Monday, September 13, 2010

Purpose and Meaning without God

We received a letter from “Rob,” who asked (emphasis his):

Specifically, I guess my question is this: how do you go from living a life where you 1) believe in a God who guides and protects you, 2) provides eternal security, 3) makes everything work out, and 4) gives current purpose and ultimate hope to your life, to believing that everything is essentially random chance, there is (probably at least) no afterlife, this life is it, and there is death, dying, pain and suffering all around, to continuing after losing all of that? I am finding myself often consumed with the feeling—if not the belief—that continuing to live is an irrational exercise. That it literally doesn't make sense. Am I wrong? Why? And have others struggled with a lack of purpose and hope upon turning away from Christianity, and how have they death with this?

My reply:

Hello and thanks for contacting our list.

The first step is to realize that none of the things you thought god gave you were god given, and yet you were doing OK. Nothing about reality has changed—only your perspective on it. So, if you felt that god gave you strength to go through a rough patch, for example, you now know (or should know) you have that strength, but no god is, or ever was, required.

The fact is that religion robs us and cripples us by making us believe we need it. It instills that by taking children and not teaching them how to live without god and religion in most cases. When they try to leave the religion often they find themselves tied to it because they have no other mechanism for coping in reality—a reality they were robbed of a chance to get to know and appreciate, and a reality with which they have trouble coping without the blind obedience to authoritarian rules they've been taught to adhere to under pain of death or eternal torture.

That being said, know that you have all the things you had before, nothing has been taken, you've only been hoodwinked into feeling like something has been taken. You now may have to hone some real life skills you never had to manage before, that's true. So, for example, any immorality condemned on god's command now should be suspect. You now are responsible for determining whether and why actions are truly wrong or harmful. There is no more "I just say it because god said so." This is another religious projection. Theists claim that atheists don't want the responsibility and moral obligation of dealing with rules and morality. When, in fact, it is the atheist who must own his own ideas and actions and has no god to blame, only himself. From this day forward, you are a responsible human being in a way you probably never imagined.

So, that's #1 and #2 of your questions above.

Three (#3) is that things don't always work out. The universe can be a horribly cruel and pitiless place in which to find yourself. Many people live horrible and short lives or horrible and long lives and never know love, comfort, or compassion from another human being. Be very glad you aren't one of those, and think about how you might feel if you were. Consider if that is sufficient to motivate you to want to help—knowing that no god is going to fix it, and only other people can lend a hand. To me, that puts, again, greater responsibility upon us all to do what we can to help other people. We can't suggest they suffer for some divine reason, or that they will have a better reward someday. We must own up and step up. If they suffer for reasons we can alleviate, then they suffer due to our lack of compassion and assistance. And we help them with the knowledge that if we need assistance, most often other people will be there to help us in a similar fashion, because—thank evolution—most social animals really are biologically driven to care about group welfare.

Above may answer #4 as well. That depends on you. You have your life ahead of you after years of living in indentured servitude to a lie. It's like being let out of prison after having been railroaded in, in the first place. "What do I do now?" can be daunting, but my answer is "live your life." Find joy in what you do. Show compassion to those around you. Remember that it wasn't just Jesus who observed that treating others in good ways is a good idea that helps everyone out and makes us feel good about our usefulness. There are countless people and animals and environmental issues just hurting for support and aid. Where to being?! Now is your chance to ask not "what does god want me to do?" but "What do I care about? Where am I needed? What makes me happy?" (Considerations religion often condemns.) The fact that you're concerned about these questions tells me you have nothing to worry about. You are the sort of person who values introspection and reason. Those things will serve you well and guide you for your entire life in ways god never could have.

On your deathbed, when you say "I lived a full and satisfying life, I did what I thought was right, and I am proud of how I lived," what would that be referring to? What would allow you to be able to say that at the last? That's what you need to find and to do and to work hard at during this life—the only life you can be guaranteed you'll ever have.

