Atheism, Depression and Meaning: Do Atheists Lead Meaningless Lives?

Do We Need Religion & God to Have Meaning in Life?

Life for atheists must be depressing and meaningless.

This is a very common claim heard from religious theists, especially Christians. It is also a very curious claim because it sidesteps the issues which most atheists would regard as central: does God exist? Is theism reasonable? Is atheism reasonable? By ignoring the important questions about the validity of theism and atheism, this claim is an example of the Red Herring fallacy, attacking an ultimately irrelevant issue.

However, it isn't entirely a Red Herring because, even though it may not appear to address something important, it sometimes does. Many theists believe in the existence of a god not simply because they think it is true, but also because they think it is necessary. What this means is that they do not honestly think that important aspects of life, like morality and purpose and meaning, are possible unless a god exists.

This isn't the same as believing in God because they want it to be true. A person can be reasonably convinced that life must have meaning and purpose; so, if such things cannot exist without a god, it is reasonable to conclude that God obviously exists. The question becomes, then, whether or not a god really is necessary for life to have meaning and purpose. Thus while the issue should be a Red Herring, it may not be if one is dealing with theists who are convinced of the existence of god based upon reasons like this.

One problem for atheists and theists communicating over this is a difference in how they understand the concept — a difference which isn't always immediately clear. For theists, it is typically the case that life must have an objective meaning and purpose, something which is imposed externally. Atheists, on the other hand, do not all regard an objective meaning or purpose as necessary — or even as positive.


Objective Meanings

A theist might appear to be correct that, without God, there is no objective, externally imposed meaning or purpose to life. The universe does not seem to establish purpose to our lives, aside from perhaps reproduction, or meaning to our lives, aside from perhaps the sheer act of living itself. Thus it may not be unreasonable to conclude that, without the existence of a creator god, there may not be an objective meaning or purpose to our lives.

If, however, the need for an objective purpose or meaning is dispensed with, the need for a god is also eliminated. Do we need such a purpose or meaning? To be quite honest, I don't think so. It seems perfectly adequate for us to create our own meanings and purposes. Indeed, it is arguable that this is a preferable situation. When someone else imposes upon us a purpose of their own design, aren't we little more than slaves?


Imposed Meaning

Is it even possible for meaning to be imposed on us by another? No one can make a book or a meal "meaningful" for me. Why? Because such meaning must be created by us, based upon our values. No one else can cause a particular book or a particular experience to have value to me — that must come from within.

When we value something, it will have meaning, and when we do not value something, it will not have meaning. Values cannot be imposed upon us because they must develop out of our character and our personality; so if meaning is derived from values, then meaning also cannot be imposed.

Even many theists will acknowledge the truth of this in particular circumstances because they will tend to agree that they are not forced by their god to value their god or their relationship with their god. Thus, their god has meaning for them because of their own choices. It is generally only the more extreme faction of Calvinists who argue that God can only enter a person's life because God wants to and that human effort in this area is worthless. If theists accept this principle in some circumstances, then it's up to them to explain why they don't accept it in other circumstances as well.

If they cannot, and if this principle does apply broadly, then they cannot argue that value or meaning can be created for us and imposed upon us by any gods. This means that value and meaning must come from with in and can exist in the absence of gods.


No Meaning? So What?

Finally, it must be asked: even if a personal meaning or purpose is impossible and an objective meaning or purpose cannot exist without a god, so what? A theist who finds this unacceptable might be depressed at the prospect, but since when does a rational person adopt beliefs about the state of the world based upon what is least depressing? Is there anyone out there who believes that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, never happened because the idea that they did happen is too depressing? If someone believed that they are rich because facing the reality of poverty is too depressing, do we praise them for their faith or recommend that they seek help from a mental health professional?

Although it might be true that the question of meaning and purpose in life has no bearing on the reasonableness of either theism or atheism, the fact remains that it is an important concern of many theists. If someone brings it up, it is because their belief in a god is, at least in part, predicated upon the idea that their god provides meaning and purpose to their lives. This is not a bad thing — the problem lies in the fact that they cannot imagine that anyone's life can have meaning and purpose unless it happens on the same terms as their life. In their case, at least, the only way they would ever abandon theism will be if they realize that meaning and purpose can come from themselves instead.