We’ve been talking lately about having meaning and purpose in one’s life. After my deconversion, I–like many other ex-Christians–felt like I was in free-fall because suddenly everything I thought I knew had to be re-evaluated. Some of my indoctrination took decades to fully dismantle. I may even have a bit left, for all I know. One part of my previous life was especially hard to escape, and it constitutes the second big myth that Christians teach and believe about how people can achieve meaningful, purpose-driven lives. This second myth drives people to extraordinary lengths–and leads them to make life-altering bad decisions, even after deconversion. I’ll show you why Christians perpetuate a culture based around this second myth, and in the doing hopefully show you how very earthly and non-supernatural their process and thinking really is.
That second big myth is the idea that we must have meaning and purpose in our lives through Christianity or our lives aren’t worth living, and moreover that we must have those things as quickly as possible.
A Monopoly on Meaningfulness.
Christian leaders have for decades been teaching their flocks (and loudly braying to society at large) that the only way that someone can find meaning in life is through being Christian. In fact, these same leaders insist that everyone must have some kind of deep meaningfulness in their lives as well as some cosmic purpose–also only available through obedience to Christianity’s demands.
By tying these ideas to adherence to Christian leaders’ demands and belief in Christianity’s various supernatural claims, Christian leaders very intentionally put people into a serious bind to create more demand for their product. I’ve run into any number of Christians who are downright terrified of deconverting because they’re really that afraid of losing all sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. They think that if they start doubting, or kitties forbid flat-out deconvert, that they will instantly and forever lose even the capacity to possess those qualities.
People in our society do tend to want meaningful lives–and whether we got there through biology or by Christian grandstanding, we’re there all the same. And we’ve let Christian leaders lead the discussion on that topic for long enough that they appear to view it as their purview and entitlement. Indeed, nobody should be surprised to see that one of the biggest bestsellers in Christian nonfiction is megapastor Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life, which is a set of guidebooks and instruction manuals designed to help people figure out what their purpose is. (As one of our commenters has noted, the purpose he guides seekers to adopt often seems to center on volunteering with church groups somehow–which is a very logical direction for a guy who runs a huge megachurch that constantly needs armies of volunteers.)
Mr. Warren’s work has inspired an atheist, Dan Barker, to write his own similar guide for atheists called The Good Atheist: Living a Purpose-Filled Life Without God. There are others beside that, too. I tried to find some Christian reviews of the book. Weirdly, there’s not a word about it from the Christ-o-sphere. As far as Christians are concerned, this book might not even exist. And that doesn’t surprise me overmuch either. I can’t imagine the “meaning and purpose is totally only Christian” crowd is all that happy that an atheist has sallied forth to write what is, by most accounts, a very good book wrestling those concepts out of their grabby little hands.
What I can tell you is that Christians don’t tend to like the idea of non-Christians, especially atheists, talking about having meaningful lives when those same Christians have so painstakingly pissed all over that territory to mark it as totally their own. Oh, they don’t like to share that ammonia-scented playground at all!
Over at The Gospel Coalition, one smug-sounding blogger is simply mystified about how on earth atheists could ever find meaning in life or a purpose to it all:
Our lives would have a purpose, one defined and revealed by our Creator. One of the best summary statements ever formulated comes from the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “Man’s chief end [i.e., our highest purpose] is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” . . . Needless to say, none of this makes any sense on an atheistic view. There would be no transcendent personal Creator to give meaning to our existence. So what else could bestow objective meaning on our lives?
He goes on to assert, and if you’re seeing him giving this aw-shucks wide-eyed expression of fake puzzlement then you’re sure not alone, “It’s hard to see what viable options are available to the atheist.” And then he says that he actually tells atheists who retort that why yes, they do have meaningful lives, “That’s true in spite of your atheism, not because of it! Atheists certainly do have meaningful lives, yet that’s only because their atheistic beliefs are false.”
We could spend all day picking apart this one post because it’s really all that ridiculous–one unproven assertion after another, insults and dehumanizing tactics galore, and at the end of the day it’s just him beating his chest about how superior Christians are to those poor ole lil atheists. One wonders if he’s aware that we can hear Christians like him talking. (Gosh, who wouldn’t want to join a group whose members treat people like he does? As folks used to say back in the Deep South, someone who’ll talk about others like that will talk about you like that too in time.)
