When I was a Christian, I not only firmly believed that I had a great and grand purpose in life, but that non-believers had no purpose at all.
Let’s back up a minute and examine why I thought that, why it was such an insulting thing to think of others, and how I crawled out of that pit.
One religious polling group decided that non-believers “have no purpose beyond comfort or pleasure.” And here’s a blogger who genuinely thinks atheists are “bullying” Christians and who declares confidently that “atheists have no meaning in life, that’s the way they like it” (sic). Really, you could find a few hundred examples like these and worse by Googling “atheists have no purpose,” which is how I found them. Christians like these truly believe that non-believers (who they conflate with “atheists”) are just lawless animals who rut and gorge and defecate everywhere until they die and rejoin the good dark earth. I know I certainly thought that. Now that I’m an ex-Christian, I hear mystified Christians tell me, perfectly wide-eyed and nervous as though talking to a cannibal, “But.. but.. what’s your purpose in life now?” as though deconverting turned me into some sort of beast. “You might as well kill yourself! What’s the point of living?” It’s a clear sign of their superiority, in their minds: they have a PURPOSE, you see, and I do not. And oh, they get worse, too. Recently, on a Christian blog, I beheld Christians–good, clean, morally-upright evangelicals even–inform an atheist man that his love for his wife of many years meant nothing different than a rapist’s desire to sexually violate someone, since he had no purpose now that he’d left Christianity.
I’ve heard Christians tell me, too, that if they deconverted they feared that their lives would lose all meaning and that they would become like animals with no purpose. Losing their purpose becomes a dreadful fear, because they already know what they think of non-believers not having a purpose and how they consider such people in their own minds.
I’m not sure these Christians have deliberately set out to dehumanize outsiders, but that’s the effect it has on me to hear them talk like that–like ex-Christians have become these strange subhumans who have degenerated through their desire to enjoy a few hedonistic years before being condemned to an eternity of suffering. It’s downright insulting, and it’s so demonstrably untrue that I have trouble ascribing a charitable motive to Christians who treat people like dirt in this manner.
The crux of their argument and their reason for treating outsiders like subhumans is this: they have a cosmic purpose handed to them from on high. Non-believers don’t believe they have such a cosmic purpose, and so their lives are meaningless.
Let’s play Spot the Fallacy, shall we?
The idea that Christians have a monopoly on meaningful living and that non-Christians have no purpose at all is absolutely untrue on a number of levels. The idea that people even need a big purpose–and that this purpose must, absolutely must, be handed down by a deity in order to be valid–is one of the manufactured needs that Christianity imprints upon its adherents. By wild coincidence, Christianity offers the solution to the need for deity-given purpose that it has created. If religions weren’t telling everybody they needed a God-given purpose to be valid people, then I certainly don’t think we’d have come up with the idea by ourselves. On the face of it, the idea is so ludicrous and so laughable that only a major religion could have popularized it.
First, we need some citations for the deity in question. Nobody’s ever actually credibly demonstrated his existence, so the Christian who manages is probably going to win a lot of prizes from the scientific community. If he doesn’t exist, then it’s going to be awfully hard for him to hand out purposes to people. Christians act like his existence is a done deal, but if they can’t even prove this one thing, then the rest of the argument falls apart. As I’ve demonstrated in my examination of the Biblical Jesus, the Bible’s so untrustworthy and its claims so easily and thoroughly demolished that while I am not willing to say that no gods exist, I am absolutely certain that the one described by the Old and New Testaments does not.
Second, and provided the first thing got done, we’re going to need some evidence that this deity does indeed hand out purposes to his followers and that he cares deeply about those purposes getting fulfilled. When I was a Christian, I definitely believed this to be true, but as I slowly realized that nothing in the Bible was trustworthy, my belief in having a big purpose also got rattled. There aren’t a lot of Bible verses supporting the idea of everybody having a big purpose in life, so a lot of the modern Christian concept of having a purpose sounds like egotistical psychobabble to me: why yes, no less than the author of the universe thinks I should open a Jiffy-Lube! I mean, how much more egocentric could somebody be?
