Can atheists have meaning and purpose in life?

Here’s a post about it from Aaron Brake, writing on Please Convince Me blog.


The question of God’s existence is the most important question we can seek to answer. If God does not exist and we do not survive the death of our bodies, life is ultimately absurd. J.P. Moreland provides an illustration which helps bring this truth home:

Suppose I invited you over to my house to play a game of Monopoly. When you arrive I announce that the game is going to be a bit different. Before us is the Monopoly board, a set of jacks, a coin, the television remote, and a refrigerator in the corner of the room. I grant you the first turn, and puzzlingly, inform you that you may do anything you want: fill the board with hotels, throw the coin in the air, toss a few jacks, fix a sandwich, or turn on the television. You respond by putting hotels all over the board and smugly sit back as I take my turn. I respond by dumping the board upside down and tossing the coin in the air. Somewhat annoyed, you right the board and replenish it with hotels. I turn on the television and dump the board over again.

Now it wouldn’t take too many cycles of this nonsense to recognize that it didn’t really matter what you did with your turn, and here’s why. There is no goal, no purpose to the game we are playing. Our successive turns form a series of one meaningless event after another. Why? Because if the game as a whole has no purpose, the individual moves within the game are pointless. Conversely, only a game’s actual purpose according to its inventor can give the individual moves significance.[1]

As Moreland articulates, if the game of Monopoly as a whole has no purpose, the individual moves within the game have no meaning or value. The only way your moves within the game of Monopoly have significance is if you discover the purpose of the game and you align yourself with that purpose.

As it is with Monopoly, so it is with life. Like the game of Monopoly, the only way our individual lives have any ultimate meaning or value is if life has purpose behind it, and real purpose requires both God and life after death.

My experience with atheists is that they are not really concerned about letting their life be accountable to facts. In atheism, the desire for happiness comes first, and the facts have to be massaged to justify it. For example, if there is a fine-tuning argument, they invent the multiverse. If there is a cosmological argument, they invent the eternal universe. If the origin of life is a problem, they invent aliens to seed the Earth with life. If the resurrection is a problem, then Jesus never existed. The main thing is that no God is there to suggest any other purpose to the atheist than what he wants to do himself.

Brake explains:

Some atheists object at this point: “But I do have purpose in life. I do have meaning.” In a 2010 debate entitled “Does the Universe Have a Purpose?” skeptic Michael Shermer offers four things that allow people to feel more happy, fulfilled, and purposeful in life, regardless of whether or not God exists:[7]

  1. Deep love and family commitment
  2. Meaningful work and career
  3. Social and political involvement
  4. A sense of transcendency

Later in the debate, Shermer goes on to say,

Don’t you think even if there isn’t a God that you should find some purpose?…Maybe there’s a God, maybe there’s not. Either way, don’t you think you ought to roll up your sleeves and see if you can figure out some useful things to do to give yourself purpose outside of God? Don’t you think that’s worthwhile?…Shouldn’t I be doing these nice things for other people? Shouldn’t I be finding love and commitment to somebody, a meaningful career, helping my social community and being involved in politics, trying to transcend myself and do something outside of myself? Shouldn’t I be doing those things anyway?

But notice that Shermer here completely misses the point, which is this: if there is no God, then there is no ultimate, objective meaning, value, and purpose in life. Sure, you can create subjective meaning and purpose if you so desire. You can live for any personal, subjective cause or reason that makes you happy. You can even do nice things regardless of whether or not God exists. But Shermer offers no account or explanation as to why if there is no God any of these things are objectively good, or why any of these things are objectively meaningful, valuable or purposeful, or why we should pursue these ends as opposed to others that may make us more fulfilled and happy. In the end, it makes no difference, objectively speaking, whether or not you pursue these goals or not because in the end, everything winds up the same anyway: you die, I die, the universe dies, and that’s just all there is to it. Christian theist William Lane Craig offered this rejoinder both to Shermer and Richard Dawkins in the debate:

