Meaning and Purpose with "NO GOD REQUIRED"

Meaning and purpose without god

Photo by Josh Willink from Pexels

Is god the key to meaning and purpose in life? It seems that way if we trust mainstream opinions typically presented in the media and in bestselling books such as Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life. Moreover, there is some scientific support for that viewpoint.

Plenty of studies show that a deep sense of meaning and purpose correlates with strong religious belief, and religious fundamentalists use these studies to support their perspective.

As a professor who researches the intersection of psychology and history, including life meaning and purpose, I was very surprised when I first learned about these studies.

I found their conclusions hard to believe. So I started digging deeper into the data and found a much more complex story.

I want to share my findings with you and tell you what the research actually says about how we, as reason-oriented, secular people can use a science-informed approach to gain a deep sense of purpose with no god required.

Let’s take a look at some studies which indicate that religion correlates with a strong sense of life meaning. A case study of the population of Memphis found that when religion played an important role in someone’s life, they had a heightened sense of life meaning and purpose.1

A nationwide study found that those who had more confidence in god had a higher sense of life meaning and purpose compared to doubters and nonbelievers.2 Global studies found similar outcomes.3, 4

However, after I read these studies carefully and took in all of the information, some questions arose in my mind.

For example, forms of worship that don’t promote social connectedness do not correlate with a heightened sense of satisfaction or meaning in life. One study showed that affiliation with a religion practiced in a communal setting leads to a higher degree of life satisfaction than when religious devotion is practiced in private settings.5

Another investigation also found that deeply personal religion, as opposed to group-oriented religion, did not correlate with a greater sense of happiness and life meaning.6 These results should give pause to any intellectually honest person examining the ties between religion, meaning, and purpose.

After all, the data seem to show that socially-oriented religion practiced within a community leads to a stronger sense of life meaning and purpose, while private and inner-oriented religious practice does not. In that case, is it religion alone, or are there other factors included in religious affiliation that lead to a deep sense of life meaning?

There are additional studies that conclusively demonstrate that social affiliation is key to a deep sense of purpose, regardless of religious belief.

Take, as an example, four studies that show a significant correlation between a person’s sense of belonging and their perception of life meaning and purpose. When researchers in two of the studies asked participants about a sense of belonging and purpose, they found clear correlations.

When the tricky researchers in the other two studies used priming techniques to cause participants to artificially experience a sense of belonging, they found that their methods resulted in a much higher perception of life meaning.7,8

Such findings should not be surprising. Quite a bit of recent neuroscience research underscores the vital role that social bonds play in how our brains function.

Our brains are inherently sociable as a result of our evolution. A sense of meaning and purpose is neurologically wired to social connectedness because our ancestors who had this sense outcompeted the ones who did not.

In the United States and many countries in the world—especially in South America and in Africa—religious communities are currently the main venue for reflecting on questions of meaning and purpose in life, as well as the main source of community bonds.

This supports the studies indicating that religious belief is correlated with a strong sense of purpose. But contradictory support is provided by research on societies that are less religious and more secular.

For example, my research on the Soviet Union illustrates how Soviet civic groups and cultural centers, all non-religious, offered citizens many opportunities to find meaning and purpose in life, as well as fun and pleasure.9,10

Present-day societies with a more secular orientation than that of the United States have similar stories to tell, as illustrated by research on contemporary Denmark and Sweden.11

These findings offer much hope for secular people who want to develop and enrich their sense of life purpose. One way to do so is through social connections, especially ones that allow us to engage with other secular folks.

One example is a series of discussion events I co-founded and led with my wife, Agnes Vishnevkin, as part of the Humanist Community of Central Ohio, a local affiliate of American Atheists.

Our “Values and Meanings” series provided a reason-oriented venue for secular people to communally reflect on life’s meaning and purpose, as well as personal values and ethics from an evidence-based perspective.

At one of the meetings, we were sitting around a table in our home with about eight guests discussing the nature of truth and morality.

Some said that truth is generally black and white— whether something is true or not. Others insisted that truth has many gray areas. Folks also disagreed on whether it is always moral, to tell the truth, or whether there are sometimes higher morals than telling the truth.

One scenario was brought up by a participant in her thirties—let’s call her “Anna”—who became an Atheist about six months ago. She comes from a deeply religious household and is openly Atheist with her nuclear family but not with her extended family. She had a big annual family reunion coming up in two weeks, and Anna didn’t know what to do.

Should she just conform and pray aloud over dinner along with everyone else? Should she bow her head silently without praying along with the others? Should she keep her head up and refuse to do anything to appear to conform?

Should she walk out of the room when the others were praying? She also didn’t know what to do about the family tradition of everyone dressing up and going to church on Sunday as part of the reunion. She wasn’t sure how to handle conversations with extended family members about her faith perspective. Anna was lost and confused.

While she didn’t want to cause a scene, she did want to be authentic with the people in her life. She asked everyone for advice and feedback on her dilemma, and other participants provided her with empathy, as well as diverse perspectives from their own backgrounds and life journeys.

One participant in his fifties stated that for him, family bonds are more important than sharing one’s real feelings, and although he has been an Atheist for two decades, he has not revealed this to his extended family because that would cause a major rift.

Another woman talked about her own experience of coming out gradually to various family members and friends over time in private, personal conversations. She found that doing so helped her preserve the relationships and helped the people in her life feel respected and acknowledged.

