Once more, I venture into the realm of the obvious.
We atheists are often asked about meaning. How do we find meaning in life without God? For an atheist, what is the meaning of life? For me, the answer to that is pretty simple: meaning is personal. There is no inherent meaning to anything; something only has meaning to the extent that it means something to someone. When asked, “What does it mean?” one can reply, “What does it mean to whom?”
Even words have no inherent meaning. A word means what it means to those who use or hear it and, if a word means nothing to anyone, how can it be said to mean anything? With no one to utter or hear it with comprehension, it is nothing.
Dictionaries are often mentioned when I tell people that words have no inherent meaning. Well, dictionaries are more descriptive than prescriptive in that the definitions they provide are drawn from usage, not from some absolute, unchanging standard. A dictionary of a living language is a snapshot. Tomorrow, there will be new words in the language and the meanings of many of the old words will have evolved, because of the ways in which speakers of that language use and mean those words, and today’s dictionary meanings will be out of date.
My life has meaning to the extent that my existence means something to someone – especially to me but also to those whom I love. This suggests to me that I would do well to consider what my choices and the consequences of those choices mean to me and to others, for that is what my life means. That is something I can control (at least a little) and, therefore, something for which I am responsible (at least a little).
Sometimes, when people ask about the meaning of life, they are trying to understand what their purpose in life might be. Why am I here? For what reason was I put on this earth? Relax. You weren’t put here for a reason, so don’t worry about it. One of the consequences of the blind workings of this physical universe is that you came into being.
Some people will find that idea rather depressing. If you are such a person, try looking at it this way: having no purpose preordained by some cosmic overlord, you are freed from having to worry about whether or not you might have missed your “calling”. You were never called. If you desire purpose, you have the freedom and responsibility to create that purpose for yourself.
Want a calling? Call yourself. What are you here for? Well, what do you want to be here for and what do you need to do in order to fulfill that desire?
Personally, I find these answers satisfying. This is mostly because, to the best of my ability to figure out such things, these are the answers that are most likely to be true. I grew up with different answers – religious answers – which seemed more comforting at the time but which I eventually had to reject because I could no longer convince myself that they reflected reality. This leads me to quote George Bernard Shaw: “The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.” However, this skeptic finds himself happier now than he ever was as a believer. I don’t miss the false comforts of religion.