What is the meaning of life for atheists? Searching for such a teleology for atheists is not easy. Atheists don’t really have a message to those who are suffering, especially when there is significant loss involved. Trying to find out why a loved one died, why the cancer spread, or why one lost their job is way above any given atheist’s pay grade. Why? Because asking “why” about anything implies some sort of transcendent reason, rationale, or purpose to life. In order to believe in such, God must be invoked. Therefore, if one were to give some sort of “meaning of life” answer for tragedy, for the atheist this is, at best, only a conventional crutch to help cope with pain. At worst, it is a destructive lie.

Recently, I read a response one atheist gave another who had just suffered great loss.  Realizing that his friend, also an atheist, was searching for hope, the atheist did not compromise his worldview for the sake of convention. Staying true to his atheism, he spoke from the heart of his worldview, giving the best he had to offer:

You asked for a logical reason for why and what life is, and I’m going to disappoint you. In my opinion, questions like “What is the meaning of life?” and “Why are we here?” (as traditionally asked) only exist when one assumes that there is a deity or some other force behind existence that intended things to be the way they are. As an atheist, I’m sure you would agree that there is no such force, so I would ask you to put those questions aside as meaningless.

Questions about any sort of real meaning and purpose are “meaningless” and can’t be seriously entertained in the atheistic worldview. Like I said, I appreciated the way this guy answered, because he stayed true to the bleak darkness that a world without God ultimately produces. I rarely encounter those with sufficient courage to “stick to the guns” of their worldview, especially when consistent answers will not meet any of the emotional needs of the recipient. For the atheist, there is no meaning to life and there is no reason we are here.

I simply cannot think of anything more tragic than believing this. Not only because it lacks so much rationality, but because it is so emotionally dark and nihilistic. People are on a search for meaning, values, and purpose, but atheism offers them none of these. At least the agnostic could say “maybe there is meaning, maybe there is purpose, maybe this happened for a reason,” but the atheist cannot even offer a maybe. Atheism is a positive belief in meaninglessness.

Now, of course, the darkness of such a worldview has little bearing on its truthfulness, but I would hate to be an atheist counselor whose job it is to come to the aid of such people in need. It breaks my heart that this guy has to be “consoled” with a gospel of further hopelessness.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    14 replies to "Atheist Counseling During Tragedy"

    • George Jenkins

      I really like your statement, “For the atheist, there is no meaning to life and there is no reason we are here.” Not only does the atheist suspend reason he consciously rejects reason and rationality. Many atheists look to science and evolution as justification for their world view, but nobel laurete George Wald wrote in the Scientific American. “”When it comes to the origin of life, we have only two possibilities as to how life arose. One is spontaneous generation arising to evolution; the other is a supernatural creative act of God. There is no third possibility…Spontaneous generation was scientifically disproved one hundred years ago by Louis Pasteur, Spellanzani, Reddy and others. That leads us scientifically to only one possible conclusion — that life arose as a supernatural creative act of God…I will not accept that philosophically because I do not want to believe in God. Therefore, I choose to believe in that which I know is scientifically impossible, spontaneous generation arising to evolution.” – Scientific American, August, 1954.
      It is necessary to suspend reason if one is to reject God. We, on the other hand, are to be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us……… for the atheist, passive or agressive, lacks hope.
      One of the first things a child asks is, “Why?”. This person like Wald chooses not to ask “Why?”, because the answer is “philosophically” unacceptable. I do not find his position courageous, but cowardly. He won’t face the “inconvenient” fact that God is the WHY. Ever wonder why Rev. 6 speaks of people calling on the hills to fall on them and hide them from the face of God? I believe it is because people like this atheist will finally come face to face with reality, but be too pride bound to submit to God and accept the Hope that is in Jesus.

    • Dan

      I have given a lot of thought to the way different worldviews and beliefs affect people’s responses to tragedy, and I think that there is a tradeoff here. There are positives and negatives to both theistic and atheistic perspectives. If you are an atheist and you experience tragedy and loss, then you don’t have the comfort of believing that there is a larger purpose behind your suffering, or that you will be reunited with lost loved ones in a future life. This is a definite disadvantage.

      On the other hand, there is a kind of comfort that can come from letting go of the belief that God is involved in your suffering. Many people, when they experience loss or witness evil, do not serenely sit back and muse about the greater purpose and meaning of it all. Many times, they get angry with God. Many times the idea that God is sovereign in their suffering is not a comfort, but a source of great emotional turmoil and conflict. Laying so much evil on the shoulders of a God who is supposed to be good can cause a great deal of cognitive dissonance. And as for promise of being reunited with a loved one, that only works if the loved one was a believer. Otherwise, they may be tormented by the idea that someone they loved is suffering in hell, and this is worse than believing that they are simply gone forever.

      The atheist is relieved of the unenviable task of placing the responsibility for his suffering on God, or of trying to excuse Him for it. When senseless tragedy strikes, he is able to see it as just that: senseless. He is relieved of the burden of rationalizing it or reconciling it with a belief system that doesn’t easily accommodate it. While it makes it no less painful, I would argue that for some, it can (in time) make it easier to come to acceptance of the tragedy and move on.

      Placing God “on the throne,” as it were, in your suffering can be a source of comfort or a source of distress. It is different from person to person.

    • James

      “Trying to find out why a loved one died, why the cancer spread, or why one lost their job is way above the pay grade of any given atheist.”

      I find statements like these to be very arrogant. Not because of how they describe an atheist, but because it assumes some special knowledge that a theist has! Unless a theist has specifically heard from God there are just as few answers to “why” these things happen as an atheist has. The only thing a theist MAY have is hope because they trust that their God is in control and is a loving God.

      But answering these questions of “why” are also way above the pay grade of a theist as well.