There has been a major shift in the last two speeches in this debate. Did you see what it was? We’ve argued tonight first of all that if God does not exist, then the universe has no purpose. Our atheist colleagues admit that. But now what they’ve been claiming is, “But look, we can construct a purpose for our lives,” in Richard Dawkins’ words, or in Michael Shermer’s words, “We can develop ways to make us feel better, feeling like we have a purpose.” Now you see this just is to say that we can pretend that the universe exists for some purpose, and this is just make-believe. This is the subjective illusion of purpose, but there is on this view no objectivepurpose for the universe. And we of course would never deny that you can’t develop subjective purposes for your life. The point is on atheism they’re all illusory…But you cannot live as though your life were purposeless and meaninglessness and therefore you adopt subjective illusions of purpose to make your live livable. And that’s why I think atheism is not only irrational, it is profoundly unlivable. You cannot live consistently and purposefully within the context of an atheistic worldview.

The problem with atheism is that they can’t prefer Stalin’s purpose to William Wilberforce’s purpose, on their view, because people just choose their own purpose and everyone’s purpose is as valid as anyone else’s. On their view, BOTH Stalin and Wilberforce’s purposes are equally rational to choose because the criterion for choosing is happiness and satisfaction in this life. An atheist can claim that such and such is “meaningful” or “good”, to try to sound reasonable in front of a Judeo-Christian crowd. But the problem is that on their view, any purpose that anyone might choose for themselves is equally justified because they are all SUBJECTIVE. If there are no rules to the game, then any arbitrary choice of how to play it is as justified as any other.

What you find when talking to atheists is that they tend to very much favor the rights of the strong over responsibilities to the weak. You won’t find too many atheists in favor of chastity, right to life or natural marriage. Chastity, right to life and natural marriage exist to provide children (who are less powerful) with what they need, at the expense of selfish adults. How would you ground that in an atheistic universe. Give up my sexual rights for some weak child? No way. What Shermer says sounds so good until you think it through a little more and realize that he is pushing for relativism.

32 thoughts on “Can atheists have meaning and purpose in life?”

  1. That’s a really good point at the end: when atheists pretend to adopt quasi-Christian values, they actually end up living anti-Christian values.


  2. This is why I’m thoroughly annoyed by atheist attempts to proselytize. Why would I give up my worldview, which says that I have a purpose and value, for a worldview in which nothing, including me, matters if objective TRUTH doesn’t even matter, given the implications of that worldview?
    If we are nothing but a chemical stain on the face of an uncaring universe, why should I bother pursuing what’s true?
    Why should I bother BELIEVING the statement “God doesn’t exist” to be true in the first place?
    Why not continue going on with my life believing what I believe anyway? It’s not like it affects them, or anything at all.
    It makes no difference because we’re all going to the same place, right?
    We’re all going to cease to exist, and we won’t remember each other, any convictions we had, anything.
    Given all this, why should I adopt such a worldview? According to Pascal’s Wager, I have a guarantee of nondissatisfaction, since I’ll never ultimately find out if I’m wrong about God’s existence. I’ll be dead. On the other hand, the atheist will never have the satisfaction of being right. There’s no one left to be “right.” They’ll be dead. I don’t think there’s a worldview out there that’s more pointless than atheism, if only one looks at its implications dead in the eye.


  3. The Monopoly example is appropriate because – let’s face it – Monopoly is just a game. It has no purpose or value in relation to real life, just as Monopoly money has no value at real-life Walmart. Therefore, the rules of Monopoly only have value in the framework of the Monopoly game. They don’t have any ultimate value.

    Our day-to-day lives are just like a game. We are trying to win this game insofar as we try to earn money to support ourselves and help our loved ones, etc. There are rules we must follow in order to win in this game of life. And after a while it’s “game over.”

    Like the Monopoly game, our lives do not have any meaning outside of their narrow context. We’re just playing! There’s no ultimate meaning to it, but we’re just trying to have some fun while it lasts.


    1. John, the game of Monopoly was designed by Elizabeth Magie. Who designed the game of Life? (Please don’t answer Reuben Klamer :-)) You say “There are rules we must follow in order to win in this game of life.” Who determines those rules? Ken Lay? Mother Teresa? Finally, you assert “There’s no ultimate meaning to it,” Please provide data to support this claim.


      1. He is coming from an atheistic perspective, that’s why he said there was no ultimate meaning. That’s his view and he is consistent and informed to say that.


