For a very, very long time, when I was a really fervent fundagelical Christian, I fell into a mental trap that is entirely too common among that crowd: I assumed that all non-Christians were somehow not fully human.
Humanity was something I conceptualized as a quality that people could fall into and out of depending on their faith. Belief in Christianity made someone fully realized as a human being. I didn’t think of it in concrete terms like that, no, but when I ran across people who weren’t Christian I actually felt pity for them for missing the whole reason why people were (I thought) sung into existence. Just imagine! They might have human skins, but (I thought) they lacked so many essential components of humanity: morality, the capacity to love, the ability to think ahead, compassion, and most importantly of all, a purpose to their lives.
Without belief in Jesus Christ, non-Christians (I thought) just went through their days eating, sleeping, working, and rutting like animals. They were doomed to days filled with drama and hardship without even a point to it all. What sad, drab, meaningless little lives they lived (I thought)! They’d die without having ever actually understood what the meaning of it all was, and it’d be like they’d never lived. Of course, they would also face an eternity of meaningless, non-rehabilitative, inescapable, punitive, vengeance-based torture for their poor decisions in those few finite decades on Earth (I thought), but even barring that, just looking at life on Earth itself, I couldn’t even imagine losing my entire purpose in life like that.
Then I lost my belief in Jesus Christ and to my shock didn’t experience anything like that imaginary fate.
For now I’ll leave the high-end philosophy to my dear friends Dan Fincke and Neil Carter. Most of us will never know half the stuff about theology and philosophy that these two have forgotten; if you find yourself wanting to go in-depth on topics like “the meaning of life,” you’ll find plenty on their blogs. Certainly such formal consideration has its place in the conversation. Today, instead, I’ll talk about this subject from the perspective of a fairly normal person who had to figure some of this shit out on the fly and with very little time before push came to shove.
What is Purpose?
Our sense of purpose is what makes our lives feel meaningful. It’s how we feel like we’re making a real difference in our world. It’s something unique we bring to humanity’s table to make the holiday dinner better for everyone. It’s an act of agency on our parts to find great significance in our individual existences. And within that short definition, one could spend a lifetime hammering out exactly how we find that significance, what makes our lives feel more or less significant, and why we feel so driven to seek that feeling of significance.
That said, to a certain extent the concept most of us think of as “a purpose in life” seems like a manufactured concept. As I described a while back, religion is like a giant advertising conglomerate whose job it is to sell you stuff. To do that, it–like every other marketer in the world who’s any good at his or her job–creates needs in you. One of those needs is the idea that you can only find purpose in life by purchasing their product. Another of those needs is the impression that you can’t be fully human unless you know what your purpose is (or at least are willing to submit to their own process of searching for it–more in a mo’ on that).
There’s a long list of the created needs that religion instills in people–and even people who don’t belong to the club can feel those needs when they’re in an environment dominated by that club and surrounded by club members. It’s a herd effect–sort of like vaccination, though in the other direction.
Just like anti-vaxxers and herd immunity, the club can withstand a certain number of isolated dissenters. But when there are too many dissenters or they get too concentrated in one area, then the rest of the club’s members see those people and may start noticing that these dissenters don’t take the club’s threats as seriously as they themselves do. Maybe they’ll even start noticing that these dissenters are living proof that some of the stuff their club says about dissenters (if not about a variety of other topics!) can’t possibly be true.
The club has only a few options with regard to these dissenters. Certainly it can ignore, negate, or destroy those folks (and indeed, any atheists living in really Christian-heavy areas like the Deep South likely experience all three every day and twice on Sundays), but by the time people are actually noticing the existence of dissenters and considering their message it’s already too late. No, the club’s best option is to make dissent itself so terrifying and risky that its members won’t even look at, much less consider, any contradictory information. If that doesn’t work, then okay, sure, then the club’s members can make the social and personal cost of dissent dizzyingly high. At that point, people might consider and even accept that contradictory information but be too afraid to act on it–and involuntary compliance is just as good as voluntary, to those sorts of Christians. But oh, how much better and easier things are all the way around if the club’s members never even get that far.
The way that Christianity has made dissent terrifying is, in part, its campaign to dehumanize non-believers and ex-believers.
Claiming a moral monopoly on people’s “purpose in life” is one of the primary ways that Christianity has made dissent terrifying.
