Photo by Sy Clark

Twice this week I’ve come across the same sentiment from two different people: “Atheists (and the non-religious) feel empty without God.”

One was from a Twitter account responding to a prominent lawyer who interacts on the mini-blogging service. It was blunt and to the point, which is how I’ve usually seen this sentiment made. To be fair to that “Tweep”, as the old identification goes, one of my more militant fellows had decided that it was just the moment to be snarky in response to one of the lawyer’s anecdotes. It was a cute, wholesome story, not requiring anti-religious pompousness in reply,  but he just had to be edgy. I think the response from the Tweep was sharing a common belief that such “hallowed out” people are angry at the world and their fellow man and have no problem showing it.

The other was from the writer Andrew Sullivan, who had a column last week in NY Mag where he spent a great deal of time on the corollary that I’ve seen usually accompany the Tweep’s assertion, that the non-religious try to replace this supposed emptiness with another form of religion.

He maintains that the non-religious (or less religious) on both the political left and right replace this with something else. For the left, that thing is social justice, or a set of diagnoses about and policy prescriptions for society. On the right, it is devotion to a wannabe strongman political figure like President Donald Trump, someone who will encourage their nationalist tendencies and xenophobia and the anger behind these things. Andrew’s words were not blunt like the Tweep’s but ultimately carried a similar line of thought, that the non-religious, lacking a clear purpose, will try to find it in all the wrong places. That they will ultimately be driven by their emotions into the arms of people and ideologies that are toxic.

A State of Self Without Religion

The basic misunderstanding that the Tweep and Andrew have is that, without god, or gods, or even just religion itself, a person will necessarily find life without meaning. They’ll find themselves empty. As The Tweep writes:

The thing about people who don’t believe in God is they feel empty. Even if you thing all religions are flawed if you disbelieve in God your life will feel empty.

This notion that the Godless are empty seems to stem from orthodox Christian teaching that we’re headed for the promised land, a Heaven where we’ll be embraced in the light and warmth that only God can provide. In life, that belief provides a sense of comfort, that better, even fantastic, things are to come after death. For the Tweep, the non-religionist, being without that comfort, will find their life empty.

To his credit, the lawyer Tweep, @Popehat, didn’t agree:

Nah. I don’t buy that. Agnostics and atheists live rich lives too, or not, depending on the individual, just like the religious.

I concur. I myself have found a pretty good life without having to resort to religion.  I have a great family I love, nieces I adore, a good job, and a hobby (travel) where I’m always envisioning the next adventure. I know plenty of non-religious and atheist people who have built a great life without feeling that something is missing. Do we face challenges? I can only speak for myself when I say yes – in particularly my Crohn’s Disease – but it ultimately doesn’t detract too much from my day-to-day.

Now, it is not to say that the newly non-religious do not sometimes find themselves questioning the meaning of life and their place in the universe. I’ve seen it before. On an Internet forum you’ll sometimes see a post lamenting that without God no longer being seen a real, they fail to understand what the meaning of life is. At its worst, it can sometimes lead to a real crisis where the person person no longer sees the point of living. I write this because I don’t wish to downplay the reality that some people can have trouble coping with a loss of their faith. I’m sure there are plenty of reasons behind this difficulty but its’ a subject that’s better for another time.

However, to say this applies to all non-religious and atheist people is quite wrong. We simply find a sense of self elsewhere – in the time we spend with family and friends, the things we like to do, and in our experiences. As Popehat says, it is possible to build rich lives without religion. Or not. Like a lot of things, life is what you make of it.

Finding Meaning in Life

Turning back to Andrew’s post, he first posits that everybody has religion, but the definition he uses seems to stretch the meaning of the word beyond recognition:

By religion, I mean something quite specific: a practice not a theory; a way of life that gives meaning, a meaning that cannot really be defended without recourse to some transcendent value, undying “Truth” or God (or gods).

That’s not religion. Philosophy, maybe, but not religion or faith specifically. Religion often stems from one philosophy or another, but there are non-religious philosophies. Enough to fill hundreds of libraries. 

