Welcome to Life After Deconversion! Here we’ll be talking about various topics of interest to people who’ve left religion and are maybe trying to work out how life’s supposed to work now that they’re out of it. We’ll be unpacking some of the common problems people encounter and bringing up some hopefully new ideas to consider. Today we’ll be tackling the first part of one of the biggest questions for new ex-Christians and those considering leaving the religion: How can people assemble lives of meaning and purpose outside of Christianity?
The answer is: pretty danged easily! More easily than Christians would like people to know, to be sure. I’m gonna blast the cover right off that murky pool and show you what’s inside–starting with why Christians’ understanding of this concept is so obviously erroneous, and what about it is so untrustworthy and false.
Strap in and hang on–keep your hands and feet inside the SUV at all times and please don’t get excitable with the flashlights around the T-Rex–and let’s turn our attention (and that flashlight) to the topic of Meaning and Purpose in Life.
Purpose vs Meaning: The Cage Match.
For the most part I use these terms interchangeably. But there are some subtle differences between them, so I want to touch on those differences before we get much further along.
When we talk about one’s purpose, we’re talking more about the specific things that someone is fated to accomplish, assigned to accomplish, or simply best-suited to accomplish.
Patrick Stewart’s purpose in life may well be to play Professor Xavier, for example. The question becomes how someone knows what their purpose is. In this case, is it because he’s simply incredibly good at playing the role? Is it because a god decided eons ago that this one person’s life’s journey should culminate in this performance? Or that fate itself seems to have conspired to lead him there?
The notion of purpose in life is uniquely human, it seems. Hell, we assign purpose to things when there really isn’t a purpose for them at all, ultimately. Children are the most obvious examples of that idea in motion; at a certain stage in their cognitive development, they think that chairs exist so people can sit on them and that birds sing because it sounds pretty to people. As psychologist Andy Thomson tells us in this fantastic video, children will naturally invent all kinds of motivations and reasoning into objects and animals that patently can’t experience either quality. If this tendency isn’t checked, then that child may well grow up into an adult who still does that kind of thing. Even well-known atheist superstars like Richard Dawkins sometimes slip into the habit of describing evolution as some kind of intentional agent when it (obviously) really isn’t.
And, too, it seems very natural to many people to make that kind of value judgment about another person’s life. Maybe all those dogs that Patrick Stewart fosters have different notions about what their caretaker’s purpose is (if they think like that at all). Maybe his romantic partner puts a very different value on that question. Maybe he himself would say something very different about the matter. But people tend to consider another person’s life purpose in terms of what is most enjoyable or beneficial to themselves.
The idea of everything having some kind of purpose may be a cognitive adaptation we developed millennia ago. But it’s since been decoupled from whatever caused it to come into existence and then reattached to our relatively more modern notions of religion.
Purpose, As It Works In Christian-Land.
Nowadays, when Christians talk about purpose, they’re talking about the life assignment that they think their god hands out to everyone at birth (sorta like how they view their marital partners as, ideally, hand-picked for them from the beginning of time, at least until they divorce). Bear in mind that the usual overarching purpose for a Christian is to “worship/glorify Jesus” or “make new believers through conversion or birth.” That’s the generic purpose that every Christian has in life.
But there’s a secondary overarching task that fits into that primary one, and that secondary one is the one they need to discover. Until that purpose is figured out, a Christian’s almost in limbo (emotionally speaking).
This is also a task that they couldn’t have come up with on their own, and the task only seems meaningful or important when viewed from a Christian vantage point. Typically, too, it’s a grand task, like “evangelize China” or “get married and have a dozen PRAYER WARRIORS FOR JESUS.” It’s got to be something that takes a great deal of effort to realize, and will probably not be fully completed in the Christian’s lifetime.
And a Christian who doesn’t know what their god-given purpose might be is one sad, sad little duck on Christmas morning.
