For millions, this ‘life’ is a sad vale of tears,
Sitting ’round with rien nothing to say
While the scientists say we’re just simply spiraling coils
Of self-replicating DNA. Nay, nay, nay, nay, nay, nay.
So, just why– why are we here,
And just what– what– what– what do we fear?
Well, ce soir, for a change, it will all be made clear,
For this is ‘The Meaning of Life’.
C’est le sens de la vie.
This is ‘The Meaning of Life’.
One thing that Christianity definitely does well is convince its people that without its teachings, without adhering to its ideas, that people just won’t have this elusive thing called “a meaning in life” or “a purpose.” Today we’re going to talk about why that idea is total horseshit.
Provocative? Yes. Serious? Yes. Necessary? Very, if this fellow in the green hoodie is anything to go by:
This picture was taken after the Ken Ham/Bill Nye debates, when Buzzfeed asked some of the Creationists in attendance if they had anything to say to or ask of people who actually embrace science. This fellow was one of the young Creationists featured in that pictorial story. All of the story’s images are powerful testaments to human ignorance and wishful thinking, but this one in particular’s always stood out from the rest for me. I mean, think about it: when given a platform to reach every single person who trusts in the long-established conclusions of the scientific world, this young man didn’t waste time (as his peers did) jabbering about scientific ideas he didn’t understand like the Second Law of Thermodynamics, offering debunked “evidence” for his views, or even obliquely threatening anybody.
No, he just wanted to know how people who reject Creationist pseudoscience “derive objective meaning” in their lives.
The short answer would be “the same exact way that people who reject homeopathy find meaning in life,” but he clearly means more to the question than an erroneous conflation of Creationism with Christianity.
When I was Christian, one thing we thought we had that nobody else had was this thing called “a purpose in life.” Oh, that purpose was so amazing to have, wasn’t it? We had this purpose and anybody who was an atheist just didn’t. They didn’t have a purpose in life, and wasn’t that just soooo sad?
Now I recognize the flaws in this thinking a lot better, though when I deconverted, I went through this brief period where I was just terrified that I’d lose all sense of purpose in my life, and I’ve met Christians who have told me flat-out that they can’t possibly consider questioning their faith because then they’d lose their sense of purpose. Entire book series like The Purpose-Driven Life exist to tell Christians that they, by dint of their faith in the Christian god and religion, are very specially hand-chosen to fulfill some great and glorious purpose in their god’s big master plan for all of the universe, written by Christian leaders who explicitly tell their followers that they’ll only find meaning in life by fulfilling this divinely-ordained purpose and here is how they can do it: just send money, just buy this book.
And the hilarious part, the tragic part, the awful part, is that not a single one of these assertions is true.
I don’t think they’re really thinking this thing through very well. I wrote about this topic a while ago on my own blog, Roll to Disbelieve, but I wanted to develop the topic a bit more here, so here we go:
Why the Belief in a Divine Purpose is Laughably Ridiculous.
1. Nothing about it has ever been demonstrated to be true. Ever. Even a little.
In order for this belief in a divine purpose to be true, then a whole host of what I’ve called nested assumptions have to be supported in a credible way:
* That a god exists
* … who hands out purposes
* … via some mechanism or method
* … to only believers
* … who have some way of reliably discerning what that purpose is
* … and who lose that purpose the second they stop believing that their god exists
* … because people cannot, themselves, make a purpose for their own lives or find meaning in life outside of their faith
If a Christian wants to believe that way, that’s fine, but for me to believe it, I’d have to at least think that a god exists.
2. It’s very obviously a manufactured need.
If I were going to set out to create a problem out of thin air for people to sell something to them, I couldn’t possibly do better than what Christianity has done with the idea of “a purpose in life.” Christians–especially in America–have created this idea of people needing a divine purpose, which by wild coincidence Christianity can fulfill. It’s like how advertisers created a need for hair-free legs in women so they could sell more razors. It’s painfully easy to sell something if you can make people think they desperately need it. And Christians at this point are convinced that they desperately need a purpose. In fact, not only do they need a purpose, but it has to be a divinely-handed-down purpose. They can’t just make up a purpose themselves for their own lives, or it doesn’t count. The purpose must be supernatural in origin or it doesn’t count.
So what do people in third-world hellholes do for a purpose? Just survive another day? Maybe breed replacements for themselves for when they inevitably die of violence or disease? But a Christian in Dayton, Ohio gets told to open a Jiffy-Lube. I wish Christians understood how blatantly self-serving the whole concept of a “divine purpose” is, and how it is obviously a manufactured need meant to sell Christianity to people (and get them to buy books and attend lectures, of course!).
Worse yet, if religions like Christianity weren’t around to tell people that they even need a divinely-granted purpose in life, I wonder if anybody would ever have come up with the idea independently.
It’s so strange that something this hugely important should need so much help to discern and figure out, and should require belief to see at all.