        1. I agree that he is consistent – not sure about informed. But, he has not established evidence for the “no ultimate meaning” assertion, anymore than Hitchens established evidence for the “no God” proposition. I was not questioning his consistency, only that he has to provide evidence for his claim. John is NOT agnostic on whether life has any ultimate meaning, in which case he would not have to provide evidence either way. He is a-(ultimate meaning), and therefore, he must give us all of his reasons for this position. Perhaps he can convert me back to that point of view. :-)

          I am assuming that you concur that he also has to provide a Source for his (implied) objective rules for the game of life? Otherwise, we can choose Ken Lay or Mother Teresa or Charles Manson or anyone else for our source, and the game reverts to rules-relativism, as the article clearly shows.


          1. Well, on his view – atheism – there is no overall purpose to life, so he is agreeing with the post. He is saying “on my view, there is no purpose and no ultimate meaning”. This is true if atheism is true, and he thinks it is true. I don’t think he’s right about that, but if he is right about atheism, then there is no ultimate meaning in life and each person is just out for some fun.


          2. Correct, and for that reason, I agree with you that he is consistent and agreeing with the premise. I just want him to provide evidence for his clearly stated position that a-(ultimate meaning) is true. I am interested in how he can make that claim with determination. So, I am not arguing against his agreement with the post, nor with him being a consistent atheist. I’m merely interested in his grounding for a-(ultimate meaning).

            But, I do see your point now: he is agreeing with the post and happily on his way with his atheism. I am trying to argue him out of his atheism, while you are content with the fact that he admits the premise of the post. That is the evangelist in me. :-) Perhaps it’s another post as to how a person can ground a-(ultimate meaning). I’ll bet John is enjoying watching us argue over his reply. :-) Where are you, John? Come back and put me in my place by grounding your position! I’m trying to fill out an apologetics briefing and you are not helping. :-)


  4. Wintery is right that I don’t think there’s any ultimate meaning in life. And yes, I feel OK about that.

    Maybe “each person is just out for some fun,” but on the other hand, I think life is a game you can win or lose, and it’s no fun to lose. So I don’t think people can do whatever they short-sightedly think is fun. We all have to obey certain rules in order to survive and thrive in this world.

    Unlike the Monopoly game, life was not designed. The rules just are. That’s my position, anyway. You want evidence? Well, evolution has lots of evidence for it. That’s just a start.

    How’s this for an argument: (a) In order for meaning to exist, one thing must mean another thing. It doesn’t make sense for one thing to mean itself. (b) God encompasses all that exists. Nothing exists apart from God. (c) Therefore, God himself cannot possibly have any meaning. The concept of “ultimate meaning” is incoherent.

    WorldGoneCrazy is wrong to say I’m not agnostic. I’m perfectly willing to admit I might be wrong. It’s just that I “vote” for the atheist party. Just because I vote for Dawkins, though, that doesn’t mean I think he’ll be the absolute perfect prime minister. I just have a hunch he’d be a little better.

    Go ahead and try to argue me out of my atheism. It’s fun to discuss these things. For what it’s worth, I don’t particularly want to persuade you to stop being Christian.


    1. How can you win or lose at life if all the rules are arbitrary? If there isn’t any reason to be here, we’re all losers in the end. No matter what we do, everything we touch and everyone we impact will end up in the same place when the universe finally succumbs to entropy. Why even bother playing such a game? Seems silly to me.


      1. The rules fit together into a well ordered system, so they aren’t arbitrary in relation to each other, only in relation to the universe as a whole.
        We play the game of life for the same reason we play Monopoly. We just feel like playing. Why does everything depend on some distant goal? We should enjoy the journey and not worry about the destination.


          1. Put another way: just as one cannot have laws without a Lawgiver, so too one cannot have rules without a Rulemaker.


    2. Hey, John, thanks so much for returning! I really want to understand your view here. And I appreciate your moving off of your previous position of a-(ultimate meaning), when you stated ‘There’s no ultimate meaning to it,” to your current agnostic (with respect to ultimate meaning) position of ‘Wintery is right that I don’t think there’s any ultimate meaning in life.’ I think that shows an intellectual honesty that most atheists do not confess until pressed on it. And I have yet to see an atheist not move from a-theism to agnosticism when confronted with their lack of evidence, so you are in good company.

