Atheists and Meaning

As I’ve mentioned before, The Nonreligious by Phil Zuckerman, Luke Galen, and Frank Pasquale is a fabulous book. It documents the social, demographic and psychological aspects of life as a nonreligious person. As I have recently posted a couple of times on the subject of meaning, forwards this quote for the book would be pertinent to those threads. The book is well worth buying.

Whether religious or secular, people are motivated to believe that they live in an orderly world-one where things are under control, events have clarity, and lives have purpose and meaning. Both the religious and the secular share many coping mechanisms (self-distraction, venting, positive reframing) and sources of meaning. However, secular people do differ from the religious in some ways of coping with psychological challenges. One example already mentioned is that the nonreligious often experience rejection or stigmatization from others, which can lead to a lack of social support. Another obvious difference is that seculars do not perceive that there is an external agent such as God who will protect them from harm or who can be counted on to provide a sense of meaning. Interestingly, although seculars report having fewer coping resources than the religious, the impact of this may not be consequential for their mental health. That is, although atheists report the experience of external meaning in their lives less frequently than their religious counterparts, this is not perceived as a crisis of meaning, nor does it affect their overall happiness or life satisfaction.Rather, meaning for atheists varies as a function of their commitment and engagement levels. This indicates that perhaps the perception of objective, external meaning is not as essential for the life satisfaction of atheists and agnostics as it is for the religious. This research has found that atheists and believers did not differ on their level of satisfaction with social support, even though the atheists and agnostics reported few actual sources of social support. (p. 137) [I have not added the footnotes and citations to support these claims in the desire for expediency.]

With the absence of God, atheists come to rely on other external mechanisms and systems in order to support themselves in a time of threat. I will go on to quote relevant parts of the book that concern this in a future post.

Often, theists try to lord it over atheists with their access to an objective meaning or purpose in life. As was pointed out in a previous post, this doesn’t cut the mustard because you still need a subjective interpretation of that objective meaning in order to access to, or have meaning that accords with, the God-derived object meaning. even still need subjective meaning. There is no getting away from it. The research goes to show that this meaning that theists believe they have has no effect on their wellbeing in comparative terms.

In other words, even if their argument did hold philosophical weight (it doesn’t), then you could just turn to the theist and say, “Who cares?”

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