Purpose Without God
There is an old joke Christians like to tell. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. It goes:
“You atheists don’t believe in God. That means deep down, even if you won’t admit it to yourselves, you know that your life cannot have true meaning and purpose and all life is ultimately futile.”
The claim turns up again and again from Christians who believe they have scored a gotcha against atheism, such as in this tweet from Christian pastor and popular author Timothy Keller:
If the origin of your life is meaningless, destiny is meaningless. You should have the wits to admit your life is meaningless too.
— Timothy Keller (@timkellernyc) August 3, 2014
Additional examples of people who present this as a formal argument are William Lane Craig who gives it extended treatment in his book Reasonable Faith and theologian R. C. Sproul who loves to raise nihilism and the question of suicide when talking about atheism.
There are a few problems with this particular line of argument. I will address four general issues below.
It is nothing more than an attempt at emotional manipulation
The argument amounts to nothing more than an emotional appeal, an attempt to manipulate the emotions of people to see theism – particularly Christianity – as the answer to the existential anxiety people sometimes feel. William Lane Craig acknowledges as much:
“It serves to lay out in a dramatic way the alternatives facing the unbeliever in order to create a felt need in him. When he realizes the predicament he is in, he will see why the gospel is so important to him; and many a non-Christian will be impelled by these considerations alone to give his life to Christ.” (Craig, Reasonable Faith, page 86)
The argument tries to make people feel a need in their lives which can only be filled by God. It is not based on reason, not based on evidence, not based on anything but the attempt to create an emotional desire. Emotions certainly factor in on our beliefs, but should never be their foundation. It speaks to the honesty and reliability of a belief system that it invests so much in emotional manipulation (and volumes more could be written about the emotionally manipulative practices of Christianity; sit in on any Southern Baptist altar call for a clear example of a highly manipulative practice carried out one or more times a week in thousands of churches).
As an aside, note that this argument amounts to manipulating people to feel they must have God for their lives to be complete. This mirrors a well-defined harmful pathological condition: co-dependency. Wikipedia defines co-dependency as “…the dependence on the needs of, or control by, another.” This is a perfect definition of the way Christians depict their relationship with God. Many will have no problem conceding this fact, perhaps even trying to take it farther. We’ve all heard the claim that Christianity is a crutch for the weak. I recall hearing one theologian (I believe it was R. C. Sproul) who decided the saying didn’t go far enough; it isn’t a crutch, “it’s a life support system.” It is impossible to deny the pathological condition created by religion, but Christians have taken what should be seen as a problem and have turned it into a virtue.
It has no bearing on the question of God’s existence
In my conversations with Christians, the claim that life is futile without God is often one of the first points they will raise. This is bizarre because it is irrelevant to the question of God’s existence. I could make the case that my life would be a lot better if I had a large sum of money in my bank account. I could argue that this world would be better if we had world peace. I could show that my home would be happier if my wife would allow me to get a dog. But no matter what case I make, it does not change reality. I might be better off with more money in the bank, but the fact remains that my bank vault is all too empty and my home far too dogless.
Christians who raise the emotional argument are practically conceding that no significant intellectual case can be made. Rather than dealing with the actual question (whether or not God exists), they sidestep it with something totally irrelevant.
Even if our lives were meaningless, futile, having no purpose if there were no God (spoiler alert: our lives are not meaningless without God), this would make no difference to the God question. How could it make a difference? Reality is not discovered by determining which circumstances would make things better. Whether or not our lives have meaning apart from God has nothing to do with whether or not God actually exists. As Craig conceded earlier, the argument is an attempt to make people feel like they need God even though it has done nothing to show that God is real.
Another aside. This last point raises an important issue. Some Christians (i.e., Keller, Craig and Sproul) go to tremendous lengths to argue that life is meaningless without God. This strikes me as just as irresponsible as it is wrong. I wonder how many people they have succeeded in convincing that life is futile without God, while failing to convince them that God exists.
An aside to my aside. I don’t want to raise this flippantly, but it is worth noting that Christians, for all that they claim love, purpose and meaning from God, still manage to have a high rate of suicides in their midst – and this despite the supposed sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit to overcome sin and weakness in believers. Rick Warren, author of the wildly popular The Purpose Driven Life, lost a son to suicide. Just in the last few days, I have heard of a Baptist pastor who took his life, as well as the evangelistically outgoing son of the president of a Christian college whose life ended in suicide. In my own time as pastor, I knew of people in other churches – and one or two cases in my own church – where “accidental death” was likely a suicide. Christians – at least in the Southern Baptist Convention – have done a better job of acknowledging the power of depression and mental disorders, but have no real way to reconcile such disorders in the face of the claimed power and hope and love and purpose of God.
