Where Does an Atheist Find Purpose?

Where Does an Atheist Find Purpose? July 24, 2014

Jack_Last_SceneI hear this question a lot, and it can come from two totally different places.  Some who ask this are not genuinely asking a question, they’re making an accusation.  I’ve previously noted the same variation of motives behind a similar question: “Where do atheists get their morals?”  Sometimes when people ask this they already know their own answer.  They believe their worldview is uniquely capable of satisfying the longings of the human heart, and they’re asking that question in hopes that you will find their story better than all the others.

To that group I say:  Of course your story speaks to our deepest longings; that’s why it was created in the first place.  Your story fits the needs of the human heart in the same way a puddle fits the hole it fills.  Douglas Adams famously quipped that reasoning from our need back to our own mythology would be like that puddle deciding that the hole it is in must have been designed precisely for the puddle to fit into.  But of course that’s getting it “bass ackwards” as my dad would say.  We project our own inner dialogue onto a cold, impersonal universe because we prefer to believe that a benevolent intelligence is behind everything, guiding the events around us to a logical and meaningful end.  It’s also our way of dealing with mystery.  When a person encounters a world he can’t explain, he says: “I think a person must be behind all of this—a really big, powerful person, a person who can do absolutely anything,” much like my children probably once thought of me when they were very small.

But not all who ask “Where do we find our purpose?” are trying to assert an alternative story.  Some are genuinely asking, “How can anything have meaning if everything is an accident?”  For them this is more of an existential cry for perspective and often it comes out of a place of deep anguish and loneliness.  A reader asked this question the other day in response to my article on “Becoming Human,” and almost the exact same question got posted to reddit by two different people in two different places on the same day.  My article was about discovering peace and happiness in my newfound godlessness even in the midst of some tumultuous circumstances.  But even as I wrote it, I thought about how incongruous my words would feel to anyone who has started down the same path and has found no such happiness, only loneliness and emptiness.  Clearly a lot of people deal with this because it comes up a lot.  So what is the answer?  What is yours?  I’ll give you mine in a second and we can go from there.

False Starts in Our Search for Meaning

First of all, humans are meaning makers.  We like to find meaning even in things that don’t naturally have it.  The arrangements of stars, for example, make us think of shapes, but the order we see above us is artificial—it’s an optical illusion.  We superimpose a structure to those lights which would totally change if we were standing on a different planet in a different solar system.  We create the order ourselves, and that’s fine.  It’s a fun game—call it a useful fiction—and it helps us keep track of our location in the world.  The shapes we describe may not be divinely ordained or objectively true, but they’re still useful to us.  They help us get where we want to go even if they are something of a subjective fabrication.

The same holds true for meaning in our daily lives.  We make meaning for ourselves and we can derive joy and enjoyment from what we do because our actions bring us things that we want, things that we need, and things that make us happy.  What makes us happy might differ from person to person, but some things seem to hold true for most of us:  We crave connection to others, we need to belong, we need to be engaged in purposeful work and play, and we want to live and enjoy life as much as possible.  The specifics may vary, but we all need these things and we are happiest when we are in rewarding pursuit of these things.

When I was a Christian, I was taught to judge non-theists as a hopeless bunch of misguided fools.  We were nice about it of course, but then again as Daniel Dennett said, “There’s simply no polite way to tell people they’ve dedicated their lives to an illusion.”  He was talking about theism but the same can be said for Christian condescension toward atheism as well.  I was once a hack apologist myself and I learned to see secular humanism as a vain and hopeless worldview.  How could anyone derive meaning and purpose from a world that wasn’t designed by a purposeful intelligence?

The simple answer is:  We just do it, man; I dunno.  Life is what you make of it.  That may sound empty and unsatisfying when you’re used to being told everything happens for a reason and that everything is guided by an unseen, all-powerful hand.  But what you have to realize is:  The theist’s life purpose is just as made up by us as the atheist’s.  We made up the gods to create purpose and order and meaning out of chaos, and now that we’ve outgrown the gods, we still want to create meaning in our daily lives.  But first we must get clear that we haven’t really lost anything that was real.  What we gave up was a fairy tale, a story we told ourselves to meet a need we felt.  Once the story is gone, we still have the need, I agree.  But contrary to what C.S. Lewis said, the existence of our need for meaning does not automatically validate the ways we were taught to meet that need.  Simply wishing for something to be true doesn’t mean that it is, and too much of our religion is built around that sentiment.

