“Meaning” is one of those words that people use without knowing what they mean. To say that a life has meaning would imply that the life has been given some explanation or justification beyond that of having been born. Religious people often say that their religion imparts meaning to their lives and that no one else can achieve this, although it is not clear how religion explains or justifies human life any more than, say, gardening. Even if it was true that humanity was made by God for its amusement and that those judged worthy live forever after they die, it doesn’t provide any further explanation or justification for human life, rather it merely twists the plot further.
At least those religious people are not racked with doubt about it. There are many people who search for meaning and who end up joining one religion, cult or guru after another. We call them “spiritual seekers.” Most of these groups are merely attempts to exploit the seeker’s willingness to become a follower if it helps him find the answers. The sad fact is, these seekers can’t find what they’re looking for until they stop looking outwards and start looking inwards. I’m sorry if this offends anyone or if I sound like I’m making light of honest hard-working people, but that’s the simple truth of the matter. No group or enlightened person can give your life any meaning if you haven’t already decided on it, simply because we are beings imbued with free will and other people can’t really do anything but try to spur you in one or the other direction.
So there’s a great deal of misdirection that exists when we look at the issue of meaning. It’s an issue which requires a lot of introspection, something which most people can’t do, so they look for easy answers. They look for other people to give them an answer they can feel good about. Unfortunately, the truth is always more complex than we’d like.
Inevitably the Christians will throw the questions in our face, “what is the meaning of life?” They think we need to oppose a pat answer to their pat answer. What they fail to realize is that truth and meaning are not the same thing. They may believe that they have the absolute truth, but this leads them nowhere closer to a “meaning of life,” because determining that is not a cut-and-dry affair.
Think about any work of art, such as a movie, a photograph, a painting. There is the intention of the artist, but there is also the meaning we, as independent individuals, impart to that work, looking at it from our own framework. There cannot be any one absolute way to interpret it. If we look at human life as a matter of history or simply a story, or the life of any single human being, how can we say any different?
One problem is the distinction between meaning and purpose. We can look at hammer and simply state that its purpose is to wield in the hand to drive things into surfaces or otherwise impart force on a small surface, but it makes little sense to talk about its meaning. The justification for its existence is straightforward and requires no further explanation. Likewise, for Christians, the purpose of man is clear: man was made by God in order to be judged at the end of his life and enter into an eternal life of service to God. No one disputes that this is an adequate, if gravely unclear, statement of purpose, but it does not impart any meaning to one’s life.
Most atheists have made the curious observation that the Christian seems to hang onto eternity as his ticket to meaning. In fact, this belief that “anything not eternal is not really true/meaningful” is merely a different flavour to the old belief that “anything not absolute is not really true/meaningful” (as I suppose one could say that what is absolute is eternal in a sense, there is some connection behind this).
But, once we remove the eternal God as foundation, there is no a priori reason to become an eternity-fetishist. Not only that, but there is no good reason to believe that eternity grants some form of meaning. Why should we think that the life of an adult mayfly (minutes or hours, depending on the species) has less innate meaning than that of a tortoise? Is an ice sculpture less meaningful than a stone sculpture, on the basis that the latter lasts much longer? But that’s obviously nonsense, as both can be made to convey the same meaning.
Is a longer human life always more meaningful than a shorter one? Are people who die young invariably less edifying? Is Anne Frank’s life meaningless gibberish, are Hans and Sophie Scholl’s actions empty of repercussions, and are Mickey Rooney or Kirk Douglas, given their age, people living lives full of meaning? That doesn’t seem to make much sense either.
Perhaps the motive can be better understood by what Christians usually say in these discussions, that the fact that a life’s impact can disappear after a time makes it meaningless, that temporality itself leads them to the conclusion that one is living in vain. If everything must have an end, they say, everything is pointless.
And yet we are obviously not living in vain, otherwise we would simply all kill ourselves. Why would anyone wish to continue to live when they know their lives are entirely in vain? The only reasonable conclusion for this argument is either that every atheist in the world is a total imbecile and fails to realize the meaninglessness of his own life, or that meaning (at least for us finite beings: I’m sure I have no idea what an omniscient god would consider meaningful) has nothing to do with temporality. While I do not dismiss the possibility that all atheists (including myself, obviously) are oblivious morons in this instance, it remains to be demonstrated. The latter conclusion seems more reasonable in the meantime.