Why Do Atheists Value Life? An Essay by Paul Kurtz

This is an excerpt from Meaning and Value in a Secular Age: Why Eupraxsophy Matters — The Writings of Paul Kurtz (Prometheus Books, 2012). Edited by Nathan Bupp. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

All living beings undergo continuous processes of replenishment and renewal. Within each species is the constant striving to persist and to reproduce its own kind, in spite of the surrounding forces in the environment that tend to denude or destroy it. All forms of animal life seek food in order to survive and procreate — though most apparently are unaware of the tentativeness of their existence. In the end nature prevails and every single representative is vanquished: the leaf withers and the lilac dies; the sapling that grows into the magnificent elm eventually rots and decays; the young stallion is reduced to a decrepit horse.

And what of human personality? We are creatures of intelligence and imagination. We are aware that his life is finite. We see that the infant, the child, the young person, and the mature adult, all full of possibility and power at one time, eventually grow old and die. Pubescence, adolescence, senescence are all inevitable phases of life. Human beings thus have knowledge of their inexorable demise, and also of the tragic character implicit in the human condition. Life is full of danger: as soon as one is born, one is old enough to die.

There is the sudden accident or the incurable disease that can overtake friend and foe alike. These bitter pills are difficult to swallow. Most people will not or cannot in the final summing up accept this ultimate death. Out of their anxieties about it grows the quest for transcendence and religious faith.

That life is or can be good and bountiful, full of significance and pregnant with enjoyment and adventure, is also apparent to those who have the courage to overcome the fear of death and achieve something in the world. Modern civilization, education, science, and technology have helped us to minimize disease and extend the years of a life of rich enjoyment and harvest, without worrying about our ultimate destiny or God’s plans for us. Yet lurking in the background of the consciousness of every person is always the potential for despair, the ultimate dread of his own death. No one can escape it: we are all condemned to die at some time, no matter how we may strive to stave it off.

My father was struck down at fifty-nine of a heart attack, in the prime of life, but he told us at his bedside that he knew he was dying. He kissed my mother and said that his life in summation was happy. My mother, always ebullient, loquacious, beaming with life, on her deathbed at ninety-five told us that she did not want to die. She refused to accept her approaching end with equanimity. Her mother, at eighty-three, suddenly gasped her last breath in her daughter’s arms and was dead without warning before she knew what happened. Her youngest daughter died of a terrible cancer at the age of fifty. Regardless of how we feel about death, each of us too will someday reach, even after a life of fullness and exuberance, a point of no return.

Let us reflect on the human situation: all of our plans will fail in the long run, if not in the short. The homes we have built and lovingly furnished, the loves we have enjoyed, the careers we have dedicated our- selves to will all disappear in time. The monuments we have erected to memorialize our aspirations and achievements, if we are fortunate, may last a few hundred years, perhaps a millennium or two or three — like the stark and splendid ruins of Rome and Greece, Egypt and Judæa, India and Perú, which have been recovered and treasured by later civilizations. But all the works of human beings disappear and are forgotten in short order. In the immediate future the beautiful clothing that we adorn ourselves with, eventually even our cherished children and grandchildren, and all of our possessions will be dissipated. Many of our poems and books, our paintings and statues will be forgotten, buried on some library shelf or in a museum, read or seen by some future scholars curious about the past, and eventually eaten by worms and molds, or perhaps consumed by fire. Even the things that we prize the most, human intelligence and love, democratic values, the quest for truth, will in time be replaced by unknown values and institutions — if the human species survives, and even that is uncertain. Were we to compile a pessimist’s handbook, we could easily fill it to overflowing with notations of false hopes and lost dreams, a catalogue of human suffering and pain, of ignominious conflict, betrayal, and defeat throughout the ages.

I am by nature an optimist. Were I to take an inventory of the sum of goods in human life, they would far outweigh the banalities of evil. I have outdone the pessimist by cataloguing laughter and joy, devotion and sympathy, discovery and creativity, excellence and grandeur. The mark made upon the world by every person and by the race in general is impressive. How wonderful it has all been. The cynic points to Caligula, Attila, Cesare Borgia, Beria, or Himmler with horror and disgust; but I would counter with Aristotle, Pericles, da Vinci, Einstein, Beethoven, Mark Twain, Margaret Sanger, and Madame Curie. The nihilist points to duplicity and cruelty in the world; I am impressed by the sympathy, honesty, and kindness that are manifested. The negativist reminds us of ignorance and stupidity; I, of the continued growth of human knowledge and understanding. The nay-sayer emphasizes the failures and defeats; I, the successes and victories in all their glory.