It’s a bit of an adjustment though, isn’t it?  Trust me, I know it is.  I once wrote about how Buzz Lightyear’s fall from elite space ranger to favored child’s plaything illustrated this transition perfectly for me.  Like Buzz, sometimes you have to get through a period of hopelessness and disappointment, like the moments immediately following your discovery of the truth about Santa, only much bigger because you probably held onto this belief much longer.  It can take longer for some to get used to it than others, and some will take it harder due to the nature of their own peculiar psychological make-up.  Some of us are just more prone to be brooding and introspective, and unfortunately the smarter you are the more likely you are to struggle with this.  Like the robot Marvin from Hitchhiker’s Guide, the most intelligent being in the room may also be the most habitually depressed.  The real world can be a mess, and while ignorance is bliss, intelligence can sometimes make life suck because unlike everyone else around you, you see exactly why what’s happening is completely stupid.  This is why our dogs seem perpetually happy while we’re breaking open a new prescription of Prozac.  You may sometimes feel like the two protagonists in Idiocracy whose IQ’s were nothing special really, but who woke up one day to find themselves so surrounded by devolved human miscreants that the two of them looked like superhuman geniuses.  It can be a curse as much as it can be a blessing.

But enough with describing the problem, right?  Get on with it!  Like Jack Nicholson said in As Good as It Gets:

Look, you… I’m very intelligent, if you’re gonna give me hope you gotta do better than you’re doing. I mean, if you can’t be at least mildly interesting then shut the hell up! I mean, I’m drowning here, and you’re describing the water!

Alright, so here’s what works for me.

How I Find Purpose in My Life

1) I find ways to make myself matter to somebody.  Most of us already matter to people whether we fully appreciate it or not.  But the more meaningful connections we make with people, the more we can contribute to their lives in ways that are rewarding both to them and to ourselves.  It feels good to make a difference in other people’s lives.  And yeah, sure, some of us are more introverted than others, and the number of meaningful connections we can comfortably maintain will vary.  But have them we must.

We are a social species, and we are wired to feel rewarded by our connection to a group.  If you don’t have a group, then make it your long term goal to find one that suits you.  In some ways the internet can help considerably with that because you can build for yourself a sizable support network online if you take the time to invest in it.  Now, virtual friends can’t cook you a casserole when you’re sick or invite your kids over to play, but perhaps the online connections can eventually lead to “real life” connections with people you can talk to face-to-face.  Secularists like myself who live in decidedly religious contexts have to work much harder to create such communities because our religious friends and family feel threatened by the very existence of such a thing.  But that doesn’t need to stop us from trying, nor should our natural aversion to joining groups.  We need connections to people.  It’s how we’re wired by our own evolution.

daddy_noteOn a personal note, I have found that investing in my relationships with my children brings me more happiness than just about anything else I do.  Their love and affection and admiration fill me with happiness like few other things can.  Even during moments in which I’ve felt like the rest of the world had turned on me, my girls were there looking up to me like I was Mr. Incredible or Superman because to them I was the only one in the world who could answer to the name “Daddy.”  I’ll never forget going to see Wreck It Ralph in the theaters during one of my most discouraging weeks and losing it during the final scene when Ralph said:

Turns out, I don’t need a medal to tell me I’m a good guy. ‘Cause if that little kid likes me, how bad can I be?

You can be the world’s worst screw up and your flaws can be as obvious as Ralph’s, but I’ll tell you what:  If you can find just one person in the world who loves you exactly as you are, it can make all the difference.

2) I get up and move around.  This may sound like a strange detail to include but I’m becoming more and more convinced that a great deal of our collective ennui and depression stems from (forgive me) just sitting on our asses too much.  We have become an increasingly sedentary people, and the more tech savvy you are the more likely you are to fit this profile.  Our bodies are wired to move around and do stuff, and our brains function best when we stay physically active.  We’ve lost touch with that, but multiple studies have shown that even in old age it is physical activity, not crossword puzzles, that keep our gray matter working on all cylinders.  Yes, you should feed your mind as well, but if you don’t move your body, it eventually has a deleterious effect on your mind.

