Every now and again, I notice Christians claim that atheism must lead to hopelessness and despair because atheism offers no meaning or purpose to life. Or the less direct variant, that Christianity is good because it offers meaning (conveniently leaving out the possibility of people finding meaning elsewhere). Or the extremely insulting and inaccurate claim that atheists believe in nothing.
Well, so what is this meaning of life business, anyway? It's about the significance of human existence. Why we're here? What are we here for? Where we are going?
In theistic religions, particularly Christianity, these questions are answered quite simply: God. Believing in God, attaining salvation, and being whisked away to heaven as soon as possible in order be with God. Life on Earth is merely a pit stop on the path to heaven.
Obviously, for people who do not believe in such a God, this is not a very good plan. In fact, the whole attempt to answer the question of meaning by throwing Gods at the problem seems like an ineffectual way to truly answer the question. Do we truly require some grandiose external validation of ourselves to be worthwhile? Do we have to be central to the cosmic scheme of things in order for our lives to have meaning? I doubt it.
I've noticed that people tend to create meaning in their everyday lives. For some people, climbing a mountain is of monumental importance. It may be just a mountain, with no meaning in and of itself, but to this person, it's everything. People do this sort of thing all the time - from mundane objects prized for their sentimental value to land valued as sacred. Some activities or professions are valued high above their pragmatic results, like football, boxing, racing, and fishing. It seems pretty clear that people can take otherwise meaningless things and turn them into meaningful things to them.
In my view, there is no intrinsic value to either existence or humanity as a whole, and certainly no external valuer as theists claim. Indeed, it's hard to imagine anything having a value at all without a human mind that values it. So, are we back to nihilistic despair? Hardly.
Instead, it should be recognized that humans create meaning, and in addition to objects and activities, they determine the meaning of their own lives. That meaning can be anything or nothing, but it is humans, and no other being, who both values meaning and creates it. Atheists choose a meaning - perhaps choosing to create a better world by improving some aspect of human life. Even theists, who imagine a divine creator who gives their lives meaning, unknowingly choose their own meaning - they simply choose a godly meaning.