Last week, I had the pleasure of appearing on the podcast Church and Other Drugs. What I expected to be a conversation about Satanism turned into an enjoyable back and forth over the existence of God. Jed, who hosts Church and Other Drugs, is a theist, while I am a nontheist. Jed finally brought up a question he says he has yet to hear a satisfying answer to, and it’s one I hear perpetually:
If there is no afterlife, how can this life have any meaning?
My atheist and nontheist readers are probably scoffing at this question: they know full well that their lives are deeply meaningful. We can go on and on about how we create our meaning, how we are the cosmos become aware of itself against impossible-to-comprehend odds, and that a finite existence in fact gives this life more meaning and fulfillment. We know this.
But none of that made sense to me when I was a believer. Atheist/agnostic/nontheist answers for a life of meaning, more often than not, frightening or confusing to believers who cannot comprehend a universe without a God bestowing purpose onto the world. The question of meaning is holding many theists back from exploring nontheistic religion. They fear, as I did, that a godless universe is a dark and meaningless universe.
When I first considered the possibility that there was no God, I felt a cold, hellish sensation in my body. If there was no God, that meant that my consciousness was an immaterial hologram, that death was an endless abyss, that the unknown fathoms of space are just … space. It was enough to make me want to crawl out of my skin or hide under the bed like a frightened house cat. It was too much for me, and I had to close that box and put it away; it was just too scary. It took me years of periodically peaking into that box before I could finally look at it fully.
An important caveat: I am not a philosophical materialist, meaning the belief that there is nothing but the physical world, nor am I an anti-theist, believing that there are no gods. Rather, my non-belief is just that: non-belief. I see no evidence that there are gods, so I don’t believe in them; I see no evidence that there is a reality beyond the material, so I don’t believe in it. But I am not dogmatically opposed to the existence of gods or the supernatural. I just want sufficient evidence. Therefore, bear in mind throughout this article that when I say “godless universe” I mean a universe where I have no evidence for a God, and therefore must find meaning and purpose outside of God.
I’m no philosopher or theologian, and real thinkers will probably piss all over me and this post, so I will speak only from my own experience. If it connects with you, so be it. If not, that’s fine. I’d rather talk about music and movies with you anyways (go see my Curiosities series for other interesting subjects we could talk about together.)
I’m not going to argue how we can find meaning in a godless universe, because I now believe that is the wrong place to start. I couldn’t really know what a godless universe is like until I experienced it. It is only when we come to disbelieve in a god and experience the universe as godless that we can start the hard work of constructing meaning. I, as a believer, could attempt to look across the metaphysical chasm into another godless world and guess about what it’s like, but that was all conjecture. I confused the map for the terrain.
Instead, we should start by asking what is true.
Is it true that there is a God? Truth is true regardless of how we feel about it.
Therefore, we need to have the courage to put aside our fears of what a Godless universe is like, and instead confront whether or not it is true. Ask yourself: do you value truth first and foremost?
If you are committed to uncovering the deepest truths about the universe, than you must also be willing to confront unfathomable horrors. You must be willing to accept that there might, in fact, be no meaning, no fulfillment, nothing but an endless rabbit hole of uselessness and twilight. If you care about the truth, then you are willing to confront that possibility. Asking if life without God will have any meaning is side stepping the question of what is true, placing our own insecurities and existential angst at the center of the question.
Is this terrifying? Yes. Is it often too great a challenge? Yes. Does it take years to undertake? Yes. I wish more atheists had a deeper reverence for just how hard this process can be for believers. But is it also necessary, if we claim to be chasers of truth? Yes.
Once I decided that, in the words of Matt Dillahunty, I wanted to believe as many true things and not believe as many false things as possible, I could go about the hard work of figuring out how meaning, joy, love, and all the good stuff fits into whatever I discovered. And what I discovered, much to my disappointment and heartbreak, was that I did not have sufficient evidence to believe.
But then I made another discovery, perhaps more incredible: I still wake up in the morning with a deep sense of purpose and mystical connectedness. I still believe in serving the Least of These. I still believe in living a life of compassion and empathy. I now understand that morality and meaning exist because I have consciousness, will, and a moral compass that has evolved over millions of years. Far from being arbitrary, it’s just reality.
A thinker who sustained my faith for many years was Kierkegaard, with his analogy of crossing the chasm of doubt with fear and trembling. In essence, Kierkegaard explains that we have no evidence of God, but we must make a leap of faith across the chasm of doubt with no reassurance of there being a God on the other side. Once we arrive on the other side, we still won’t have evidence, but we will have a relationship with God to make sense of the whole world.
What I am proposing now is a similar leap, but in the opposite direction. Instead of a leap of faith, it is a leap for truth, and I had no reassurance that there is sunlight, hope, or peace on the other side. I simply had to trust, as I made this leap, that the pursuit of truth is paradoxically in itself a virtue.
And then, I arrived on the other side. I arrived in an incomprehensible and godless land of oz. I discovered, in a way I never could before, that truth does exist, that love still ties me to others, that goodness and virtue and meaning are still beautiful and still guide my life. In fact, I am more free to love, and pursue morality and meaning, because the strings that bound me are now gone.
But I would never have known any of this as a theist. would never have known any of this on the other side of that chasm. Which is why, first and foremost, we must ask what is true, and then do our best to live in light of that truth.
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