The deeper I dive into atheism, the more blissful those warm waters of faithlessness seem. Which is a big change from my early non-believing years, when I often felt that something important was missing from my life.
That something was a built-in, ready-made, out-there-to-be-discovered meaning of existence.
A spiritual shoulder to lean on, a cosmic compass to guide my way, an uplifting understanding of dependable solid ground lying beneath the shifting sands of everyday experience.
Even after I'd given up a belief in God or any other obviously supernatural entity, I had a lingering feeling that is difficult to put into words, but was close to the universe has a message for me, and I'm not hearing it.
So I'd fret about whether what I was doing, feeling, and planning was as Absolutely Meaningful as it should be.
In other words, even though I'd grown out of belief in a traditional religiosity, an assumption that meaning lay out there somewhere remained largely unquestioned.
Thumbing through a book by Matthew Hutson I've just started reading, "The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking," it looks like Huston has several chapters devoted to the sort of non-religious irrationality I was engaging in, and which everybody, really, is prone to. The book's subtitle is How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane.
Thankfully, more and more I'm tuning into the joy of living in a meaningless world.
For one thing, the pressure is off. Now I rarely worry about whether the satisfaction I'm getting from this or that is less than it should be, tainted by some lack of understanding, or otherwise undersized in comparison to some theoretical Grand Meaning.
What I enjoy, I enjoy. What I don't like, I don't like. I've pretty much completely stopped looking for a source of meaning outside of myself.
I'm the generator of my own meaningfulness energy. This then powers and directs what I pursue in life, which adds to the reservoir of meaning in my psyche. Not exactly a perpetual motion machine, because all this will come to an end when I do, but there's a pleasing self-enclosed circularity to it.
Like I said, this is difficult stuff to put into words. So I'll end with how some other people have described what I'm getting at. This is a passage from the introduction to "The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking."
There is a common thread that holds together many of the things we call magic and excludes many of the things we don't. One recurring theme in the literature -- a theme I'm taking as the basis for my definition of magical thinking -- is what the anthropologist Richard Shweder called "a confusion of subjectivity and objectivity" and the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss called "the anthropomorphism of nature... and the physiomorphism of man."
There's the world of the mind, defined by intention and conscious experience, and the world of outside reality, defined by matter and deterministic forces. But we instinctively treat the mind as though it had physical properties, and we treat the physical world as though it had mental properties. That's magical thinking. We perceive mind and matter mingling together, working on the same wavelength.
This fits with my longstanding (and erroneous) assumption that meaning, an interior mental quality, somehow could be found in the world out there. Of course, it can't, because the only mind or consciousness I can be directly aware of is my own.
Lastly, I enjoyed a BuzzFeed piece, "I Asked Atheists How They Find Meaning in a Purposeless Universe." All the responses are interesting. Here's the last one by Jan Doig, which resonated with me.
“Three years and nine months ago I would have declared myself agnostic. Then my husband died without warning at the age of 47. My life fell to pieces. This is no exaggeration. As the terrible days passed in a fog the same question kept forming. Why? Why him? Why us? I was told by well-meaning friends that it was part of God’s plan and we would simply never know what that was. Or from friends with a looser definition of religion, that the Universe had something to teach me. I had lessons to learn.
“These thoughts caused me great fear, anger, and confusion. What sort of God, even if he had a plan for me, would separate a fine, kind, gentle man from his children? Why would God or the Universe look down and pick on our little family for special treatment? Why a good man with not a bad bone in his body who had never raised a hand to anyone? My best friend for 29 years. Any lesson the Universe had to teach me I would have learned willingly. He didn’t have to die!
“I thought about it a lot. I was raised Catholic so guilt ran through me like writing through a stick of rock. Had I been a bad wife? Was he waiting for me? There were days when, if I had been certain of a belief in an afterlife, I might have gone to join him. It was a desperate time. I needed evidence and there simply wasn’t any. I just had to have faith and believe.
“One day as I was sitting on his memorial bench in the local park I suddenly thought, What if no one is to blame? Not God. Not me. Not the Universe. What if he’s gone and that’s all there is to it? No plan. Just dreadful circumstances. A minor disturbance in his heart led to a more serious and ultimately deadly arrhythmia, and that killed him in a matter of moments. It is a purely scientific view of it. I may seem cold or callous but I found comfort in that. I cried and cried and cried, but that made logical sense to me and brought me great peace.
“My heart and head still miss my husband every day. I treasure everything he gave me and I love him as much today as the day he died. But I can remember him happily without wondering what we had done to deserve this dreadful separation.
“So I declare myself atheist (and humanist by extension) and my friends shake their heads. I stay on the straight and narrow without the guiding hand of a creator or any book of instructions.
“I’m not a religious or a spiritual person. (For some reason many of my female friends are shocked by this admission!) I don’t believe in God or the Universe. I don’t believe in angels, the power of prayer, spirits, ghosts, or an afterlife. The list goes on and on. I think there is a scientific meaning for everything, even if we don’t understand it yet. I find meaning in everyday things and I choose to carry on.
“The sun comes up and I have a chance to be kind to anyone who crosses my path because I can. I make that choice for myself and nobody has to tell me to do it. I am right with myself. I try my best to do my best, and if I fail, I try again tomorrow. I support myself in my own journey through life. I draw my own conclusions.
“I find joy in the people I love. I love and I am loved. I find peace in the places I visit. Cry when I listen to music I love and find almost childlike joy in many things. This world is brilliant and full of fascinating things. I have to think carefully for myself. I don’t have to believe what I’m told. I must ask questions and I try and use logic and reason to answer them. I believe that every human life carries equal worth. I struggle with how difficult the world can be, but when we have free will some people will make terrible decisions. No deity forces their hand and they must live with that.
“Life is a personal struggle. Grieving is never an easy road to travel. It’s painful and lonely at times but I use what I know to try to help when I can. I try to be loving and caring with my family and friends, and have fun. I will cry with friends in distress and hear other people’s stories and be kind because it does me good as well. I listen and I learn. It helps me to be better. Life without God is not a life without meaning. Everything, each and every interaction, is full of meaning. Everything matters.”