      Regarding the argument for a-(ultimate meaning), you state in premise (b) that “God encompasses all that exists.” But, of course, this pantheistic “god” bears no witness to the Uncaused First Cause of the cosmological argument nor to the Christian God. There would need to be some sort of evidence for such a statement.

      When you state that “the rules just are,” this reminds me of the answer I usually get from atheists to the question “why is there something rather than nothing?”. In all sincerity, I must ask, are you really satisfied with such answers? I do not say this derogatorily, but I only found this satisfying as an answer when I was VERY young and had not formed the ability for significant rational thought. Even as a committed anti-Christian PhD naturalist in my 30’s, I remember asking myself the question about the existence of anything, and I said to myself “because Carl Sagan says so.” (I was a big Sagan fan back then.) At least I had “evolved” from “it just is” to an appeal to authority. :-) However, every time I did that, I remember feeling a bit odd about that reply, since I would never allow such a lack of evidence in my engineering career.

      Thanks for your reply and help, John! BTW, I visited your page and I was wondering, are you a big Dennett fan? I was a huge fan of his back in the 80’s – the Mind’s I and all. Too bad none of that stuff came true. (I know, I know – it’s just a matter of time. :-)) But autocorrect is pretty impressive after all. :-)


      1. I didn’t change my position. Lack of certainty is a fundamental aspect of my atheism. You’re right that I’m not “satisfied” with this lack of clear explanations, but I prefer to acknowledge my ignorance instead of clinging to a made-up answer.
        Thanks for looking at my blog! You can contact me directly through my blog if you want to have a more in-depth discussion. But I’m always hanging out here on Wintery Knight too.


          1. No. Why do you guys keep asking this? It’s almost as if you can’t comprehend someone not being certain. Or you’re so quick to throw out a “gotcha” argument that you don’t even consider what I’m saying.


  5. WorldGoneCrazy

    I would like to ask what made you become a christian? I used to be a christian and have recently become an nihilist (agnostic on good days). It was evolution, the scientific errors in genesis and the unreliability of the new testament that made me convert away. What made a “committed anti-Christian PhD naturalist” choose the questionable path to christianity? I’m not trying to troll but would like to genuinley know the thinking behind this.


