(This piece was originally published in The Humanist.)
“How can life have meaning without God?”
Pretty much every atheist/ humanist I know has gotten this question. It’s often asked in a smug, passive-aggressive way, by religious believers who seem to think it’s a real zinger, a deal-breaker of a question that we’ve somehow never contemplated. But it’s sometimes asked in all sincerity, by religious believers who genuinely can’t comprehend what meaning could even mean without a divine creator handing it to us from on high. And of course, humanists ask it of ourselves. We ask it of each other — and answer it for each other — when we’re presenting a positive public face of happy, ethical, meaningful atheism. And we ask it of ourselves in private, in all sincerity, in our long dark nights of the soul-less. The thorny question of life’s meaning isn’t magically answered by a belief in God — but it doesn’t magically disappear when we let go of that belief, either.
When humanists consider this question of meaning without God, of what gives us meaning and how we create it, we often answer with The Big Things. Love. Art. Marriage and family. Friendship. Community. Charity work. Making love. Making the world a better place. The never-ending search for knowledge. All of which are awesome; all of which are central parts of how I create meaning in my own life.
But I’d like to add a few things to that list.
I want to speak in praise of frivolity.
When we don’t think there’s any god or any afterlife, when we think this short life is all we have, then the meaning of that life is pretty much framed… well, within that life, and by the experiences we have in it. To some extent we can frame life’s meaning in terms of a future extending beyond it: our children living after us, our work and ideas surviving us, the ripples of how we affect other people continuing to ripple out after the stone of our life has sunk to the bottom of the pond. But if the meaning of our lives is focused in other people… then what meaning do their lives have? If we exist to make other people happy, and they exist to make other people happy, and so on and so on… at what point does that end?
At some point, doesn’t experience get to just matter, simply because it matters?
Consciousness is amazing. The fact that, out of earth and water and sunlight, life developed… and then developed into a form that could be aware of itself and its surroundings? That is amazing. And the fact that life has developed into a form that’s not just aware of itself, but is aware of other conscious beings and their consciousnesses, and is able to connect with them and understand them even in a flawed and limited way? That is amazing squared. As Carl Sagan said, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” Stars and planets and galaxies and so on are incredible… but they have no way of knowing they’re incredible, without biological life that has the capacity for conscious experience. (Of course, as the comedian Emo Philips pointed out, “I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this.”)
All of it matters.
Now, as it happens, I also think that frivolous pleasures make the Big Things possible, and more meaningful. Think about times in your life that have been action-packed and saturated with meaning: a week filled with major events in your work life and your love life and your family life and your community life and your creative life. They’re exhausting. It’s exhilarating to live like that for a while, but it gets overwhelming. It can’t be sustained. We need space surrounding the Big Moments — if we didn’t have it, the Moments would drown us and numb us, and they’d soon stop feeling so big. And of course, our Big Moments and our frivolous pleasures aren’t unconnected. The Big Moment of marrying Ingrid was more meaningful because of all the small, silly moments we’d shared up to then and would share afterwards… and our small, silly moments are more meaningful because we can feel the foundation of that Big Moment supporting them, and resonating through them.
But the frivolous bits of life aren’t just valuable because of their connection to the big bits. They’re valuable because they’re valuable. They’re valuable because they are the universe knowing itself, and experiencing itself, and taking joy in itself. They’re valuable because they are the conscious bits of the universe connecting with each other: through one person handing a cup of coffee across a counter and another person smiling and saying, “Thank you,” through one person designing a hot pink dress and another person wearing it and smiling when they catch their reflection in a window, through one person painting a picture of a parrot on the sidewalk and another person snapping a picture of it and putting it on their blog, through one person writing a silly song about thrift stores and another person sharing it with their friend and that friend humming it throughout their day, through one person making a donut and another person biting into it and experiencing joy.
When we let go of the idea that life is only meaningful because of God, when we truly accept that meaning is ours to create, I think we can stop being size queens about meaning. When we let go of the idea that joy only matters when it brings glory to the omnipotent creator of the universe, I think we can let all joy matter.