Andrew next posits that even atheists have religion:

Which is to say, even today’s atheists are expressing an attenuated form of religion. Their denial of any God is as absolute as others’ faith in God, and entails just as much a set of values to live by — including, for some, daily rituals like meditation, a form of prayer.

Yes, some atheists have a pretty solid lack of belief in deities. Some atheists do meditate or follow non-deistic belief systems like Buddhism, as he points to in his buddy Sam Harris . Yet, neither of these things are true of all atheists. Some have a weaker position on whether or not God exists and not all atheists meditate. I don’t meditate and I’d guess the majority of us also don’t.

Andrew next moves to his view on why religion is important:

It exists because we humans are the only species, so far as we can know, who have evolved to know explicitly that, one day in the future, we will die. And this existential fact requires some way of reconciling us to it while we are alive.

This is why science cannot replace it. Science does not tell you how to live, or what life is about; it can provide hypotheses and tentative explanations, but no ultimate meaning.

He’s right, though the latter assertion is strange. Science doesn’t tell us how to live life but it’s not meant to. It tells us how the universe works – how the body operates, how planets rotate, and how rockets can take us across the cosmos. It may soon provide solid answers on other things, and already has decent explanations of some, such as how life arose and what caused the universe to come into being. Science doesn’t assert that we know all the answers to everything right this second but does give us a way to work toward them. Will science find answers for every question? Not necessarily but we atheists and non-religious don’t claim it will. We can only do our best to try.

Andrew finally moves into his main argument about why lack of religion matters so much to him:

But none of this material progress [ed: capitalism and its benefits] beckons humans to a way of life beyond mere satisfaction of our wants and needs.

Andrew spends the rest of the article explaining his view of what has replaced a “way of life” not defined by religion: the comforts of modern entertainment and the creeds of social justice and nationalism I touched on in the intro.

The mistake that the religious often make is assuming that without religion, that what replaces it pales in comparison. I think this can be true in some cases. It’s a pretty well-supported concept that material things will only make you happy for so long before you have to move on to something else, the so-called hedonic treadmill or hedonic adaptation. The classic example is that increased wealth will offer you a new level of contentment for a while before you return to a stable level of happiness. This may be the case with other things. That new gadget will likely only provide you joy for so long before it bores you and you look for the next shiny thing. It is not providing true meaning to your life, just a temporary fix.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t make your life mean something without religion, it just means that there isn’t one book or scroll that has all the answers. It means that only we can decide what life means, who and what is most meaningful in it, and how to deal with the curveballs. As mentioned earlier, life is what you make of it. Depending on who you are, this may be easier or more difficult to do, but it is possible.

It’s not all figured out at the beginning, either. Something new is always coming up, and some challenge or difficulty or experience is thrown our way. We’re constantly figuring out how deal with life as events come up. We’re problem solvers and we’re damn good at it. It’s why we continue to be the dominant species on this planet. It doesn’t mean that every experience and every difficulty immediately has a good answer, but like with science we don’t pretend there is one.

To be frank, I’m not even sure the religious would say their their faith’s teachings provide all of life’s meaning to them. Even believers will cherry pick the parts of their religion they like best and will often tie together different faiths, creeds, and philosophies that seem to best explain life’s mysteries. If something doesn’t make sense to them, they’ll toss it. In this way, no two believers have quite the same understanding of the “meaning of life”.

There is Not Emptiness, Just a Different Way of Life

So, ultimately, non-believers and atheists are not that different from believers, it’s just that we lack a belief in deities. Both the religious and non-religious take a look at the world and decide to themselves how to best make sense of it.

Going back to our Tweep from the beginning, he claimed that the atheist is empty inside without God. That’s not true at all; not for all of us, anyway. There’s no inherent hole that the non-religious have, yearning to be filled with something else, maybe even a toxic something, as Andrew suggests. Instead, the non-religious have found a different way to live and understand the universe. We all create our own meaning in life, but for the non-religious it just means finding it without help from on high.

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