Joy and meaning in a world without God
Michael De Dora
Posted on January 24, 2014
Nearly two years ago, a photojournalist by the name of Chris Johnson asked me if I would participate in his new book featuring 100 atheists on how they lead joyful, meaningful lives without religion. I immediately said yes.
I am happy to report that the book, A Better Life: 100 Atheists Speak Out on Joy & Meaning in a World Without God, has finally been released and is now available for purchase.
As you might be able to tell from the following photos of my two-page spread, the book is absolutely beautiful. Chris is a top-notch photographer who caught his participants not just in places where they find joy and meaning, but in actual moments of joy and meaning. For instance, my photos were taken at the Lincoln Memorial, where I often go to reflect and recalibrate during key or challenging periods in my life.
To add substance and context, Chris paired the photos with essays by, and interviews with, the participants — which include everyone from widely known intellectuals (Dan Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Patricia Churchland), magicians (Penn & Teller, Derren Brown, James Randi), actors and actresses (Adam Pascal, Robert Llewellyn, Julia Sweeney), to even world-class climbers (Alex Honnold).
I seriously urge you to buy a copy and flip through the spreads for all 100 people featured in this marvelous book. In the meantime, you can enjoy my spread and entry here:
Like most people in the world, I was raised to believe in a God. I was born into in a Roman Catholic family, so the God I grew up to believe in was all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good. He took care of those faithful to him and his values, both protecting them on Earth and providing them eternal bliss after death.
I firmly believed in this God until I went college, at which point I was confronted with a surprisingly wide range of views on religion. Intrigued by this, I began to read more about the world’s religions. Soon enough, I had doubts regarding the merits of own faith. By the time I graduated from college and entered the workforce, I had discarded my religious beliefs as unsupportable, and accepted that I was an atheist.
On the surface, my life is not very different from when I was religious. For instance, despite some initial difficulties, I have remained in a loving relationship with my family. I have remained close with many of the same great friends I’ve been lucky enough to have since childhood. And I still enjoy hobbies such as baseball, music, reading, writing, and exploring nature.
However, soon after becoming an atheist I did notice a significant change in my perspective and motivations. I used to believe that God would take care of everything; that this life was simply a pre-cursor to eternity. I no longer believed those things. My new perspective was that humans are responsible for taking care of each other; that this life is all that matters.
This new perspective sparked within me a new and intense dedication to living my best life now, and helping others to do the same. I believe it also increased my satisfaction in existing pursuits and experiences, and pushed me into new areas of interest.
Putting religious explanations aside, I began to develop a deep curiosity in science and philosophy. I now actively seek out scientific evidence and theories on how life on earth began and evolved, how and why life operates as it does, and even how this universe came to exist in this fashion in the first place. In turn, I have developed a new appreciation for nature. Recently I was at the Grand Canyon – how incredible to stand before a miles-wide, and miles-deep valley and think that was formed by natural processes, over billions of years! Scientific explanations do not remove the wonder from the world – if anything, they add to it. They reveal how beautifully complex creatures or natural structures were formed over billions of years, and will continue to be formed long after I die. They put into context and, I think, make more stunning my existence – which will last maybe 100 years on a planet that has been here for 4.5 billion years in a universe that has been here for 13.7 billion years.
I also have become interested in exploring and reflecting on morality – beliefs about what is right and wrong – and its relationship to government and society – how those beliefs shape the world around us. If there is no one dictating our behavior, we have to take it upon ourselves to be virtuous persons. If God doesn’t exist or hasn’t made guidelines, then we have a lot of our own work to do, and – given the impact these guidelines have on everyone – we better come up with good ones. This is challenging. In fact, many people believe it is impossible. I believe it is possible, and I find the challenge empowering. What we do with our lives is not up to some unknowable God – it is up to us!
I also now find more meaning in companionship. I think I used to take advantage of my relationships with friends, loved ones, and significant others, because I didn’t realize how lucky I am to have all these people around me who care about me. Now I try my hardest to value and realize the importance of each moment I get with all these wonderful people in my life. Some of the best days of my life have consisted of nothing more than sitting in a backyard with my relatives, strolling around a local park on a sunny day with a friend, or lying in bed on a rainy day with my significant other. These people care deeply about my well-being, as I care deeply about theirs. It is incredible, and I am truly lucky, to be able to experience life with them.
Lastly, my desire to help others has greatly increased. In particular, I have developed a serious personal and professional commitment to helping other humans to enjoy the freedoms to belief and expressions that I am able to enjoy living in the United States, but they cannot by accident of where they live. It pains me that people face persecution or legal punishment simply for doubting the prevailing cultural or religious beliefs in which they were raised. One example of this can be seen in the plight of Alexander Aan, the Indonesian civil servant who in June 2012 was sentenced to 30 months in prison for posting about atheism on Facebook. I have tried to assist Alex, and despite all of the challenges he has have faced, he has stayed strong, positive, and thankful. It is an incredible testament to the human will.
This is one of the reasons why I love the National Mall. I often come here weeknights – perhaps after a tough day on the job or in life – and reflect on the figures enshrined in history all around me. Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr. … these people all sacrificed so much – Lincoln and MLK, their lives – to help others. I feel I will have wasted my life if I do not strive to meet their standards.