As an atheist, I’m often told that life is meaningless without God. If everything ends in the eventual death of a cold and uncaring universe, there is no ultimate purpose. Without a creator, I hear, there can be no absolute justice or morality. If life is not eternal, our accidental fleeting existence is an absurd joke, leading inexorably to nihilism and hopeless despair.
I used to preach the “good news” of the Gospel, so I completely understand why believers crave purpose-driven lives. They want to feel loved and guided by a wise parent. They want to be told what their role is. They don’t want existence to be random and insignificant. They need life to “make sense” in a big way, in the cosmic picture.
But it doesn’t. And we shouldn’t want it to. Reality is not determined by our wants, needs or fears.
Ironically, it is we atheists who offer the truly good news that there is no purpose of life. If there were, that would cheapen us, making us second-class citizens, turning us into servants, like the biblical writers boasted they had become, pretending there is purpose in glorifying a lord.
Asking “If there is no God, what is the purpose of life?” is like asking “If there is no master, whose slave will I be?”
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But notice that saying there is no purpose of life does not mean there is no purpose in life. As long as there are challenges, as long as there are problems to solve, there will be purpose in life.
Who would dare claim that Elizabeth Cady Stanton had a meaningless life? She was an atheist who worked for a half century for gender equality, including the radical notion that women should participate in their own democracy, resulting in the 19th Amendment.
Nonbelievers have worked to combat hunger, illness, natural disasters, war (often religiously motivated), poverty, racism, child abuse (often by clergy), oppression, ignorance, crime, cruelty to animals, pollution, environmental degradation (often by dominionist believers), species decimation, political corruption, corporate greed, unsafe working conditions, exploitation and overpopulation (often caused by religious pronatalist policies).
Confronting these challenges gives life meaning.
Problem solving can also be positive: There are real challenges to parenting, education, science, history, creating beauty, art, music, literature, poetry, theater, architecture, entertainment, cooking, gardening — and you can think of more. Meeting these challenges enriches our lives.
Those who believe in God also do these things, of course — they are good people, too — and this shows that we all ultimately care about this world, the real world. Whatever the challenges are, they are natural, not supernatural. The decisions are made by us, not by a deity.
So it is about you, contrary to what the Rev. Rick Warren preaches in “Purpose Driven Life,” a book of repackaged old-fashioned Christian fundamentalism. Because there is no purpose of life, you get to choose. If you don’t, you are living someone else’s life.
The preachers have it backward. If life is eternal, then life is cheap. Value does not come from surplus; it comes from rarity. Prices rise as supply drops.
“That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet,” poet Emily Dickinson wrote. The reality that our lives are brief is what makes them precious. “Ultimate purpose” is the surrender of real purpose. The only purpose that matters is immediate.
The philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting.”
Suppose you are looking forward to a vacation in a few weeks. Perhaps you are planning to ski, swim, hike, explore, travel, visit friends or relatives. But then you realize, “Oh! When it’s over I’ll have to come back to work!” Would you cancel your vacation? If it has no “ultimate meaning,” is it worthless?
Of course not. Life is its own reward. As the nonbelieving songwriter Jerome Kern said, “Life is to be enjoyed.”
Do you want purpose in life? Then find a problem to solve and start working on it. Often you don’t have to find it — it finds you.
Perhaps a sibling or parent dies of a rare disease and you dedicate your life to curing it. Perhaps you are disturbed by inequality in society, so you strive to eliminate it. Whatever the problem is, you are the one who chooses to act. It is your purpose, and yours alone.
Do you want meaning in life? Then create it. You be the creator.
Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, is the author of “Life Driven Purpose: How an Atheist Finds Meaning.”