They both advised Anna against making any sort of public statement at the reunion, either through words or actions. Several others disagreed. One participant described how she came out publicly to family members at just such an event to get it over with quickly.

She said there was a burst of drama and emotional pain, but then it ended— like ripping off a Band-Aid. Another participant suggested that Anna get the job done by e-mailing the family members beforehand in order to prevent any drama at the reunion.

That way, anyone who wanted to talk to her could do so privately. Two other participants simply refused to acknowledge any value higher than being true and authentic to oneself and one’s perspective. They stated that Anna should do only what would reflect the truth.

In the end, Anna decided to write an e-mail to her extended family members. I talked with her at a subsequent gathering, and she described how e-mailing family members in advance worked out really well. Those who cared enough about the issue to have a private conversation pulled her aside to do so. Others simply accepted it.

She sat in silence without bowing her head at the dinner and did not go to church with the others. No drama, minimal pain, and she still got the truth out there.

Participants gained a great deal from attending this event. On the anonymous feedback sheets passed around after the event, one participant wrote, “I gained greater insight into how other people navigate difficult discussions regarding truth and values when not all parties agree.”

Another wrote that they will now “always question ‘my truth’” and will engage in “thinking more about what I hold true.” A third wrote that “building a sense of community is what I gained.” Does it matter what kind of meaning and purpose you come to?

The research on this question suggests that when it comes to gaining greater mental and physical health, it doesn’t. The process is what’s important, not the outcome. The research also indicates that those of us who ask this question in a setting that does not expect conformity to a specific dogma are the ones who are more likely to gain a deeper perception of meaning and purpose.

In other words, the most impactful sense of meaning and purpose stems from an intentional analysis of one’s self-understanding and path in life along with a subsequent experience of personal agency and empowerment.

Such findings indicate that religious communities which generally expect adherents to stick to an externally-imposed dogma do not allow for the deepest sense of life meaning and purpose. So believing in god and going to church is not the only way to attain a strong sense of life meaning and purpose.

You can gain it through personal self-reflection, perhaps by journaling about your own sense of purpose. You can also join a local secular group for community ties and the chance to reflect on life’s purpose and meaning from a reason-based perspective. You can use science-based strategies to find meaning and purpose in life—with no god required!


Gleb Tsipursky
By Gleb Tsipursky, Ph.D.

A member of the Decision Sciences Collaborative at The Ohio State University, where he is also an assistant professor in the History Department, Newark Campus. He is the founder and president of Intentional Insights, which empowers reason-oriented people to refine and reach their goals by understanding their patterns of thinking, feeling, and behavior.

This article is adapted from my online course, “Find Your Purpose Using Science.” In it, I combine academic research with stories from people’s everyday lives. I’ve also designed exercises to help you figure out your own sense of meaning and purpose. “Find Your Purpose Using Science” is informed by my own scholarship on meaning and purpose, my experience as a professor, and my role as president of Intentional Insights, a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering people to refine and reach their goals by providing research-based content to help improve thinking, feeling, and behavior patterns. To learn more about research-based strategies for finding meaning and purpose in life, including a free online class and workshop video as well as the book, go to I welcome you to get in touch with me at to share your own perspective on this topic. You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter,, and check out our channel on YouTube.


  1. Petersen, L.R. and A. Roy, “Religiosity, Anxiety, and Meaning and Purpose: Religion's Consequences for Psychological Well-Being,” Review of Religious Research, vol. 27, no. 1 (1985), pp. 49-62. 
  2. Cranney, S., “Do People Who Believe in God Report More Meaning in Their Lives? The Existential Effects of Belief,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 52, no. 3 (2013), pp. 638-646. 
  3. Okulicz-Kozaryna, A., “Religiosity and Life Satisfaction Across Nations,” Mental Health, Religion & Culture, vol. 13, no. 2 (2010), pp. 155-169.
  4. Crabtree, S. and B. Pelham, “The Complex Relationship Between Religion and Purpose: Worldwide Data Show Religious Conviction isn’t necessary, But It Helps,”, December 24, 2008.
  5. Bergan, A. and J.T. McConatha, “Religiosity and Life Satisfaction,” Activities, Adaptation & Aging, Vol. 24, no. 3 (2001), pp. 23-34.
  6. Sillick, W.J. and S. Cathcarta, “The Relationship Between Religious Orientation and Happiness: The Mediating Role of Purpose in Life,” Mental Health, Religion & Culture, Vol. 17, no. 5 (2014), pp. 494-507.
  7. Lambert, N.M. et al., “To Belong Is to Matter: Sense of Belonging Enhances Meaning in Life,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol. 39, no. 11 (2013), pp. 1418-1427.
  8.  M. F. Steger, “Making Meaning in Life.” Psychological Inquiry Vol. 23, no. 4 (2012), pp. 381-385.
  9. Tsipursky, G., Find Your Purpose Using Science, (2015).
  10. Tsipursky, G., “Having Fun in the Thaw.” The Carl Beck Papers in Russian and East European Studies no. 2201 (2012), pp. 1-67.
  11. Zuckerman, P., Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment. New York University Press (2008), pp. 57-75.

Post a Comment

Comments will go through moderation before appearing, and are subject to our community guidelines, which can be viewed here

Previous Article Next Article