Humanism and the meaning of life

By Paul Tobin

Humanists, by definition, are atheists, agnostics or non-theists. Many people assume that for life to have meaning, there has to be a “giver” of such meaning – such a “giver” is normally referred to as “god.”  In this article, I intend to show that life can be meaningful without recourse to such a concept.

Unpacking the Question

What is the meaning of life? Well the most straightforward answer is that of Webster’s New World College Dictionary (1996):

life: that property or quality of plants and animals that distinguishes them from inorganic matter or dead organisms.

Of course most people would protest that this is not what the question is about. Obviously then we have to first find out the function of the word “meaning” in that question.

Usually when confronted with an action that was perhaps unexpected by someone else, we would immediately ask that person, “What is the meaning of this?”. In this context, we are not asking for a lexicographical definition of the action but for its purpose or intention. In this sense, “meaning” is synonymous with “purpose” or “intent”. Apart from explaining actions, “purpose” can be used to explain designed objects as well such as cars, power tools etc. It is quite clear then when we ask “What is the meaning of life?”, we are, at least partially, asking “What is the purpose of life?”

Another way we would use the word would be in cases where we justify our actions by saying “I think it means something.” or when we thank a friend for doing something by saying, “Thanks, that means a lot to me.” Clearly “meaning” here does not stand for the lexicographical definition or purpose. We are using the word in these examples as being synonymous with “value”. To say an action means something to you is another way of stating that it has value for you. So here then is the second part of the question, when we ask “What is the meaning of life?” we may be asking “What is the value of life?”.

It should be noted here though while it is possible for an action or an object to have both purpose-meaning and value-meaning at the same time, it is not necessarily so. Thus a life consisting of, say, stringing beads together and nothing else would have a purpose but very few people would say that is hasvalue. Similarly a life spent wholly on the enjoyment music may have value to that person but he or she would be hard put to explain the purpose of such a life.

Let us analyze the question a little deeper in order to provide us with enough solid groundwork on which to provide a sound answer.

First let us look at purpose-meaning. Obviously if we ask ourselves “What is the purpose-meaning of life?”, we may be jumping the gun a little. For there are two implicit assumptions in the way the question is formulated: that there is only one meaning of life and that everyone’s life should have this same meaning. Both these assumptions are unwarranted and need to be proven by those who want to insist on them. For now we can take the position that it ispossible for different lives to have different purpose-meanings and for a single life to have more than one purpose.

Another point about purpose-meaning is whether the purpose should be specified externally or internally. That means should the purpose-meaning (or purpose-meanings) of one’s life be necessarily specified by an external (cosmic?) power or could it also be equally valid coming from within the person himself or herself? Again the theist, to avoid circularity, cannot insist on the former without providing strong arguments why it must be so. For humanists, it is not necessarily that life must have a cosmically bestowed purpose.

Purposes can also be discovered or created. Thus the science of evolution has discovered that the “purpose” of life is primarily the propagation of our genes (or more accurately, copies of our genes) to the next generation. Christian theologians claim to have discovered the “purpose” of life by studying what the Bible says (more of this later). Of course an individual can create his or her own purpose(s) in life.

Furthermore these purposes can be descriptive or normative. Take the one about evolution and the propagation of our genes. Knowing that this explains a lot of what I am today does not compel me to have as many children as possible. Thus the purpose discovered by evolutionary science is descriptive in that it does not force me to do as it says. However, as an example, if a Muslim were to be told by an imam -whose authority he respects- that the meaning of life as decreed by Allah is to pray five times a day, to perform the haj, etc., he could not simply decide not to follow it. For the explanation is normative– it says the believerought to perform these actions in order to have a meaningful life. In other words the meaning of life in this case is normative.

We have now unpacked the question in a way which it can be meaningfully answered by an humanist. What should a good meaning of life consist of?

A good meaningful life should be something we consider worthwhile not just something to serve as a goal. Thus we can say that a human life should havepositive purpose meaning. The philosopher Michael Martin, in his bookAtheism Morality and Meaning (pp. 192-194), outlines what a positive-purpose-meaning of life should consist of :

  • It has a purpose or purposes
  • These purpose or purposes:
    • have positive significance:
      A purposeful life could have negative significance. Thus someone like Hitler could decide that his purpose in life is to exterminate the Jews. However such a purpose would not have positive significance.
    • can provide psychological satisfaction:
      It possible to have purposes that do not provide psychological satisfaction. The command to bomb the infidels to hell or to have as many children as possible would not be considered psychologically satisfying to most people.
    • can be fulfilled (i.e. the goals are achievable):
      There is no point having a purpose which cannot be fulfilled. For instance if the purpose of life is “to know Jesus”, this leaves out many millions of people who lived before Jesus and those many who lived after he died in places such as China, India, large parts of Africa, Europe and the Americas where his message did not reach them until a few centuries ago. For these people, based on such a definition, life would have no meaning.
    • are not arbitrary or have a plausible explanation:
      If someone says the purpose of life is to “look beautiful by killing all flying insects” we would consider such a rationale arbitrary and would thus say that such a life is not meaningful. Similarly if someone says that the purpose in life is to simply read a collection of ancient documents and believe everything in it, we would be sensible to demand the explanation as to why this makes life meaningful.