>that continuing to live is an irrational exercise

You are right that this thought doesn't make sense. I have helped people before in ways I know made them very glad I was alive and there for them. I have, likewise, been helped, as well, by people—one person who wanted to commit suicide, believe it or not. But I was glad he was alive, as I was literally stranded in a blizzard in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere—locked out of my car with nobody around. He helped me get to safety, and in doing so shared a story about his family, expressing that he just wants to finish his life and end it all. But if not for him—I dread to think what could have happened to me that night. Suicide due to want of purpose is a sad and supreme waste of resources on a planet where every hand that helps can make a difference and can matter in ways we may never fully appreciate.

I'm glad you also have uplifting feelings. That's good news. I did a blog post that got some comments that relate a bit to what you're describing. Maybe reading what others had to say could help? You never know what will make an idea finally click in your head?

Again, it was mainly the comments I thought of when I read your letter, not necessarily the post itself.

I hope this helps.



  1. I would actually love to have someone explain to me how you could find purpose and meaning with a God.
    "My life is meaningless, I hate every minute of every day and I don't know any reason to continue living."
    "Well, cheer up, there's this invisible all-powerful guy who created this universe so that you could feel this way."
    "Oh great, now suddenly I will be able to find the joy in everything that seemed sad and stale before."
    I mean, really, how does that make sense?

  2. I never really understood why the proposition of an eternal afterlife is generally viewed as a comforting thought. Particularly the Christian version where your choices are eternal torture in Hell or eternal slavery under a puritanical dictator just makes me shudder.

    In the fifth grade, my mom suddenly decided I needed religion and enrolled me in CCD (Sunday School fer Catholics). I'm less of a de-convert than a failed conversion.

    I remember once I asked the priests if you could sin all you wanted once you had earned your way to Heaven.

    P: "Oh, you don't want to."

    CS: "Actually, I think I do."

    P: "I mean once you get there, you don't want to anymore."

    CS: "So you're, like, lobotomized?(probably not the word I used at the time)"

    P: "Uh, no, It's really very nice, just trust me on this one."

    I personally expect that after life is exactly the same as before birth. I don't recall any suffering or discomfort during the 14 billion years (or so) before there was a "me", so I don't have any fear of same after there is a "me".

  3. That was a wonderful post; thank you, tracie.

    The thing about "purposefulness", as a former Catholic, is that it's instilled time and again that you're here for some divine purpose; now, as an atheist, I realize there is no purpose -- just one I must make for myself.

    It's a bit dizzying, at first, but I feel that I'm glad, out of the millions of people that could've been in my place, natural selection resulted in me being born on one of the only worlds that we know contains life, in a universe that may hold billions more as yet unknown. :-)

  4. People will apparently abandon their theistic beliefs about meaning and purpose for an inferable price. The evidence from empirical social science shows that religiosity in a country tends to implode when the per capita GDP reaches about $25,000 a year. This supports Gregory S. Paul's thesis about people's weak attachment to religiosity. People turn to religion as a coping mechanism in response to defective living conditions, and they lose interest in religion when they grow up socially and economically secure. These theoretical considerations promoted by theists, namely arguments about life's meaning and purpose, don't matter to most people.

  5. For me, life became so much MORE meaningful and valuable without a god or afterlife because this is the ONLY life we get. How much more precious does that make it?

    I say infinitely. Make the most of it. It is all you have. Why give it up for literally nothing?

  6. A nice response from Tracie.

    Here's why atheism is awesome: because it's not an "-ism." Atheism itself doesn't hold the answers, rather, atheism is just something that allows a person to think clearly about the sort of questions "Rob" asked Tracie. Once you come to understand that religion is B.S., you actually have to THINK FOR YOURSELF about the "big questions." As Tracie said, the atheist has complete latitude to engage in such unfettered thinking.

    Someone like Rob, who has only ever thought about such questions through a religious lens, obviously will have separation anxiety as he withdraws from the comforting certitudes of Christianity's "answers." He should read. Read like hell; read all the shit your pastor told you not to read. Take an Intro to Western Philosophy course; take some science courses (you can take Leonard Susskind's Modern Physiscs/Cosmology course for FREE on YouTube!). Educate youself---and see how splendid education is once you've taken off the goggles of religion.

