No God, no meaning?

February 20th, 2024 in clues. Tags: , , , , ,
Graffiti on wall

Most of us feel that life is better if we have purpose and meaning. But what can make life purposeful and meaningful?

Some say that God gives life meaning and purpose and nothing else can. But others say that we don’t need God to give life these values.

So who’s right?

A Christian view?

Christians commonly believe that God created the human race for a purpose, and our relationship with God gives our lives meaning. They may differ in exactly how they express this purpose, but it would generally involve a relationship with God and making the world a better place. (This echoes Jesus’ statement that our highest calling is to love God whole-heartedly and love our neighbour.)

Some go further and say that without God, life can have no purpose or meaning. For example, philosopher William Lane Craig says that life without God is absurd because life ends all too soon, the universe will die one day and everything will come to nothing. So, he says, life can have no ultimate significance.

An atheist view?

Some atheists agree with this. Philosopher Alex Rosenberg says since there is no God and the universe is all that exists, life is meaningless. Scientists such as Richard Dawkins, Francis Crick and William Provine say much the same.

Some thinkers have gone on to suggest options to address this inherent lack of meaning: existentialism (making our own meaning) and adsurdism (just accepting the meaningless of life).

But many other atheists believe that the non-existence of God doesn’t prevent life having meaning. We can find meaning and purpose in doing good, in caring for others or caring for the world. Feeling we matter to other people is a significant source of meaning, as is contributing to the progress of the human race.

Meaning and purpose

It might be helpful to give some definitions. According to this paper by philosopher Frank Martela and psychologist Micheal Steger, meaning in life derives from three factors:

  1. Coherence: our life is understandable and makes sense.
  2. Purpose: goals aims and direction in life.
  3. Significance: a sense of life’s inherent value and worth, that it matters.

Another formulation of the same ideas says that our lives have meaning if we have a goal or purpose that has value, worth and significance which we can achieve, so we can feel good about it.

Other psychologists have found that while all three factors may be relevant, by far the most important is “mattering”. We’ll consider all three below, but with a special emphasis on mattering.

A question arises whether this meaning is subjective or objective. Does our life really have meaning that others can see and appreciate, or is it just that we feel it has meaning?

And does it matter either way? Is it enough that we have found meaning that satisfies, and it doesn’t make any difference whether that meaning is real or imagined?

Arguments either way

To every reason theists give for thinking life without God is meaningless, atheists have a counter argument.

  • “Life is meaningless if it just ends in us dying.”
    Just because a life will end doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make it as pain-free, pleasant and productive as possible, and that can give meaning.
  • “Without God, there can be no true moral values – right and wrong are human constructs and there is no reason to choose good over evil.”
    We can all make the choice to live according to values that mutually help each other.
  • “Purpose implies an end result that is worth achieving, which God can give us. But without God, it all ends in nothing.”
    We can make our own purpose, to achieve whatever seems to us to be worthwhile.

Objective vs subjective

It seems to me that we need to consider both objective and subjective meaning and purpose.


If there really is a God, then it makes sense that meaning and purpose are found in him and what he created us for. Theists may find this purpose (it may depend on which description of God they believe in) but atheists will presumably miss it.

But if there is no God, most people admit there is no objective meaning or purpose. So atheists will be living in accordance with reality while theists will be living with a false confidence.

So objective meaning would be clear if we really knew the truth about God. But that is a question on which there are markedly different views, so objetive meaning can only be (for us) a matter of opinion.


If we choose values, meaning and purpose that satisfy us, then atheists can live in ways that feel meaningful, just as theists can. Atheists may find meaning in environmental care, medical care, arts, science, sport and much more. Christians may say that this meaning and purpose is illusory, but it may feel as real and valuable as the purpose Christians live for.

However I can’t help feeling that (1) Christians and other theists will be more likely to choose meaningful values (many atheists might choose nihilism or hedonism), and (2) there might be more motivation for theists to persist with their values.

Studies of religion and meaning

It turns out that these suspicions are confirmed by studies over several decades that show that perceived meaning in life is tightly linked with religion.

Psychologists have identified two possible sources of meaning in life:

  1. Social mattering: my life matters to other people.
  2. Cosmic mattering: my life matters in the grand scheme of the Universe.

Obviously social mattering can be embraced by people of all religions and none, whereas cosmic mattering is not really available for someone who doesn’t believe there is a God to give life purpose. So several recent studies conducted in the US (and therefore not necessarily applicable to countries with a different religious heritage) investigated these two sources of meaning.

They found that cosmic mattering is much more important than social mattering for a sense of meaning in life. So religious people have access to a source of meaning not really available to atheists. The researchers concluded that “religious faith may be …. a partially unique source of felt meaning”.

They say: “a person’s sense that their life is meaningful depends on their perceptions of their own significance”. Therefore, non-religious people may consider trying to find purposes that are as close as possible to cosmic ones – such as contributing to “science (ie, attempt to comprehend the Universe), or work to protect Earth from the climate crisis or other global threats”. However these values may only be partially successful in providing meaning.

Meaning, God and atheism

It seems that both sides of this debate have some of the truth.

It seems that atheists are correct in saying that they can find meaning in life without God.

But it also seems that the theists are correct in saying that the meaning provided by religion (cosmic mattering) is a stronger and more satisfying meaning.

Main graphic: Wall (Inga Seliverstova, woman (Matej Simko and graffiti (unkleE).

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