The question can be raised: How shall we evaluate a human life and its achievements — in the long or the short run? What is the measure of value, the scale of hope? From one’s immediate world there may be boundless opportunities. Look at the things that one can do, if social conditions permit a measure of freedom and if one has developed the creative verve: one can marry, raise a family, follow an occupation or career, forge a road, cure a malady, innovate a method, form an association, discover a new truth, write a poem, construct a space vehicle. All are within one’s ken and scope, and one can see a beginning, a middle, and an end. One can bring to fruition the things one may want, if not in one’s lifetime, then in the lifetimes of those who follow and their children’s children. France, the United States, Russia, China, and the New Zion are social entities that human beings have created. The despairing person groans that they have or will disappear in the end, in the long run, if not today or tomorrow, then ultimately. He complains about the ultimate injustice of our finitude. One may know that that is true and even come to accept it. But we are alive today, and we have our dreams and hopes, and the immediacies of experience and achievement can be enormously interesting, exciting, satisfying, and fulfilling.

Can we enjoy ourselves today and tomorrow without worrying about the distant future? No, says the nihilist. He is unable to live in this world; he is fixated and troubled by its ultimate disappearance. “How can life have meaning if it will all end?” he complains. Out of this grows a belief in immortality and ultimate survival.

“Why not make the most out of this life, if that is all we have?” I respond. Indeed, this life can be full of happiness and meaning. We can make a comprehensive list of all the goods and bads and of all the values and disvalues. For every evil that the pessimist anti-humanist presents, I can counter with a virtue, for every loss, a gain. It all depends on one’s focus. A person’s world may be full of the immediacy of living in the present, and that is what he may find rich and vital. The life-world involves one’s yesteryears. This includes a human being’s own small world — the memories of one’s parents, relatives, colleagues, friends. It also includes the history of one’s society and culture — as memorialized in the great institutions and traditions that have remained. But more, one’s life-world shares the recorded histories of past civilizations and the memories of great minds, artists, geniuses, and heroes, as bequeathed to us in their writings and works that remain. There is also the residue of things far past, which, uncovered by science, tell of the evolution of the human species, as the strata of earth and rock dug up reveal more of our history and that of other forms of life. It also encompasses the physical universe, extending back billions of years. The eye of the cosmos unfolds through countless light-years in the telescope of the astronomer: the formation of the rings of Saturn and moons of Jupiter, the birth and death of countless suns and galaxies. And what does our present include? Everything here now on the planet and in the immense cosmos investigated by science. But what does the future hold? One can contemplate his own future: tomorrow, next year, twenty years, or fifty. How far may we go? We can make plans, but we cannot foretell what will be — if anything — one century hence. Of this one may be fairly certain: the universe will continue to exist — though without me or my small influence affecting it very much.

Thus one can argue the case from two vantage points. First, there are the life goals or scene of action that an individual, his family, and culture experiences, its dimensions of space-time, its phenomenological range in immediacy, memory, and anticipation. And this can be full of significance. Does life have ultimate meaning per se? No, not per se. It does, however, present us with innumerable opportunities. Meaning depends on what we give to it; it is identified with our goals and values, our plans and projects, whether or not we achieve them and find them interesting. There is the fountain of joyful existence, the mood of exhilaration, and the satisfaction of creative adventure and achievement — within varying degrees, realism no doubt admonishes.

Millions of people, however, do not find life interesting, are in a quandary, and are overwhelmed by the problems and conflicts they encounter. Life apparently leaves them with a bad taste: it is ugly and boring, full of anguish and sorrow. They bemoan a cloudy day, complain about the humidity, rail against the past, are fearful of the future. The tragic dimension of life is no doubt exacerbated by those who suffer great loss or a severe accident. But nature is indifferent to our cares and longings. A raging fire or cyclone may indeed destroy everything we have built and love; and we are forced to submit to the furies. There is thus the desert of despair, the emptiness of lost zest, the collapse of meaning. In some social systems human beings are their own worst enemies, unable to live or breathe freely, imprisoned in the gulags of their souls.

