Life of Wonder

Since the beginning of recorded history, organized religion has had a lock on society. Of course, specific religions rise and fall, and there have always been lanterns of freethought lighting the way in even the darkest of dark ages, but for the most part theism has dominated the minds of the majority from time immemorial.

Today there are, at long last, signs that this age-old dominance may be starting to wane, giving nonbelievers hope that secularism may finally take its rightful place in the public square. But atheists are still in the minority by far, and many of the old prejudices ingrained in the minds of believers still linger. One such ingrained belief is that atheists have no basis for morality, that only a vengeful divine lawgiver can provide humans with a reason to do what is right. That idea is discussed in “The Ineffable Carrot and the Infinite Stick“. But another prejudice against atheists, one that is probably even more common, is that atheism necessarily implies nihilism.

Theists who believe this hold that the only way to give our life meaning, the only way to imbue our feelings with value and our existence with purpose, is to believe in a transcendent god who created us all. Without this belief, the argument goes, we must necessarily collapse into depression and despair over the senselessness and futility of existence. If we do not believe in God, they say, we must believe that we are nothing but animated aggregations of molecules that came together by chance and that our feelings and emotions are not truly real since they are nothing but chemical reactions dictated by the laws of physics. Without a creator, they go on to say, there can be no purpose to our lives since there is no higher power to give us one; and if there is no afterlife, there is no ultimate or lasting significance to what we do since we will all inevitably die and be forgotten, and after that brief flicker, that momentary spark of sentience, there is nothing to look forward to but an eternity of darkness.

As I have said elsewhere, I do not claim the right to speak for all atheists. Perhaps some of them do believe this – although I would venture to say that if any do it is because they themselves have been duped by theistic prejudices, so widespread are they.

But I do not believe this; in fact, I reject it categorically. I do not believe that atheism implies nihilism. I do not believe it leads inevitably to the conclusion that life has no purpose. I do not believe our existence is meaningless, or that our emotions are illusions, or that we have no hope.

That being said, allow me to say what I do believe. I believe that atheism implies freedom. I believe that, while it does not give our lives meaning or purpose in and of itself, neither does it deny the possibility of these things. It is the right of every human being to steer their own course, to decide what makes their existence meaningful and what their purpose in life should be, and within reason, atheism can accommodate whatever we choose. I believe that our minds and our emotions are completely real and no less valuable because they come from our material brains rather than imaginary immaterial souls. I believe that life is inherently valuable, full of grandeur, mystery, beauty and complexity, a thing to be cherished, protected, and lived to the fullest. I believe that, despite our limited lifespans, we have much to hope for and many goals worth achieving. I believe that being on our own, being part of the cosmos, ennobles rather than diminishes us and makes our conscious existence far more wonderful. I believe in the sublime. I believe that the most valuable and important things are not tangible. And I believe that atheism offers at least as much chance for happiness and fulfillment as any religion ever could, and that it is fully compatible with all the things – compassion, joy, love, hope and awe – that define humanity and make life worthwhile. In fact, I firmly believe that atheism makes life in general, and especially conscious, intelligent, thinking, feeling life such as ours, by far the most precious thing there is.

I do not dispute the facts presented in the above summary of the theist position. We are indeed made up of molecules, and chance factors did play a significant role in our coming into existence, both at the level of the species and the level of the individual. Our emotions are indeed chemical reactions within our brains that occur in obedience to the laws of physics. Each of us will, indeed, eventually die, following which we will never come into existence again. What I deny is the interpretation of these facts. To leap from this simple description of certain aspects of the world to the conclusion that the life of an atheist is necessarily nihilistic and purposeless entails two fallacies of reasoning. One of these I call the fallacy of reduction (alt.atheism regular Andrew Lias, to whose insightful comments I am indebted, refers to it as the “fallacy of mediocrity“), which holds that a thing can be fully evaluated by considering only its most generic characteristics. The second, which I refer to as the fallacy of mystery, holds that to understand how a thing works is necessarily to diminish it or make it less wonderful or interesting.

