Almost everyone would agree that our sense of purpose is very personal. Indeed it is, and this is a wonderful thing. It’s fascinating then, that so many people appear willing to offshore one of the most thrilling aspects of living with a big brain – the challenge of finding our purpose in life.
Often people say to me, when they find out that I’m an atheist, things like; “you must feel so empty,” “what’s your reason for doing anything?” or worse still, “aren’t you scared of dying?!”
Aside from once again having to point out that the limits of one’s imagination is no reason at all to postulate the existence of a God there’s no evidence for, it’s also surprising just how difficult people seem to find it to be able to see the advantages, the potential, and the freedom that the real answer to the question of purpose affords us. For many, it’s God’s way or the highway.
The truth is that there is no pre-defined purpose awarded us by a power higher than all humanity that we know of. From a Darwinian perspective, we know that our genes are desperate to survive long enough to replicate. But the good news is that some human beings have developed a taste for more in a day’s work than simply eating, not being eaten, and having sex (though I’m certainly not knocking any of those things). Generally speaking though, we also want to feel purposeful beyond our basic impulses. This is such an amazing emotion, and of such great importance as it lies at the root of our happiness. So why waste it then by dedicating one’s life to the thoughts of ancient desert tribesmen, whose very existence depended on certainty. Hesitation killed. If the long, hard struggle from the treetops to modernity has been for anything, it’s been for the privilege to question, to be uncertain.
One of the best things about being sceptical is the freedom of choice it purveys. Many religious people view this as the main motivation for unbelief – a desire to be able to sin at will without consequence. This is of course an astoundingly negative indictment of humanity which doesn’t survive the mildest scrutiny of human behaviour (whether religious or otherwise). But it is also as dramatic a case of seeing the glass as half empty as I can think of. Being free to choose our purpose means that we are free to inform it by the lights of science and modern ethics, without the burden the constraints of ancient texts bring. We are free to be as kind and as tolerant as we like, to everyone. And we are free to change our minds, to update, to improve.
The specifics are your own to cherish, but broadly speaking, from the atheists perspective, the purpose of life appears simply to be to have as much fun as you can, to try to enable every other living creature to have as much fun as they can within your power to do so, and to try your best not to hurt another living creature in pursuit of these goals. Isn’t that fantastic?! Why would anyone think we should be unhappy with that? Of course you could say that’s just made up. But so are The Gospels. It’s your choice.