An Attitude Problem

An Attitude Problem July 8, 2014

ChipmunkWWJTD’s current stationed preacher, Larry, in the inevitable digressions of any discussion with a theist, started talking about meaning and purpose.

As usual, it’s difficult to even get across what our position tends to be.

Here’s some representative quotes from Larry (Larry!) (weird line breaks corrected). Of course, some of this may be out of context, so don’t take it too seriously.

Here he is, describing his own attitude on the topic of meaning and purpose.

Life is broken. A lot of things are not the way it’s supposed to be.

The question is whether we can know before our lives are over how we are supposed to live so that if we all did it, life would be perfect. Christians believe that God has given us the directions.

When I realized that I believed in God, it changed everything. I realized the most important thing in life for me now was to learn everything I could about God and to live for Him.

Either there is a plan given to us by the one who designed the whole thing or we are trying to answer questions for which there will never be enough information to know if we are on the right track.

Christians believe that the Manufacturer, the Inventor of life, of everything, gave to humans the instruction manual, because He loves us and wants us to experience life fully. But I can understand the thrill of discovery, but the worst feeling in life is finding out something when you could have used that information a lot sooner in your life.

Is there any reason why I might or should sacrifice my life for something, someone, a cause? Is there any way that I should be spending my life, my time? Without any direction from a God who made all this, all these questions are either meaningless, unanswerable, or we just wing it as we go along. [and then he inexplicably starts randomly talking about how evolution is silly]

Naturally, I tried to explain our position on the topic. Here he is, not getting it.

But where do we find evidence that we haven’t wasted our lives? How will we know?

Wasting a life needs a standard, a purpose to life, What purpose to life can science give us?

Science tells us what things are made of, we can cure certain diseases, fly to the moon, play movies over our cell phone, but it can’t tell us how to live our lives, what is the meaning of life, if there is one, does life exist for a reason, or is it just a chemical accident…

Secular meaning, and purpose, like secular morality, seems to be very tough to understand. My response was perhaps a little short tempered:

You’re really struggling with this, aren’t you? Science does not give me purpose. Why would it? Science is a tool. It’s like you asked, “What purpose can a shovel give us?”

I give me purpose. I give me meaning. I create it out of nothing for myself.

I’d reject purpose coming from science as much as an invisible dude in the sky.

That’s what I was previously trying to articulate. Then, why, does he start questioning how science, of all things, can provide meaning and purpose? Where did that come from?

I was never particularly religious, so my emotional foundation wasn’t built upon God being the source of my meaning and purpose. I always just figured it out for myself. It’s difficult for me to understand what the problem is with secular meaning/purpose. But how far down the rabbit hole does one have to be – how mired in religion is required so that a person just completely loses touch with one’s inner meaning-generator?

If you have an upcoming vacation, and you need to figure out what to do with yourself, do you just come up with something, or do you consult your Bible? Most of us are capable of the former, and found find the latter laughable.

This isn’t new, incidentally. I get this question all the time on my Atheist FAQ place – below are a sampling of Google search queries I’ve gotten:

  • where does purpose come from
  • where does life purpose come from
  • atheists have a purpose
  • do meaning and purpose exist
  • does life has any purpose
  • does life have a purpose without an afterlife
  • does life have purpose? no afterlife
  • does purpose come before meaning
  • is there purpose in life without an afterlife?
  • meaning and purpose
  • purpose of life without afterlife
  • what is the purpose of life if there is no afterlife
  • where do i find purpose in life
  • where does meaning and purpose come from
  • where does meaning and purpose come from?
  • where does our purpose come from
  • where does purpose and meaning come from
  • where does purpose come from?
  • where does the purpose of life come from
  • where to find purpose of life

The question of where morality “comes from” is also quite prolific in search queries, but I suspect that’s more or less trying to find an argument against disbelief, than truly wondering what the alternatives are – but that’s a separate topic.

I really think this may be the single most difficult hangup for theists who are questioning their faith. They’re staring at an abyss of purposelessness, and don’t often dare to take the plunge. Those of us who did take the plunge, it took years to rebuild our emotional infrastructure without fantasy elements holding it up. Although I wasn’t steeped in it, I do struggle some days.

But I’d rather struggle with it, than pretend my mission is passed down to me from fairies, and the tape will self destruct in 5 seconds.

It’d be nice if we could combat this topic better, since it’s one of the major elements of being sentient. That’s why I appreciate the works of Chris Johnson’s’ “A Better Life“, and the work on various humanist organizations – leading by example… kinda; minus the leading… demonstration by example?