    • George Jenkins

      Having lost several close family members, I understand how hard it is to keep one’s mind focused on “the greater purpose and meaning of it all”under those circumstances. In times of hurt, however, unless we do focus beyond ourselves we run the risk of being like Peter who started to sink when he took his eyes off Jesus and focussed on his circumstances. It is not easy to do at times, but who said life was easy? Did Job question “the greater purpose and meaning of it all”? Did Jesus in the garden?
      I believe that one who is in the position of ” Laying so much evil on the shoulders of a God who is supposed to be good can cause a great deal of cognitive dissonance.” has already some mistaken ideas about God. God was not the author of Job’s suffering. The ruler of this world has caused pain and suffering since the Garden of Eden. Indeed, Paul wrote in Romans 8 “18For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.19For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God.20For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope21that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.22For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.23And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.24For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees?25But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.”
      Suffering and evil exist, not because of God, but because of Satan; Satan rules this world because of Adam’s sin.
      The little whys we may not know, the big WHY we do

    • C Michael Patton

      James, the atheist does not aways know the why, the point is that they *can* believe there is purpose and meaning behind it all. For the Christian, Rom 8:28 means that we *do* believe that tragedy has purpose and a greater good, even when we don’t know what that is and may never know.

    • Matt Oxley

      I like that you’ve been honest in your last paragraph with, “Now, of course, the darkness of such a worldview has little bearing on its truthfulness…” as this is true.

      It is difficult, as an atheist who counsels people outside of the professional realm, to find ways to comfort people that don’t harken back to religion – as religion makes comforting so easy. I can understand why you might be confounded at this alleged nihilism, but this doesn’t mean that comfort and concern isn’t to be found – it just isn’t, it cannot be, final.

      Unfortunately your post boils down to one of the many conveniences that you experience as a believer, that I don’t get to enjoy as a skeptical person of integrity: I don’t feel “right” or “moral” if the hope I can give someone is empty and unproven.

      I love people enough to tell them when I don’t know and not burden them with false hopes.

      Dealt with this to some degree on my blog recently:

    • Truth Unites... and Divides

      “Atheism is a positive belief in meaninglessness.”

      True and accurate.

    • Pavel Mosko (Addai)

      Michael that one case you mentioned is not very representative of what counselors that lean towards atheism are like. From my studies in that field I can tell you that humanism and existentialism are much more true to the philosophy of such people and both those related belief systems encourage people to find meaning to their lives and actions.

      I would also mention that one atheist psychologist (Albert Ellis) has made some great contributions to the field of mental health and I’ve seen Christian counselors use his work in a slightly modified (theistic) context. (One of his big contributions to mental health was emphasizing the role belief systems have in one’s emotional life).


    • C Michael Patton


      That is why this was so interesting to me. It was really honest and, in my opinion, consistent with the philosophical demands of the atheistic worldview.

      Thanks for the comments.

    • C Michael Patton

      Btw, here is where I originally read this:

    • Pavel Mosko (Addai)


      IF you’re really considering witnessing or doing apologetic work in this area you might consider looking at Dan Barker’s “loosing Faith in Faith”( if you haven’t already done so). You can read some chapter’s online here

    • Jean Beauchamp

      This reminds me of something Ben Franklin said about deism ” I began to suspect that this doctrine, tho’ it might be true, was not very useful”. Atheism means living in doubt, so many questions and so few answers. Christianity is much more convenient, unfortunately you cannot simply choose to believe in something or not. It should be noted, however, that atheism is not quite as nihilistic as you propose. Atheism is not disbelief in everything, just in God(s), prophets, scripture and the like. There is plenty of non-theological philosophy out there that provides some meaning to life, though without the rigid assurances of religion.

    • Brandon

      My views on a god are, ‘I don’t know and it’s impossible to know what is really TRUE’. Too many gods, too many religions, too many denominations and so little time to figure it all out. I’m not going to sit there and choose and hope that in the end I’m not wrong which brings me to my main point of discussion, hope. Hope is all any religious people have especially Christians. You can go around saying you KNOW your god exist, you KNOW he is all good and great, you KNOW there is a heaven, etc. but the truth is you don’t really KNOW because you have not died and gone to heaven and met your god so unless you can see into the future you don’t really KNOW you just hope. I see it this way, what exactly is making your god keep his word about you getting into heaven or there even being a heaven? If you come to find out he lied to you what could you possibly do? Nothing. Your god has no obligation to stay true to his word but you can only hope he does and to me that is the true misery of religion and believing in gods. As quoted by Nietzsche, “Hope is the most evil of evils, because it prolongs man’s torment.”

    • George Jenkins

      Your statement, ‘I don’t know and it’s impossible to know what is really TRUE’. is half right. I agree that you don’t know. I do not agree that it’s impossible to know.
      The Bible says that God cannot lie. I believe that one of the strongest arguments in support of that statement is that if God could lie and was/is a liar, then all He had to do was lie to us and say everything would be all right. He did not have to send His Son to die for our salvation.

      How would Nietzsche possibly know that “Hope is the most evil of evils, because it prolongs man’s torment.” Did he die and find there was no Hell? His statement is nonsense.

      If our hope is false, we have lived a positive life with our faith in an eternity in heaven, but in the end there is nothing(as you point out). We will not live in a prolonged sense of knowing we were wrong, as Nietzsche supposed.

      On the other hand, if our hope is true, we have lived a positive life with our faith in an eternity in heaven, and in the end we have eternity in heaven.

      The atheist has the worst of both situations. He either lives this life in hopelessness and is proved right( but he won’t know it ) OR he lives this life in hopelessness and is proved wrong and spends eternity in Hell.

      Sort of makes one think seriously about finding out who is right.

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