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?

Thanks-
Amanda

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.

Richard

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.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • CraftLass

    I love this. Love. As a victim of Sandy I’ve been feeling terrible about not being able to volunteer since I have to sort out my own currently-houseless life and that takes much of my time at the moment. It feels selfish, though. Without caring volunteers working hard even large donations wouldn’t matter. My volunteer experiences in previous tragedies turned horrible situations into empowering and fulfilling ones. Helping others brings the best sort of deeper meaning, no matter how or why you do it. Whether or not it makes you more noble, who cares? It will add enormous value to your own life and perspective.

    • ReadsInTrees

      Donate blood. It’s a way to give that doesn’t cost money.

      • CraftLass

        Agree. If only I was allowed to… (Too small lol)

        • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_QIOCTUX55ZX6IP6OYWJGP4IAYI Ruth

          Yeah, me too.  

          You are the one with needs right now.  Let others help you.  It will give you a different perspective next time, when you are the volunteer.  

  • http://twitter.com/silo_mowbray Silo Mowbray

    Richard, thank you again for another compassionate message of clarity.

    I note that as you described the ever-shrinking “tiers” of human opportunity you were also scaling Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Did you do that on purpose? Either way it was edifying.

    I’m one of those “lost souls” (if you can stand the irony). The existence of an afterlife of sorts would be something wonderful to know about, but given that we have no evidence for such, it leaves atheists who are like me with a bit of a hole in the middle. That hole might just be anxiety over not existing, or seeing that there is a finality to death and therefore never seeing loved ones again. I also recognize that if there is nothing past death that at that point I won’t be able to care.

    I did find a bit of respite recently. I now volunteer at a non-profit that focuses heavily on feeding hungry children. Knowing that the hours I put in translates directly to the alleviation of suffering among our youngest and most vulnerable gives me a much greater sense of purpose, relevance and value. Until I found this, I was very much on the treadmill you describe, sweating ennui.

    That was an awful metaphor. Sorry. :-)

  • Octoberfurst

     I know a couple who have been good friends of mine for years.  They go to work every day, come home, watch some TV or go to a movie occasionally and then do it all again the next day. They do nothing else. They are content with their life. And that is fine. There is nothing wrong with that.
      But as for me, I like my life to have more meaning to it so I volunteer with causes that I have a passion for.  It gives me a sense of purpose. Now my way is not better than my friends. As Richard said, people are different. What’s good for one is not necessarily good for another.  It’s whatever makes you happy.

    • allein

      I’m a lot like your friends but I’m not particularly content with it. Getting myself out there and dealing with people is a little harder for me than I would like. Don’t quite know how to get past that…

      • Octoberfurst

         It is always harder if you are shy but I’d still suggest just going to a meeting of something you are interested in and just listening. Usually someone will take you under their wing and before you know it you will feel comfortable in the group.

        • http://twitter.com/silo_mowbray Silo Mowbray

          I wonder if allein’s challenge isn’t just shyness, but full-blown social anxiety. That can be debilitating and might require help to overcome.

          I don’t mean to pry allein, I do hope you can get outside and mingle some.

          • allein

            A bit of both, really.

            Thanks.

            • http://www.facebook.com/agni.ashwin Agni Ashwin

              Sie sind nicht allein.

              • allein

                This much I know.

                Danke. :)

                • allein

                  Sometimes.

      • Bryan

         I have the same problem. People bore me, but not because I’m terribly exciting myself. It’s more that I don’t know how to involve myself in people’s lives and conversations. I’m always on the periphery, and the periphery is boring.

        • allein

          “It’s more that I don’t know how to involve myself in people’s lives and conversations.”

          Yes. I tend to feel like I’m intruding.

    • allein

      Out of curiosity, is October 1st and important date to you?

      I ask because it’s my birthday so your name always catches my eye. ;)

      • Octoberfurst

         It’s my birthday too so when I decided to come up with a name to protect my anonymity I originally  decided to call myself “Octoberfirst” but then changed it to “Octoberfurst” just to be different. (In hindsight” I think it would have looked cooler as “Oktoberfurst” but what’s done is done. LOL.)

        • allein

          Yay for October 1st birthdays! :)

  • ReadsInTrees

    I saw, FIND something to be passionate about. Develop a hobby, go outside and enjoy the magnificence of the world we live in, join a book club or some other club that gets your brain going, take up Geocaching, and definitely DEFINITELY volunteer for something. Volunteering to help others will give you meaning by giving back to others. Whether it’s helping at the animal shelter, donating time at a soup kitchen, teaching small classes at your local library, or just delivering random flowers to a nursing home, these will bring life back into your life. I donate blood on a regular basis, and that makes me feel very connected. I like to think of my pint of blood going out there and being put into someone else’s body (Mine is O negative, which is the type given to newborns) and traveling with them through their (hopfully long) life. Find your meaning!

