"But My Purpose is God"

I’m getting emails and comments from believers who attended my talk at GVSU.  I guess today I’ll spend some time while traveling to PA to ramble about morality to respond to some of them.  The first comes in the form of a comment from Maegan.

I attended your talk this past Thursday, December first, at GVSU. In your talk you said you believe that everyone can determine their own purpose. I find my purpose in God. So, who are you to tell me this is wrong, when you say you believe that everyone, including myself, can determine their own purpose?

It is one of the most fortunate things about this universe: we human beings get to determine our own purpose in life.  Maegan has said that her purpose is “god.”  I’m going to assume she means worshiping/serving god, etc.

Of course, Maegan, this is not the only purpose you’ve assigned to your life.  Presumably, another ambition you hold for your life is figuring out what is true and ditching what is false (otherwise, why even come to my talk?).  If this is not true, then you’ve made a virtue of being unreasonable and there’s no point to me responding to you.

Your aspiration to figure out what is true most certainly takes precedence over your desire to serve god.  After all, you can hardly worship a god who doesn’t exist.  So who am I to make commentary on the purpose you’ve assigned for your life?  Someone who thinks you’re factually in error.

I’m also someone who believes you have a moral obligation, not only to yourself, but to your teammates here on planet Earth (like me), to be as reasonable as possible.  We have to work together to figure out what is morally true in order to coexist, and that requires all parties to be rational.  For instance, we both have a stake in what laws our government produces and enforces.  If there is a moral disagreement like whether or not homosexuals deserve equal rights because people think god insists they don’t, then I have no choice but to explain why people believing in god are wrong.  If you aspire to do right, if that is a purpose you have adopted, then god’s existence is a question you should really care about.

The problem is that even the Christians who think gays are a-ok believe in god for all the same lousy reasons as the less moderate believers.  It’s not like I’m capable of focus-firing (or that I’d care to even if I was).

I’m here to help you care about that question, just like you’re here to help me care about it.  The problem is that while we both presumably hold reason as a purpose to our lives (surely you think god’s existence is a reasonable conclusion), it seems I’m the only one of the two of us helping the other to be more reasonable.  I mean, you asked me why I care what those with whom I share this terrestrial space believe, but you didn’t ask “Have you considered x, y, or z reason I might be right?” or “Have you considered you might be wrong for x, y, or z reason?” as though a simple passion for the truth would be insufficient.

If you’re right about god, then more people believing will result in a better world.  Likewise, if god doesn’t exist, we could do just fine without religious wars, inaccurate moral conclusions, people credulously dumping money into faith healers, and on, and on.  If we care about making the world a better place, as I assume we both do, then we should give a damn about the answer to that question.

Who am I to say god doesn’t exist and that therefore your purpose of serving him is empty?  I’m somebody who cares.  I’m somebody who thinks highly enough of most of humanity, including you, Maegan, to think you can and should do better.  I’m a friend who cares enough to tell you the truth, even though your holy book and the majority of your peers will tell you I’m your enemy.

  • John Eberhard

    Isn’t it like asking, “I find my purpose in Santa Claus (or Mithra, or Odin, or Allah). Or, I find my purpose in burying $20 bills in my back yard. So, who are you to tell me this is wrong, when you say you believe that everyone, including myself, can determine their own purpose?”

    Giving someone the leeway to determine their own purpose and pointing out that that purpose is goofy and counterproductive are two entirely different things.

    • http://songe.me Alex Songe

      Ironically, some of the best material on purpose can be found in Paul Tillich’s theology. If you skip all the nonsense parts of his Christian exceptionalism, you’re left with some very cogent ponderings about what constitutes valid symbols for life purpose. Now, before you go off and start yelling at me for recommending theology, understand that a lot of Tillich’s terms are repurposing of fuzzy terms like “faith” (which is defined as “ultimate concern”). Everything he writes is couched deeply in existential problems, which he saw “Protestantism” (his definition of protestantism is a kind of rebel-without-a-cause) as a solution for. He lamented the death of Protestanism in the US with the homogenization of suburban America.

      Anyway, things I learned from reading some Tillich: Most theologians were “theistic idolators” in that their belief in God replaced a feeling of ultimate concern. Some atheists, however, were true in faith because of their concern of truth over all things (they were grasped by an ultimate concern, that is truth). One cannot choose things that are purposeful and meaningful in life arbitrarily. Everyone has a limited, different, but mostly overlapping set of symbols and things in life which can be done to add meaning and purpose. We can communicate about life-meaning and purpose by correlating these symbols.

