A Beginner’s Guide to the Argument from Meaning

A recent poll for a major Internet search company ranked ‘What is the meaning of life?’ as the most important question we can ask as humans. But is it actually possible for life to have meaning if God doesn’t exist? If there is no God, if we are here by chance in an materialistic, atheistic universe, then isn’t life meaningless, valueless and purposeless?

Some atheists have tried to avoid this bleak conclusion. The late Molleen Matsumura, a leading figure in the secular community in the USA, once wrote:

We humanists agree that there is no karmic law, no Grand Plan, and no Grand Planner to make the world make sense for us. Instead of discovering “The Meaning of Life,” we’re faced with the job of creating meaningful lives for ourselves.[1]

But like a canoe made out of newspaper and glue, this leaks all over the place. Let me explain why, if there is no meaning built into the universe, we can’t just try and make a meaning up.

The first problem with trying to invent our own meaning to life, is that this rather assumes the universe cares. If reality consists of nothing more than the slow inexorable grind of the blind deterministic forces of physics, then life doesn’t suddenly acquire meaning just because I say it does. There’s nothing to stop you making as many eloquent pronouncements about the meaning of life as you wish, but it’s only a matter of time before you pass away, leaving your voice as just an echo in the wind.

Cheerful stuff, eh? But there are further problems for atheism. For instance, what happens if my invented meaning contradicts your invented meaning? Let’s imagine that you decide that meaning to your life will be found by embracing the cause of environmentalism: But I, on the other hand, decide that the meaning of my life will be to have a carbon footprint bigger than Beijing. So who wins? There’s simply no reconciling our wildly different ‘meanings’. And given that on atheism there’s no meaning ‘baked’ into reality, no ‘right answer’, then I guess we’re left to fight it out.

Perhaps the underlying problem here is that some atheists are a little confused about the meaning of the word “meaning”. Let me illustrate what I mean (pardon the pun) with an illustration from literature. Consider that wildly popular atheist manifesto, The God Delusion. What’s Richard Dawkins’ book actually about, what’s its meaning? Suppose you and I were hotly debating the intent of the book—and could not agree; we could solve our debate by deferring to Dawkins himself, because as the author, he has the right to determine the book’s meaning. But on the other hand, if there is no author, if The God Delusion were simply created by an explosion in the ScrabbleTM factory, the letter tiles falling in such a way that they created the text by sheer fluke, then there is no ‘meaning’ in the book, only what you or I choose to read into it.[2] What goes for books goes equally for the universe too. No God, no author, no meaning, no purpose.

Over the years, wiser and more thoughtful atheists who have pondered the question of life’s meaning have been willing to admit that they have a real problem in this area. In one of his most famous essays, Bertrand Russell, arguably one of the most influential atheists in the twentieth century, wrote:

No fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins … Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.[3]

Whilst these are not jolly or optimistic words, I appreciate Russell’s honesty. If there is no God, then humankind is not designed, purposed, or planned: there is nothing we are intended to be. All that we hold dear, all of our ambitions, goals and accomplishments are pure accidents of atoms. Furthermore, all achievement—the whole cathedral of human accomplishment—is destined to become no more than rubble, buried beneath the debris of the end of the universe: utterly ruined, pitch dark, cold as death, achingly alone.[4] Given this one and only certainty, our only option, says Russell, is to embrace despair—to use it as the sole foundation on which we can build.

Is there any escape from despair for an atheist? One recent secular writer who has tried to avoid Russell’s conclusion is ex-Muslim Alom Shaha. In his witty little book, The Young Atheist’s Handbook, Alom thinks that cake might help us. Yes, seriously. Cake. “Crumbs!” I hear you exclaim. And you’d be right; Alom writes:

People seem to struggle with the notion that this life is all there is. Many seem to think that if they accept that this is it, life has no meaning. A friend once compared this to saying that a cake has no meaning once you’ve eaten it. A cake provides you with a pleasurable experience, a focus for celebration, a memory, and even perhaps a wish. An eaten cake will give you energy. Some of its atoms may literally become part of you through the processes that are continually replacing the billions of cells in your body. Similarly, when you die, your memory and the things you did will live on for a while, but your atoms will live on for a lot longer, becoming part of other objects in the universe.[5]

Does this work? Not really. The American psychologist Roy Baumeister, in a very helpful and influential book, once noted that the reason humans struggle with questions like “the meaning of life” is because it’s too big a question. Better to break it down into four simpler questions::[6] the questions of identity (Who am I?); of value (Do I matter?); of purpose (Why am I here?); and of agency (Can I make a difference?). Does Alom’s cake-orientated-approach-to-meaning help the angst-ridden atheist here?

