personal reason for existence.


Christopher Hitchens on awe

Great cartoon explaining our existence

A great series of videos promoting the book A Better Life

Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot”

1 comment:

  1. I very much related to your key points, and was reminded of one of my all-time favorite books, "The Tao of Physics". Excellent blog entry; I'm inspired to read your other entries! Sincerely, Jei.