Reading between the lines, perhaps combining Larry’s views with others I’ve met, there’s a few points we could focus on, in terms of misconceptions. We do seem to have elements of confusion.

Secular Purpose and Meaning are not Authority-Driven

When I started talking about how I derive my own meaning and purpose, Larry (LARRY) swapped over to disagreeing that science could provide it for me… even though I never said that it did. So why did that come up?

It’s how he thinks, I think. He positioned it himself several times – he abandoned his own ability to generate his own meaning and purpose, and just handed that over to his god. I can get the mentality. It’s like joining the army, and becoming a good soldier who obeys commands.

What if you’re mired in that mentality so long, you can’t understand how anyone could operate outside of that structure? You think meaning/purpose aren’t really possible without a central authority, and you come across a group of people who reject that central authority. How do you resolve the discrepency?

Clearly, they’ve just adhering to another central authority. In this case, science.

Another analogy I like to use – employment versus self employment.

You’ve got the employee who is so used to taking orders from the chain of command, that they have a hard time wrapping their brains around the idea of someone who has no boss.

How do you know what to do?“, they ask the self-employed.

I just decide it. I like to work on cars, so I figured that’s what I’d do.” – “But how do you know that’s what you’re supposed to do?” – “… because I decided what I’m supposed to do.”  – “But where did you get the information?” – “From me” – “I don’t understand… you’re the only other person in the room. Where’s me?

As far as I know, JT isn’t having any problems figuring out what to do with himself.

Ultimate Meaning or Purpose – or just Fleeting?

I’m surprised Larry didn’t start in on the “yes but, where do you get your ultimate meaning and purpose“, as though it’s needed or real.

I’m not sure what to make out of that one… as though, if what I decided to do with my vacation – do some photography at the ocean (sample below) – is invalid unless the pictures last for eternity. One day, in the near or distant future, the moment in time captured below will be gone – forever. The bird will be dead; he seaweed too; the rocks worn away by erosion, and the water vaporized by a swollen sun, as it runs out of hydrogen. Does it matter that the electronic/magnetic sequences that constitute the photo will also be dust one day?

Flying creature at Reid State Park, Maine

I was planning on going back again this summer… but maybe not. Why? I’ve been there too many times. I’ve experienced it. I’m done. The value decreases as I increasingly visit.

This is the second point they don’t seem to get. There’s two ways to look at purpose:

  • The journey.
  • The destination.

I think most atheists are focused on the journey, than the destination… and in fact, may consider it more important than the destination. I don’t tend to find many devoutly religious people get this. God has a plan (whatever the fuck it is, is apparently beyond reason), and we’re supposed to follow it.

I don’t know how many times I’ve played Fallout 3. I’ve made new characters far more frequently than I’ve completed the game. How many Minecraft worlds have I made, only to have them vanish into nothingness? Many.

But I enjoyed my time doing it.

Personal Agency

The third bit they don’t seem to understand is our own personal agency… which is odd, since they think it’s given to us by their god. Perhaps a better way of putting it would be that they deny the legitimacy of our personal agency.

It’s difficult to understand that I just decree, out of nothing (though I don’t really agree with the idea of ex nihilo creation of purpose – I’m a Determinist – but for the sake of argument…), what my purpose and meaning is going to be… and that’s enough. Every time this is pointed out, it’s countered by some assertion that an external U.S. Department of Purpose and Meaning hasn’t approved my personal decision. So what? Screw them.

If my purpose and meaning are legitimate to me, that’s all that matters. You do not have to agree with it, because your input isn’t relevant, just as my input is not relevant to your purpose.

An Attitude Problem

This is how I’ve been trying to frame it lately – an attitude problem, and little more than that.

Once the central authority is removed, what’s left? You’re left. If you don’t like that, and if that scares you, that’s not my problem. That’s up to you to figure out, and no one else.

If it makes you uncomfortable, or you think it’s too difficult, that’s not a rational reason to posit an invisible sky dude who makes universes, and is obsessed with foreskins, to solve the problem. You could do that. You could buy into millennia-old mythology that’s pre-established “purpose” for yourself… but out of fear, you’ve painted yourself into a corner, where you really have wasted your life – on fairy tales.

Who knows how you could have enjoyed your life if it wasn’t dictated to you by myth? There is one maximally accurate way to figure out what your meaning and purpose is, and get it right.

Decide it for yourself. It’s automatically correct.


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