      Reading Paul Tillich is like reading an ancient philosopher. Just because they believed in the 4 elements (earth, wind, water, and fire) doesn’t mean that Euthyphro’s dilemma isn’t a work of genius.

  • Laurence

    Good response JT.

  • Anonymous

    You’re an idiot. Seriously. You presume “being rational” is both morally and evolutionarily superior. Yet, higher cognitive functioning is a relatively new biological adaptation. Therefore, on a geological and universal timescale, it cannot be fully determined to enhance survivability. For example, our species could be completely eliminated within a single day due to our “rationality and intelligence” ala nuclear holocaust.

    Let people find their purpose in God if they want. It probably makes them better people. Psychological research shows people who are religious tend to have fewer symptoms and cases of mental illness…interesting huh?

    • Ze Madmax

      Psychological research shows people who are religious tend to have fewer symptoms and cases of mental illness…interesting huh?

      1. Being religious in a religiously normative society is less stressful than being non-religious, much like being part of a religious majority is less stressful than being part of a religious minority.

      2. Being religious might make people less likely to report mental illness due to stigma associated with it, artificially lowering the number of reported cases of mental illness to the detriment of the people who do suffer from them.

      Both of these instances justify your claim. Congratulations on citing “psychological research” without having a fucking clue of the complexity of interpreting research findings in psychology. Here’s your Moron Badge, have some cake.

      • Anonymous

        You’re the fucking moron. Of course those could be factors. I didn’t claim a cause and effect relationship. The nature of the research (which I have read extensively, seeing as I’m a mental health professional) is correlational in nature.

        Let me break that down in terms your idiotic mind can understand…that doesn’t mean religion causes better mental health. The first factor you indicated may be true, but also because people in religious communities tend to have more developed personal identities, have social support, and increased resources on hand. They also tend to more readily believe other people care about them, and that their existence is meaningful.

        The research is also anonymous and confidential,and people are reassured their identities are not revealed if they report mental illness (exceptions for abuse, suicide, homicide).

        Congratulations on being intellectually eviscerated by someone who just won a “Moron Badge.” Doesn’t say much about you, does it?

        • Cat

          Intellectually eviscerated? Not only have you resorted to immature name-calling (quite interesting since you claim to be a professional in the field of psychology), you’re basically just trying to justify religion just because it makes people “feel good!” People can feel good for a lot of reasons. No one needs religion in order to function and manage mental illness. Nothing you’ve said holds any basis in what is TRUE or not. In the previous example: Santa makes little kids feel good, but doesn’t make it psychologically healthy to believe in Santa once they reach the point of cognitively being able to discern reality from fiction.

          How about we just believe in the flying spaghetti monster because he makes people feel good? Or how about we give potent mood-altering drugs to people without a documented disease so they can feel good? Whether or not religious people face fewer instances of mental illness is a weak argument at best, because it does not deal with what actually exists or problems that full-grown adults should be able to figure out on their own. You don’t believe in unicorns without evidence. Or the flying spaghetti monster. The only exception you make to this need for evidence rule is God. It’s not consistent, it’s not intelligent, and it’s not healthy.

          Congratulations on not showing any actual evidence for your claims and trying to jump directly into fancy mind play and theoretical nonsense instead of dealing with factual evidence for the existence of God.

        • Ze Madmax

          *ahem*

          You’re the fucking moron. Of course those could be factors. I didn’t claim a cause and effect relationship. The nature of the research (which I have read extensively, seeing as I’m a mental health professional) is correlational in nature.

          You did claim a cause and effect relationship. You stated that believing in God makes them “better people” and then proceeded to throw out the “better mental health claim” (a claim that, as a mental health professional you will have no problem citing, I’m sure. Please do so).

          Let me break that down in terms your idiotic mind can understand…that doesn’t mean religion causes better mental health.

          Then your claim, in the context of the full paragraph, is irrelevant.

          The first factor you indicated may be true, but also because people in religious communities tend to have more developed personal identities, have social support, and increased resources on hand.

          This does not mean that being religious is better, merely that being part of a discrete social group is good for you. Essentially, it does not matter whether or not you believe in religion, as long as you can identify yourself as member of a church (what Gordon Allport described as “means-oriented” or “extrinsic” religion).

          They also tend to more readily believe other people care about them, and that their existence is meaningful.

          Assuming they fulfill the prototypical image of what a group member should be. Otherwise, membership in a religion is likely to have a negative impact on mental health.

          The research is also anonymous and confidential,and people are reassured their identities are not revealed if they report mental illness (exceptions for abuse, suicide, homicide).