The TGC blogger here is palpably upset about the idea of atheists claiming territory that to him was always exclusively Christian. He’s so upset that he runs himself around in illogical circles to the point of exhaustion trying to invalidate the entire idea that someone could find deep meaning and real purpose in life outside of his religion. He ends up reassuring and soothing himself by declaring by fiat that atheists can indeed have those things because his god graciously gave them those things even though they don’t believe in him at all, so hopefully they’ll convert so, I guess, they can accept what he insists without evidence is the real source of their sense of meaning and purpose.
One thing that these bloggers and pastors all share is the conviction that everybody obviously needs to have deep meaning in their lives and a purpose to fulfill and work toward. Meaning is found through working toward one’s life purpose, and if one’s life purpose isn’t grand enough and glorious enough, then the meaning itself will be that much less.
If someone lacks a purpose or doesn’t care about even seeking out a purpose, or if they have one but it’s just not big and impressive-sounding enough to the Christians doing the judging, then to these Christians that person might as well be an insect scrabbling along the sidewalk seeking only to find food and a mate to copulate with before it dies and flickers out of the universe forever. It’s simply unthinkable to them.
And yet it moves: despite their denunciations and judgments and nastiness, people do just fine without jumping through the hoops they’ve set up. It doesn’t matter in the least what Christians try to assert about the matter; the facts are still there. At the end of the day, Christians can bluster all they want, but they can’t change anything unless we allow it.
Dehumanizing the Enemy.
That TGC blogger’s reaction to the idea of non-Christians having meaning and purpose in life is the product of 30-50 years of toxic Christian teachings on this topic–and it’s a painfully common thing to see in that crowd. The playbook is always the same, especially when they react to atheists who don’t have any supernatural beliefs at all:
- They hand-wave away the atheist’s assertions, saying that we’re just wrong and don’t really experience real meaning and purpose regardless of what we say about it.
- They assert that atheists don’t have any sense of meaning and purpose because life for atheists is meaningless and purposeless. Bonus points if they declare that atheists are down with criminal acts and horrific behavior because their lives are so lacking in meaning.
- They insist that atheists really believe in their god but are denying it, choosing instead to reap the benefits of secret belief (namely: meaningfulness and purpose in life) without having to behave according to the religion’s weird rules.
- If the atheist continues to assert that they do indeed have a meaningful life but no, they totally do not believe in the supernatural claims put forth by Christians, then the answer is clearly that the Christian god is totally giving them those things but the atheist is just too stupid and sinful to realize it. (I’ve seen Christians compare the situation to someone breathing but denying the existence of oxygen, or to someone insisting that there’s no such thing as gravity while living with its pull their entire lives. False analogies for the win!)
And yet it moves: despite their insistence about what atheists’ lives are like, most atheists wouldn’t recognize themselves in these labored writings and false analogies. Since Christians can’t even demonstrate the validity of their claims about their god’s very existence, everything else they say about this matter can be safely disregarded as yet another baseless threat that Christians issue willy-nilly to try to strong-arm people into complying with their demands.
The truth is, millions of people do just fine without Christianity, and all we have to do to totally refute all this condescending blather is to simply say: and yet it moves: this is still my lived reality regardless of what you’ve tried to say about it. We don’t have to justify ourselves to Christians–not that we’d be able to anyway, since every single one of the ones I’ve listed here are convinced they know our realities better than we do. Unless we’re falling into line with their demands and agreeing with their assessments about us, they won’t accept anything we have to say–and will find ways to insult and dehumanize us even worse if given time and opportunity.
(Don’t you just feel bathed in Christian love, reading that TGC post? I know I sure do. Let’s all get to church! Oh wait…)
The Time Crunch.
The second part of the second myth involves the time crunch that Christians think exists around figuring out one’s purpose in life. See, you have to figure this stuff out before you die or else you’re potentially out of alignment with the Christian god’s divine plan. It’s harder to find explicit statements about this end of the myth, so let me relate how it worked for me and my peers when I was Christian.
People my age at the time (16-25ish) needed to figure out what our purpose was and we had to do it quickly so that we could get started on our life work. We were all very concerned about this matter and spent considerable time praying and begging “God” to please tell us what we were supposed to do.
We needed to know what we were supposed to study in college and what college to attend (if any), who we were supposed to marry (because obviously we were getting married), how many kids to have (because obviously we were having kids), what we were supposed to do for a living, where “God” wanted us to live, if we were meant for ministry somehow, and a host of other really big questions. And this was stuff we needed to know NOW YES RIGHT NOW because some of it was time-sensitive, obviously.
For most of us, though, our god was strangely coy when it came to giving us our marching orders.
And this was a big problem.