A lot of us who’ve deconverted from Christianity are well familiar with this idea of having a life’s purpose. For most of us, we got the idea at some point that our god wanted us to accomplish some specific task–or we tried very diligently (and failed) to figure out what our purpose was. I’ve got a whole list of things that I thought my god was telling me to do, stuff I thought was my purpose–and stuff that the men around me thought was my purpose. As will surprise absolutely nobody, often those lists had nothing in common. As will also surprise nobody, whenever a conflict on those lists arose, whatever the man in this case thought was my purpose overrode whatever I thought it was.
As you might expect, there’s no shortage at all of helpful books and websites aimed at helping a Christian figure out what their divinely-granted purpose in life might be, since “Jesus” doesn’t appear to be talking to anybody these days.
The Meaning of Liff.
Meaning is a little more nebulous. Technically it’s the value assigned to something–in this case, a person’s ultimate impact upon the world, our species, and our collective history. And ultimately, I think most people want to have a meaningful life. They want to impact others and society in a positive way. They want to be remembered long past their deaths for the good things they did and the way they helped those who needed it. None of that is unique to Christians or Christianity. (Yes, that subheading title was done on purpose.)
Meaningfulness can be seen as a person’s overall value to the human race and the universe, while purpose can be seen more as the method by which meaning is achieved.
One can view the distinction through the lens of this little story:
There’s a kid at the beach grabbing stranded starfish and flinging them back into the sea. Her father, watching, asks her if she thinks that her labors are making any ultimate difference to the world. The girl replies, as she works diligently, “It sure makes a difference to them!” and keeps at it.
The story’s not perfect by any means, but it illustrates the difference I’m talking about. The little girl in this story isn’t going to be doing this task forever. It’s not her life’s purpose. The family will be going home later that day and she’ll move on to do other things. But in the story at least, her existence right then is deeply meaningful–both to her and to those starfish. (Small actions can have huge impacts on the world!)
The question of how to achieve a meaningful life is one humans have been wrestling with ever since we started figuring out philosophy and had enough leisure and safety to consider the matter. All kinds of big-name philosophers like Socrates and Plato and Aristotle have suggested ways that people can find meaning in life: through knowledge, through excellence in cultivated skills, through community enrichment, even through childbearing (for women at least–and in my Pentecostal church, women were regarded as having it much easier than men because their life’s meaning was soooo much easier to discover and achieve).
Meaning, As It Works in Christian-Land.
Anyone familiar with the history of Christian thought knows that theology does not so much solve its problem as get tired of them.
— J. Edward Barrett, “A Theology of the Meaning of Life,” 1968
Christians think they have meaning in their lives because they think their god has decided what role they will play in what they imagine is his big huge plan for all of humanity.
Normally I preface these kinds of statements with “a lot of Christians” or “many Christians” or “fundagelical Christians” or whatever to indicate that this is a #notallchristians moment. But I’m not doing that here, you’ll notice. That’s because even the mildest, sweetest, nicest, most liberal Christians think this way. It’s all but impossible to find a Christian who doesn’t buy into the notion of their god having some kind of plan for them. This idea is one of the very few we could consider universal and monolithic in Christianity. Adherents may not agree at all about what that meaning is or how to find out where one’s meaning in life will be found, but the concept is there, woven deep in the fabric of the religion.
Meaningfulness is certainly more difficult to assess as a quality of one’s life. But even then, Christians insist that their religion gives them a much better chance of achieving this goal–and that someone who lacks belief in Christianity can’t have a meaningful life at all. Because they see their god as handing out purposes to people, they see him as having this grand ineffable plan that has a special place for each and every one of them. Because they think that every one of them has a place in this plan, a place that cannot be given to anybody else and that cannot happen with anybody but themselves, they declare that automatically gives them a huge sense of meaning in their lives. Further, they’ve got it bass-ackwards in thinking that their beliefs in eternal life are what make life meaningful–when really it’s the other way around: scarcity is what drives both value and valuation.