Yet, within the life-world we occupy, we are capable of intensity, enjoyment, and interest, if we are able to express our proper freedom as independent, autonomous, and resourceful beings, and especially if we live in an open society that encourages free choice. The spark of the good life is creativity — not escape, retreat, or complaint — and the audacious expression of the will to live. My will be done, says the free person — not thine. Yes, it is possible — comparatively and reasonably — in spite of the demands and obstacles presented by nature and society, to achieve the good life. I am referring not to a life of quiescent withdrawal or simple self-realization but to the active display of one’s talents and powers and the expression of one’s creative imagination. One may dig a deep well where none existed before, compose a lullaby, invent an ingenious tool, found a new society, teach a class, pick up and move to another area, succeed on the job or change it. It can be fun; no doubt there may be some sorrow and tears, but basically it may be worthwhile. I am willing to argue the case with the nay-sayer on the level of the phenomenological, contextual life-world. “What is the matter with you?” I may ask. “Are you sexually repressed? Then satisfy your libido. Are you tired and unhealthy? Then examine your nutrition and exercise. Do you hate your work? Change your career, go back to school. Is someone sick? Try to find a cure. Are you lonely? Then find a lover or companion. Are you threatened by your neighbor? Then form a peace pact or establish a police force. Are you troubled by injustice? Don’t just sit there; help mitigate or stamp out evil. Enact new legislation. Come up with a viable solution.” Human ills are remediable to some extent, given the opportunity, by the use of intelligence and the application of human power.

But it is the second vantage point that troubles so many: the argument from the long run. If I don’t survive in the end, if I must die, and if everyone I know must also die — all of my friends and colleagues, even my children and their grandchildren — and if my beloved country or society must perish in the end, then is it all pointless? What does my life really mean then — nothing at all? This quandary and the despair that such reflections can generate is no doubt the deepest source of the religious impulse, the transcendental yearning for something more. Can one extend his present life-world and those of his loved ones and community indefinitely in some form throughout eternity? People ask in torment and dread, “Why is there not something more to my existence?”

My wife, who is French, sometimes raises these questions when we are alone in bed late at night. And I have heard others raise similar questions. At some point there is the recognition of one’s finitude, as one gradually realizes that he or she is growing old and is not eternal. The lines on one’s face and the sagging body point to the fact that one’s powers are not eternal. Prayers to an absent deity will not solve the problem or save one’s soul from extinction. They will not obviate the inevitable termination of one’s life-world. They merely express one’s longings. They are private or communal soliloquies. There is no one hearing our prayers who can help us. Expressions of religious piety thus are catharses of the soul, confessing one’s fears and symbolizing one’s hopes. They are one-sided transactions. There is no one on the other side to hear our pleas and supplications.

The full version of Meaning and Value in a Secular Age: Why Eupraxsophy Matters — The Writings of Paul Kurtz is now available in bookstores and online.

If you’d like to win a free copy of the book, leave a comment below explaining what gives your life meaning!

If you’d like to be in the running for the free book, you must live in the U.S. and include the word “Finite” at the end of your comment! I’ll contact you if you’re the winner :)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Charles Dolan

    Life, in my humble opinion, is about collecting and retaining experiences which ultimately define what type of person you are or will become. Finite.

  • advancedatheist

    I never found Kurtz’s writings particularly distinguished, and in fact in a couple of his books he recounts a humanist friend’s deathbed conversion to Catholicism! Kurtz must realize that christians have used the atheist’s deathbed conversion myth in their propaganda for generations, and yet he, as a kind of alpha humanist, has validated an example of it. That shows a lack of judgment on his part.

    The rationale for the humanist movement needs serious rethinking any way because of the emerging consensus from social scientists about how religiosity works. We’ve traditionally viewed religiosity as some combination of a deep need and the results of ideological struggles over the contents of people’s education, when it looks more likely that people hold religious beliefs as superficial self-help tricks to manage anxiety, as Nigel Barber argues in his ebook. When people live in materially secure conditions where they face reduced risks from dying from privation, preventable diseases, violence and misadventures, they tend to lose interest in religion. This has happened in a wide swath of the world which enjoys decent living standards, and without a deliberate program to bring about this result. (The governments in non-communist European countries never stomped on religious institutions, for example.) We can’t attribute this to the success of humanists in educating and indoctrinating the populations in these countries, in other words, though the teaching of evolutionary biology as an explanation of origins might play a minor role. 

    So if more and more people can grow up as de facto humanists without having to read literature about the wonders of humanism, skepticism and free inquiry, why do we need an organized humanist movement in the first place? 

