Purpose And Meaning In A Godless World
I guess it’s fair to say that I had become obsessed with the debate about whether god exists or not after I started taking my atheism seriously. There were no deeper questions to ponder than ones about existence and meaning to the philosophy lover like myself. It seems that ever since mankind evolved the ability to think deeply and reflect upon his world, he has been on a permanent quest to know the truth. Now there are “Why?” questions and then there are “How?” questions. It may turn out that the “Why?” questions are really answered by the “How?” questions. Then there are questions of purpose that can be answered the same way as “How?” questions. For example, imagine being asked, “What is the purpose of mountains?” Well, there is no purpose of mountains of course! Mountains exist because of natural geologic activity from within the earth. Mountains just are; there is no deeper ultimate reason or plan as to their being.
In my journey in search for life’s ultimate meaning and purpose, I have arrived at a similar conclusion. Life just is, human beings just are, there is no ultimate meaning or purpose for our existence. We are in a sense just complex chemistry made possible by the laws of physics. Now let me stop for a moment here because some of you who aren't familiar with the atheistic worldview or who might have misconceptions about it may be thinking that this sounds just like nihilism. That would actually depend on how you define nihilism. If you define nihilism as I do, as simply just meaning that there is no ultimate meaning or purpose to life, then I’m a nihilist. But if you define nihilism as believing that there is no purpose to life at all, not even a subjective one, then I would disagree with you. The meaning of our lives is subjective. Every one of us is born out of a random and chaotic chance meeting between a particular sperm cell and an egg, and once we’re born it is up to us to find and decide meaning for our lives.
I find this much more liberating than the theistic worldview. To illustrate the point, imagine that when you were born, you were told that your purpose in life was to carry on your grandfather’s shoe shining business. Now imagine, like most people probably would, that the idea of spending the rest of your life shining other people’s shoes makes you extremely depressed. You don’t want to spend the rest of your life shining shoes, you have other passions and interests that you would like to pursue. Then you’re told that if you don’t want to shine shoes for the rest of your life you will not be forced in any way to carry on your grandfather’s business – it’s all up to you – and you breathe a huge sigh of relief. But, there’s a catch. Of course there is. If you freely reject the purpose given to your life – the very reason why you were born, you will spend a hell in eternity being tortured after you die.
This is basically how the idea of having an ultimate or objective purpose to life that we have no say over sounds to me. What if I don’t like this supposed “purpose” that I’m told is the reason for why I was born? The only answer I get from theists is a resounding “tough luck.” I should, according to them, just accept this belief and adjust my life accordingly, or else face the possible consequences. The theistic worldviews of the Abrahamic faiths basically say that the purpose of life is to freely come to know and love god, as he commands of you, and to obey all of his moral and lifestyle commandments. And in return for obeying, loving and worshiping god in this world, your reward will be eternal life in a hereafter, whereby you will receive the pleasure of being in the presence of god where you will be gifted the ability to worship him for the rest of eternity while he showers you with love in return. All three monotheisms have a different view of the afterlife but essentially they all pretty much involve the eternal worship of god. So basically, the reward for freely worshiping god in this world is to get to worship god for eternity in the next world. I struggle to find any reason why any atheist would embrace this idea with enthusiasm.
Most atheists like me clearly have a problem with this “objective” purpose. First of all, we atheists are not compelled to worship. That urge to worship that so many others have is not innately present within us. We feel that there is no justification for one to spend their life worshiping an invisible god whose exact nature no one can agree upon. That of course makes the “reward” of heaven a lot more like hell to the atheist. Second of all, I am told that in heaven there is no free will according to most monotheistic concepts. There is no freedom to do what one wants because that would allow one to sin, and sin cannot be allowed in heaven. The Islamic view of heaven for example describes it as containing rivers of the best tasting wine which you can drink to your heart’s content – but there’s a catch: the wine is non-alcoholic and cannot get you drunk. Even the 72 virgins a Muslim could enjoy who had died for the faith would definitely become monotonous eventually. I don’t think many theists have really thought about the concept of existing for eternity. What could one possibly do for an eternity even if they are happy? If there is no freedom of the will in heaven it must mean that those who go to heaven exist in some sort of quasi-mental state where they are essentially turned into drone-like robots. I don’t know about you, but the idea of worshiping god for eternity, while existing in a drone-like state with no freedom of the will doesn’t appeal to me whatsoever. My flaws are just as much a part of who I am as my strengths, and any attempt to strip me of them, is an attempt to strip me of my identity.
Coming to terms with my atheism, I actually like the finitude of life and existence. I don’t mind existing for a finite amount of time and then dying and ceasing to exist. To me, the finitude of life makes it immeasurably more precious. Think about how important a special moment is with a loved one. It’s special because it’s just a moment; if it lasted an eternity its preciousness would be diluted into utter monotony. A common argument made by theists is that a life without an eternal afterlife would just be utterly absurd. They say we’d just be specks of dust and chemicals with no ultimate meaning or purpose and then we’d just die. But having no ultimate purpose does not mean one can’t have a finite purpose. The freedom in being able to devote your life to what you feel naturally fits you is I say one of the most liberating freedoms of the atheistic worldview. That is one of the main reasons why atheists today are generally huge lovers of freedom from tyranny, regardless of whether it’s theistic or secular.
Now suppose a theist argues by asking, “If everyone can decide their own life’s purpose, then what’s to stop someone from just being selfish and gratifying their own desires with no care for the effects it has on others?” That’s a fair question. We know society as a whole functions better when we are all empathetic towards the suffering of others and when we curb some of our natural selfishness for the greater good. Considering this fact, unless we enforce limitations on greediness, all we can do is appeal to reason when dealing with a selfish person. They can be explained why selfishness hurts others and is harmful and why they wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of it. The alternative option - appealing to authority, which is the choice theism gives us, is no better than teaching a selfish child that they should share simply “because god said so” or "because daddy says so”, rather than teaching the child why sharing is good for us all. Isn't it better to appeal to reason rather than authority? I think so.