An example of the first fallacy occurs when theists deride the atheist viewpoint as entailing that human beings are “just matter” or “just chemicals”. However, the fact is that we are not “just” any of those things, any more than a house is “just bricks” or a book is “just words”. Houses are made of bricks and books are made up of words, but not every arrangement of bricks constitutes a house, nor is every arrangement of words a book. Inanimate objects such as a rock, a cloud, or a puddle of water might with some justice be considered “just molecules”, because if one were to take any one of these things and randomly rearrange its molecules, more likely than not it would still be a rock, a cloud, or a puddle of water. There is nothing intrinsically special about these things’ organization. But the same is not true of us – most random rearrangements of our molecules would not result in beings that can do what we can do.

We are living beings – we maintain homeostasis, we have a metabolism, we grow, we reproduce, we adapt to our environment. These are properties that the overwhelming majority of randomly chosen arrangements of matter do not share. Beyond this, we possess traits that differentiate us even from most other living beings. We possess, for example, the very rare and unusual trait of self-awareness, the recognition of ourselves as distinct living beings. We can classify objects into abstract categories. We can create tools, attach meaning to symbols, and use complex language. We can remember and learn from the past and anticipate and plan for the future. We can feel higher emotions such as love, compassion, and friendship. We can use reason, deductive logic, and complex mathematics. We can create music, art, literature, and technology. We can organize ourselves into large, complex societies. We can use the principles of the scientific method to understand the causes of natural phenomena and control them to our benefit. These are all indisputable parts of what it means to be human.

Even if we choose only from among all living things, the vast majority do not meet these criteria. Only humans, and to a limited degree some other animal species, possess these abilities, and only in humans are they developed to their greatest extent. Thus, even in the most dispassionate and objective sense, human beings are rare and unique, and therefore special. No puffed-up sense of anthropocentrism is required to support this conclusion; it is simply a fact. Only by ignoring the grand sweep of all these rare and exceptional traits, ignoring all the unique and special abilities we possess, and insisting that a thing can be no more valuable than its least valuable component can theists make the claim that atheism devalues human beings in this way. In a fundamental sense, we are indeed made up of the same stuff as the rest of the cosmos. How does this detract from the undeniably extraordinary nature of who and what we are? Why should it be degrading to view ourselves as made up of molecules, when one could equally well take the view that molecules must be amazing things indeed if they have the capability to produce beings such as us?

Human beings are special in another way. Namely, it is by our choices that we bring intangible qualities such as morality, purpose, meaning and value into the world – we are the very reason that such things exist at all. Without us, there would still be seasons, the planets would still orbit the sun, and other living beings would be born, grow and die, but there would be no one to take notice of these facts, no one to assign value to them. Our existence adds an entirely new dimension to reality which it would not possess without us, and this is something which is absolutely unique to humans among all things we know of. In this subjective sense, then, in addition to our objective uniqueness, human beings are undeniably special. Whether a deity exists or not does not change this in the slightest.

Consider now the second misguided theist argument – the fallacy of mystery, the claim that understanding how a thing works can only diminish its specialness and our appreciation for it. This belief is perhaps best exemplified by John Keats’ lament in his 1819 poem, Lamia:

“Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine –
Unweave a rainbow….”

The last line quoted above, which inspired biologist Richard Dawkins’ book Unweaving the Rainbow, is worth studying for its relation to the fallacy of mystery. We now know that the rainbow is an optical illusion created by the refraction of sunlight through water droplets suspended in the air. The properties of the visible light spectrum that produces it, as well as the biochemical basis for color vision, are well-established facts, and science has long since moved on to study other natural phenomena. But does any of this make the misty colors of a rainbow in the clearing sky after a storm any less beautiful? On the contrary, understanding the true causes of things only allows us to appreciate them more; it adds more and deeper levels to our appreciation. A person acquainted with some basic principles of physics can admire a rainbow not just for its visual beauty, but also for the precision and elegance of the underlying natural laws that interact to produce it.