Third, we’re going to need credible evidence that Christianity’s adherents can actually know what their purpose actually is. I’ve got to confess here: when I was a Christian, I thoroughly believed I had a purpose–but I had no idea what it was. Every time I thought I knew, I turned out to be dead wrong (I could do a whole blog entry about the various things I thought were God’s will that turned out to be complete catastrophes, and I suspect most Christians have even longer lists than I do). There seemed to be no way whatsoever to know just what God wanted for my life. I prayed and prayed and spent hours begging God to please tell me what I was supposed to be doing, and I can tell you I was as submissive to God’s word and as receptive to God’s signs and voice as any Christian could be. I heard not a single peep out of God ever. And the purpose that my church leaders thought I had, having children and being a good little Christian wife and mother, was not one I felt drawn to in the least–so if they were right, I would be sacrificing my happiness and potential, but if they were wrong, then that signified a number of problems with their ability to accurately decipher God’s will about anything.
Indeed, after realizing that Christianity’s claims were absolutely false, I had to come to grips with a simple truth: we were all just winging it. Nobody really knew what the heck any gods wanted, so we were just playing it by ear and hoping we got it right. If there’s anything worse than not having a purpose, it’s having one and being categorically, constitutionally incapable of figuring out what it might be. I consider it cruel and abusive for a god to want his people to do something but refuse to let them accurately discern what that thing might be, but that’s the reality for millions of Christians. Because plenty of Christians do stuff they don’t want to do because they think it’s God’s will, and we know that God inflicts great suffering on his people from time to time, we can’t just rely upon our happiness as a gauge to knowing if we’re fulfilling God’s purpose for us, can we? And plenty of people take on vast projects they think are God’s will and fail miserably–like every Republican candidate for President in the last two elections–so we can’t use success as a barometer either.
So if we can’t rely on happiness or success as an indicator that we’re doing the right thing, there’s not much left to use to objectively assess how much in God’s will we are. It’s a mark against Christianity’s validity that there’s no way whatsoever to tell what the Christian God wants his followers to do, yet Christians insist that he definitely has a plan for each and every one of them and passionately wants them to fulfill that plan.Moving on, fourth, we must also have some credible evidence that a deity-bestowed purpose is better than one discovered by humans themselves. If Christianity’s false, then Christians who think they are fulfilling God’s purpose for their lives are just living a purpose they themselves decided was the right one. But if you talk to people who don’t believe, they don’t think of themselves as lesser humans. They’ve figured out that they were living a fantasy life and discarded some of the indoctrination they once believed, including the idea of a god giving them a purpose, but they still have goals and ambitions. They still have morals. They still have integrity–indeed, the non-Christians I’ve known were, as a group, far more moral and decent than the Christians I once considered so much better than everybody else. Not having a grand, deity-given purpose hasn’t lowered non-believers in any way. Indeed, it’s freed them to consider their purpose in terms of their own gifts and inclinations rather than what an invisible, maddeningly non-communicative master might possibly want. And once they fulfill the purpose they have bent themselves to doing, they move on to a fresh purpose. Or perhaps they will have several purposes. Humans aren’t single-use kitchen gadgets like Alton Brown rails against. We can move in lots of directions at once, purpose-wise. We’re pretty cool that way.
And fifth and most telling, we need evidence that humans even need to have or should have some overarching purpose. The idea that we even need a single grand purpose sounds suspiciously modern to me, a concept borne of a civilization that no longer must struggle from day to day just trying not to starve to death. Without ambition, it seems difficult to accomplish great things, but a “purpose” implies that a human life is like a tool meant to fulfill one great goal, and that without that purpose, that human life is worthless. God might happily discard humans like so much junk if they don’t meet his expectations, tossing us in the pits of Hell if we don’t kowtow to his feet, but we’re more moral than that, aren’t we? God might consider us nothing more nor less than a kitchen tool to use for hulling mangoes, but I love humanity too much to lower us to that level. If someone doesn’t feel like he or she has a purpose, that doesn’t give me license to compare him or her to a rapist, for crying out loud, or to treat that person like a subhuman who can barely vocalize. It’s not my right to judge that person. But Christians happily do it all the time despite the injunction from their very Savior not to judge others.