Most of us want our lives to matter somehow. It’s hard to even imagine that we could live and die and not even make a blip of difference in this world or on any other people’s lives. Just as we want to believe that life is ultimately fair, we also want to believe that somehow, some way, we will not die in vain. Some people might not make any difference, but we’re too good for that; we’re special; we’re heroic. We’re going to ride the crest of the wave and never look down, never look back. And when we have died, we will be experience the ultimate immortality: we will be remembered for the difference we made.
(Yeah, I was a child of the 1980s; why do you ask?)
Somehow we’ve gotten the notion, collectively, that our “purpose in life” is some grand, high-flown ideal that we’ll discover–or be handed–and everything will make sense; we’ll have this grand plan to work toward at last. People without purpose spend time staring at their navels and endlessly ruminating on what it might be and how they can find theirs. From our teenaged years (and possibly even before that), we’re thinking about what our grand contribution to humanity might be. I’ve even seen comic-strip characters fret over their lack of purpose in life.
And look, there’s nothing wrong with having that kind of grand, all-encompassing purpose or in seeking one. I’m just saying that it might not be that grand and there might not be just one of them. Maybe some folks have a fairly mundane purpose–to be a good parent, maybe, or to do a good job as a reliable worker, or to research some very small aspect of a very large disease. Sometimes we get so hung up on seeking our purpose and so depressed that we’re not finding it that we’re not actually going out and living our lives and learning new stuff that might lead us to an understanding of meaning.
Christians take it one step further by declaring that not only is there one grand, all-encompassing purpose but that this purpose must, beyond all question, be handed down to them by their god or it totally does not count. And then they put the final cherry on the shit sundae by insisting that someone else always knows better than they themselves do what that grand, divinely-mandated and granted purpose must be. Part of that final cherry is also the idea that they can always tell whether or not another person’s purpose is valid or not, and indeed distinguish between importance levels of different stated life purposes from different people. Talk about “one stupid trick!”
Christians make a lot of assumptions generally, but when it comes to the subject of life’s meaning and purpose they really outdo themselves. I should know–I did it myself way back when. Here are just a few of the assumptions that must be taken totally for granted in order to buy into Christianity’s version of purpose:
* That there is a god fitting the description Christians carry in their heads;
* That this god gives out one overarching purpose to each human being alive;
* That this purpose is something that can be discerned by each person;
* That one can reliably ascertain, with certainty (though sometimes only through great effort), that deity-granted and mandated purpose;
* That purpose simply cannot be found in any other way but that one;
* That any purpose not found within those confines is not a real and valid life purpose;
* That this purpose can be totally thwarted by one’s rejection of religion;
* That the Christian god rips away someone’s purpose after deconversion and adds it back in again after reconversion;
* That a person gains and loses the mere ability to achieve purpose in life according to whether that person believes in the Christian god;
… and more besides, but hopefully I’ve made my point. Obviously, not a single one of those things has ever been conclusively demonstrated to be true, but if Christians went around only believing stuff that had been demonstrated as true, then what a funny old world that’d be. The weird thing is that, looking at this list, I don’t think many of these premises are actually located in the Bible, but most Christians–especially the annoying sort–would say these assumptions are ironclad and all but axiomatic. One can see why; if they weren’t, then Christians could not use the threat of meaninglessness to terrorize their own believers into staying in the pews, and they wouldn’t have nearly as much to feel smug and superior over.
Because that is what is being done.
I can’t even remember how many Christians I’ve heard since my own deconversion tell me (without the slightest hint of self-awareness) that they’re sorry I no longer have a purpose in life, or how many Christians I’ve personally heard say that they could never consider leaving Christianity because then they’d have no purpose in life any more and everything would be just meaningless. I’ve heard Christian pastors rail against what they mistakenly believe is nihilism; I’ve heard numerous toxic Christians sneer about their supposed superiority because they have an ultimate “god”-given purpose while non-believers do not.
This threat–this manufactured need–this totally artificial construct they’ve bought into–has brought much more misery than joy, and not only to non-believers and dissenters. It also brings misery to Christians themselves. And again, I’d know, because I was one of those.
