What Atheism Offers: Justifying a Life’s Purpose

There exists a need among theists to justify life’s purpose. Far from being content with self made goals, with personal achievements set by the individual for his own existential benefit, they desire an authority handing down purpose, telling them this is how they ought to live or this is the proper role they are to play. For the atheist, the mere facts that he is here, existing, and that his existence is finite are purpose enough indeed. With one life, the drive becomes to make the most of it we are capable. Thus, the non-believer can answer history’s most asked question by saying, “The purpose of life is to live the best life each and every one of us can.”

Why should god be included in this consideration? Why can’t the question end there, with each human defining for himself what the best life looks like and taking whatever steps he is willing to get there? For the theist, however, this solution is not freedom but nihilism. A self generated purpose is no purpose at all. It is emptiness and, with it, despair. If nobody made me, why am I here? If nobody wants me to follow a given path, why should I follow any at all?

This is the same argument from consequences so often hurled at evolution: if we’re all just the product of random chance, what’s the point? If the universe is without a creator, then, for theist, we are all horribly, cripplingly alone. Yet, as an atheist, I am not alone. I have a wife I love and close friends and family I can share my successes and failures with. I’m on a planet with billions like me: humans living out their own tiny blinks of time in the same universe both awesome and mysterious. Making right by that world and the people in it is my purpose, one I can feel the profound weight of and the grand and breezy freedom it allows me to define exactly what “right” means for me. While I may be the result of the very non-random process of natural selection acting upon an arbitrary base of matter and mutation, the joy I feel when I’m with people I love and the sense of accomplishment I get when I fulfill my goals are far from random.

What role can god even play in any of this? Let us say there exists a supreme being who planted in my head the notion that I ought to live the best life I know how. Does he tell me what that means? If he does, it’s in contradictory forms, for what is best within a Catholic world view is very different from best for a buddhist or best for a Wahhabi muslim. Without definite selection criteria between the faiths, criteria that can themselves be verified without appeal to one of those faiths, how am I ever to know what is the best life? Because the specifics of the world’s religions are, therefore, of little use, I’m left only with what feels right to me. I can seek the advice of others — and I would be prudent to do so — but even they are in same boat as myself, advocating rightness to them as they understand it. Thus the existence of god, so far as purpose goes, is of pitifully little value, with the experience of man carries incredible weight.

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