These same Christians also tend to believe that the sense of meaning they derive from their belief is totally unique to believers in their religion, since it comes from their god’s presence in their lives and nowhere else. Their entire definition automatically precludes non-Christians from accessing meaningfulness. Further, this feeling of meaningfulness is supposed to magically chase away bad feelings, fears, and feelings of worthlessness or triviality and replace them with feelings of grandiosity, egocentrism, certainty, and that sort of narcissism that one only encounters in religious people who take themselves entirely too seriously. (Unless, of course, for the many times when it doesn’t have that effect–but you may be certain that there is a lot of hand-waving, victim-blaming, and excuse-making around that point.) So again, by definition non-believers can’t experience what Christians believe comes automatically through having belief in their religious claims.
The trick for Christians, of course, is figuring out what their divinely-mandated place in their god’s plan is–and then making reality conform to the fantasy they have going on in their heads.
Now that we’ve kinda got a handle on what meaning and purpose are in Christian eyes, let’s talk about why this idea is something we should view with great suspicion–if not outright distaste. Here are the dirty little secrets behind this lofty and venerable concept in Christian thinking.
For many centuries, as long as they have held a dominant position in Western culture, Christians have monopolized the conversation about meaning and purpose. And what really sucks is that just by looking at the huge amounts of despair, rage, fear, greed, and dysfunction in Christians themselves, we can immediately perceive that they haven’t handled that conversation with grace, wisdom, or compassion.
These ideas shouldn’t be the sole province of religion, either. We know that most folks have a need to belong to a group. Plenty of people also feel a need to excel at whatever it is they’ve decided to do with their time. Others still like being shown respect or deference for their knowledge or experience (or for inborn traits that they had nothing to do with). We also know that if an onerous task (like schoolwork) is imbued with purpose and given a place in a person’s sense of meaningfulness, such a person performs better at that task. There is definitely a place in secular culture for a discussion of what makes life meaningful and how people can find purpose.
So how do we bring a discussion about meaningfulness and purpose into the secular sphere where it really needs to be, and take it out of Christians’ grabby little hands?
The answer to that question is a discussion that is almost entirely conducted by Christians and on Christians’ terms. I don’t think that’s an awesome thing. Maybe secular philosophy has dropped the ball by not finding a way to get meaningfulness into the public discourse. When people deconvert from Christianity, they’re often left flailing for a little while to get their bearings because their entire vocabulary about meaningfulness and purpose came from religion–and if there’s no god undergirding that religion, then a lot of those definitions don’t make sense anymore.
Whatever the case, in Western society at least, when the question of meaning and purpose comes up at all, usually it’s in a context of religion somehow–either by Christians insisting that they’ve got a monopoly on both, or non-Christians pushing back to say that actually they have both without having woo-belief. And when we do push back like that, which we are increasingly doing, Christians don’t believe us anyway no matter what we say–because according to their definitions of these terms, we are absolutely excluded from the group of people who can have any chance of finding meaning and purpose in life.
To Christians, non-Christians who talk about having a sense of meaning or purpose in our lives sound exactly like dogs claiming to be able to write in cursive. It’s very cute that we think we’re people and all, but…. um, that’s impossible. (Though dog texts are, let’s face it, hilarious.)
Spoiler: Sausage only watches.
It Creates Guaranteed Dependence.
If you can’t get meaning for yourself, then by definition you rely on getting it from an outside source. You can’t just come up with your own meaning for yourself or your own purpose. That’s not allowed. Christians consider non-Christianity-derived meanings and purposes to be distinctly substandard substitutes for what they view as the only “real thing.” So it’s got to come from the only source they’ve approved, or it totally doesn’t count.
You may think that source is a god when you’re Christian, but if there isn’t actually a god in some lake somewhere lobbing meanings at people like some watery tart, then there’s a very good chance that you’re going to be guided by your tribe–if not given the idea by one of them like it’s a package on Christmas Day. And this gifting may happen when you’re just a little kid–and if it does, then you won’t have the option of take-backsies later in life if you said you’d be a preacher when you were six years old. (If a Christian even tries to walk back these innocent childhood declarations,the shaming and guilt-tripping that result are designed to force that brave soul back into compliance. The tribe may even shun that person for moving outside of their
Even if people come up with the ideas themselves and don’t get them from fellow Christians, they’re still going to have to get validation for those ideas from the tribe. If your pastor doesn’t agree with you about what you thought “Jesus” was telling you to do with your life, then guess what? You’ll be considered to be rebellious or even in the flesh, which is Christianese for acting against
their god’s their leader’s will. Weirdly, Christians’ senses of purposes and meaningfulness usually fit precisely into their chosen group’s doctrinal stances and worldview–every time. You will never see a true-blue fundagelical pastor wake up one day and realize that “God” has told him to start lobbying for equal marriage and abortion-on-demand; if such a person does come to that understanding, they sure won’t dare tell their congregation about it.
