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What Do You Mean, “What Does It All Mean?†Atheism, Nonreligion, and Life Meaning


  • David Speed
  • Thomas J. Coleman III
  • Joseph Langston


Nonreligion is often thought to be commensurate with nihilism or fatalism, resulting in the perception that the nonreligious have no source of meaning in life. While views to this effect have been advanced in various arenas, no empirical evaluation of such a view has been conducted. Using data from the 2008 American General Social Survey ( N = ~1,200), we investigated whether atheists, the religiously unaffiliated, and persons raised religiously unaffiliated were more likely than theists, the religiously affiliated, and persons raised with a religious affiliation to report greater levels of fatalism, nihilism, and the perception that meaning in life is self-provided. Results suggested that these groups did not differ with regard to fatalism or nihilism. However, atheists and the religiously unaffiliated (but not persons raised in a religiously unaffiliated household) were more likely to indicate that meaning in life was endogenous—that is, self-produced. While atheists and the nonreligious differed from their counterparts on source of meaning in life, this was not associated with any “penalty†for overall existential meaning.

Suggested Citation

  • David Speed & Thomas J. Coleman III & Joseph Langston, 2018. "What Do You Mean, “What Does It All Mean?†Atheism, Nonreligion, and Life Meaning," SAGE Open, , vol. 8(1), pages 21582440177, January.
  • Handle: RePEc:sae:sagope:v:8:y:2018:i:1:p:2158244017754238
    DOI: 10.1177/2158244017754238

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Neal Krause & Kenneth I. Pargament, 2017. "Losing My Religion: Exploring the Relationship Between a Decline in Faith and a Positive Affect," Applied Research in Quality of Life, Springer;International Society for Quality-of-Life Studies, vol. 12(4), pages 885-901, December.
    2. Jean M Twenge & Julie J Exline & Joshua B Grubbs & Ramya Sastry & W Keith Campbell, 2015. "Generational and Time Period Differences in American Adolescents’ Religious Orientation, 1966–2014," PLOS ONE, Public Library of Science, vol. 10(5), pages 1-17, May.
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