The same holds true in other branches of science. A person knowing nothing of geophysics or plate tectonics can admire the snowcapped beauty of a distant range of mountain peaks, but a person who does know something of these fields can admire them for this while simultaneously appreciating them as buckled continental crust, upthrust during the slow, multimillion-year collisions of continental plates borne on the drifting fire of the mantle, sculpted by the patient scouring of erosion as forests advance and recede and civilizations rise and fall around them. A person entirely ignorant of astrophysics can be awed by the immensity of the night sky and its countless twinkling stars; a person educated in that area can do this while holding in mind the possibly even more awe-inspiring knowledge that each of those twinkling pinpricks is a mighty sun like our own, though incomprehensibly far away, and that the light we now see from them has traveled across the interstellar void for thousands or millions of years to reach us. And while a person unschooled in biology can still listen with pleasure to the music of a songbird, watch with awe as a pod of whales crests the surface of the ocean in an explosion of glittering spray, or reverently caress the bark of an ancient and massive redwood tree, a person who comprehends the central insight of the theory of evolution can view these organisms not just as isolated phenomena, impressive in themselves, but as aspects of a vast underlying unity we catch only in glimpses, links in a tremendous and subtle web of interconnection that reaches billions of years back into the past and encompasses even ourselves, binding us all in unbreakable ties of heredity and kinship to each other, to our fellow species and to that very first life from which we all descend. In each case, to understand a phenomenon is not to diminish, but to immeasurably enhance it, adding to its beauty and our deserved awe and admiration.

All of this holds equally true for our minds and emotions. It is true that our thoughts, our feelings, our selves are the result of electrical signals and the release of neurotransmitter chemicals within the brain. But this does not make them any less real or less meaningful. Why would it? Why does their legitimacy depend on their cause remaining unknown?

Even if the basis for our thoughts and feelings is entirely material, that does not make them any less genuine, because it is not possible for there to be such a thing as a false feeling or an illusion of feeling. Any perfect reproduction of an emotion would, by definition, be that emotion. Where they come from makes no difference to our experience of them. When I gaze into the star-dusted infinity of the night sky, I feel awe; when I perceive the brilliant colors of a sunrise, I am enraptured by beauty; when I see someone in pain or in need, I sense compassion; when I contemplate the mysteries of life and existence, I know wonder; when I look into the eyes of someone special to me, I am aware of love. To intellectually understand the basis of these feelings in no way makes them any less moving or sublime, and to deny that they originate in a supernatural “ghost in the machine” inside my head in no way makes them any less valid or real.

It does not diminish these sensations to know that they have comprehensible, material causes. On the contrary, to know that these feelings rest on established physical principles and antecedents grounds them solidly in reality – it makes them more real. Rather than the tenuous epiphenomenalism defended by some dualist philosophers, in which our thoughts and feelings are produced in an ethereal plane of subjective sensation entirely divorced from events in the world where our bodies dwell, this robust materialism gives us confidence that our most important and worthwhile feelings are firmly linked to, and produced by, events in the real world. It is a perfectly accurate description of a given situation to say that light reflected from an approaching form passes through the irises of my eyes and strikes my retinas, where the energy carried by the impinging photons activates patterns of light-sensitive cone cells, in turn sending a signal through the optic nerves to my primary visual cortex where neurons specialized to detect shapes, motion, edges and depth, organized into larger neural networks that detect faces, fire in patterns that activate my temporal lobes, accessing stored long-term memories of the same face; these memories carry emotional content, accessed through my limbic system, that stimulates the release of hormones and neurotransmitters such as oxytocin and dopamine that produce feelings of affection and closeness, even as the spreading activation reaches my language centers where it is linked to a pattern of sounds that together represent a name. It is an equally accurate description of the same situation to say that I see someone special to me approaching and feel love for them.

