A claim commonly heard among defenders of theism is that only belief in God can give life purpose. If we are the product of a divine creator, apologists claim, then certainly we were created for a reason, and by discovering what that reason is and living as God wants us to live, we can find meaning and fulfillment. By contrast, these same apologists often claim, if there is no god and human beings came into existence by chance, then we are nothing but a “cosmic accident”, and cannot hope to find purpose in life since we were not created for a reason. These arguments are often put forward as reasons not to be an atheist.
However, the first and most important thing to notice is that such arguments are entirely irrelevant to the truth of atheism. Even if the gloomy picture of atheism that these apologists paint was completely accurate, that would not mean that atheism was false. A fact does not cease to be true because we find its consequences depressing. If religious apologists want to defeat atheism, they should be giving actual reasons to believe that God exists – not merely asserting that the alternative would make us very sad. Such fallacious tactics may help them score points with believers, but are unlikely to have the slightest effect on a real atheist.
However, we can and should go further than this. Not only are the apologists’ claims about the meaninglessness of atheism irrelevant, they are false. An atheist can consistently believe, as I do and as others do, that life is not an “accident” in the degrading sense in which apologists use it; an atheist can consistently believe that life is meaningful and has purpose. This essay will show how this can be so and explain what the source of an atheist’s meaning and purpose is.
Consider first the claim that atheism entails believing that life is an “accident”. To determine if this claim is true, it is necessary to list the various possible meanings of this word and consider whether each of them does or does not apply to the status of human life in an atheist’s worldview. There are three potentially applicable senses of this word which seem to bear examining for this purpose.
The first and most common meaning of the word “accident” is an undesirable or unfortunate event, one that runs contrary to the doer’s intentions – for example, an automobile crash. To believe that our existence is an accident in this sense would indeed lead to a bleak and pessimistic outlook on life. And this viewpoint has in fact been adopted by some religious groups: for example, the ancient sects collectively known as Gnostics believed that our material existence was a grave misfortune, the creation of an rebel angel or evil demiurge, and that human beings were divine spirits trapped in bodies of gross matter from which we should seek to escape. Of course, while the Gnostics looked forward to liberating themselves from the prison of this world and regaining their heavenly status, an atheist has no such afterlife dreams to look forward to. Therefore, to claim that atheists must believe life to be an accident would be a powerful emotional argument against atheism – if it were true.
However, it should be obvious that, apologist stereotypes to the contrary, an atheist could not consistently believe that life is an accident in this sense – because this would imply that the emergence of life was an event contrary to someone’s intentions, and whose intention could an atheist possibly believe that to be? If life came into being not as the result of the willed act of a creator but rather as the product of the interaction of physical laws, as most atheists believe, then it makes no sense to say that we are an accident; for natural laws cannot possibly go awry and do not have intentions that can be thwarted. If anything, to say that we owe our existence to the operation of laws of nature means that we are deeply and fundamentally a part of the cosmos, that it is in a sense right that we should be here. In this sense, our existence is every bit as “natural” as the existence of the sea, the earth and the stars. Theists are free to believe, and many do believe, that life is somehow an unnatural phenomenon that must be brought about or sustained by miracles that violate the normal course of nature; but clearly an atheist could not possibly believe this.
A second possible meaning of the word “accident” is something unforeseen or unplanned, a chance event, one that could have turned out otherwise. The outcome of a dice roll, for example, would be classified as an accident in this sense. By this meaning, I acknowledge that a consistent atheist would have to admit that life is an accident. After all, an atheist by definition does not believe in a cosmic planner that prearranges the course of events. However, unlike the previous meaning, I deny that adopting this view robs life of any of its beauty or its wonder. After all, why would it make life any less wonderful to know that there was no inevitability to it? When theists win the lottery, they rarely walk away downcast, telling themselves that yes, they happened to win, but that is no reason to be happy because after all, they could have lost.
If anything, adopting this view means that we should be all the more joyous and grateful that we exist, and treat life as a thing not to be taken for granted. That our existence was not inevitable in no way detracts from the importance and meaningfulness of the things we do achieve. On the contrary, it gives us all the more reason to be proud of them and to work toward further achievement. Theists who believe that everything is predetermined have little reason to be wonder-struck by life’s existence or to consider anything any person does to be praiseworthy, but the same is not true of an atheist.
The third possible meaning of the word “accident” is to denote something exceptional or differing from the norm. I wholeheartedly agree that this sense is an appropriate description of human beings. We are special; that claim is too obvious to need defense. Though we are indisputably a part of the natural universe, subject to the same laws that govern all other bodies, we are also unique, possessed of many rare and valuable qualities. Regardless of the process by which we came into existence, this will remain true. (“Life of Wonder” discusses in more detail what these qualities are and why we should rightly consider ourselves valuable.)
Despite the fact that, as I have argued, only the latter two senses of the word “accident” might be applicable to an atheist’s outlook on life, theists who use that word against us persistently use it in the first sense, or at least with the first sense’s undesirable connotations. This fallacious tactic of equivocation should be recognized for what it is and rejected. Life is a wonderful and precious thing – on that point atheists and theists are in agreement – and will remain so regardless of the process by which it came into existence. It is our current state, our intelligence and feeling, that gives us dignity, not the manner of our origin.
