Meaning in a World without God

(Article is by guest writer Stefani Ruper. See short bio below).

I’ve known since I was about four years old that there probably is no God, and there probably isn’t any of the things God once promised us: morality, purpose, salvation. I spent the better part of the last three decades trying to find replacements for God’s promises. Where can I locate these things in the natural world?

After years of doctoral work on the question, I came to realize that I was looking at it from the wrong direction. I devoted decades of my life seeking for an external being or source that would make me feel like my life was meaningful and worth living. But what if the real answer lies inside what we are able to create by ourselves?

I am not the first person to suggest that self-made meaning can be important or fulfilling. The world is full of atheists such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins who often state precisely this case. Usually when people argue that life can still be meaningful without God(s), they tell you that you simply have to make your own meaning. But this idea was never really interesting or satisfying to me, because it was limited by its subjectivity.

This idea is fully subjective in the sense that it has no metaphysical reality with which it can correlate, or to which it can matter. It’s just something you experience because it’s your experience, and nothing more. This is something that I find personally unsatisfying and that I suspect is unsatisfying to many others because it lacks any kind of objective reality on which we can hook its significance.

Take away the metaphysical layer—or what I’ve been calling the hook—and you take away an important element of spiritual satisfaction. Humans tend to long for something beyond us to which we can matter. This provides us with a way to make sense of existence and our relationship with it that is deeply meaningful. Having a metaphysical reality beyond our own interpersonality with which we can interface helps us feel more at peace, both because it helps us make sense of the world, and also because it helps us make sense of our own place in the world. It gives us a reason for living beyond our own dopaminergic systems; our actions count for something bigger than just us. We experience life in a universe to which our beliefs and choices matter.

So I propose this: What if all the meaning – and all the goodness, and truth, and beauty – that exists in the universe must be created?

We tend to think that because the universe is devoid of gods, it lacks meaning, beauty, and goodness. But the universe has us in it, and we have the power to manifest meaning, beauty, and goodness.

Our subjective experiences are objectively real. What I mean by this is that we make things real when we experience them, including meaning. Because we are alive, and because we have the ability to think about things such as goodness, beauty, and truth, they actually exist. We might disagree as to what they are, but they do most certainly exist. There is a very real and important sense in which goodness, beauty, and truth came into being when life came into being, and has becoming increasingly intricate and complex ever since. The universe doesn’t give us meaning; we give the universe meaning.

So we are not just experiencers of meaning floating about in empty space; we are the creators, the bearers, and the crucible, of meaning.

It is true that our meaning is fleeting. Everything on this Earth will someday vaporize, and all that we have built or experienced will return to stardust. But we do have the power to create something beautiful in the meantime. We do have the ability to introduce into the cosmos something that is brilliant in its courage and vision.

I now believe that the world is meaningful, with or without a God. Perhaps it is even more meaningful for me, now, because of the burden of responsibility. According to my new perspective, there is no meaning without humanity. There is no meaning without our struggle. There is no meaning without our brokenness, and there is no meaning without our relentless commitment to see, make, and create beauty however transient it may be. We are the bearers of meaning, and this is a burden I carry with relief and gladness.

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Guest writer Stefani Ruper is a PhD candidate in Religion and Science at the University of Oxford. She is the host of The Meaning of Everything podcast, which explores insights into our biggest questions and problems in a naturalistic framework. She can be found on Instagram, on Facebook, or at her website.

2 thoughts on “Meaning in a World without God”

  1. I have had a similar struggle for 70 years and have gone through all sorts of religions, philosophies, independent beliefs, and so on but still have no answer to why/how can we be more lumps of protoplasm. How is that we are able to create meaning? What is the difference between a live cat and a dead cat? Same body, no “animating principle.’ There is a difference obviously.. Without the answer I am still 7 years old, asking if there is a god, where is it, show me, explain to me, etc?

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