    Susskind's course:

  7. God is the ultimate placebo.

    ...and you'll be fine when you realize that you are in withdrawals brought on by that placebo. Things are no easier or harder than they were yesterday, just a lot more real.

  8. A very well written article. I think that you have a book in you, a book that I would buy and read. I find it soothing to be grounded in reality with words that are easily to understand and comprehend. Thank you.

  9. This is one of the most inspiring and life-affirming things I've ever read and am considering it as material for some of those frou-frou plaques and devotional thingies people tend to have around their houses. You know, so people know how bad-ass I am, that I can do great things without the carrot and stick of religion.

    Your writing seems to keep getting better and better, and this is a gem that shines next to the best.

  10. I think there is a part of human nature that wants to be told what to do. To be instructed that this is right, this is wrong, and things will all be sorted out in the long run. Most likely it is connected to kids being adapted by evolution to listen to authority (their parents) while growing up and learning about the world.

    I think the problem comes when we become adult but we still have this child-like mindset that we want to be taken care of and told what is right and wrong. All the "heavenly father" language and imagery reeks of this mentality.

    If I am really honest, there is a part of me that longs for that security and certainty as well. On some level it would be nice not to have to think about these things, and have a list of easy answers to hand. But there is a larger part of me that knows that is not true, and that we must find the answers for ourselves.

  11. Just like gdw's, my life too became so much more meaningful and beautiful without skydaddy telling me to do unnecessary and unhelpful things and think in very biased ways.
    Just like you said, Tracie: "It's like being let out of prison after having been railroaded in, in the first place." I couldn't agree more.

  12. We don't really have a ready-made way to determine whether the world is "good" or "bad" overall. Even assuming that you had some objective ranking by which to judge what's better or worse, that wouldn't tell you how to feel about the world as it is. You might be able to say "X is definitely better than Y", but you could like both X and Y, or hate both, or like Y but feel indifferent about X...

    You have to have some standard that you're measuring everything against, some emotional, subjective idea based on your expectations.

    Religions try to cheat this system and make things objectively good or bad by plugging in infinities. No matter how high or low your standards are, an eternity of perfect bliss is good and an eternity of absolute punishment is bad. If the standard for morality is set by a "perfect", infinitely wise/capable/benevolent God, not only does he become objectively good, but all imperfect beings become objectively bad in contrast. Some Christians can look around at everyone, even loved ones and infants, and say that no one is good or deserves a happy afterlife. This absurd conclusion only makes sense when your standard for "good" is "perfect in every way".

    One problem with deconversion is that these standards take some time to change. It took a while for me to get over the "there's probably no afterlife" thing. What made that bearable was realizing that, if I'd never heard of heaven, death wouldn't really bother me at all. Well, all the usual problems with dying and grieving and unfinished business would still suck. But the idea that "everyone dies eventually and for each and every person that's the end" would not bother me. It would be an obvious fact of life, part of my standard, and thus not something that makes life "good" or "bad", only an obstacle to be dealt with. It's only in comparison to the infinitely unrealistic standard of heaven that having no afterlife makes the world seem to suck.

    I was lucky enough to experience a slow, minimally traumatic deconversion, but still it wasn't completely easy. I had to work out a new worldview, get used to it, and let my emotional reactions be dictated by it. As that happened, the upbeat elements of my own personality naturally reasserted themselves, establishing a new moral/emotional/aesthetic standard to fit the new lens through which I view the world. Now I feel good about the transition, something I never thought was possible when I was going through it. I feel more emotionally resilient, more capable of making nuanced moral decisions, and like my mind is better adapted to dealing with the real world. My purpose, and my hope, is to improve human welfare, to increase our knowledge or our power, or to expose people to beautiful things they wouldn't otherwise experience. To advance us.