Acknowledging that life is an accident, in the neutral sense of a non-inevitable event, where then do we find meaning and purpose? Apologists frequently claim that life by definition can have no purpose if we were not created for a purpose, but this argument rests on an unstated assumption, one that when stated explicitly is not easily defensible. That assumption is this: that purpose is not genuine unless it is imposed on us from outside. But why should we believe this to be true?
It is true enough that inanimate objects cannot meaningfully be said to have a purpose unless they were created with one in mind. A hammer has a purpose; a lump of stone does not. But humans are not inanimate objects. We are sentient, thinking beings, and as such we possess a special ability: the ability to choose our own purpose and decide for ourselves what makes our lives meaningful and worthwhile. It is precisely because non-intelligent things cannot choose their own purposes that they require the outside imposition of purpose in order to have one. But humans are not like this.
In fact, we all must choose our own purpose in life, even the aforementioned apologists. No god forced them to adopt any particular reason for being. Instead, they found a purpose that suited their desires and that they found agreeable to their nature, and they chose to follow that purpose and make it their own. There is no reason why atheists cannot do the same. All it takes is to find an activity or a cause that appeals to you and then adopt it. There is nothing difficult or complex about this, and most people do it all the time; it is bizarre that the apologists should describe it as if it were something somehow beyond mere human ability.
If anything, the atheist worldview is a liberation – it gives us the powerful and exhilarating freedom of knowing that we can chart our own path through the world and decide for ourselves what we want to achieve with our lives. Purpose is no less meaningful and valid for being self-chosen; if anything, a purpose that is genuinely your own, one that you freely chose for yourself, is more significant and meaningful, as a moment’s thought should make obvious. By contrast, the theist view proposes that we are not free to choose our own destinies, but that we were created only to play a specific role, and that terrible punishment will follow if we refuse to do so. (“Divine Blackmail” expands on this theme.) This is not the sort of conception of purpose that should uplift a person or fill them with hope. There is a word for living under a purpose which someone else has imposed on you without your consent: it is called slavery.
Of course, representatives of theism often claim that worshipping God is the only way to find true satisfaction and fulfillment, and that any other approach to living a meaningful life will inevitably end in failure and frustration. In this they are wrong. Granted, shallow self-indulgence alone will not produce lasting happiness; I do not deny that. Nor will the mere accumulation of material possessions ever create genuine contentment. Human nature seems to be such that enduring happiness can only be found in lives and philosophies that involve interaction with the deeper and more sublime questions of our existence: our nature, our relationships with each other, our place in the world, and what we are to make of ourselves. But although the answers to these questions have traditionally come from religious belief systems, there is no reason why that must always be the case. Religion’s claim to possess a monopoly on the deeper truths is mere propaganda and cultural prejudice. Meaning is not something that requires the sanction of a higher power – meaning is, by its nature, wherever you find it.
Does life have ultimate purpose, according to an atheist? If that term is read to mean a purpose imposed on us by a higher power, then no. On the other hand, if that term is read to mean an overarching goal that motivates our lives and gives meaning to our endeavors, one towards which all our actions strive, then yes, an atheist can certainly have ultimate purpose. It is our freedom and our right to choose to do whatever gives us satisfaction, so long as we respect the happiness of others and their equal freedom to do the same. The only difference is that, while theists are restricted to the relatively narrow paths of purpose which their religion provides for them, an atheist is free to select their overarching purpose in life from the entire range of human endeavor. We do not have to do what the Bible dictates, what tradition advises, or what we think God wants us to – we can simply do, because we find it meaningful and it makes us happy.
Scientist, musician, policeman, doctor, public servant, explorer, scholar, artist, teacher, parent, friend: all these roles in life and many others are open to an atheist, and we can devote ourselves to just one or combine them as we see fit. We can travel the planet seeking out new experiences and new adventures, or we can cultivate our minds in solitary study and contemplation. We can walk the world living lives of active compassion and striving to help all in need, or we can focus our efforts on bringing light to the lives of those few who are close to us; a choice, one might say, between doing a small amount of good in big things, or a large amount of good in small things. To an atheist, life is a wide-open horizon, and we are free to set our course as we wish.
Granted, the prospect of freedom, without a higher power to hold our hands and guide us, can be unsettling or even frightening at first – much like the way a child feels when starting school, leaving the comfort of the familiar and entering a new and strange environment for the first time. It is this fear that no doubt leads many believers to deride atheism as an unacceptable view on life. But this fear can be overcome, and once it has been, what lies beyond is in its own way far more wonderful. As far as the evidence points, we did not come into existence as part of an overarching plan. That does not mean we can have no purpose – it means that it is up to us to choose one. As far as the evidence points, we were created by natural forces and not by a personal and benevolent god. That does not mean there is no one to look out for us – it means that we must look out for each other. This responsibility is the other side of the coin of freedom that atheism grants us.
But the claim that atheism demeans us or robs us of dignity or meaning in life is absolutely untrue. A worldview that relied entirely on the manner of our origin to provide us with these things would be a bleak one indeed, since that would imply that nothing we do would ever matter, but atheism is not such a worldview. Rather than link our worth to ancient mythology that can be disproven, atheism bases it on the undeniable facts of our freedom, our intelligence and our compassion in the here and now. We are not “cosmic accidents” – we are human beings, plain and simple, and we should live like it.