  • Robin

     I am a former Atheist and am interfacing with another person of my former persuasion at the moment. It’s been very stimulating I must say. Anyway, as a result of my interactions with this person, I am asking a question on my latest post that I would like other Atheists to look at. I’m not getting many answers so I thought I’d request some.

    • AxeGrrl

      I am asking a question on my latest post that I would like other Atheists to look at. I’m not getting many answers so I thought I’d request some.

      Could you clarify what “latest post” you’re talking about, Robin?

      And what answers are you “requesting”?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6OE7LEYELE4MZTVXGZUSVTBFUI julie

    I love this one. I wish I couldn’t relate so well!
    For me, it just feels like there’s always a delicate balance that I have to maintain to feel happy. I feel overwhelmed by anxiety during the school year and I can’t wait for summer when I’ll have more free time. Then summer comes and it’s great at first, but then I fall into an existential depression.
    Religion never helped with that, but church did. It was nothing about the sermons or the beliefs, but it felt good to get out of the house and do something that wasn’t necessarily work or school and wasn’t necessarily fun. I think a lot of it’s the motivation. I’ll have a list of projects that I really want to do, but I struggle so much to motivate myself. With some other activity, people will notice if you stop coming and sometimes people might be relying on you. Activity like this helps you feel happier and refreshed, which will also make you more likely to get other things accomplished.
    My problem this summer will be that I don’t have a car, so I won’t really have anything to help me. My job will keep me going and I think I might take summer classes, but I have this desperate craving for some other activity. I’ll go on the internet looking for choirs to join or looking up information on the local UU church, but then I get depressed again because they are all out of reach and I feel stuck. I’m saving for a car, but I don’t earn a lot. It’ll probably be about two or three years before I can hope to join anything.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_QIOCTUX55ZX6IP6OYWJGP4IAYI Ruth

      I am feeling like giving advice today.  How about regular physical activity?  When I was in college I didn’t have a car.  I had a bike.  And I biked everywhere.    For me it is as close as I will get to flying.  

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6OE7LEYELE4MZTVXGZUSVTBFUI julie

        I bike to one of my jobs and a nearby store, but I don’t enjoy it at all. I know some people love exercise, but my body doesn’t deal with it very well.

  • macobex

    “For many, many people in the world, the treadmill of work to eat, eat to work is all they have ever experienced…”

    Has anybody here considered Antinatalism?

  • http://empiricalmystic.blogspot.kr/ Vijen

    Well meaning though this response may be, I suspect it will do very little to assuage the existential crisis which “Amanda” is clearly facing. What she really needs is some insight into her place in a world which all of us have apparently had thrust upon us.

    Each of us is capable of beginning an enquiry into our own subjectivity, taking a completely empirical approach which relies upon no authority and requires no beliefs whatever. Mysticism is routinely conflated with religion, both by the religious and by atheists; but for those who have reached a certain point, which “Amanda” clearly has, there’s really no other game in town. Hobbies aren’t going to do it for her.

    No, I’m not selling any new-age woo: I’ve been where “Amanda” is now, and I know how flat and empty her life seems. I’m sure she’s already read a lot of books and none of them has quite hit the spot; nevertheless, I suggest that “Grist for the Mill” (by Ram Dass and Stephen Levine) will be helpful to many who feel like her. Those with more courage will be drawn towards, and capable of recognizing, authentic teachers; who, regardless of what you may have heard, do in fact exist. For example, there is Francis Lucille, in California.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_QIOCTUX55ZX6IP6OYWJGP4IAYI Ruth

      Maybe old age woo.

      I am not much for the search for enlightenment.  

  • LeahLibresco

    Some excellent books: After Virtue, Godel Escher Bach.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_QIOCTUX55ZX6IP6OYWJGP4IAYI Ruth

    Conventional wisdom says that you can find happiness through personal growth, through working towards goals.  Not extrinsic goals like money or power or fame, but goals that help you grow as a person.  This conventional wisdom has support in the research. So figure out you goals and strive.

    • http://empiricalmystic.blogspot.kr/ Vijen

       “Conventional wisdom” is an oxymoron.

  • Xeon2000

    For me, it was about finding my passion. After my younger, frivolous, party days in college where I dropped out and lost my way, I eventually grew up and rediscovered my true self. After over a decade of working in cubicles, I had an office space moment. I quit my job to finish school and do advanced artificial intelligence research. Money was never a motivator. I wanted what I always day dreamed about doing while growing up and only found more exciting as time went on. I have a giant crosshair in my future. I guess then for me it was exactly the same as Richard. Find what you truly love to do in life. Don’t settle. Pursue it with all the effort you can muster.


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