The Language of God: Ultimate Meaning

The Language of God, Chapter 2

By B.J. Marshall

In this section, Collins poses the questions of whether the near-ubiquity of the search for the existence of a supernatural being represents “a universal but groundless human longing for something outside ourselves to give meaning to a meaningless life and to take away the sting of death” (p.35). The search for meaning in one’s life is an important question, but I don’t think the search for the divine stops there. We have a curious approach to the world, and we like to understand why things happen. When we don’t understand why things happen, we have throughout history tended (sadly, some still do) to invoke gods. Don’t know why the sun goes around in the sky? Oh, that’s Apollo’s chariot. Not sure why there’s thunder and lightning? It’s due to Ah Peku, Inazuma, Karai-Shin, Lei Kung, Ninurta, Orko, Pajonn, Tien Mu, Thor, Zeus, or several others. Let’s get more modern: Not sure where the universe came from, or why it seems so finely-tuned? Yahweh did it.

Back to Collins’ point here: God gives meaning to a meaningless life and takes away the sting of death. I will grant that humanity has no ultimate purpose in the universe; in another five billion years, our sun will die and our planet with it. (I use “humanity” loosely here knowing that, since it took about three billion years to go from single-celled organisms to humans, our descendants five billion years hence will most likely look nothing like us.) Furthermore, some physicists theorize the universe itself will die a sort of heat-death; it’s not a rosy picture for ultimate purpose. But just because there is no ultimate purpose does not mean life is without meaning. Many atheists find meaning in life. For me, I find meaning in: raising my son, sharing my life with my wife, enjoying time spent with friends, caring for my neighborhood, a chance to play golf, a good scotch. And that list is certainly not exclusive.

I find Collins’ statement about removing the sting of death to be puzzling, especially given that it seems religious people are still rather afraid of dying. There are plenty of web sites addressing the Christian fear of death, so it leads me to think that there really isn’t much sting taken out by a belief in God. If anything, there is an added fear of going to Hell, even if one thinks one’s done the right things to avoid Hell. I think the frank and honest acknowledgement that there is no god, no heaven, and no hell, and that nothing other than death happens when you die is rather liberating. Furthermore, in addition to taking the sting out of death (or at least reducing that sting), this acknowledgement has the added bonus of provoking me to do the best I can in this life, rather than treating this life as a proving grounds for some afterlife.

Other posts in this series:

Atlas Shrugged: The Rapture of the Capitalists
The Atheist Community Is Diversifying
New on the Guardian: Beyond Debating God’s Existence
SF/F Saturday: Terry Pratchett’s Death
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Scotlyn

    Why does meaning have to be Meaning? Why is it insufficient to enjoy the small, ordinary but still special meanings provided by engaging in our daily lives and relationships? Why must we have ultimate, eternal Meaning? Is this the same religious hubris that Ebon wrote about here?

  • mike

    Scotlyn, I agree. I usually mentally translate “life without god has no Meaning(tm)” into something like the following:

    I pity those people who listen to songs on their ipods. I can’t fathom only listening to songs that are about 5 minutes long. How can something only 5 minutes long bring any enjoyment? How can it have any importance them? Why, a song would have to last an infinite amount of time for it to have any value to anyone! How do all these people go around listening to songs that are of finite length? They must be miserable, because clearly music brings no enjoyment to them! At least I know I have been promised to be allowed to listen to an infinitely long song at some point, so at least I will eventually get enjoyment out of music. Well, unless I screw up and get forced to listen to the infinitely long version of Achy Breaky Heart. Now don’t get me started on movies… I mean, they are 3 hours long, max!…

  • Rob

    It’s sad how many people seem to think that anything that’s not temporally infinite is ultimately meaningless. Yes, if there is no afterlife, there will be a time in the future when we no longer exist, and a time when there is no trace of our ever having been, just as there was a time in the past when we did not exist. But none of that matters. It doesn’t change the fact that there is a time in between that is ours. It is there that we can find meaning and purpose (or create them ourselves). The journey is more important than the final destination.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    The insistence on ultimate meaning is just one part of an absolutist argument made by religionists. If purpose/morality/afterlife is not ultimate/absolute/infinite/eternal, then, they say, it is worth nothing. I disagree. I have $5 in my pocket. It will not feed me for infinity. It will not even feed me for my finite lifespan. But it will buy me lunch today. That is most certainly better than nothing.

