Atheism and the search for meaning

I posted this in response to something someone said it and I wanted to save a copy for myself. It may or may not be interesting to folks following this journal (and I know you’re out there… both of you :). The original post was from someone who isn’t depressed, but finds it hard to care about things lately.

I have often found that “atheism” rings a little bit hollow as a person-label. It’s not really a complete belief system, but more a rejection of one, without a tangible replacement. And yet, a lot of people calling themselves “atheists” have deep sense of purpose, and care deeply about things, and have a great joy in life. Perhaps “Humanism” might better describe what I actually believe: I believe that people are basically good, and that when given a choice, people do great and kind things for others.

I’ve been reading stuff by Stephen R. Covey (Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, First Things First, Principle Centered Leadership are all great) and one of the things he says a lot is this: The basic human needs are, to live, to love, to learn, and to leave a legacy. In other words, there is a physical need for food, warmth, shelter, oxygen. There is an emotional need to connect, to belong, to interact with others in a meaningful way. There is a mental need to learn and improve ourselves. And finally there is a spiritual need to contribute, to matter to others, and to find meaning beyond ourselves. (And I think “spiritual” is a perfectly fine description of this, even among atheists. I’m not talking about anything supernatural–even without Heaven or an afterlife, we still have the need to help our fellow men and contribute to causes we care about.)

In terms of the four basic needs, if you have enough of one, more of it doesn’t satisfy you more. If you have enough oxygen to breathe, more of it doesn’t motivate you… and same with food, water, shelter, etc. In fact, the opposite is true… people often get a greater reward by subjugating a lower-level need so they can pursue a higher one. This is true of someone who shares food with someone needy, or even in the simple case of delaying a meal so you can share some time with a loved one. So, it might be helpful to see your needs in all four areas (and your corresponding ability to act in all four domains) when you are deep in thought about where to go next and where to spend more or less time.

4 thoughts on “Atheism and the search for meaning

  1. space_parasite

    Someone who could be completely defined by a single label would be pretty hollow, no matter what the label.

    I haven’t read any Covey, but in your summary the spiritual needs sound a lot like a restatement of the emotional ones. What’s the difference between needing to matter to others and needing to connect or belong? And isn’t interacting with others just one way (arguably the only way, for a sufficiently vague definition of “others”) to find meaning beyond yourself?

    1. nekodojo

      The difference between the emotional needs (which Covey sometimes also calls “social”) and the spiritual seems to be that the emotional “to love” need is served by two-way interaction, connecting with individuals, forming relationships. The spiritual “leave a legacy” need doesn’t require individual interaction, and even though the “legacy” is mentioned, you don’t actually have to claim credit for good works to satisfy this need. It seems to be focused on whether I believe I’m making a difference in the world, and leaving things better than I found them.

      I recommend grabbing a copy of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People if you have the time…

  2. firecat

    I could have written a lot of that, and I call myself a Buddhist at the moment, but in the past I’ve called myself a pagan, a humanist, and an agnostic. I’ve never called myself an atheist because in my experience many atheists do feel strongly defined by their believing in no god, and I don’t.

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