With these fallacies dispensed of, it should be much easier to clear the remaining theist objections to atheism out of the way, the first of which runs as follows: How can an atheist have a purpose without a god to give him one? How can an atheist believe life has meaning if there is no higher power to imbue it with any?

This objection, of all the ones raised by theists, is the most easily answered. Where do our purpose and meaning come from? They come from nowhere but ourselves. So long as we respect the happiness of others and their equal right to do the same, it is the right of every person to decide what makes their life meaningful and what their purpose will be. An atheist could devote their life to fighting against the abuses committed in the name of religion, defending the separation of church and state, or trying to win people over to the cause of freethought, but not all atheists choose to be activists. An atheist could choose to write, paint, sculpt, program, invent, or otherwise create. An atheist could immerse themself in culture, attending concerts and plays or reading all the greatest works of literature. An atheist could decide to learn about science and how the world works, or become a professional scientist themself and advance the frontier of human knowledge. An atheist could devote their life to community and charity work, volunteering at a local hospital, homeless shelter, retirement home, scouting organization, counseling center, or any other such organization. An atheist could serve their country or humanity in general by becoming a firefighter, paramedic, police officer, soldier, or any other career devoted to public service. An atheist could make it their mission to explore the planet’s wild places – climbing mountains, sailing rivers, hiking through forests – or travel the world, visiting all its great cities and landmarks. An atheist could learn to play a musical instrument, learn to speak other languages, learn to play a game or sport, or learn a martial art. An atheist could find someone they love and care for and dedicate their life to making them happy – or they could do all of these things! Atheism leaves all these options open and more, but forces us into none of them; its essence is freedom, autonomy and self-direction. To an atheist, life is a wide-open horizon, and each person can set their own course and heading. All a person has to do is decide what they want to do with their life, what would make it meaningful for them, and then do that thing.

The unanswered question is why theists feel we need a god to give us purpose. Why do we need a deity, or anyone else at all, to tell us how to live our own lives? What’s so difficult about choosing for yourself? After all, the question of what is meaningful to a person must always ultimately be answered by that person. Even theists who derive their purpose in life from following what they see as God’s word do so only because they see those particular words as meaningful to them.

Even more puzzling to me is the notion that God gives us all a purpose, and that purpose is to worship him. How could anyone embrace such a depressing and limiting worldview? It makes us out to be slaves, or puppets, or canned applause, created by a vain and insecure deity just so we could constantly tell him how great he is. Equally bad, in my view, is the concept that the purpose God has decreed for us is to believe in him and follow his rules so that we may be saved. If that is what God wanted for us, why didn’t he create us in Heaven in the first place? Why did he create us apart from him and then set up a series of arbitrary hurdles we must jump over to get back to him? This view reduces humanity to a rat running a maze.

In sharp contrast to these views is the freedom afforded by atheism. To one who has never known anything but the stifling constraints of a life whose every aspect is predetermined by doctrinaire religion, the exhilaration of true self-direction can only be imagined. Humanity is not diminished, but uplifted by setting aside the senseless obedience to ancient writings and stultified church hierarchies and striking out on our own, setting our own path, blazing a new trail. It is the choice to do with our lives as we wish that gives our existence true meaning and purpose.

Although some may object that this conception of meaning and purpose is too subjective, the fact is that there is no single overarching reason for existence, nor does there need to be. Meaning and purpose are, by their very nature, constructs of the mind. For there to be purpose, there must be someone whose purpose it is; for there to be meaning, there must be someone to whom an item means something. Since people’s minds are different, meaning and purpose will necessarily vary from person to person. That does not make these things any less real or any less important. Given the abundance of opportunity to find meaning and purpose in everyday life, there is absolutely no reason to believe that life requires a cosmic, universal meaning imposed from above, or that purpose cannot be purpose without the approval and permission of a higher power outside oneself. Is it not enough that your life means something to you?