  • Mike South

     I’m of a mind that a person’s life reaches its fullest potential when it successfully affects the lives of others for the better–whether that be perfect strangers, or simply the ones we love.  So that’s what I strive for.  If I have the privilege of looking back on my life from a deathbed, I want to be certain that I’ve left the world a little better off for somebody else.  Finite

  • Tainda

    My daughter is the main thing that gives my life meaning.  Watching her grow up as been fantastic and hard at the same time.  I was a single mom and we had quite a few rough patches but now we are best friends.  Finite

  • Thegoodman

    The meaning of my life? My loving wife in her; far superior to my own; intelligence, elegance, compassion, and sense of humor. She is the fuel to my fire, the apple of my eye, and the motivation for me to be a better man.

    I typically struggle understanding illogical thing (such as loving a pet or believing in a god). That being said, my love for her is completely illogical and I revel in it. The logical reasons why I should love her pale in comparison to my dedication to her happiness and well being so they are ultimately fallacious and weak arguments. She is my own personal logical fallacy and I embrace her with a superior lack of logic that can only be described by the word love.

    I suspect that love is why the question is “What is the meaning of life?” rather than “What is the reason for life?”. There is no reason for it. There is, luckily, an enormous amount of meaning that we can inject into life if we are so inclined.

    Further down the list on the “Thegoodman Life Cantos” are things like protecting and enjoying my other loved ones, witnessing and experience the world through natural geography, food and culture, man-made wonders, and any and all experiences that enhance my life in any way I deem auxiliary. These various interests have waxed and waned throughout the years but they are far from vanquished.

    “That’s why no one will remember your name.”
    “Every living creature on earth dies alone.”
    “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”
    “We are not sheep; there are no shepherds here.”
    Dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum.

    Unfortunately, I too am…

    Finite

  • http://www.facebook.com/Chemical42 Cassie Muldrow

    There are so many beautiful little moments in life that give it so much meaning.  Sometimes it’s my son’s smile, or a stranger holding open a door for me, a well written book, a walk through a beautiful park, a thought provoking piece of art, a musician who moves me, or a scientist making a new discovery.  I never know when and where the doubt and the suffering (that can be consuming) will lift its veil and the exquisiteness that is the other half of existence will be visible to my eyes.  It’s so easy to get bogged down in the day to day, but people can be astonishing.  I love being surprised by life and the many things in it.   My meaning for life is my unbound curiosity.. what will I see next?  I think that because life is always ending that it makes every act of beauty in the world all the more vibrant, and compelling.  It is a bright and colorful flash, that will fade.  That’s why you have to pay so much attention to it.  Finite.

  • http://www.sunstonescafe.com/ Paul Sunstone

    I’m substantially with Spinoza on this one, Hemant.  He said, “To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life.”

    Now, I don’t think being true to ourselves is the only end in life,  but I do think it is the single most important end.  Especially if we are true to ourselves in a socially and environmentally responsible manner.

    Why is it so important?  One reason it’s important is because when you are true to yourself, you are playing to your strengths.  And because you’re playing to your strengths, you tend to accomplish much more than you might otherwise.  That, in turn, leads to self-flourishing.

    Another reason it’s important is personal happiness and satisfaction.  When you are doing what it feels like you were born to do, you tend to feel a measure of happiness and discover a sense of satisfaction.  But if you are for some reason doing something you have little or no talent or skills for, then it is much more difficult to find happiness and satisfaction from doing it.

    It seems a lot of people think being true to yourself means being true to your beliefs.  But I think that’s a hold over from Christianity.  The Christians teach the importance of beliefs — after all, in Christianity, how you spend eternity depends on your beliefs.  So beliefs are very important in Christianity, but I don’t think they are all that important when it comes to being true to yourself. 

    Of much greater importance than beliefs are your talents and skills. To be true to yourself, you should discover what your talents are and then turn those talents into skills. 

    There’s a saying, which is sometimes mistakenly attributed to Aristotle, that goes, “At the crossroads where your talents and skills meet the needs of the world you will find your well-being and happiness.”

    I would suggest that is substantially true.  When you are doing something that uses your own talents and skills to meet the needs of the world in a socially and environmentally responsible manner, then I think you have a pretty good shot at abiding happiness. Or, at least, that’s been my experience.