I had no idea what my purpose was. Everybody said that all Christians had one while non-believers did not, but the process of figuring out what that purpose was seemed maddeningly vague and inconclusive. Though I wholeheartedly bought into the doctrine, I had no idea whatsoever what mine was. That bothered me a lot. I was meeting all kinds of non-Christians who seemed to find great meaning in their lives, which was putting the lie to my assumptions, but I also was not able to tell what my own purpose in the Kingdom might be. My pastor was sure it was making babies for Biff (which was Biff’s general opinion as well), but I knew that wasn’t it. I could feel it. It hurt a lot that I was wasting so much time searching for my purpose when “God” could have just communicated it to me and let me get going on it.
The funny thing is, I don’t think I’d even found it by the time I deconverted. And I don’t think it even existed now (sort of like that god–SHOTS FIRED, right?–but I reckon that’s a story for another time).
Here’s the truth about purposes.
Finding purpose in life is a human process. It’s not a divine one. It’s part of being human to want to have meaning in one’s life and to have a purpose, to make a difference, to improve humanity and one’s corner of the world.
When Christians declare by fiat (and–again–without any demonstrable or credible reason to say so!) that finding meaning is an essential part of being human but that finding meaning is only possible within their religion, then they are saying that people outside their religion are not actually human.
I know, right? How loving!
So to them, people slip in and out of humanness according to their faith levels. One day you can be fully human; the next you are not human at all anymore, and the only thing that changed is that you’re no longer in the club. If you were to say you believe again and make the correct gestures and incantations, then presto! You will be human again like one of the Beast’s armoires. But if you deconvert a second time the next day, POOF! No longer human. It’s just dizzying. It’s also totally untrue. One’s essential humanity remains throughout no matter what one believes about the cosmos or the supernatural. Tying one’s humanity level to belief in the Christian god is just as ridiculous as tying one’s humanity level to belief in Thai food’s superiority over all other cuisines.
Are you human? Then you have humanity. That means you very likely have the innate desire to find meaning, and the innate capacity to discover it for yourself. Every single thing that Christians think makes them human makes all people human. The quest for meaning, which Christians mistakenly believe they uniquely can answer, is one that humans have been undertaking since we first wondered what happens after we die.
How ’bout them apples?
Why is that so damned tough for some people to handle?
Why do they resist any and all attempts to drag them, kicking and screaming, toward respect and empathy for their fellow human beings?
Could it be that Christians need to feel superior to non-Christians so they invent these idiotic and mean-spirited delusional ideas to keep outsiders at arm’s length and well beneath themselves?
The reality is as shockingly beautiful and bracing as a crisp mountain stream: not only do people do just fine figuring out their life purposes on their own, but different people find different meanings in life. There’s not a course you can take or a guru you can consult to guarantee results. We slip in and out of purposes as we grow and change and learn, and what we learn spurs us to find meaning and devise purpose for ourselves. The best authority on our own purpose in life is, well, ourselves. Hell, sometimes we can even have more than one purpose in life! And maybe sometimes we’ll fulfill one and not have one for a short while before we start that process up again. Deconverting doesn’t erase your ability to find meaning in life; it changes your purpose if the one you had was based on religion, but you’ll find another by and by, and this time you’ll be a little more cognizant of where you got it and the ones you thought you had before.
Our religious labels make no difference whatsoever to our capacity to find purpose–and indeed, once I began the journey to find purpose after leaving Christianity, I discovered that my fears had been groundless. Not only was I finding meaning perfectly fine outside of Christianity, but the process of figuring out what purposes I felt drawn to and what I personally found meaningful was actually a lot easier without worrying about invisible meddling forces I could neither see nor predict nor understand–and without navigating what the men in my life were dictating to me about my purpose.
But you can guess that the club of Christians won’t like hearing that much. It’s not up to us to convince them that we are indeed finding meaning and purpose in life without them and their club; it’s enough to know that we are. Nor is it our job to convince Christians that the purposes we find for ourselves are identical in nature and scope to the ones they think their god is handing to them. If they want to deny us that–to negate us, to ignore us–out of their own fear and smugness, then that’s up to them. But the more they deny that reality, the more their own people are going to start wondering why they have to mistreat others like that, and wondering as well why they keep denying a reality that is as plain as the noses on their faces.
This is getting long, so next time we’ll talk about how to go about finding one’s purpose WITH ONE STUPID TRICK. Just kidding, totally kidding, but seriously, I hope you’ll join me on Friday, because we’ll be comparing life purposes to soulmates.