If we simply look at the worldviews of the apostates … most of them see no ultimate, grand, or magically divine meaning of life, but they don’t despair. Rather, they believe that each person must find his or her own meaning – which, for apostates, seems to be easy enough.
Phil Zuckerman (1969-), Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion, 2012
Phil Zuckerman is the author of the excellent Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment, Atheism and Secularity. Now, in Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion, he lets apostates explain themselves. Oddly, these backsliding ingrates don’t sound evil at all. In fact, they all sound like reasonable, thoughtful, rather happy people. Not a hint of apathy or nihilism in the bunch.
Their journeys from religion to irreligion are varied in nature and process, but all their stories bear at least one similarity to each other and to my own story as well: they all involve a struggle to escape religious brainwashing using independent thought. It’s a journey from the false security provided by supernaturalism to facing up to the sometimes uncomfortable real world, but a world that is more authentic than a pre-afterlife and a life that is more satisfying than living a lie.
In a chapter called “The Apostate Worldview”, Zuckerman addresses the always popular subject of “The Meaning of Life” and its ever-present companion subject, “Death”. Let’s start with a former Catholic who is now an agnostic:
To me, what brings meaning to life is making the world as much of my own heaven as I can… We don’t have any proof of what happens after we die. Why wouldn’t we live this life to the most full and honest potential that we can?
Joanna, age 24 (ellipsis in original)
That makes sense – a heck of a lot more sense than the religion she rejected. We are only guaranteed to have this life, and for who knows how long. Living your life based on anticipated rewards and feared punishments in a mythical afterlife is a sham, and a huge waste of valuable time and effort.
From a former evangelical Protestant who describes herself as secular:
I think the meaning of life is just relationships with people. I don’t need to have God love me because I have friends and family that love me and I think it’s about being the best person I can be and the best friend that I can be and having relationships here with real people.
Daphne, age 29
Well that certainly beats the wormology taught by most evangelical denominations. People should matter more than religions, or any other kind of ideologies.
Here’s someone who was raised by conservative Lutherans, but is now an agnostic:
The meaning of life is to find your purpose… I think the purpose is sort of a hybrid of trying to advance you and your family and do something good, but more importantly, to leave something good behind for the rest of humankind.
Scott, age 36 (ellipsis in original)
Sounds like a noble and worthwhile aim to me.
And now an older gentleman, a former Protestant who became an atheist in his twenties:
I guess I’d have to say as far as the meaning of life, who knows? You know, generally compassion, fairness … those kinds of things. So if you ask me what’s the meaning of life, I have a hard time answering that because I don’t know if there is a meaning in life. I suppose the purpose of life … is to try to have as good a life as you can, be kind and good to other people, try to do something useful with your life… I don’t look for the meaning of life somewhere up there. Here we are on earth, let’s do the best we can to live in harmony, live a good life, try to be happy as you can.
Eugene, age 72 (ellipses in original)
This is pretty much antithetical to everything most religions stand for; but if everybody thought this way, the world would be a much better place.
And finally, meaning-of-life-wise, we hear from a former Catholic who became an atheist in his early twenties:
To me, life has meaning simply because we’re here, whether we like it or not. And there are many ways we can improve our situation and help others who are in need… In essence, I believe life is its own reward… After divesting myself of religion, life in general finally made sense. I found life MORE enjoyable… Not believing in some afterlife or “second coming” means I am more focused on the here and now, preserving life, preventing suffering, doing my part to be environmentally conscious. I no longer see this body and Earth as some lobby for an afterlife. This life is precious.
Henry, age 41 (ellipses in original)
This life is precious. This is not complex philosophy, nor does it need to be. If you’re religious, you would be wise to consider the possibility that there is no afterlife. How would that change your approach to your everyday life?
People don’t need religion to live a life with meaning. People don’t need religion to lead a moral life. Life without religion can be satisfying, meaningful, and fulfilling. You may think that religion provides you with all the answers, but wait, perhaps that self-satisfied smirk of yours is not justified at all. Perhaps it is religious faith that is in fact empty, meaningless, and purposeless. Perhaps religion is darkness in numinous clothing. Perhaps religion is a vacuous charade, a cheap trick that makes you seem an important part of a grand plan, even if you’re only a divine slave. Religion has certainly caused more than its share of suffering, hatred, rage, ruin, decadence, selfishness, immorality, depression, persecution, bigotry, intolerance, despair, violence, and murder in this world. Why should it have a share in these at all? Why should religion have a body count? What is religion good for?
Speaking of death, how do the irreligious deal with mortality? The rational person accepts death as a part of life. In fact, death is what makes life precious. Denying the natural process of death in favor of a imagined afterlife is unhealthy and detrimental to your one and only life being lived now.
From a former Pentecostal Christian:
We just die and we carry on through our progeny and through the good works that we’ve done and the bad works that we’ve done and so forth. I believe in karma – in the sense that it’s a force that carries on sort of like a ripple effect through the universe… I don’t believe in an afterlife existence…
I really think that mortality is the savior of humankind. For me, it’s a good thing because it means that what we do right now is super important because you only get one chance to do it and, you know, you never know when your time is going to be up.
Chuck, age 36
Anyone who thinks that eternal life is a good thing hasn’t really thought it through.
And finally, meaning-of-death-wise:
I don’t really think anything happens. I think we die and it’s over… I think it makes the life that we have more valuable and more important. It makes me want to have more of an influence on the world while I’m here because this is it. This is my only shot.
Penny, age 29
This lack of belief in life after death, or a lack of surety that there is any more after this earthly existence, does not unhinge these apostates. It does not shatter their knees or destroy their wills. They carry on with their lives, finding fulfillment. Clearly, life can be enjoyed while maintaining the belief or suspicion that this is all there is. In fact, for some people, believing that “this is all there is” makes life better, richer, and more precious.
To sum up, our friendly apostates are telling us that the meaning of life is multifaceted:
- Find your own meaning in life. Life is its own reward. Life is precious, valuable, and important. Enjoy life.
- Make your own heaven on Earth. Do some good in your world. Leave a legacy that you would like to be remembered for.
- Live life to the full. Do something useful. Strive to meet your potential. Be the best you can be.
- Show compassion and fairness. Be kind. Help others. Prevent suffering. Preserve life and our planet. Live in harmony. Be happy.
- Cherish relationships. Love and be loved. The welfare of your family, friends, community, and humanity are the most important things in life.
- Focus on the here and now.
And whatever you do, forget about an afterlife and live this life, your real life, as if you had no second chance.