Atheism, depression, and the Existential Crisis

Has anyone here ever successfully dealt with the existential crisis that can result from an atheist world view and the emptiness of depression?

Atheism removes the possibility of externally imposed purpose or meaning. We’re left with a combination of biological motivations combined with the arbitrary choice of personal preference. While it sounds bleak when put that way, many atheists lead happy, fulfilling lives following their own values and meaning. The limitation is that the meaning and purpose has to come from within.

So how do you deal with it when depression, and sometimes even the medication being used to treat it, removes your ability to experience pleasure, happiness, or any other kind of positive feedback? If you need some kind of purpose to cling to to push through and keep going despite the emptiness, what do you do when that emptiness renders your chosen purpose meaningless? If your purpose was chosen because it made you happy, what about when it stops making you happy, not because you need to move on to something else, but because you are no longer capable of being happy?

There have been many times when, for me, the world is just cold, dead and grey and I understand the nature of the universe and there is nothing that could possibly surprise me. The mystery is sapped out, enjoyment is impossible, it’s just an endless, grey, boring winter that goes on for eternity.

This is kind of depression at its trickiest. It’s depression validating itself to you on an intelligent level.

It’s kind of hard to see the trick for what it is when your chemicals are aligning to not allow that perspective. That’s the first thing to take care of, of course.

Once that’s taken care of, I find that atheism actually saves me. Atheism is reason, reason is science, and science can often times blow your mind. It reminds me that I don’t know everything… I can’t predict every interaction in my life from now until I die. I remember that the world and universe are FILLED with mystery. It’s that mystery which makes it beautiful. It’s that mystery which we are blind to in our darkest moments.

That aside… sometimes the goal of being happy doesn’t really matter. I find no matter what I’m doing, my emotional roller coaster is the same. It’s better to focus on being effective in the ways you wish to be… in giving to the world what you want to give. It doesn’t really matter how you feel sometimes. You just keep doing what you think is right. Enjoyment will find you.


That’s where my biggest conundrum lies. I used to fall back on pursuing my personal goals and “doing what is right” based on my own personal values. I could still motivate and console myself with the idea that I’m doing the right thing and will consider it worthwhile and respectable once the latest depression passes and my head clears. However, instead of a bipolar up and down, all the different medications I’ve tried for almost 10 years now have instead given me numb and down. I’m used to the trap of looking at things when you’re depressed. It all looks worthless and terrible. But looking at it when you’re just numb, or trying to use pure logic and reason without emotional baggage (as much as the human mind is actually capable of, anyway), it instead just looks pointless. Without curiosity, passion, or hope, all you have left is the immense expanse of time and space beneath it, rendering everything utterly insignificant and pointless.

As a developer, I’ve tried approaching the problem from the perspective of programming a strong AI. In the absence of biological drives, is there anything based on pure logic that could provide an AI with a reason to continue to exist and to act if we did not impose any hard-coded motivations on it when we created it? Without cultural and evolutionary influences, could it figure out its own reason to live? I haven’t had any luck figuring out an answer yet.

That’s a tough one, as the numbness is the worst (be it the numbness from depression or medication). I think it’s pretty clear though that you can’t really reason your way out of depression, especially chemical depression. Perhaps your solution lies in finding the proper mix that works for you? I know it can often take some serious time to find the right combination.

Either way, I feel ya and we’re all here for you through your journey :smile:

I grew up believing in god and the afterlife. I really believed in it until I was about 13.

Even when I believed in heaven I still had that moment where I thought about infinity and nothing and it still terrified me. When I was a young theist the concept of living forever in the afterlife haunted me, and now the concept of being “dead” forever haunts me sometimes.

Theism doesn’t fix this problem for contemplative people it just shifts it up one level. What is the point of living if you live forever? Is that even life? In science if something cannot die (like a Virus) we do not classify it as ever living in the first place. Death defines life and vice versa. I think studying different philosophies like Daoism or Buddhism can help you see a different perspective on life/death as well as the world at large.

It is irrational to fear death, but it is something that we can’t avoid. I just try to distract myself with something else whenever I have that deep sinking feeling. It will go away eventually.

But I would recommend studying different philosophies and seeing death through a different cultural perspective. We tend to start our dread and worries about death because our world views are tainted by the traditional monotheistic worldviews. Once you study other cultures you will realize that a lot of the concerns we have about death is an artificial societal construction.

Yeah, I get that. I was raised Christian, then went Wiccan/Pagan in my teens and early 20’s before finally reaching Atheism. My wife is Buddhist. I’m currently Transhumanist, which is both strength and problem at the same time. It’s helped me realize and let go of a tremendous amount of unfounded assumptions about reality and illogical ways of thinking, but it doesn’t really illuminate any clear replacements.

I was far more afraid of dying when I was religious than I am now. It’s a lot less frightening when being dead is looked at exactly the same as before you were conceived. It didn’t hurt, I wasn’t aware, I didn’t miss anything or suffer. I simply didn’t exist. If being dead is exactly the same experience, then the only thing left to fear is the process of dying, which will hopefully be brief and relatively painless when it finally comes.

Of course, this viewpoint also causes its own problems. If death is no more big deal than going to sleep at night or flipping a switch, then there’s even less barrier to suicide than for most people. You become even more dependent on finding a reason to live, because otherwise, you won’t bother to. Suicide becomes as simple and unimportant a decision as “Why bother to leave the light on in this room if nobody is using it?”

