What is meaning?
I'm ready for the argument from meaning to go away. That is, the argument, "Atheists don't have any/have less meaning in their lives than theists." It comes in many forms:
*Without god, there is no meaning
*Without god, how do you get up in the morning?
*Without god, why don't you just kill yourself, since there's no meaning?
*Without god, there's no standard by which we can measure our lives.
Of course, you can substitute "spirituality" for "god" in any of them and it's still the same thing. This question has often been asked by theists, and I've been relatively happy with most of the replies, but I feel that there are still some aspects of this argument that need to be addressed.
First, and probably most important, is that there's an inherent fallacy in any of those questions. The very word meaning has not been defined! (How ironic!) Like any other question, we must be certain that we know what we're talking about before we start trying to answer.
Second, there's a presupposition behind the question, and we atheists often fail to recognize it. After all, this is a question we ask ourselves from time to time, and the words we use are exactly the same as those theists use. However, the question is fundamentally different. When most theists ask this question, they are asking, "What purpose or meaning does your life have in relation to the divine meaning or purpose?" When atheists ask it, they are asking, "What purpose or meaning does your life have with relation to X?" where X could be anything that the particular person finds meaningful.
Let's take me as an example. There are several things that give my life meaning. Obviously, I spend a lot of time volunteering as a mod for RRS. I am successful in the food and booze industry. I read a lot. I love to cook. I play music. I entertain my friends and cook for them. Within my businesses, I make every effort to pay my employees more than they could make elsewhere. I don't live extravagantly because I want them to be able to live better working for me than for anyone else. I like to take photographs. Crossword puzzles make me giddy. I could go on, but you get the idea.
Now, each of these examples of things that give me "meaning" are actually examples of things that give me meaning, or more precisely, purpose, with regard to a particular goal. Why am I in the food and alcohol industry? Because I have a purpose of changing the way people feel about what they eat and how they drink. I'm trying to improve other people's night out while I make money. So, it serves two purposes. I try to pay my employees more because I have a purpose of having happy, loyal employees. I live simply because I have a purpose of helping to change people's attitudes about consumption -- and I know that I cannot be a hypocrite if I am to do so. Again, I could go on, but you get the picture.
What is it that gave me my sense of purpose in each of these examples? It was my experience, of course. I've developed a sense of what I believe people, the environment, and society ought to be moving towards, and I form goals. Simply put, my purpose develops naturally as a result of living.
It might be argued that I'm skirting around a core question. Why don't I just kill myself, or let myself die? There's no "ultimate" purpose, after all. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I don't want to die because then I'd be fucking dead, wouldn't I! No more music. No more cooking. No more friends. No more blow jobs. Frankly, being alive is a lot more attractive to me at this moment than being dead.
So that nobody accuses me of making my point obtuse, here it is in bold. Each purpose that I have is related to a goal. Likewise, any meaning that my life has must be in relation to something else. Meaning and purpose cannot exist in a vaccuum. Yet, that is what theists would have us believe when they ask us about the meaning in our lives. Consider the theist position:
*There is something unquantifiable outside of human experience.
*We gain meaning by searching for this thing, bonding with this thing, professing love for this thing, believing in this or that fairy tale.
*Without this meaning, our lives are somehow lessened.
Look at this carefully. If we don't derive meaning relative to this thing that is beyond our capacity to comprehend, we don't have as much meaning. If this doesn't strike you as complete gibberish, consider it this way: There is a meaning to our lives that we can't explain. It is a goal which we cannot conceive. Though atheists and theists appear to live the same kinds of lives, eating, sleeping, working, fucking, and making more people -- theists, because they have this other meaning, which can't be described, and is not comprehensible in rational terms, have more meaning than atheists.
Does this sound strikingly familiar? We're encouraged to believe in God, even though he can't even be defined, and we're told that without him, nothing can be explained completely. Then, we're encouraged to get in touch with our spirituality (undefined!) because if we don't we won't have meaning (undefined!).
In short, next time a theist gets on about meaning in your life, stop him immediately and ask him to please explain exactly what meaning he's talking about. Odds are, you'll soon uncover the truth. He doesn't mean meaning with regard to anything in particular. It's just this nebulous thing that he's been told all his life. If he says that meaning is related to god, you've got him in a circle. God and meaning are both presuppositions. If he talks about meaning with regard to other people, it's quite clear that you have the brain power to reason out a goal without god's help.
The reason that I feel this question is particularly insidious is that it creeps into everyone's lives, not just theists. Have you ever known someone who seemed to have everything, but was unhappy? They would say, "I know I should be happy. I have a good spouse, a good family, enough money, a nice house, and yet, there's this emptiness. For some reason, I'm not happy." This is where theists love to jump in and proclaim that there's a spiritual hole in this person's life. In fact, I'd venture to guess that this is exactly the way most adults convert to religion. Here's the really horrible part. They're not unhappy because of a lack of spirituality. They're unhappy because they haven't discovered their own passion or purpose. They're living the life that they have been told is the path to happiness. Unfortunately, it's not always so.
Think about all the people you know. Is there anyone who would tell you this story? "Yeah, I was married, two dogs, the white picket fence, the two car garage, the six figure job, and it just wasn't for me. Now that I'm out on the road, doing seminars on water conservation, I don't have two pennies to rub together, and if my car craps out, I'm really screwed, but I'm happy. I'm doing what I love, and fighting for what I believe in." There are some people who discover that the myth of conformity is just that. What is supposed to make us happy doesn't always do. In those cases, the odds are pretty good that there's something that will make us happy, if only we are brave enough to search for it, and break with custom. Theism, on the other hand, will encourage us not to break with what is normal. It will declare that despite our circumstances or attitude, there is a super-duper cure if we say the right incantation or believe the right story. Everything will be ok if we simply believe in something that can't even be defined!
Theism is a substitute for real meaning. Some people do find meaning in theism, but it's false. They truly believe that theism helps people, and by participating, they feel as if they are doing something good for their fellow man. Unfortunately, this is not true. How many gay men are living in unhappy marriages, going to church every sunday, convinced that they've found happiness by denying who they are? How many people who faithfully give 10% of their income to church feel satisfied, when in reality, the combined income of all the churches in the country could easily fund the entire school system in America, with money left over to run all the soup kitchens, too!? How many people have been consulting gurus for years, spending months in meditation, when months of work could build a house, or clean up a polluted stream? The point is, theism is a good way of doing nothing and feeling like you're doing something. It is a false meaning. Theists get to feel superior about their happy life while those of us who are actually spending our time and money doing tangible things to improve the world... well, we get accused of having no meaning.
I'm tired of it.