          No shit. Please note I did not specify social influences as the sole mechanism of biased reporting. If I believe (due to the beliefs held by a group I strongly associate with) that mental illness is a stigma, then I have a very good reason not to self-identify as mentally ill, as doing so would negatively affect my self-identity. Instead, I’ll choose to brush off symptoms of mental health as less serious than they actually are.

          Congratulations on being intellectually eviscerated by someone who just won a “Moron Badge.” Doesn’t say much about you, does it?

          Eviscerated? I’ll call you a paper cut and that’s being generous. Congratulations again on your Moron Badge.

        • http://aratina.blogspot.com Aratina Cage

          I’m a mental health professional

          Oh bullshit you’re a mental health professional. Either you’re lying or you’re an amoral asshole who shouldn’t be in the mental health profession.

        • http://florilegia.wordpress.com Ibis3, denizen of a spiteful ghetto

          It’s also likely that religious people don’t necessarily recognise mental illness as such. Everything is seen in terms of their relationship to supernatural forces. Depressed? Not a sickness, but a lack of faith. Compulsions? Satan or devils or jinn are at work. Hallucinations? Actual events or psychic messages from saints or angels. Addiction? Not a means of self-medication, but a sin that can be overcome by submission to gods.

          For a so-called mental health professional, you don’t seem to have thought this through very far. You’re like the right-wing assholes who cite higher suicide rates in gay youth as evidence that people should be even more nasty and bigoted, instead of acknowledging that the answer is to stop stigmatising homosexuality.

          And “It probably makes them better people.”?? Where the hell did you pull that non sequiter from?

      • sqlrob

        Talking to an invisible friend is mental illness in my book.

        • Cat

          I concur with this statement. It’s quite interesting that talking to a random person in your head could get a person put on medication. But talking to God, that’s just A-Okay!

    • Jen

      I won’t question your assertion here. However, those who are severely mentally ill, with psychotic features, are more likely to incorporate their religion into their mental illness. They’re god, or god is talking to them, or so on. Odds are, Joan of Arc had schizophrenia.

      • http://psychoticatheist.blogspot.com/ Psychotic Atheist

        However, those who are severely mentally ill, with psychotic features, are more likely to incorporate their religion into their mental illness.

        Which in a strange twist is exactly how I ended up becoming an atheist! I held some fairly dangerous (religiously themed) delusions. In a moment of insight, I realised I would have to apply some of the self-taught tools of skepticism in order to survive. The side effect of this process was the loss of religion, though it took a long time.

        There really is no functional difference between delusions and religious beliefs as far as I can tell: the only thing that stops religious beliefs from being classed as delusions is the ‘cultural acceptance’ get out clause. Delusions that have cultural acceptance have essentially been rebranded as beliefs.

        I should add that holding delusions doesn’t necessarily make one psychotic, and obviously I don’t think that holding delusions makes one a foolish person.

  • Sastra

    Excellent response. I thought it addressed one of the most common criticisms of ‘gnu’ atheism (“why can’t you just let people believe what they want?”) by focusing one of our most significant areas of agreement: a love of, and search for, what is true.

    It’s not universal, however. I used to think the most important prelude to starting a serious discussion on God with a believer was to agree on a definition of God. Later, I came to consider it more important to find out if they thought it in any way possible that they could be wrong — and, if so, if they knew what it would take to change their mind.

    After some rather frustrating encounters with believers who eventually played the “what do you care?” card and the “believing in God makes me a better/happier/more fulfilled person” trump, I decided that the question that had to be asked first was: “Do you care?”

    I mean, seriously, do you care if your beliefs are true — or do you only care if they are useful — if they “work” for you? Is religion like a social club and faith a form of personal therapy and, when it gets right down to it, better a comforting fable over a hard fact and better to live in ignorant bliss than struggle with knowledge and hey, God’s a symbol and believing in God is like playacting a role so live and let live and to each his own? I don’t care — so why should you?

    Because hey, if so, I’m fine with that. Or, rather, I’ll drop the issue. What else can be done? The technical philosophical term which is used to describe advocating a position not while knowing that it’s false but while not caring if it’s false or not — because there’s some other agenda or purpose beyond accuracy … is “bullshitting.” One does not debate a bullshitter. For obvious reasons.

    But that bullshitter better damn well not try to take the high moral ground on their deep and heartfelt “belief.”

    Anonymous above seems to be defending Maegan on the assumption that Maegan is of course a bullshitter and we ought to be sensitive to that. I wonder if Maegan would appreciate the support, such as it is.


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