3. This belief in an “objective purpose” is quite obviously meant to make believers feel superior to non-believers–and to dehumanize and demonize non-believers.
Christians regularly feel perfectly free to tell non-believers that because they are not Christian that their lives are meaningless. By even asking “where do atheists get their purpose in life?”, Christians imply that they don’t think atheists can even do this essentially human thing. Apologists push that point with language that sounds downright hateful in its rush to make non-believers–especially atheists–seem like little more than rutting beasts, and Christians seem like oh-so-evolved and superior human beings who have a spark that non-believers just don’t.
I can’t imagine what Christians’ goal is in saying something so rude, nasty, and thoughtless–not to mention untrue–to non-believers. Are we meant to hear this and immediately think, as they clearly do, that we’d better get our asses to church immediately so we can finally sit at the adults’ table and get a purpose in life? Is this like the Christian version of negging?
Well, it doesn’t work on people who can assess claims critically and whose minds aren’t locked in a high-school mentality of “LOOKIE WHAT I GOT THAT YOU CAN’T GET!” It doesn’t work on people who don’t think of gods as ATMs or sugar daddies or grampas doling out prezzies to their favored children.
All a Christian has to do is ask non-believers about their purpose in life, and that Christian will get an earful about how people figure out what their purpose is. And it’d probably look a lot like how the Christian arrives at this same meaning; we just don’t couch it in Christian language like “feeling a burden” or “just feeling led.” But at this point the idea that “Christians get a purpose while non-Christians do not” is all but sewn into the very fabric of Christian culture.
It’s hard not to wonder what other essential pieces of humanity they need to believe that non-believers lack so they can feel smugly superior to the unwashed scum.
4. Even if a believer could demonstrate support for all those claims I listed earlier, that doesn’t change one big problem with the idea of a divine purpose: it’s literally impossible to discern reliably.
When I was Christian, I of course believed wholeheartedly in the idea that I was talking directly to a deity when I prayed and that this deity talked to me all the time. I was mistaken in this belief.
I had a very frightening run-in with this exact problem with discerning purposes right before I married Biff. I’d already been having second thoughts (because he wanted children and I didn’t–more about that in a moment) when my friend Big Dave called me right before the wedding to announce that I couldn’t possibly marry Biff because he’d just had a vision from “God” that he was actually the man “God” meant for me to marry. I was sitting with Biff in his dorm room at the moment, and he was staring at me–having noticed my growing horror at the phone conversation–while this other man was informing me of the purpose of my life. Of course, neither he nor Biff actually ever asked me what I thought my purpose in life was. And I was only going through with the wedding to Biff because I had been told repeatedly by people I trusted that this really was my god’s will for my life.
You already know how well that marriage worked out. So how did Big Dave arrive at this purpose for me, while Biff and our pastors arrived at a whole other purpose, and I had my own private suspicions about the matter that ran in a whole other direction?
For that matter, Biff was also convinced that my purpose in life was to make babies and be a mother. I knew my purpose had nothing to do with parenthood. On that point, I would not even budge.
Everybody who had an opinion about my purpose in life was a very committed Christian, including me. We all prayed all the time, and of course we cared very deeply about what “God” wanted for our lives. Yet everybody involved came up with a different take on the matter, and every single one of us thought that we were the ones hearing from this god while the others were wrong.
There was quite literally no way to say who was right and who wasn’t. My church culture taught that success in a venture didn’t necessarily mean someone was reading their purpose correctly; demons could bring success and so could people’s own efforts. Feelings of right- or wrongness or someone’s suitability for the purpose that’d been divinely assigned weren’t indicative either; someone could feel that a discerned purpose was correct, but we also had a number of stories about someone receiving a purpose who felt very uncomfortable about it but went ahead anyway–and was rewarded later for this show of obedience. Hell, we liked those stories best of all. It didn’t even matter that they weren’t verified as being true. That’s a big part of why I acquiesced to the wedding with Biff; I had a feeling it was a terrible idea, but my religion was filled with stories of people like me who followed orders anyway and everything worked out “to the good of them that believe.”
And I am certain that every single person reading my words, if ever involved much with Christianity, has had a situation where they thought they were hearing from a god about what they should do with their lives, or a decision they should make, or a thing they should do, and the situation turned out disastrously. I have a long list of things I did that I thought I’d been divinely-ordered to do that went very badly for me and in hindsight were very obviously not mandated by any invisible wizards, and I’m sure plenty of ex-Christians have even longer lists than I do–because this belief actively discourages its adherents from trusting their own intuition and perceptions, making it far easier to fall into a poor decision.
5. It seems more than a little strange that a purpose would depend on someone else’s behavior, or on a situation to occur or continue, and in the face of opposing ideas about that purpose.
I can remember dozens of times when I heard that someone’s purpose in life was to marry someone else, or to hold political office, or to run a successful business of some kind, or to have children who would become prophets or preachers, or other such life roles–only to be totally frustrated. Of course, one could easily argue that this god might intend for the venture to fail, but then we’re getting into “wow this god is a real asshole” territory and it simply isn’t something I then heard or now hear often from Prosperity-Gospel-obsessed Christians, especially in evangelical culture where they are assured constantly that their god wants them to be happy, healthy, wealthy, and loved.