  • Scotlyn

    The “lunch today” relativity principle (as opposed to the lunch forever absolutivity principle). I love it!

  • kennypo65

    The past is history, the future a mystery, there is only the present. I don’t recall who said that but it’s true. I prefer to do what I can in the here and now, rather than look forward to some non-existant hereafter. I’m not a wealthy man, so I do little things that help others and have the added benefit of making me feel useful. I’m a regular blood donor and am on the national marrow registry. I would encourage everyone to get on this registry. You never know who is out there that you could be a match for. Think about it; you could save the life of someone you never met. How cool is that? It can be found at

  • Siamang


    I think your quote comes from Master Oogway, the turtle. From Kung Fu Panda.

    I’ll take wisdom anywhere I can get it!

  • Wednesday

    Rob – Funny how it’s _temporal_ finiteness that’s the problem. I’ve never seen anyone saying that life is ultimately meaningless because they aren’t infinitely tall.

  • kennypo65

    Siamang: I never saw that movie, so I have doubts.
    I want to say a little more about being a marrow donor because I think it can be a very good thing. I really want to encourage everyone reading this to consider it. I’d make a link to the site, but I have no idea how to do that. It’s

  • Karen

    I have been to many evangelical Christian funerals, and the fear of/denial of death is palpable.

    The pastor is followed by speaker after speaker insisting that our loved one is NOT REALLY DEAD! They have just “gone on” to a happy reward and now they’re looking down on us all, smiling and rejoicing in Jesus!

    It sounds perfectly normal when you’re in the fold, but now that I’m out, it really is insane to hear adults going on and on like they’re telling a children’s story. And they cling to it with such forced desperation, with these brave smiles on their faces. I can tell that at least half have their doubts about this whole thing, but they are too scared to even entertain them.

    Life as a realist is so much better than that kooky delusion, I tell you.

  • Sarah Braasch

    In this regard (the fear of death / a fiery afterlife), the JWs are an interesting bunch.

    They actually don’t believe in hell. They condemn everyone else for making up this grotesque fairy tale to torture their congregations into conforming.

    What? They actually got something right? They are incredibly self-congratulatory on this point as well.

    They believe that the eternal punishment is ceasing to exist — eternal separation from Jehovah God.

    But, despite this seeming rationality in JW doctrine, they fall into the exact same trap that everyone else did, which led everyone else to the hell doctrine.

    Without a hell punishment to threaten with, the JWs brought hell to earth.

    They torture their congregations with demons. They are really a fear based cult of demonology.

    Their lives revolve around fear of demons, and avoiding demons, and not inviting demons into your life and how to be upright so that you won’t be attacked by demons.

    They believe that demons roam the earth and that they can physically and psychologically attack you — including rape you and possess you.

    Makes the real purpose of the hell concept so blatantly obvious.

  • kurmujjin

    I’ve participated in this discussion with others often enough.

    From where I sit, it appears that WE are the arbiters of meaning in our lives. If we say God gives meaning, it is WE who do that, not God. If we say that life is meaningless, it is WE who do that. One sign of a healthy person is the ability to find or create or allow meaning in their life. As human beings, meaning seems important.

    Death is inevitable, so for me my biggest fears have to do with what I or my loved ones have to go through on our way to being dead. I’m too naive to be scared about what comes after. If I go poof, there won’t be a me to care, so who gives a rip? If consciousness is eternal, I have to lean on the understanding that I’m doing the best I can, seeking truth. I am who I am and that’s pretty much it, that is until something happens to cause me to change my thinking…

  • BJ

    I’m not really sure what ultimate meaning of life God is supposed to confer. When I was in the Young Adult Ministry (group of Catholics 18-35 years old) in my parish, I remember often hearing that adage from 1 Corinthians 10:31, which says “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” Back in my Christian days I took it as, well, Gospel. Perhaps I thought that if I did everything for the glory of God then I would live a selfless and just life (as if I could only do that with God). But then what? I live a selfless and just life because … it pleases God? Although the prosperity gospel thing wasn’t big in my life, there was still a subtle understanding that God would take care of you if you glorified Him.

    Now I look at that verse and am baffled. Why does God need any glory or ego stroking? In light of the billions suffering in the world, does God really care if I say grace before breakfast? I remember hearing a conversation on The Atheist Experience about the Christian meaning of life being to satisfy the demands of a divine tyrant. That might be a bit terse, but I think there might be something to it.