One of the most annoying arguments against atheism is the claim that if there is no god then life, or at least any particular life, has no purpose or meaning. Russ Douthat recently made that argument and Jerry Coyne points out that there is a rather blatant bit of sleight of hand going on here:
Cosmology doesn’t give one iota of evidence for a purpose (it could!) or for God. Most of the universe is cold, bleak, airless, and uninhabitable. In fact, such a cosmology harmonizes far better with a secular moral picture than a religious one. Secularists see a universe without apparent purpose and realize that we must forge our own purposes and ethics, not derive them from a God for which there’s no evidence.
Yes, secularism does propose a physical and purposeless universe, and many (but not all) of us accept the notion that our sense of self is a neuronal illusion. But although the universe is purposeless, our lives aren’t. This conflation of a purposeless universe (i.e., one not created by a transcendent being for a specific reason) with purposeless human lives is a trick that the faithful use to make atheism seem dark and nihilistic. But we make our own purposes, and they’re real. Right now my purpose is to write this piece, and then I’ll work on a book I’m writing, and later I’ll have dinner with a friend. Soon I’ll go to Poland to visit more friends. Maybe later I’ll read a nice book and learn something. Soon I’ll be teaching biology to graduate students. Those are real purposes, not the illusory purposes to which Douthat wants us to devote our only life.
The lack of some universal meaning or purpose does not mean that our lives don’t have meaning or purpose. It just means that we have at least some opportunity to determine meaning and purpose for ourselves rather than having some non-existent divine being decide it for us. And far from being a depressing fact, that is a liberating one.