Well first, consider identity. On atheism, who are we? It seems clear that are nothing more than just a collection of atoms and molecules—in the same way as a piece of cake, a piece of wood, or even a stagnant puddle are collections of atoms. If atheistic materialism is true, we really can’t properly answer the question of identity.

What about value? Alom seems to suggest that a slice of cake has meaning because of what it can provide: a pleasurable experience.[7] The problem with applying this to human beings, of course, is that it is thoroughly utilitarian, a philosophy that is deeply troubling because it tends to see human beings as means rather than ends. It appreciates what a person can do; but doesn’t value them for what they are.

Things get even worse when we turn to Baumeister’s third question, that of purpose. For Alom, a cake has purpose—it can satiate my hunger, but of course those were not purposes the cake picked for itself, they were purposes I gave it. In other words, unless purpose is provided from outside, there then is none at all, for cake or us. And in an atheistic universe there is no purpose, things just are.

Finally, what, of Baumeister’s fourth question, that of agency: can we make a difference in the long term? Yes, says Alom Shaha, in the same way that the cake can: just as the fruitcake’s atoms become part of us, so our atoms will outlive us, going on to become parts of other things. Of course, that presumably means that my atoms aren’t really mine, are they? They’re just passing through, temporarily occupying the space that comprises me on their way to becoming something else. These may one day end up in a murderer or a life-saving medicine and the atoms don’t care which. Why would they?

We have had a little fun here, but I want to give credit, too: for all of the foolishness of the illustration, Alom Shaha has recognised that atheists have a real problem. Namely that we cannot live as if life is meaningless. No matter how beautiful the rhetoric, Bertrand Russell was simply wrong—you cannot build upon unyielding despair, rather you need to find a framework that enables you to answer those questions of identity, value, purpose and meaning. We need more than nihilism, we more than cake, we need more than atheism.

So what about Christianity. I passionately believe that Christianity answers the questions of identity, value, purpose and agency better than any other worldview I have investigated in my decades of studying the world’s religions and beliefs.

For example, concerning identity, Christianity says that you are not an accident of atoms, but rather that you were fashioned, shaped and created by the creator God.

What about value? Economic theory tells us that something’s value is determined by what somebody is willing to pay for it. Christianity says that God was willing to pay an incredible price for each one of us, the price of his son, Jesus Christ.

Concerning purpose, Christianity claims that there is indeed a purpose, one baked into reality and that purpose is to know God and enjoy him forever.

And finally, what about agency, the power to make a real difference? Christianity says that we can make a difference if our efforts, our energy, our work is caught up in and with and is part of God’s greater purposes. Then our strivings cannot merely outlive us, but can be revealed to be part of something bigger, beautiful, more real; the kingdom that God is building for eternity.

If Christianity is true, really true, then life does have meaning and purpose. And part of that purpose is that we would come to know the purposer, the God who gives us, freely and wonderfully, identity, value, and purpose. Those are all absent in atheism: but on offer in and through Jesus to all who would truly repent and believe.

Andy Bannister Short Answers 13Dr Andy Bannister is the Director of the Solas Centre for Public Christianity

Further Reading:

McGrath, Alister, Surprised by Meaning: Science, Faith, and How We Make Sense of Things. Louiseville, (KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.)
Guinness, Os, The Long Journey Home: A Guide to Your Search for the Meaning of Life. (Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook Press, 2001)


[1]        Molleen Matsumura, ‘Ingredients of a Life Worth Living’ in Dale McGowan et al (Editors), Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief (New York: AMACOM, 2009) 129 (emphasis mine).

[2]        See the discussion in Richard Taylor, Metaphysics (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1983) 100-105.

[3]        Bertrand Russell, ‘A Free Man’s Worship’, available online at http://www3.nd.edu/~afreddos/courses/ 264/fmw.htm

[4]        Like Skegness on a cold February evening.

[5]        Shaha, The Young Atheist’s Handbook, 36.

[6]        His work is nicely summarized in McGrath, Surprised by Meaning, 104-112.

[7]        I often find that cake leads to a wish for more cake. Indeed, so powerfully does cake seem to attract cake, that were there not a balancing force the universe would surely collapse in on itself as it crossed the Cake Event Horizon. Thus my hunch is that much of the missing ‘dark matter’ that befuddles physicists is actually Pepto-Bismol.