    And to be happy. Selfish goals aren't always bad ones. Food, games, righteous indignation, empathy, competition, sex, love, these are all things that tie us to the world, for better or for worse. They're part of the human experience, and if that's the experience we are faced with, we might as well make it a good one.

    One last note: everything is not "essentially random chance". One of the great things about science is that it tells us how the universe is based on predictable rules. If there's a system to it all, a cosmic game based on complex rules, then we have the opportunity to figure out that game and rig it in our favor. This makes all the difference. A world that was total chaos would indeed be a hell, if anyone could live there long enough to judge it. But a world that follows exploitable rules, that's a world in which life can evolve, and one which intelligent beings like us can mold to improve our situation.

  13. @Andy:

    'Here's why atheism is awesome: because it's not an "-ism." Atheism itself doesn't hold the answers, rather, atheism is just something that allows a person to think clearly about the sort of questions "Rob" asked Tracie.'

    In practice, though, many atheists tends to promote a positive agenda analogous to the vegans'. Vegans don't just not believe in something -- exploiting animals, in their case. The vegan firebrands go further to argue for the advantages and superiority of their world view and lifestyle, while also arguing against the alternative. The vegan activists say something to the effect that carnivory poisons everything.

  14. Rob finished by saying:
    "And have others struggled with a lack of purpose and hope upon turning away from Christianity, and how have they death with this?"

    That's a pretty telling freudian slip where he actually meant to say *dealt with this*, but instead said *death with this*.

    So is this all really about the quesiton, "How does one (without God) deal with the fear of death?"

  15. @Mark Plus

    To focus on that is to conflate Veganism with Vegans, and atheism with atheists. Also, I wouldn't say Veganism is good comparison.

  16. Richard Dawkins
    "We are going to die...and that makes us the lucky ones."

  17. I see the problem of life being finite similar to a movie.

    "What's the point in settling in to watch a movie when it's going to be over in 90 minutes and there's no greater purpose?"

    Really. Does anybody seriously think this? Of course not. Hollywood is so rich because people are willing to accept the pointlessness of Will Farrel's "Land of the Lost" and sit through it.

    Life is like that. Is it always good? No. But once you die (according to atheists, and the evidence is on our side), game over. There are no more good times, no more happy times, no more tears of joy. As long as we live, we have that chance. 5, 10, or 20 years from now, Future You will think back to you and thank you for whatever it is you're going to do to make that person happy.

    So I guess when you ask, "What's the point of life?" I just have to answer, "What's the point in needing all the points?"

    As Richard Dawkins said, there were an infinite number of yous that could have been, and infinite number of gene sequences you parents could have spawned, but you were the lucky one. You are now the luckiest of all the protons, neutrons, and electrons in the universe. You get that brief flicker of sentience to gaze at the wonder of physics in action, to observe, to think, and to reason. If nothing else, savor the victory you have won over the biggest lottery there is. Cherish your life because of what that life is. It is, while pure chemistry, ama-f'ing-zing!

  18. Theists believe that god has a purpose for them, but hasn't revealed in any specific way just what that purpose actually is. Figuring out the specifics of god's plan for their lives is still up to each individual believer.

    The end result is the same: we figure it out on our own or with other people.

  19. In a way perhaps the main point of life is to come to grips unflinchingly with the fact of one's inevitable death, and to live one's life with the sense of urgency that this knowledge entails. To deny the fact of one's death by believing in heaven or reincarnation or some such silliness is to my mind a denial of life as well as death. As a bumper sticker of mine says, "Without God Life is everything."

  20. @god151
    Exactly. To suggest that there is a "next life" and that this life is merely the gateway to it is to make this life meaningless.

    It is to waste your whole life if you spend it in anticipation of something "better."

    This is it baby, enjoy it while it lasts.

    "They say life is short. What are they talking about? It's the longest thing we do!"

  21. A really enjoyable read Tracie, thanks for sharing.

  22. Could you explain again what purpose and meaning in life you found without god, and how you know it is correct. Alternatively, do you think there is no purpose and meaning in life?


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