Obviously this is dangerous ground, especially for bipolar or other types of depression. Instead of a problem of someone trying to run away from the pain of living, it becomes a philosophical problem. I’m always surprised at just how much that throws people off.

Hey, at the moment I feel pretty worthless about my dev skills but I managed to somewhat be at peace with the religious dilemma you are into. I would like you to see this from my point of view, hope you enjoy it.

I am from a country in south america. 500 years ago, in that same country, there were natives who were squashed to smithereens by the Spanish. Christianity was brought to them in its full might, along with other novelties like gunpowder and chickenpox. Despite of all that, there were some good people among the Spanish, mainly the ones known as “jesuits”, and among them there were scholars who actually made several scientific contributions.

Back to the information age, I was schooled at a jesuit high school, taught both philosophy and religion along with math and computer science, and unsurprisingly I ended up believing in nothing.

Is there a one and only god? if so, imposing one god to others wouldn’t be redundant? what really makes your concept of god right compared to others?. I could keep going on and on but as humans beings, all equal, the real question is who is right and who is wrong?

My answer is as Socrates would say: “I only know that I know nothing”. Do I really need to know why the universe is what it is? Not really, but it does not mean I won’t work towards finding the answer, it does mean that I am not governed by the uncertainty of not knowing it. This is not atheism, but is agnosticism.

I don’t believe in an almighty god, and I don’t believe in believing there is no god. I do believe in that one day we will find the answer to it. When I die I may be prodded with a pitchfork for eternity or perhaps be reduced back into a singularity, but that is something I am willing to face as a consequence of my thinking.

For now I live life without fear, I just bask in the beauty of the random generation algorithm that this universe implements. I fall in love to the girl I am now married with, watch my first newborn trying to reach her very first toy like her life depends on it and watch my cat twitch while he sleeps next to me at this very instant.

I think, therefore I am. Don’t depress about the lack of answers, be happy you have a lot of questions.

I went through this exact phase, the only way I managed to get out of it is that I decided to stop thinking about the really big picture, at least until I decide on what my new values and purpose are
The fact is, there’s no purpose you can come up with that’s objectively good (since even good, bad, wrong, right, and meaning are human inventions)
To be able to stop thinking about the pig picture of my existence I had to really fill my time, so I started exercising and reading books that helped me understand my self a little better, I’m still doing it, hoping to reach a point where I can decide on a purpose for myself

I really like @javanoober’s answer above.

My own feeling is that if you don’t believe in the meaning that religion gives your life anymore, then you are now free to make your own meaning. I went through the cycle of somewhat-religious to atheist to vaguely New-Age-y to transhumanist. Now I would call myself a secular humanist. Even in the absence of a deity, or some kind pre-packaged cosmic purpose, we can still find beauty and purpose in each other and the universe in general.

I find meaning in living a good life, experiencing new things, becoming a better person and helping those around me. I definitely feel down when it feels like there is no meaning or purpose in my life. I combat that by realizing that the meaning of my life is what I make it.

I also agree with @DeanB that the search for happiness is a bit of a fool’s errand. I find I am happiest when I am paying attention and taking care of all the other things in my life. Rather than sitting on my couch, wondering I am not “happy”, I go to the gym, eat good food, throw myself into my work, go out with my friends. I am unhappiest when I am wondering why I’m not happy. It’s a vicious cycle.

I would strongly suggest you start reading Buddhist and Stoic philosophy. There is a lot to be said for living in the moment, for accepting, understanding and appreciating the world you are in right now, and making the best of it. If you think there is no afterlife, then it makes sense to make the most of the one life that you are certain that you do have.

I think it is important for us to look at atheism as sociology look at other 'isms as a social phenomena. For example, many atheists like to proclaim their atheism as a sign of independent thinking and rationality. So, there is a implicitly statement that religions, just like any irrational emotion, belongs to the subconscious side of our mind. Of course, they have the right to think this way, because history has shown religion being the drive of many questionable behavior. However, this very same argument could be used with cultural values, even scientific doctrines, etc - they also have their counter movements that move the pendulum back and forth.

Taking that to more specific grounds, we developers are frequently immersed in very pragmatic, monochromatic, individualist environments. So, the atheism can (inadvertently) encapsulate all these traits, forming a single ideology.

That said, it would be helpful, in my opinion, to try to analyze what parts of your atheism don’t belong to your self-defined identity. Either because they don’t necessarily belong to atheism but still may be the root cause of your depressing feelings (e.g.: allow yourself to have externally imposed purposes even if there is no god to judge you but because there is need, or principle, for us to live in groups); or because your “atheism doctrine” needs to counter balance to (pseudo) opposite forces so you can live with inner peace (e.g.: you can be emotional seeing the birth of a child not as a god’s gift but as a new journey.)

Hope it helps.

You don’t need to discover your purpose, you just have to discover what you are good at. Your purpose are the side effects of your work. That means you cannot go after your purpose, because you don’t know what it is.

Every part of us evolved to increase our chances of survival, and our brain is no exception. Our brain is a very powerful machine that seeks survival. But when you focus on the idea that death cannot be avoided, your brain enters a weird state. In order to survive, we have evolved defense mechanisms to allow our brain to remain operational and focused in survival after entering those states.

So, why do we seek to remain alive? because wanting to survive is a trait that has been favored by evolution, mostly. Does survival make sense at an individual level? probably not much to be honest. However, life does make sense at a larger level, when you see it in the context of the continuity of life, knowledge, culture, etc.

In that context, there’s more than emptiness. You can touch people’s lives through your ideas, work, compassion, etc. You can make a difference and give sense to your life.