Similar conclusions hold for the source of value and worth. Human beings, as intelligent, free-willed beings, bring value and worth into the world through their choices, by deciding to consider some things valuable and worthwhile. The only difference in this case is that, while there is no one purpose to life that all people share, there is one universal which we all value – namely, happiness. Since people find happiness through many different paths, the incidentals through which we arrive at that end will be valued differently depending on who is making the evaluation. This is only natural and to be expected. However, by identifying some immutable principles, such as justice and human rights, that in general will advance the cause of happiness far more than inhibit it, a consistent system of values that ensures the least unnecessary suffering and the maximum possibility for happiness for everyone can be created. Within the boundaries of this system, human beings can and should decide for themselves what is most valuable to them and makes their life most worthwhile. (Again, see “The Ineffable Carrot and the Infinite Stick” for more information on this moral system.)

What sorts of things might an atheist find valuable? Aside from happiness, the most fundamental good, I value human life, the essential prerequisite necessary for this good to exist. I value liberty, compassion and justice, second-order prerequisites that greatly contribute to this goal. I value the simple pleasures of the senses and the more abstract pleasures of the intellect. I value the love and friendship of human relations. I value the glorious and fantastic beauty of the natural world, whether it be the colors of the sky at sunrise or sunset, the roar of a waterfall and the splintered rainbows cast by its spray, the light filtered through the leaves of a forest, the patchwork of the land below seen from the peak of a mountain, the silent white-clad purity of the morning after a snowstorm, or the glowing spiral of a galaxy wheeling against the dark of space. As an extension of the compassion I have for other human beings, I value the diversity of the living world, the millions of unique species and the existence of undisturbed wilderness for them to dwell in. I value the awesome power of the human mind and the illuminating truths it can discover through reason and the scientific method. I value the many great achievements of the human race and I value the far greater potential we still possess, despite all the faults that have kept us from realizing it thus far. (“Finding Beauty in the Mundane” describes some more things valuable to this atheist.)

Trying to find value in things on the basis that God values them, on the other hand, is an errand that will be forever plagued by doubt and disputation. There is no clear evidence that there even is such a being, much less that he values certain things above others, as the never-ending schism and argument among religious believers shows. After thousands and thousands of years, humanity is no closer to agreement on what God desires and values – further than ever, if anything. If there is, as most believers insist, only one god with a consistent, unchanging set of values which he wishes to communicate to us, this is very strange and unexpected. On the other hand, if there has never been anything more than human beings with differing opinions seeking to make their way, it is entirely understandable. We should cease this never-ending pursuit of the mirage of divine will, set aside faith and dogma as bases for decision-making, and instead rely on reason and the common good to guide us from now on. We will probably never reach agreement on the exact value of everything, nor is it necessary to do so, but we can come far closer and reach a far more harmonious solution than we ever would as long as there still exist religious sects each firmly convinced of the absolute, God-given truth of their particular outlook on life.

Another argument urged by some believers against atheism is that its skeptical, doubting outlook robs life of its wonder. Many theists, who derive meaning in life from their leap of faith, imagine that our existence must be greatly impoverished by our only believing in the things we can see and touch.

Though atheism per se does not require a skeptical outlook, it is indeed true in my experience that most atheists are skeptics, either because a general habit of critical inquiry led them to question the existence of God, or because questioning that generally accepted conclusion inspired them to apply a similar method to other areas of life. I further agree that skepticism itself does not provoke wonder. However, I would argue that the role it plays is as a precursor to that emotion. As the essay “A Much Greater God” points out, humanity is adrift in a sea of erroneous claims, both unconsciously formed superstition and consciously crafted deception. If we have no way to sort through this mess, if we have no way to tell what is true, how can we ever be moved to awe and wonder? Such an emotion requires a footing of solid bedrock, not the shifting sand of rumor. Just as in the fable of the boy who cried wolf, where the terror the boy’s cries inspired in his fellow villagers ceased when they stopped believing him, the keen edge of wonder cannot help but be dulled if we are constantly awed by accounts that later turn out to be untrue. Skepticism clears this clutter out of the way so it becomes possible to view reality as it truly is – and that is where true wonder comes from. The established, scientific facts about the universe we live in are far more awe-inspiring than the most imaginative creations of human storytellers, not just because they are real, but also because they so consistently surpass them. Did the greatest poets and bards of antiquity ever dream that our bodies are made of the dust of long-dead stars?

