One of the most common questions religious believers ask atheists is where we find purpose in life, what makes our existence meaningful and worthwhile. I’ve written about this subject on Ebon Musings, but I want to add to my answer. Both atheists and theists can give the usual answer of wanting to do good in the world, helping our fellow human beings and so on, but I’ve realized that atheists can offer another answer, something that believers genuinely can’t say: atheists are inspired to go on living by curiosity. We want to know who we are and why is it that we’re here.
In a proximate sense, of course, we do know the answer to this question. The evidence tells us that our species arose several million years ago, descended from hominid forebears. Through excavating fossils and comparing DNA, we can trace our evolution back through early mammals, through therapsid reptiles, through the first tetrapods, almost all the way back to the origin of life. Our family roots aren’t in doubt. But in a larger sense, we want to know: is there a reason why the universe exists? Is there a reason why it’s the way we experience it, and not some other way – was there any necessity to the whole scheme, or was it just chance? What else (or who else) is out there in the cosmos that we haven’t yet discovered? What will be the fate of humanity, and what role will we play in whatever’s to come?
These questions must have answers, and they may be answers that we can find out. But in the meantime, they’re great mysteries, tantalizing us with the promise of unseen truth, awaiting discovery like hidden treasure. We’re motivated to live because we want to witness the joy of finding out. We want to see what the answers will be, and when it comes to our own future, we can even help create them. In the atheist worldview, the universe is like a wiki, and it’s our task to cooperate in writing it – to uncover the truth, tell the as-yet-untold story of existence, and define our place in it for ourselves.
Members of organized religion, by contrast, can’t say this. They believe that they already possess final truth about the reason for the universe’s existence: God created it to glorify himself, and humans to worship him and have fellowship with him. They believe that nothing else we could learn, nothing we could ever find out, is as true or as important as these central dogmas. And they believe that the future, if not already foreordained, will inevitably unfold in accordance with God’s omnipotent will, and nothing we can do will change the outcome. To them, the universe is a final draft, a closed canon; we’re just characters in a script, and the ending has been written since the beginning of time.
But even if we don’t know the true answers yet, we can be certain that these ancient, anthropomorphic religions clearly aren’t them. These beliefs are too human-centered, too small; they reflect the narrow, provincial perspective and overblown self-importance of their creators in according humanity a privileged and central place in the workings of the cosmos. Even more ridiculous, they postulate not a creator worthy of the vastness we observe, but a pathetic and irrational creature that thinks and acts just like the alpha male of a chimpanzee tribe: benevolent toward his obedient servants, violent towards strangers and outsiders, jealous and obsessed with whether everyone is paying him sufficient homage, constantly fearful of competition. These primate instincts don’t define the universe.
But then, what does? What’s the deeper meaning that underlies it all? Is there some sort of intentionality, some incomprehensible sentience that constructed the universe for a purpose unimaginable to us? Or is nature truly blind and insentient, and it’s simply inherent in the nature of complex and dynamic systems to give rise to local condensations of complexity like us? Is our cosmos the only one there is, or do we live in a quantum multiverse where our world and our lives are just one winding pathway in an infinite set of ever-branching ramifications? Are we someone else’s dream, simulation, or science experiment? Is intelligent life common in the cosmos, or incredibly rare and precious?
These questions are staggering, but I don’t find it inconceivable that someday we, or our distant descendants, will be able to answer them. Even if we’ll never know, I want to be able to say that we gave the attempt our greatest effort. This curiosity, the urge to reflect, to explore and to know, is a sort of hunger, and trying to sate it is part of what gives my life meaning and drives me onward.