    1. Hi Luis! Thanks for the great question, and, no, as for me, your visiting this site is not only NOT trolling, it is highly welcome and appreciated!
      In what follows, I will just hit the highlights. Let me set the stage for where I was immediately prior to turning my life over to God.
      In terms of worldly accomplishments:
      a. 4 degrees in engineering and mathematics.
      b. 21 years in spacecraft design, including critical survival systems on two spacecraft, which, as of this writing, have been in successful operation for 24 and 16 years respectively.
      c. 7 years as a graduate level adjunct engineering professor teaching PhD and upper level Master’s students.
      c. 9 years running my own engineering business.
      d. a little over a million dollars in financial assets to my name.
      e. a very successful wife and 3 highly successful children.
      In terms of spiritual accomplishments:
      a. I could not objectively ground my own existence or the existence of anything. I was NOT happy with the lack of intellectual depth in my two stock replies to the question “why is there something rather than nothing?” “There just is” and “because Carl Sagan said so” just did not cut it anymore for me and my high brow intellectualism. So, I had an intuitive, but not formal, understanding of the Kalam Cosmological Argument for the Existence of God. Here was some evidence that naturalism couldn’t cut it.
      b. I could not objectively ground truth. I was a truth relativist, and this made me VERY uncomfortable, but I could not figure out why. Was there no unshakeable grounding for truth? Wasn’t it true that there were no objective truths?!? :-) (You HAVE studied the self-refuting nature of post-modernism, haven’t you Luis?)
      c. I could not objectively ground morality. I “felt” that the volunteering and charitable works I was doing were “good,” but under naturalism, I also knew that there was no objective basis for this feeling or for doing such things. (It was only recently, when WK posted this: that I came to discover that even heavy atheistic hitters like Dawkins, Provine, and Ruse had come to this same conclusion.) I did not formally state the Moral Argument for the Existence of God, but, again, I had an intuitive understanding of it. More evidence that naturalism fell short in terms of livability.
      d. I could not answer the problem of evil. When a little girl was violently raped and then tortured and murdered, I asked myself “why?” The answers “natural selection,” “survival of the fittest,” “random chance,” etc began to creep me out to an extreme. Once again, I did not formally state the Argument for the Existence for God from Evil, but, I had some intuitive understanding of it. Big problem for naturalism – and theism too.
      e. I hated Christians, but loved all practitioners of other religions. The only things I hated worse than Christians were Christian churches and Bibles!
      In a nutshell, I was highly successful in a worldly sense, but miserable in a spiritual sense. All of those degrees and accomplishments, but I could not answer the most basic question all humans ask themselves with any level of intellectualism! So, I did what any reasonable engineer would do: I went with an empirical test. I spoke to this God Guy and acknowledged that I was an educated idiot and could not answer the most basic questions, and I asked Him to take over my life, fix it spiritually, and answer these questions for me. If He existed, I would devote my life as close to 100% to Him as I possibly could, but I needed “more than a feeling” – I needed data and some feedback and some evidence for His existence! (Needless to say, I conducted this test in my house – not a church. See point (e) above.)
      I received a number of (possibly subjective, probably objective) experiences following this, but one of the more compelling was when I woke up 7 months later, turned to my wife and said “I cannot remember the last time I cussed.” She said “I can’t either!” To give you an appreciation for how significant this was, I used to make a sailor blush. I cussed early and I cussed often (like they vote in Chicago :-)) and I cussed filthily, and I did it mostly in front of my wife and children. I “knew” this was “wrong” (but of course could not ground it objectively), and had tried to stop it for decades – totally unsuccessfully. I had totally given up on changing this part of me, and let’s face it: under naturalism, there is no objective reason to stop cussing. I mean, it was just my molecules talking, right?
      At this point, my knowledge of Christianity was primitive at the best and woeful at the worst. So, I purchased a book called “The Science of God” by Gerald L. Schroeder. It was VERY important to me, given my background, that this God that I now believed in, and Who had provided me with some possibly objective experiential data, was a scientific God. One of the things this book opened my eyes to was the day-age concept that reconciles the 6 days of Genesis with the old age view of our universe. I just did a simple exponential distribution of the day-age durations (any technical undergrad can do this), and they lined up nicely with what mainstream secular science was saying about the periods of development of our universe (evolved or not). This was the first chink, of many to come, in my anti-Bible armor. I could no longer say that the creation account in Genesis MUST be incompatible with an old universe and apparent development durations of same. A scale had fallen from my eyes with respect to my persecution of the Bible.
      Later, I discovered that it is only in the past 100 years, or less, that humans really came to assert that the Bible and science were mutually exclusive. I came to know that many great scientists were, at the least, theists, and many who were quite comfortable with the God of the Bible. I also knew intuitively that, no matter the size of my own ego, I could never hold a candle to the likes of Newton, Leibnitz, Faraday, Maxwell, Kepler, etc – nor could any modern-day scientist, IMO. I took no loss in pride by associating myself with them – spiritually. :-)
      When I began to read the Bible for myself, I found that it described my own life to a T – both before and after my “empirical test.” I also found out that many wise and learned scientific and philosophical scholars considered it to be the Word of God. And, it was only later that I found out how many scientific and philosophical holes macro-evolution has in it. The reliability of the New Testament came even later for me. I just knew this Book “worked,” because it answered all of my basic spiritual questions (a-d, above) in a way that no other worldview, and certainly not naturalism, could. It was more plausible – by orders of magnitude. And, I had confirmed that it certainly is not incompatible with our current scientific understanding. (In fact, Big Bang Cosmology combined with the Kalam argument dovetail rather nicely into Genesis 1:1, don’t they?)
      Since then, I have retired and spent my time fulfilling my part of the obligation from the “empirical test” for the God Who is there and Who is not silent. (With apologies to Francis Schaeffer. :-))
      WK, I apologize for the length, but I have only hit on the high points. Please forgive me. Luis, I hope that this answers some of your questions, and please feel free to ask more. I LOVE atheists-agnostics, absurdists, nihilists, and genuine seekers of the truth! Blessings to you, Luis!