The final reason theists commonly see atheism as equivalent to nihilism comes from the mistaken perception that, without an eternal afterlife, human goals are ultimately futile and we have nothing to strive for. If we all eventually die and cease to exist, the argument goes, why does anything we accomplish matter?

However, this question can be easily reversed: Why is it important if what we do will not matter to anyone in some distant hypothetical future? It matters here and now. Some theists seem to believe that no good deed matters if it is not done and remembered for all time, but that is not the only possible opinion on this issue. A theist seeking to argue against atheism cannot simply argue that all issues must be evaluated from his point of view and the resulting conclusions accepted. Instead, an effort must be made to find out what the other person actually believes, and then the arguer must show where that position – the position fairly and accurately represented, not a straw-man version of it – is inconsistent either with itself or with external reality, in order to defeat it. Too many of the proselytizers who attack atheism, in my experience, are unwilling to do this, and this dooms their efforts right out of the gate.

This question can be turned back on the questioner in another way. If there is no afterlife, then this life is the only one we will ever have, and our only chance to be happy is now. This means that, in fact, atheism is the worldview that makes our life the most precious thing there is and imbues our goals in it with the greatest importance. The afterlife-believing theist, by comparison, has little reason to believe that anything we accomplish now matters in the long run. Any work of art one wanted to create, any great book one wanted to write or read, any other task one might have wanted to achieve – there will be all the time anyone could ever need to do these things in Heaven. There would be no point in packing all these things into this fleeting mortal life. Likewise, this view removes all the urgency, all the importance, from any quest to improve this world for our descendants, to establish justice, or to ease the burden of human suffering. Why bother, if such things will be taken care of in the end anyway?

The atheist, by contrast, has sound reasons for wanting to set and achieve goals. If this life is all we have, then whatever we want to do to improve ourselves, we have to do it now or miss the opportunity forever. Likewise, if there is no afterlife where the good will be rewarded and the evildoers punished, we have a real reason to work our hardest to decrease suffering and ensure justice. If there is no god we can count on to do these things, then it is up to us.

Nor are our goals limited to improving things for ourselves and others who are currently alive. An atheist who lives by the Golden Rule and the kind of far-looking compassion that makes us human has every reason to set long-term goals such as securing human rights around the world, improving the health of the planet or advancing the state of scientific knowledge, goals whose full benefits may not be realized during an individual’s lifetime. Our descendants will one day inherit this world, and we owe it to them to provide them with the best one we can possibly give. This is the only way to pay back the debt we owe to previous generations who likewise fought and died for our sake, and furthermore, it is the right thing to do. Likewise, since there will be no great meeting of the minds in an imaginary afterlife, we have an obligation to preserve our own intellects and discoveries for the benefit of future generations as best as possible, through literature, science or invention. These things are the gifts we can give to people who are not yet born.

Our eventual non-existence does not make any of these things meaningless. They have meaning for us now, and they will have meaning when their benefits are realized in the future, and that is more than enough. They are worthwhile. What is not worthwhile is spending this life, the only and the most precious gift anyone could ever have, in a state of abject obedience, submitting your body, your mind, your thoughts to the will of another and groveling before shadows and phantoms of your own imagination. It is not worthwhile to forsake the full power of the free mind and the full extent of all the happiness a person can have to live a life of passive unawareness, fear, and pointless self-denial. It is not worthwhile to shut out contrary opinions, refuse to question, refuse to investigate and instead meekly accept the pronouncements of self-declared authority figures. It is not worthwhile to divide, to hate, to wage war, and to conquer in the name of God. These things are horrendous wastes of the priceless chance each of us has only once.

