Ask Richard: Atheist Seeks Greater Meaning in Her Life November 19, 2012

Ask Richard: Atheist Seeks Greater Meaning in Her Life

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Hi Richard – I’m an atheist in my late 20’s who grew up in a nondenominational, but spiritual family. No mention of Jesus – or even God, necessarily – but a lot of emphasis was put on leading a thoughtful, serene, aware life. Those meaningful conversations continued at college and as I tried to figure out who I was.

Now that I’m older I’m finding myself at a loss as I’m trying to add meaning to my life. I know who I am, and I just don’t have as many questions to be answered anymore. I feel like I’m on a treadmill – go to work, come home, watch movies, spend time with loved ones – and I’m not living my life with as much agency as I’d like. Days are passing too quickly. I seem to be on autopilot recently.

When friends face this from time to time they’ve found fulfillment through church, but I don’t think that my instinct to become more aware in my life should lead to a church I disagree with. I like some of the sermons at my local Unitarian church, but I can still feel “God” creeping through their words. I want to find a way to step outside of the noise of my daily life and live with greater meaning. Do you have any suggestions for how those of us who are “happy atheists” can spend more time living our lives thoughtfully? Meditation class? Charity? A book club?


Dear Amanda,

For many, many people in the world, the treadmill of work to eat, eat to work is all they have ever experienced. It is all they know is even possible. The diversions of a simple entertainment, the pleasures of a tasty treat or having sex are very rare and very brief. The overwhelming majority of their life is spent moving in a very small circle, a dreary drudgery of struggling and suffering today for another chance to struggle and suffer tomorrow. The only thing that will release them from this will be old age, sickness, and death.

Then there are a few people who are lucky enough to have some time, energy, and resources to spare while they take care of their daily basic survival. For some of those, the diversion of simple entertainment such as TV or a movie, a novel, or a hobby, and spending time with their lovers and loved ones is sufficient. They don’t need anything beyond that to be content on their treadmill. For them, old age, sickness, and death is just a rather sad end to it all that they either accept or are at least resigned to.

Within that luckier group, there are a few who have a need for some sort of meaning or purpose beyond physical survival and simple pleasures. They want a life with a point to it beyond its own continuation and comfort. They want their life to go in a particular direction rather than round and round in a small circle. For them, the prospect of old age, sickness and death is a spur driving them to have a consequence to their life, for it to make a difference. Even the accumulation of material wealth is still too circular, too insular to be fully satisfying. They need something beyond the reinforcement of the “me.”

You and I and several people I know are in this category, but to be very clear, I do not see us as being better or nobler than those who are more easily contented with simple compensations. We’re just different. In a way, it’s kind of a curse to have that constant discontentment, but if it’s there, it’s there. We have to deal with it.

As atheists, we do not believe that worshiping and obeying an outside supernatural entity gives us meaning, nor is our life only a preparation for an eternal afterlife that for some unexplained reason intrinsically has meaning. We must invent our own meaning for the here-and-now, and then we must put it into practice. There are many different ways that atheists can do this. No single way is the “right” way, since it must reflect important things that are unique to each person.

I find my chosen source of purpose in other people. Since I was very young, what I have wanted to do with my life is to find ways to alleviate others’ suffering. I have a vast, endless supply to work with, and it comes in amazing variety. Some of the suffering in life is inevitable, but much of it can be prevented or at least mitigated. That’s what moves me; that’s the work I see that needs to be done. Although it often brings me to tears, it’s deeply satisfying. I retired from my job as a counselor, but I didn’t retire from my life’s work.

Yes, Amanda, do all of the things that you suggested and more. A meditation class will quiet your mental chatter and help you to relax and focus. A book club will stimulate your intellect and broaden your horizons, and more importantly, it will bring you into contact with others. Others are the precious treasure in the world. Oh, how lost, adrift, and empty I’d be without others to care about and to help. And yes, yes, a charity. Find something that moves you, that reaches into your chest and grabs your heart, something that you get personally involved in, not just give money to. It might be an organized charity, or something you apply your own talents to create, something that has a positive consequence. It can also be simply looking every day for the charitable act to do. Once you get into the habit, you’ll see you’re surrounded by opportunities. Have fun. It is fun, as long as you accept that you’ll be shedding your own tears once in a while as you work to reduce the tears of others.


Two relevant videos I highly recommend:
DJ Grothe on an Atheist’s Purpose in Life
Richard Dawkins Explores the Meaning of Life as an Atheist

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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