    Finite.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/7CWT6C3DKO5MQIQWBLFJF7Q2O4 Randy

    Neil Peart the drummer/lyricist/athiest  for Rush just did an album (and upcoming book of fiction with Kevin Anderson of Stars Wars science fiction writing fame)  around this entire concept ending in a song called The Garden. It features Voltaire’s take in Candide. 
    While listening to a philosophical rant, Candide replied, “That is all very well, but now we must tend our garden.”I have now arrived at that point in my own story. There is a metaphorical garden in the acts and attitudes of a person’s life, and the treasures of that garden are love and respect. I have come to realize that the gathering of love and respect – from others and for myself – has been the real quest of my life. “Now we must tend our garden.” 

    In this one of many possible worlds, all for the best, or some bizarre test? 
    It is what it is – and whatever 
    Time is still the infinite jest 

    The arrow files when you dream, the hours tick away – the cells tick away 
    The Watchmaker keeps to his schemes 
    The hours tick away – they tick away 

    The measure of a life is a measure of love and respect 
    So hard to earn, so easily burned 
    In the fullness of time 
    A garden to nurture and protect 

    In the rise and the set of the sun 
    ‘Til the stars go spinning – spinning ’round the night 
    It is what it is – and forever 
    Each moment a memory in flight 

    The arrow flies while you breathe, the hours tick away – the cells tick away 
    The Watchmaker has time up his sleeve 
    The hours tick away – they tick away 

    The treasure of a life is a measure of love and respect 
    The way you live, the gifts that you give 
    In the fullness of time 
    It’s the only return that you expect 

    The future disappears into memory 
    With only a moment between 
    Forever dwells in that moment 
    Hope is what remains to be seen

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Life must be worth living for all the beautiful but ephemeral things that are a part of it. If it isn’t, then adding a celestial agent or endless lengthening into the picture does nothing to make it more worthwhile.

  • Jean1

    Why must life have meaning?

  • http://siveambrai.myopenid.com/ Siveambrai

    I find value in my life in one way but two different aspects. The way is through contributing to something larger than myself. The first aspect is through my work as a researcher and scientist. Science can go wrong but I know that I am helping to build a better understanding of the world and of humanity through each paper I publish, the research I perform, and the work that I review. Although it may not be lasting in the long run I know it will likely help to improve the lives of those now and in the future.

    The second aspect is participating in building life stories that are positive with those that I interact. I really do believe that living well and trying to be a good person not only improves my life but the lives of those I interact with on a regular basis. I see this as being more than just forming positive memories but helping to shape other people’s expectations for the world. Kind acts and words can often encourage people to do the same to others even if they aren’t directly remembered. This hopefully leaves the world a better place for those who come after me.

    Finite.

  • Keith Nielsen

    What gives my life meaning is the interplay of influences that affect it.  There are the self-directed ones of trying to figure out what my goals actually are and then formulating a plan to achieve them.  

    Then there are the influences of the people I care about, both how I can aid them in their goals, and how doing so affects the pursuit of my own goals, and the interesting frisson that takes place when those things are either resonant or in opposition.  

    There’s taking time out to just enjoy myself, even with simple things like internet memes and jokes.  

    There’s the things that piss me off about the world, and finding out if I can do anything about it or if I will.  
    There’s the joy of spreading ideas I find fascinating, and bouncing them off other people to see what can result, either good new ideas, or fights about them, all of which I find useful.

    All of these things provide meaning to me.  I don’t see life as having a single meaning, but a melange of ever shifting meanings and values, and life is the process of surfing through, over, and around them.

  • Martin

    The way in which I value my own life is somewhat different than the way I value my child’s life, or the life of a stranger.  I value my own life largely as a means to being a good father to my child, to pursue various valued projects and relationships, etc.  My projects and my relationships give me reasons to do things that I wouldn’t be able to do if I suddenly lost my life.  There’s nothing mysterious here.  

  • Zachgerald

    Why is this even an article.

  • Stam Anagnostou

    I can’t sleep.  I feel worried, anxious.  I wonder how to stay atop the abyssal ocean of despair that I know is always beneath my feet.  When my friends fail me, when my job fails me, when love fails me, when I fail me, how do I go on?

    I read this post because it speaks to those questions not with answers per se, but with possibilities.  I see the possibility of a happy life through these writings, through others, and through my self.  In my moments of despair I look to these possibilities and just believe that they are within my reach again and for a longer time perhaps.  It is the rediscovery of possibility amidst failure that keeps me going on.  Finite.  


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X