Someone who didn’t know their purpose in life was someone who was thought to be suspiciously distant from our god, since we all thought our god wanted to tell us what our purpose was so we could get on with his assigned tasks. Since every Christian is supposed to have a divinely-granted purpose, someone who didn’t know theirs was like an ant that didn’t know where it was supposed to go.
A Christian who couldn’t figure out what this purpose was supposed to be found it much harder to find meaning because they were simply spinning their wheels. We found meaning through fulfilling our divinely-handed-down purpose, so we had to figure out that purpose as quickly as possible. Further, having a firm sense of our purpose implied that we were in tight with The Big J-Cee, so as you can guess we wanted to make sure we were in the Cool Kids’ Club.
If you notice a strange kind of desperation to all those online writings about Christians who just can’t figure out what their purpose is in life, this time crunch my church friends and I experienced may help explain things.
Our desperation led us to make decisions that were downright disastrous in retrospect. I have a whole mental list of stuff I did because I was convinced that a god was telling me to do it, but which turned out horrifically bad in the end and caused me a great deal of grief to untangle. Since we all thought that whatever our god told us to do would be successful if we carried out our orders in the correct way (a distressingly-undefined guideline to be sure), failure obviously meant we’d heard him wrong somehow or had failed to carry out the orders correctly.
I don’t think I’d even have comprehended the sight of someone who wasn’t totally freaked out about figuring out their life purpose, much less to the idea of someone not even caring what theirs might be. It wouldn’t have made sense to me at all. I can’t even picture how I personally would have reacted to such a discovery. Then again, I didn’t ever really figure out what mine was at all, so maybe it would have been similar to how a childless woman aching for a baby often feels about those who have children but mistreat them.
The general sentiment I’m seeing online from Christians is crocodile tears and false swells of pity for the poor widdle atheist meaniepies who lack even this basic facet of humanity, and exhortations to convert so that even they can enjoy what Christians have. Maybe. Possibly. If they’re lucky and “God” is feeling talkative, and they actually hear him correctly. Somehow that part of figuring out one’s purpose in life never makes it into Christians’ sales pitches.
A Strange Sales Tactic, To Be Sure.
It all seems like a lot of work to discredit a point that doesn’t actually serve Christians’ stated goal of converting people. All Christians do when they try to invalidate and dehumanize others is show themselves to be either nasty or purely ignorant depending on the age and experience level of the Christian involved.
But they aren’t really talking to us. They’re talking to the tribe. Probably vanishingly few non-Christians read TGC or any other hardcore Christian site except to gather information to criticize those Christians (ahem), and those who do are probably not likely to be swayed by an emotional set of logical fallacies that are clearly there only to make Christians feel superior to everyone else.
This stuff is meant to terrify the flocks out of doubting or getting too close to dangerous lines of thought. And in that respect at least, it works.
These attacks–for attacks are exactly what they are–on their boogeyman of the moment, atheism, only shows how weak their position is. If they actually had a good and credible reason to believe in their god or in their religion’s supernatural claims, they’d offer that reason up instead. But they don’t. We need to see these attacks as a form of virtue signaling to other Christians: “See? I attack the right people in the prescribed way, and see? I totally hold the right group in contempt! I’m a member in good standing of the bestest group ever!” By downgrading other people and groups, they hope to make their group seem stronger and better than it really is.
The Stone-Cold Truth About Meaning and Purpose.
We’re going to talk more later about urgency as a hard-sell tactic, but for now, I’ll just say this:
There’s not a time limit to this stuff.
If you want to coast along the road for a little while before you worry about whatever your life’s purpose might be, that’s okay. You’re the only one whose opinion matters in this regard. If you never really work one out and you’re content with that and not tangibly hurting anybody, then that’s also okay. If you only want to make goals for yourself but not worry about a big overarching purpose, that’s okay too.
And your meaning is found wherever you find it. Nobody gets to tell you that your meaning is inferior to anybody else’s, because it’s uniquely yours. Nobody gets to veto your conclusions or tell you how you’re going to deal with this question.
If anyone tries to tell you that there’s a time limit, expiration date, or serious punishment for not working that out, or tries to deny you the capacity to even possess meaning and purpose, that person does not have your best interests at heart. They’re trying to sell you something or use you for their own purposes, and either way, they’re not your friend or your ally.
As Peter LaFleur put it so well, go at your own pace. That’s what it’s there for.
We’re going to look next at the tragic consequences of people not going at their own speed–because wow, the results are tragic indeed. And yes, we’re soon going to circle around to how someone can perhaps start working out a purpose to their lives if they want to do that, and where some folks find meaning in life outside of religion. See you next time!