Looking at all of these reasons, it’s probably easy to tell why I walked away from the idea of having a cosmic purpose. There are so many more issues with the idea than the few I’ve already given, though. Why don’t non-believers have a God-given purpose too, just a purpose they’re ignoring? What happens if someone deconverts? Does their purpose now get totally thwarted? And what happens if someone accomplishes the great goal they thought God wanted? Do they get a nice fresh goal like they’re playing a video game and hit a save point? What if someone’s living in a hellish third world country where life’s so difficult that it’s hard to just survive day to day–how does that person fulfill God’s purpose? Or does God give them a nice easy purpose like “just breed replacements?” What if someone’s purpose depends on someone else (like how most women’s purpose boils down to “be a wife/mother”), but that person can’t locate the other party–or the other party deconverts or otherwise isn’t cooperative? God’s purpose can’t be that important, because not only is it impossible to discern but wow it is crazy easy to thwart and negate it.
The cosmic purpose’s biggest flaw, though, is that its lack of credibility is just a single conversation away. Instead of Christians telling me my life no longer has meaning, why don’t they just ask me about it? Are they terrified of what I’ll say? Is it easier to simply ascribe animalistic immorality to me and brush me off their hands like so much dirt from the garden? I don’t think most people would say their lives are meaningless; most of us know that we matter to our communities and our loved ones, and most of us are contributing in some way to the world and making a difference. But Christians have to have a god-given purpose or else none of it matters. That is what I think is reprehensible about the belief in a purpose: that without thinking s/he has one, a person is worthless no matter how otherwise decent that person is. I’m just not heartless enough to think that way. Nothing could make a decent person worthless in my eyes. Nothing.
So to sum up: Nobody’s ever demonstrated the existence of any god, much less one handing out purposes to the denizens of the tiny, insignificant little rock we call Earth. Nobody’s ever demonstrated that this being cares if you fulfill any purpose at all or not. Nobody’s demonstrated that Christians can even know what their purpose even is. And nobody’s demonstrated that a cosmic purpose is better than one conceived by the person in question. All in all, the mere belief in such a thing seems like an in-group marker that allows a Christian to abuse and think less of his or her fellow human beings, and gives that Christian free license to mistreat others. It’s a belief that allows Christians to think of themselves as super-special and superior to others, and to act like they’re the heroes in their very own personal movies, like Neo in The Matrix, like Charlie Bucket in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Take that imaginary purpose away, and what’s left? Why, they’re just animals! Animals–like the rest of us riffraff. How insulting, how denigrating a view of others. Can you feel the love tonight? Cuz I sure can’t.
When I left Christianity behind, I wrestled for some time with the idea that now my life was meaningless, but in time I came to be thankful that there isn’t a god handing out meaning to people’s lives. I’m free to live in a way that honors my gifts and needs. I’ve escaped the constant fear that I’m out of God’s will. I no longer have to worry about what a tyrannical master wants. And I can treat others with integrity and kindness, valuing them as my brothers and sisters, and yes, knowing that we all have our own ways of dealing with the human experience and that nobody is beneath me or above me. I’m not singled-out by some unknowable, inscrutable creator; I’m part of the tapestry, not a couched golden cord sitting atop its myriad bright patterns.
No, there’s no cosmic purpose to our lives, but that doesn’t make our lives less meaningful and valuable, or, in their way, a thing of transcendent beauty in their very brevity and brightness.
Losing my fear of not having a purpose was hard, but navigating the ship past my fear of Hell was even harder. We’ll talk about that next, and I hope to see you there.