Most people would agree that a life that meets such criteria would be meaningful in both the purpose-sense and the value-sense. We will use these criteria to evaluate whether humanists can lead meaningful lives.


The Meaning of Life in a Humanistic World

If we look at the main criteria of positive-purpose-meaning we see how humanists can and do lead meaningful lives both in the purpose-sense and in the value sense. Indeed one of the most exuberant discoveries one can make as an humanist is that the meaning of one’s own life is something which one is empowered to create and discover for oneself. In the words of the humanist philosopher Paul Kurtz, “We are responsible…not simply for what we are, but for what we will become, and this is a source of either high excitement or distress.”

Of course to the humanist, unlike the theist’s cozy fairy-tale-like world where meaning is supposedly found in blind obedience or by God’s arbitrary fiat, a meaningful life takes effort. The humanist does not say that all human lives are meaningful. Many (perhaps most) are not, by any standards. But a meaningful life is possible and in the end it is worth the effort to strive for it.

Let us look at the lives of some humanists (mainly atheists, agnostics and freethingkers) in the past and present that have lives that are meaningful.

David Hume (1711-1776), a Scottish philosopher and historian is a good example to start with. His life had positive significance. His works on epistemology A Treatise of Human Nature (1737-1740) and An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) are still considered one of the best works on the working of human reason. His History of England (1754-1762) was for a long time considered to be the standard reference on the subject. His explanation of the concept of cause was without parallel and has been influential in the proper understanding of causation. His works on religion Natural History of Religion (1757) and Dialogues Concerning Natural Religions (1779) still provide inspirational and entertaining reading for humanists (like myself) even today. That his live provided psychological satisfaction to himself cannot be doubted. Hume led a full life and on his death bed was reported (by a Christian!-James Boswell) to have faced his impending demise with peace and tranquility. Of course he achieved most of his goals and his pursuing knowledge to bequeath onto the world is reason in itself for those goals.

Margaret Sanger (1883-1966) struggled her whole life to give women the right to have access to information relative to birth control. She fought for many years, getting in trouble with the law in the process, until she finally succeeded in 1938. Such a life certainly has positive purpose and would not doubt the psychological satisfaction she would have received from winning such a struggle.

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was another prominent humanist (he called himself an agnostic) who led a purposeful life. Early in his life he made major contribution to the field of mathematic logic with his work such as Principia Mathematica (1910-1913). Later in life Russell was an ardent opponent of nuclear weapons and many other social issues.

There are of course many other humanists (i.e. non believers in the supernatural) who had led and are still leading meaningful lives. Just to name a few we have:

  • Scientists & Science Writers:
    Charles Darwin (1809-1882), Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), C.L.A. Laveran (1845-1922), Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936), Max Planck (1858-1947), Svante Arrhenius (1859-1927), Marie Curie (1867-1934), Albert Einstein (1879-1955), Richard P. Feynman (1918-1988), Isaac Asimov (1920-1992), Carl Sagan (1934-1996), Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002), Francis Crick (1916-2004), Arthur C. Clarke, Steve Weinberg, Victor Stenger, Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins.
  • Philosophers:
    Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), John Dewey (1859-1952), George Santayana (1863-1952), Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), Albert Camus (1913-1960), J.L. Mackie (1917-1981), A.J. Ayer (1910-1989), Karl Popper (1902-1994), Paul Kurtz, Michael Martin, Peter Singer, Daniel Dennett, Michael Ruse.
  • Historians and Literary Artists:
    Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), George Eliot (1819-1880), Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899), Mark Twain (1835-1910), George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951), Will Durant (1885-1981), Gore Vidal, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
  • Entertainers, Lawyers, Social Commentators & Social Reformers:
    Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914), Klas Arnoldson (1844-1916), Clarence Darrow (1857-1938), Jane Addams (1860-1935), Gene Roddenberry (1921-1991), Steve Allen (1921-2000), Marlom Brando (1924-2004), Peter Ustinov (1921-2004), Randy Newmann, Penn and Teller, The Amazing Randi, Noam Chomsky, Michael Shermer.

Many of the above have received the ultimate accolade – the Nobel Prize. These include Jane Addams, Klas Arnoldson, Svante Arrhenius, Albert Camus, Francis Crick, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, C.L.A. Laveran, Sinclair Lewis, Ivan Pavlov, Max Planck, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Rabindranath Tagore and Steve Weinberg.

Of course not all humanists who lead meaningful lives are famous. Ordinary humanists lead meaningful lives both in the purpose sense and in the value sense.



Haught, James, 2000 Years of Disbelief: Famous People with the Courage to Doubt, Prometheus, Buffalo 1996

Krueger, Douglas E., What is Atheism? A Short Introduction, Prometheus, New York 1988

Martin, Michael, Atheism, Morality and Meaning, Prometheus, New York 2002