One such atheist is Barbara J. King, professor of Anthropology at The College of William and Mary. Recently Ms. King posted an indignant review at npr.org of Alister McGrath’s new book, The Big Question: Why We Can’t Stop Talking About, Science, Faith, and God, in which she laments "the unkillable myth, the persistent blind spot about atheism that apparently no amount of explaining can make go away. No matter how lucidly atheists explain in books, essays and blog posts that, yes, life can and does for us have meaning without God, the tsunami of claims about atheists' arid existence rolls on and on."
When we really think about what is meant by “meaning,” the popular atheist argument brings to mind the words of Inigo Montoya to Vizzini about his use of “inconceivable” in The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
The desire for meaning is such a fundamental part of our thinking that we can't even refute it without seeking it, which is why so many atheists are passionate about the meaning they find in writing books and articles to debunk religious claims and show that life has no meaning.
Professor King, on the other hand, says life does have meaning but without immortality. She is wrong because she seeks a meaningful existence while rejecting the one thing on which meaning depends. Bertrand Russell (one of the most honest atheists in the last 100 years) confirms the point by describing the "world which science presents for our beliefs" as "purposeless and void of meaning," because that world is such that" all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins."
Meaning necessarily implies an enduring value. When we say something is meaningful or that
"it matters," we mean it will last. The thing that causes a person to think her life "has no meaning" is precisely the belief that she and the objects of her life’s pursuits will eventually be extinct.
Many would retort by saying, "No. Even though my career and my relationships will one day be no more, they are still meaningful." But even then the idea of duration is smuggled in; saying something "still" has meaning implies that it maintains, it goes on, it will still be even though all else will be gone. (All "else" means all except the thing that is "still" there). As it turns out, eternity is woven into the platform on which people stand to profess their disbelief in eternity.
This also makes sense of why the word "forever" so naturally follows a declaration of love. Love is eternal. Though our mathematical minds cannot compute "forever," our hearts say, "To hell with what computes. I will love you forever." On the other hand, not many men would say to their bride-to-be,
"I will love you until both of us and our love cease to exist." Somehow love that ceases to exist seems to be something less than love.
What this comes to is not that atheists have a distorted concept of meaning, but that many of them have a distorted concept of atheism. They don't understand the implications of their own beliefs. Those like Ms. King who want to seek a life of meaning while rejecting ancient, superstitious, unenlightened beliefs in God and eternity are like a drunken captain giving a speech to his crew as they drift in the the Pacific: "We all know that those old superstitions about land and directions are for the weak. There is no land and there are no directions. North, south, east, and west are false concepts foisted upon us to keep us under control. North America, Australia, Africa--all just fictions for the feeble minded. But though the water we see is all there is or ever was, we will still set our course and sail valiantly. We will navigate with precision, and in the end we will reach our destination."
The sailors scratch their heads at first, but since they've been trained to believe that land and directions aren't real, they're swayed by the captain's words and quickly get busy setting their course to nowhere, because they know the only alternative is to jump ship and drown.