Where do atheists get meaning in life?

A team of researchers lead by University of New Brunswick psychologist David Speed looked to the 2008 American General Social Survey to explore whether atheists and nonreligious people reported greater feelings of nihilism and fatalism than their religious counterparts. Nihilism was measured by subjects’ level of agreement with the statement, “In my opinion, life does not serve any purpose.” Fatalism was measured by subjects’ level of agreement with the statement, “There is little people can do to change the course of their lives.” The researchers also measured “endogenous meaning” – the notion that meaning is derived internally – by subjects’ level of agreement with the statement “Life is only meaningful if you provide the meaning yourself.”

Speed and his co-authors found that atheists and nonreligious persons did not differ statistically from believers in feelings of nihilism or fatalism. Moreover, atheists were far more likely than religious people to believe that meaning in life is endogenous – it is self-produced. (See figure below. “Level of agreement” is on the y-axis on a scale from 1 to 5.)