Of course, even constant slews of repeated failures won’t get a believer off the hook of belief in divinely-granted meaning and purpose. Despite a great many shortcomings in the very idea of divinely-handed-out life’s purposes or divinely-granted meaningfulness, one of the threats that Christians levy against those who doubt or reject their claims is that if they continue to doubt and reject those claims, then they’ll never have a purpose in life or they’ll lose the one they have, and just be aimless wanderers through life without any kind of meaning in life or ambitions. Remember, only Christians can have that, by their (self-serving and erroneous) definition!
So you can’t just leave the religion without being faced with the awful fear of becoming less-than-human. Just imagine: deconvert, and instantly, just like that!, you lose all that sense of meaning and purpose in life. All of it, presto! (One laughs to imagine the trampoline bounce of meaning/purpose in someone who deconverts and reconverts. PRESTO! You got it back! Oops, lost it again. No wait, you’re Christian again so it’s back! No, you realized it was nonsense and lost it. Seriously, this is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard.)
It Creates Guaranteed Mental Busy-Work.
Christians spend quite a lot of time trying to figure out exactly what their purpose is, agonizing over whether or not they’ve heard their god’s orders correctly, and trying to wrap their heads around how unsuited they are for the task they think their god’s handed to them. Cuz that god sure is a trickster, always handing people purposes that they are totally unprepared for or temperamentally incompatible with so that when the task is completed, everyone will be totally in awe of the god who’d orchestrated the whole thing–except when the venture fails utterly.
And oh, these ventures do fail. Utterly. All the time. It’s the dirty secret of Christianity: Christians constantly think that their god’s told them to undertake some task that ultimately blows up in their faces as if they rolled a critical fail on the dice. The level of fail can get downright comical. One is left thinking that this god intended for the venture to fail–which says some awfully terrible things about him. Or that, I dunno, this god doesn’t exist at all and the Christians insisting they heard him are simply wrong and no god ever actually told them to do anything.
Indeed, the Christians involved always have a hand-waving excuse absolving their imaginary friend of all wrongdoing: They did something wrong. They misheard him. They didn’t think at the ceiling often enough or hard enough or sincerely enough. They thought he’d told them to do this thing, so they did it, but it turns out he’d been telling them to do this other thing instead and they’d heard wrong because they’re so sinful. (This excuse crops up around failed marriages on the regular.)
These excuses always serve to bring the Christian back to their knees to pray for guidance to figure out what their meaning and purpose really are, since they were wrong and misheard that time. I’ve known plenty of Christians who were in that boat and agonizing over this exact problem. I was one of them. And before a Christian tut-tuts that obviously we all just did Christianity all wrong or whatever, I hope they think about just what they’re saying about their god’s strength and abilities before they disengage their minds and open their mouths. It absolutely shouldn’t be this hard for a real live god to communicate with believers who earnestly seek to communicate with him. This level of incompetence is usually reserved for Sony executives or psychic detectives.
The simplest explanation of all, the one requiring the fewest unsupported assumptions, the one that totally fits exactly what we see when we look at the reality all around us, is that no, there’s no god handing out meaning or purpose to anybody. That, in fact, we can say for 100% sure. But how do you figure out what your meaning and purpose is, if you’ve only ever had a religious framework with which to talk about this stuff? That’s what we’ll talk about next time–see you then!
Here’s the video I talked about at the beginning, in case you wanted to see it. It’s one of the best presentations I’ve ever seen on the topic of how religion may have evolved in humans, and IMO it’s well worth an hour of your life.