I’m convinced that those of us who struggle the most with hopelessness and despair after leaving the faith are not ultimately suffering because of our loss of faith per se.  It’s more likely because of one of two things: 1) Intensely adverse social punishment for leaving “the club,” and 2) Pre-existing neurochemistry which may have been held at bay by the fairy tales but now has become exposed for the downward force that it is.  Religion persists for a reason.  It provides effective social cohesion and it also meets a psychological need.  When you leave your religion behind, those needs can rear their ugly heads and force you to deal with them without your former crutch.  As I said above, we need to work on the social support by building communities around common causes and goals.  But on an individual level, sometimes the most effective thing you can do to alleviate depression is just to find something active to do.

David Wilcox masterfully cut right through the layers of torturous introspection in a song called “Down Inside Yourself.”  I love it.  Take a listen:


“Well never mind the questions now

You don’t have to be so wise

Hey, your problem ain’t philosophy

So get it down to size

Right now it’s physiological

In a logical disguise

You’re just down inside yourself

“But the blues is not your final judgment

It’s no deep or evil power

Hey the cure is very simple

And it works in half an hour

Get some sleep, eat some broccoli

Run a mile, take a shower

You’re just down inside yourself.”

As trite as it must sound, it bears repeating that we are physical beings, and our bodies affect our psychological state.  With my personal history, I should be in the deepest of depressions right now, but I am not.  Why not?  I really don’t know.  Honestly, I think some people are just less prone to struggle with that by their own genetic makeup.  We’re all prone to spikes and dips in moods, of course, and some types of depression seem to come with age.  But it may also be that my natural wiring plus a commitment to regular exercise have kept both my neurochemistry and personal functionality in a healthy place.  If you have a family history of depression and/or mental illness, there should be no shame in fighting fire with fire by going and getting any chemical imbalances treated by someone who knows how to help.

For me personally, the knowledge that several people depend on me for their provision and care has kept me going as well, which ties back into the first thing I said about staying connected to people and finding a way to matter to somebody.  Even if it’s not kids of your own, there are always people (or even four-legged friends) around who could use someone caring about them.  Again, we are a social species.  That’s why looking out only for ourselves never completely satisfies us.  And I don’t need a preacher or a religious text to tell me that’s how we’re “designed.”  I can just look at the world and see that’s how we work, and I don’t see why any invisible spirits or overlords have to be involved in order to make sense of that.

3) I support the forward progress of my species as a whole, and of the ecosystem that makes up my home.  Whatever you believe about purpose and destiny in the cosmos, you have to admit that organic life has amazingly progressed from something simple and humble to something impressively astounding.  Human creativity is endless, and our capacity to learn and evolve and reach higher is boundless as well.  I’d love to see that keep going, but I also see some major hurdles we have to overcome if we are ever to survive what Carl Sagan termed our “technological adolescence.”  At the moment we seem to have avoided global nuclear destruction, but we keep coming up with new ways to endanger ourselves.  Our addiction to fossil fuels and our insatiable appetite for animal products are leaving a carbon footprint that our planet cannot long sustain without significantly disrupting our ecosystem.  Runaway income inequality is bifurcating the human race at a dangerous rate, which could destabilize the more progressive civilizations that are currently in place.  Even the creation of our own hands like artificial intelligence and nanotechnology may one day do us in as a race.

There is no shortage of things to keep us up at night, and overcoming these challenges could keep us occupied for some time to come.  Pick any topic you see that challenges us as a species and ask yourself what you can do to chip away at the things that threaten our collective well-being.  It seems to me that as long as I can find some connection to a larger narrative which supports the progressive evolution of intelligent life, I’m a part of something that has meaning.  Just because that meaning wasn’t assigned to us by a higher power doesn’t mean it’s not worth devoting our lives to it.  I’m telling you from my own experience and from the experience of others that it can be immensely rewarding to know that you give parts of your life to something larger than yourself.  It contributes to your own happiness to make others happy and to help them thrive.  No gods needed, I promise.

I remember how disappointed I used to be at the end of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (one of my favs) when Clark Griswold opined about the meaning of Christmas:

See kids, it means something different to everybody. Now I know what it means to me.

As a Christian I was indignant that he would take my own holiday, rooted in what I was convinced was indisputable history, and turn it into such insipid existentialist pabulum, like it’s some kind of inkblot or abstract painting that means whatever you want it to mean.  Today I just pat my younger self on the head because now I realize that the story I held so dear was almost certainly made up entirely, which makes my former outrage all the more ironic.  Griswold was more right than I realized.  We make our own meaning in the world.  Call it shallow if you like, but it’s exactly the way it is, and you can be quite fulfilled with the meaning you make.


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