      1. WorldGoneCrazy

        Thank you for your reply. It was interesting. I do have some counter points to offer but I don’t want to hijack this thread for which it was not meant for. Is there anywhere else that we can chat perhaps via email?


          1. Wintery Knight

            That would be great but only upon his approval. I don’t know how productive the chat will be because I have chatted with other christians and they haven’t been able to change my mind. I am curious to chat with a former atheist and why he sees christianity as the truth though.


          2. I would like to reply to WorldGOneCrazy’s latest post below but the reply button seems to be missing. It’s missing in some of my replys too. Can this be fixed?


        1. Luis, for security reasons, I prefer not to give that out. However, I am sure that WK will show you some latitude in response, as I am equally certain that many atheists and Christians on this site are curious to see how you refute my testimony. I also hope that, in addition to refuting same, you will provide the positive evidences for a-theism that make it a more plausible worldview than the Christian one as supported by Kalam, teleology, the moral argument, etc. (This is most necessary, since I have already been there, and because I have likewise provided positive evidences for theism in my testimony.)

          I would be particularly interested in seeing how existence, truth, and morality are more plausibly grounded under a-theism than under Christianity, so that I might have positive intellectual reasons for de-converting from Christianity, should I decide to do so, and so that I can also see what I missed in my four decades of investigation as a non-theistic anti-Christian. I promise to keep my rebuttal, if any, very short. Blessings to you, Luis!


          1. I understand. However, I’m also reluctant to share any details of my journey on the internet and I would prefer the conversation be between the two of us. I don’t want the thread to turn into a war of comments from both sides. Are you on Facebook? Perhaps we can hook up in a private chat there.


          2. Facebook is where I had my life threatened by an Obama-worshipper. I made the mistake of offering up to him the president’s grand “accomplishment” of a 50 year poverty rate level before the 2012 election, and he replied that he was going to “seek me out” if the Abortion President lost the election. Now, there’s the only thing positive I can think of about Obama winning in 2012 – I got to live a little longer! :-)

            But, again, there will not be a war of comments, because I will keep any reply I make to your refutation of my testimony very short. (We are wasting precious space here, Luis!) And there are people on this site from both camps dying to hear how nihilism objectively grounds existence, truth, and morality in a more plausible manner than Christian theism. Your comments will probably allow WK to open up a new posting on this subject.

            You have an audience and the opportunity to de-convert a fairly large number of Christians here, just as in sharing my testimony, I gave the wonderful atheists who visit the WK Zone the opportunity to reflect on the intellectual worthiness, or lack thereof, of my comments, and if they so desire, to refute them. The folks on this website – believers and unbelievers – all seem pretty respectful and gentle, IMO. (I have never had my life threatened once here, and so far, no atheists – or “christians” – have offered up any prayers to Obama on this site, to my knowledge. :-)) Have at it, Luis – I’m making myself vulnerable to you! (Just like Ali in his rope-a-dope. You might be too young for that one – just Google it.)


          3. WorldGoneCrazy

            I’m sorry but I really don’t want to get into a public debate here. I’ve done that enough already on other forums. I’m not looking to deconvert anyone. I’m just curious as to why you believe and to offer counter points that you may not be aware. Points that led to my deconversion. I’m looking for a chat not a fight. I don’t really like my nihilism but I haven’t found anyhting else that reflects reality. So if there is no where else we can chat, I guess I will be concede. Thanks for your responses.


  6. It seems to me that if an atheist can objectively justify the value of a human life (in the same way as he can objectively justify the fact that the sun revolves around the earth) then all the issues of meaning and purpose in life, and Wilberforce vs. Stalin, are really solved.
    Given that conscious beings are a very rare commodity in the universe, and given that every human being is capable of great feats of understanding far beyond every other animal we know of, it seems pretty clear that every human life has great value.
    Once the atheist accepts the objective value of human life, he can justify objectively why he ought to help other people, and why a life devoted to helping others is objectively better than a life spent harming others.


    1. As an atheist I whole heartily agree wth your explanation of where we get our value judgements that we use to create meaning and purpose in life. To have my purpose in life to be assigned from some external force seems to lessen my free will, don’t you think? (Free will is a totally different argument, – I don’t actually think we have free will but I want the illusion of it as much as possible!)


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