One of the most heartbreaking spectacles I saw repeatedly while religious–and still run into frequently after having left the religion far behind–is that of an aging person convinced that their god is still going to send a perfect spouse their way Any Day Now™. I’ve encountered and heard of even menopausal Christian women who are still convinced that somehow they’ll still be getting married to perfect square-jawed Christian men and that they’ll get that Happy Christian Marriage with tons of kids and a picket fence, because they are just that certain that being a wife and mother is their purpose in life. Almost all of ’em are still waiting.
And Biff kept insisting up and down that because his purpose in life was to be a Christian father, I’d have to have children. He got rather touchy about that point over time. I was frustrating his life purpose, you see. I had warned him from the very beginning that if he felt his purpose involved having children, then we were not meant to be married because I’d never wanted children in my entire life and sure wasn’t having them just for him. His solution was to say that he had figured out I was right about our god’s will, but to pray constantly that I’d be divinely strong-armed into changing my mind so his life script could proceed the way he thought it should.
It seems distinctly unfair that someone’s purpose would depend on other people doing exactly the right things and cooperating as co-stars in the movie of a Christian’s life.
6. It’s another example of Christian superfluity.
There is absolutely nothing about a sense of meaning that cannot be gained in other ways than being Christian. I’d even argue that a purpose that someone arrives at themselves, based on their desires, needs, drives, and aptitudes, is far superior than the Christian conceptualization of a divinely-granted purpose. And it seems to me like most Christians who buy into this belief are actually doing exactly that.
I’ve listed a lot of ways that Christians have arrived at contradictory or impossible “meanings” and “purposes” for their lives, but in truth, the majority of Christians come up with “purposes” the same way everybody else does. Rarely do we see a physically weak Christian decide his or her purpose is to become a football player! Most Christian couples who get married do so because they are think their god’s purpose for them is to marry this other person who they happen to know and love already. And just as non-believers do, Christians change their minds about what their purpose is as new information comes to light, and if one purpose is achieved then they seek another and find it.
7. The belief plays upon Christians’ terror of uncertainty.
Notice that the young man in that photo asks about “objective” meaning. There’s a reason for that choice of words.
To a deeply religious mind–especially the sort of mind that buys into pseudosciences like Creationism–subjectivity is a hobgoblin to be fought tooth and nail. They take it to mean “something people just come up with all by themselves out of the clear blue sky, LA-DI-DAH-DI-DAH,” which is a bit of a misunderstanding in and of itself that we’ll tackle another day. To solve this terrible problem of subjectivity, they present their god as a purely objective, unchanging source of morality and laws. And since their god is like that, clearly people should be like that too.
Subjectivity is seen as something that changes precipitously and can be easily wrong. It is a response to uncertainty and there is nothing that a very religious mind feels more uncomfortable with than a feeling of uncertainty. A life purpose that is subjectively acquired, then, might be wrong and it certainly won’t be what their purely-objective god wants (and oh, he is so very easily foiled!).
But who judges the success of a life purpose? It’s not really someone else’s job to evaluate the meaning I’ve found in my life or to judge it. Also, considering how difficult it is to even discern what this god’s will might be for anybody’s life, it seems to me that Christians are far more than I am in danger of getting that “objective” meaning wrong, since they officially can’t rely on their own intuition at all here.
I have to ask, first, why they’re so sure that their own arrived-at purposes are objective in any way, and second, why a subjective life purpose is really inferior. Because speaking as someone who has arrived at what they would call a “subjective” meaning, it sure seems to me that they cannot be sure of objectivity themselves, and that my supposedly-subjective life purpose is not inferior in any way to whatever they think they’ve got.
Is it really that scary to imagine that this huge benefit they think they get by being believers is not what they think it is and can actually be achieved in other ways than by believing?
Yes. Yes, I think it is.
So. The common Christian belief in “objective meaning” rests on unproven or debunked assumptions. It serves mostly as a created need that Christian leaders can then fill and use to manipulate their flocks’ minds and fears. There is simply no way to tell objectively what it might be, especially when other Christians get different answers about someone’s purpose. And it completely forgets that non-believers, despite Christians’ insistence, can and do seek and find meaning in life and come up with purposes for themselves.
If a Christian wants to make a case that I just can’t find meaning in life without subscribing to their belief system, then I’d want that person to demonstrate exactly why I can’t–because I’m doing it right now just fine, and the meaning I’ve found for myself since leaving Christianity is working out much better for me than anything I ever thought I found in Christianity.
And either way, it’s not like the penalty of not having a divinely-granted meaning is going to magically give me a reason to believe in something I have no reason whatsoever to believe is real or true.
Can you believe that was from a Sunday comic strip from 1988?