I do not deny that many people can find happiness and purpose in their lives by believing in God, but I do deny that that is the only way to find these things. Many proselytizing theists claim that all those who do not believe as they do are in some way incomplete, that all people have a “God-shaped hole” inside them which can only be filled by worshipping that theist’s deity, thereby producing a sense of purpose and true inner fulfillment in life, and that all attempts to acquire happiness any other way will ultimately end in misery and frustration. This claim is often central to their attempts to convert others as well as to the foundation of their own beliefs. To admit that a fulfilling, meaningful, purpose-driven life can be lived without any belief in God would result in the unraveling of their entire worldview. This has led to the bizarre spectacle, on some Internet discussion boards and other forums, of atheists affirming that they lead happy and purposeful lives while theists attempting to convert them argue that they don’t. One would think it would occur to these people that insisting at length that atheism must imply a purposeless, nihilistic life, when most atheists themselves do not actually feel this way, is like a scientist arguing that bumblebees cannot possibly fly because the mathematics do not permit it. Theory must always ultimately bow to fact. In fact, if one reads the deconversion stories of people who were once religious but became atheists, I am confident readers will find the one attribute that the overwhelming majority of them share is the relief, the happiness experienced by so many people upon throwing off their theistic beliefs.

The fact of the matter is that religion does not have exclusive possession of qualities such as love, happiness, and purpose. These are basic and fundamental parts of what it means to be human, and no one belief system owns them. Though some theists may proclaim that those who do not follow their religion’s tenets cannot feel these things, their authority to make such a statement is entirely lacking.

Some believers may not feel that they could find a fulfilling or purposeful life as atheists, but it is enormously arrogant for them to declare that therefore no one else could either. What makes them think they are justified in such sweeping generalizations? Their scriptures may tell them that atheists are invariably misguided and miserable, but again, whether there is a deity who wrote those books and who can perceive the contents of people’s minds is precisely what is at issue. An atheist would say that such passages represent nothing but the prejudices of their human authors, and such a claim would be supported by the evidence that there are atheists who consider their lives worthwhile and meaningful.

This essay, by comparison, represents the viewpoint of an actual atheist. This is not a theist proselytizer or religious apologist trying to convince you what atheism means, trying to argue about the implications of a point of view he does not himself believe in. This is a real atheist saying all of this. This is what I believe. This is how I live my life.

In fact, my life is overflowing with purpose. It is full of meaning. To me, atheism is a life of wonder. I find it in the simple company of friends and the deeper and more profound company of someone I love. I find it in watching the sun rise at dawn. I find it in walking through a forest in autumn and marveling at the vibrancy of color and the play of sunlight on leaves, walking through the same forest in summer, observing photosynthesis and the interlocking and vibrant web of life produced by millions of years of evolution, returning to that forest in winter to see the fractal patterns of branches and frost and the turbulence of my breath steaming in the air. I find it in watching the flight of birds. I find it in watching clouds at day and considering how atmospheric scatter of sunlight makes the sky appear blue, or watching stars at night and letting my imagination drift through the incomparable vastness and grandeur of the cosmos, wondering whether there is any other intelligent life out there that might at that moment be wondering the same thing. I find it in reflecting on deep truths of my own existence, picturing my own thoughts as electrochemical flashes in a network of neurons and synapses, my own body as proteins built up by self-replicating double helixes, shearing and recombining, mutating and propagating themselves through deep time, my own structure as composed of glittering bits of matter, the whirl of electrons around the atomic nuclei, tiny immutable particles both as old as the universe and as ephemeral as nothingness, all self-assembling over multiple levels of complexity into a thinking, conscious mind that can reflect on its own existence. I find it in contemplating the future and wondering what will come next. There is much to enjoy in this world, and none of it is made any less valid or desirable by not believing in God. Instead, it only increases my wonder that we exist, that we live and think, that we have come this far by ourselves. There is much for us to love, much for us to value, and very much still for us to learn. This is not nihilism, and there is no reason for it to be. On the contrary, atheism is nothing less than a resounding affirmation of life.