I have recently begun to adopt a form of deism (or agnosticism, or atheism, depending on the flavour of the day) as a primary worldview, but it took a long time for me to actually be comfortable doing that. For most of my youth and childhood, I was strongly, devoutly religious.
“Of course there is a God,” I’d argue, “Of course there is.” Philosophical arguments aside, I just didn’t understand how life could make any sense without God. I’d have countless arguments and discussions with atheist friends, and this was always something for which I never received a sufficient answer. At one point, I remember telling an atheist friend that I “didn’t want to live in a universe without God”. You see, my life was deeply rooted in purpose. In a thought experiment similar to Pascal’s Wager, I reasoned that if there was a God, then there was a purpose to my life, and it is my duty to fulfill that purpose, and to be happy with God in the “afterlife”. If there is no God, then, well, life had no meaning anyway—so, I reasoned that living as though there was a God would probably be the smarter thing to do, since it would give me the most happiness. Living as though there is a God would give me Purpose.
I feel like this is a common point that any theist/atheist debate or conversation will run into, especially if such a conversation is deeply personal rather than logical. Atheist/theist debates can take on a number of themes—philosophical, spiritual, “I-can’t-explain-it-but-I-just-feel-it”, and so on. But even if we can scientifically argue away creation myths and show logical flaws with the feel-y approach, I think the Purpose issue is one that people, both theists and atheists alike, can get legitimately hung up over for two reasons:
1. Many devout theists have a strong need to align their life with a “greater good”.
2. Many atheists argue against the purpose question by claiming that life doesn’t have a purpose, doesn’t make sense to have a purpose, or that it’s an invalid question to ask.
I hope the dichotomy between #1 and #2 is clear, and moreover, I hope it is clear why #2 is an insufficient answer to #1. I want to draw an analogy: suppose a friend is going to university, and asks you, “What is the purpose of a university education?” Well, of course, that is a silly question, too–university education has no inherent purpose; it is just a thing that exists, and what you do with it is up to you. However, if you tried to convey to such a friend why university education doesn’t have a purpose and shouldn’t have a purpose, perhaps you can understand why your friend might be a bit hesitant to make the jump to actually enrolling and getting a degree (especially if said friend is paying $80-$100k for a university education). Now, try to extrapolate that to when you ask someone to completely re-write their emotional and intellectual basis for life.
Furthermore, it is worthwhile to note that if someone asks me for the purpose of a “university education”, I probably won’t answer with, “There is none”. I’ll probably answer with something akin to, “you’ll get a job, you’ll get a better educational background, you’ll be in an environment that will enrich your critical thinking faculties, you’ll get to make friends and go to parties…”. None of these are The Purpose of a uni education per-se, but they’re pretty good results of it.
In the same vein, I think that when an atheist is engaging with a theist, or when potential ex-theists are trying to determine for themselves how to deal with the lack of purpose in a non-religious life, I believe it’s more reasonable to treat and address the question as “What sorts of purpose can I engage with if there isn’t a God?”
I want to divide the next half of this post into two parts: the first, in the type of purpose that I found, and the second, why we can communicate these purposes as legitimate means in which potential ex-theists can enrich their lives.
Abandoning my Religious Mindset
I had, of course, heard the logical or philosophical arguments for atheism for as long as I was curious about religions and religious ideas. However, the reason I slowly, and over the course of a year, switched over to deism* had nothing to do with philosophical arguments. I was not logically, critically, or rationally convinced that there is no God (though I understood that ‘proving’ an absence was somewhat silly). Rather, there were a few things about religion that caused me to question it, and eventually, abandon a religious mindset.
1. I started realizing that religiosity wasn’t making me happy. I wasn’t scared of hell, but I was scared of the fact that I was living my life feeling like a Bad Person. Moreover, I found that no matter how much I tried to do “right”, “good”, or “ritualistic” things, it wasn’t making me happy. Thus, I needed to find other ways of being happy that wasn’t about religion.
2. I started to realize that the only thing more important than God were my loved ones.
3. This led me to realize that people are important to me.
4. I thus made it my purpose to help other people.
I began to find a way to construct a meaningful existence in which having a God was not central to my life. However, it was still important to me to align my life with my beliefs, and I knew that even when I believed in “God”, it was because I believed that religious piety would be the only way to truly bring peace and happiness to a person’s life (or in more “spiritual” terms, our existence).
I also believe that this is an idea a lot of devoutly religious people can relate to.
Focus on the People, Not the God
I want to be clear that helping others is not The Atheistic Purpose. By no means am I saying that atheists (or anybody) are required to help people, or that atheists can’t have other purposes in life. However, I think it’s a valuable purpose, and moreover, I think it’s a purpose that can be easily transferable to a potential ex-theist, for a number of reasons.
First, helping other people is a universal ideal among most people. It’s easy to relate to, and there is usually little explanation required about why it is good to help people.
Second,this is essentially what most religions promise—most religions promise that submitting unto the will of God will lead to a better quality of life (or, at least, a better afterlife). The difference, of course, is that focusing intellectual and economic efforts to help people is much more effective than prayer.
Third, helping people is good for all of us–and by this, I mean, if someone asks you “why does it make sense to help people”, you can say that humans, as a species, are a) social creatures, and b) have self-preservation instincts, like all other creatures. Thus, it benefits us to benefit our species. Moreover, helping people just makes us feel good.
Finally, this is a purpose that is suitable for a wide range of people—there are many ways one can actually make it a focus to help others. We can, for instance, participate in medical research, champion fights for social justice and human rights, aid environmental efforts or economic development, work with charities, and much more. There are entire movements that are devoted to this, or organizations such as GiveWell that aim to strategically determine which causes are most effective at their efforts.
It’s important to understand that the question of “purpose” is at the hearts of many religious people who cannot comprehend how atheism can be meaningful. More often than not, it’s a very self-selective question. People who do not worry about the purpose of life usually do not need to be convinced to be non-religious. People who don’t need a God, or a specific sense of purpose, can usually make the switch to atheism rather easily.
However, unlike the popular atheist viewpoint, I do not believe that the question of purpose is irrelevant to existence. I also do not believe that that people want to align their life to something greater than themselves are displaying a weakness of mind; rather, I think it’s simply a difference in mindset or personality. It’s similar to how some people require no itinerary or intention in their travels, while others like being tourists knowing what they’re going to do, and where they’re going to visit, and why they’re going there. The fact that we can choose the what and where and why is, of course, the most liberating aspect about atheism—but when discussing this with potential ex-theists, I think it needs to be made more clear that atheism need not, and indeed, is not, incompatible with aligning one’s life to a greater purpose.
* I still hesitate to fully brand myself as an atheist, for reasons not pertinent to this post