It is based on flawed presuppositions
This third problem will lead into the fourth. The argument that life without God is meaningless is based on flawed presuppositions which in turn cause Christians to draw the wrong conclusion. The presupposition holds that our lives cannot have purpose if they did not begin with purpose (see Keller’s tweet toward the top of this post). Unless there is some being out there investing your life with ultimate meaning, your life must be meaningless. I am not sure how they connect the dots between these claims.
Setting aside that we’ve already seen how this creates mental instability through co-dependency as opposed to emotional maturity, here is what is being claimed:
– Unless the purpose of your life has been defined by the one who created you, your life can have no purpose.
Approaching this from another angle:
– Unless someone else is calling the shots for your life, you are meaningless.
And yet another angle:
– If you are not living according to the commands and expectations of a being who created you, you cannot have purpose.
Putting a little more meat on the bones, the claim goes something like this: God created us for a reason. He has a purpose for every human life. God has a plan, a divine will for everything he has made, and we all fit into his plan. We can only have purpose by fulfilling that which God created us to do.
The example of a hammer or screwdriver is often used. A hammer is made for a purpose. It is a tool to be used for banging nails to secure boards together. Screwdrivers drive screws in and out of things. We had a plan for their creation, a purpose for making such tools, and they fulfill their purpose only when they are being used in line with our intentions at their creation. This argument then gets applied to humans. God created us for a purpose, and unless we are fulfilling his purpose, we are purposeless.
Here are a few of the problems with this view:
- It presupposes a creator. As noted earlier, even though the argument does nothing to prove – or even hint at – God’s existence, it insists that God must be real without proving the claim.
- It presupposes that purpose requires a creator. The only way to claim that purpose requires an external purpose-giver is by proclamation, declaration. It cannot be demonstrated that purpose requires an external purpose-giver, so any such claims have behind them only the force of individual belief.
- It presupposes that purpose is hard-wired and unchanging from the start. Objects often find meaning well beyond their created purpose. A screwdriver can be used as a wedge, a chisel, a lever, or a myriad of other uses. A hammer can be stuck under a short table leg to stop it wobbling. Examples are legion. It is not unusual to hear of repurposing something. Finding new purposes for old objects is an exercise which often surprises and delights us.
- It presupposes that people are no different than hammers. When talking about entities that are conscious, intelligent beings, we have moved beyond inanimate objects created by others with particular purposes that nonetheless get repurposed again and again; we are talking about self-directing objects with the intelligence necessary to find purpose for themselves.
It draws the wrong conclusion
Putting together their presuppositions, Christians conclude that atheists cannot have a justified belief in life’s purpose. Without a creator, a designer, a purpose-giver, life can have no meaning and any purpose atheists claim to have is either a delusion or a holdover from Christian teaching.
I hope it will not overly shock the reader to know that I do not agree.
Christians argue that purpose must be given by the creator but, as noted above, this is a baseless presupposition. We are dealing with intelligent human beings who are capable of deciding for themselves what their lives should be.
The universe is a huge place full of possibility. We do not need God to tell us how we fit. Indeed, the Christian notion of purpose is self-defeating. The idea that my life can only mean what someone else wants it to mean undermines all of the desires I might have for myself. In my own journey out of Christianity, it struck me that I have found true liberation. Christians want to claim that freedom is found in Christ, for in Christ we have freedom from sin and the path of purpose given by our creator, but consider the claim: sin is that which God dictates to be wrong, and the path is that which he has supposedly set for you. There is no freedom in such a cave as this. Freedom is the open road, a universe wide open and ready for exploration. Freedom is a life of endless possibility, the freedom to decide for yourself what you want your life to mean.
This freedom also carries the burden of responsibility, and here is where religion provides a scapegoat. If I am the one who determines the meaning of my life, then I am also responsible for accomplishing my purpose. I cannot depend on my creator or on others to make my life what I want it to be. Christians tell us that everyone is created with a purpose (Jeremiah 29:11 is a perennial favorite on this theme), that everyone fits into God’s plan. What happens if we miss God’s purpose, if we stray from his path? He is powerful enough to redeem your life and return you to his path, and ultimately all people will serve his plan one way or another. In other words, you are not responsible for acquiring meaning for your life. God has already filled it with meaning. You can die, having done nothing, with the happy confidence that you still have purpose from the creator of all. Or, following the Christian highest purpose, you can die having invested your life in nothing more than the attempt to convince others that your God is real.
That is not the life I choose, that is not the meaning and purpose I find. Exploring my purpose would be a long essay in itself, but in brief I choose the wide-open world. I choose learning everything I can about the universe. I choose doing what I can to apply that knowledge to trying to build a brighter future for this generation and those to come. It doesn’t matter if future generations remember my name, it only matters if I managed to leave the world a little bit brighter, a little bit better, than I found it. If I have done that, then truly mine has been a meaningful life.