Atheism and The Purpose of Life

One of the many objections we as Christians bring up in opposition to an atheistic worldview is that life cannot have purpose. If there exists no creator, no one that created humanity with a specific design with a specific purpose then we cannot go on to say that life has any real purpose or meaning. In the end we must simply eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die and there is nothing left after that.

Atheists object to this point saying that they can create purpose themselves. They can create purpose by creating their own goals, their own wants and achievements. But does this really amount to anything?

In the end, no. Atheists creating a purpose for themselves is like a wolf dedicating his life to vegetarianism. He could promote it within his species, perhaps even successfully, but where does it lead in the end? Is the species really any better off? Even if wolves figured out some way to survive on vegetables could we really say they were any better off? Would they be more moral then before? Perhaps, but that assumes an absolute morality that only can be routed in theism. Would wolves have created a better society for the world altogether? A basic study of ecology would prove no. Wolves as carnivores provide a balance to ecology that would be rocked if they abandoned the practice. Finally, if this one wolf died as well as the ‘movement’ it had created could we say that the world was worse off without him? The preceding questions would resound  a clear no. I realize this is a slightly odd analogy.

Perhaps a better analogy could be the following. If a child decided his purpose in life was to gather every grain of sand from his sandbox into his bedroom one grain at a time by the end of his lifetime. I can hear the atheist already objecting to say that this is useless or could be done more effectively. But what can they base that upon? What makes this purpose that a child decides any more or less meaningful then anything else? To say that it has more or less meaning assumes there exists a standard by which purpose is measured as bad, better or best. A man could dedicate his life to ending racism, sexism, genocide, or anything else but what good is it? To say that the world is better for it assumes an measure of improvement and improvement can only be made if there exists a standard of best or a perfect good. If happiness is the ultimate good perhaps the child’s purpose gives him that greatest joy and you cannot say it is less than what you have purposed for yourself.

It sounds harsh but in the end it’s true. Atheists can create no real purpose or meaning for their own lives.

12 thoughts on “Atheism and The Purpose of Life

  1. Here are my notes on your article:
    Christians say that if atheism is true, life cannot have purpose (false)
    If there is no creator (person/intelligence/designer), then humans have no specific/ultimate purpose (True)
    If there is no creator, then we cannot say that life has any “real” purpose (false)
    If A (Atheism is true), then be happy, for then we die, and there is nothing after that (T)
    We can create purpose ourselves (T). (We don’t need god to have meaning/purpose: T)
    Self given purpose (SGP) doesn’t amount to anything in the end (T! “in the end”/ultimately).
    SGPs are like vegan wolves (F), with many irrelevant question here asked (T)
    SGPs are of no relevance in the end (in a billion years…) (T)
    To say that wolves would be better off being vegan requires that there is an absolute morality (F)
    Such a morality can only be rooted (sp) in theism (F)
    This analogy is odd (T)
    Suppose a child finds meaning in gathering sand (okay) X has questions (okay) that prove nothing (T)
    If A is true, then there is no ultimately/SN standard by which to judge purposes (T!)
    If A is true, to say that X’s life is more meaningful than Y’s is to appeal to a subjective rather than a transcendent standard (T!)
    Some dedicate their lives to ending sexism (T)
    If A, then one cannot say this life is more meaningful than others (F)
    If A, then one cannot appeal to a transcendent standard that shows this life is more meaningful than others (T)
    To say that X is better is to assume a standard (T), a standard of perfect good (F)
    If A, one cannot say that fighting sexism is better than collecting sand (F)
    IF A, one cannot say that fighting sexism is better, according to a transcendent (godly) standard, than collecting sand (T!)
    If A, there is no ultimate, godly purpose. (T)
    Real purpose is ultimate and godly (False: there is no god, no godly purpose, so it isn’t “real”).
    (Real purposes are those we know of: such as SGPs)

  2. You write, “Atheists can create no real purpose or meaning for their own lives.” It depends what you consider real purpose. The atheists I’ve discussed this with would agree that there is no ultimate purpose to life, they just don’t think it’s important whether or not life has ultimate purpose.

    As far as the absolute standard of value, I think Aristotle was correct that the standard is your own happiness and flourishing. You could say that this allows me to do anything I want, but in practice living by moral principles will lead to a better outcome for my life than going around stealing and raping people or whatever.

    • Or rather, atheists tend to agree there is no godly/ultimate purpose, and thus it is not important to worry about the lack of such an ultimate purpose. Hence, they focus on creating purpose and meaning themselves, rather than, as theists do, falsely claim that some fictional being has given them a purpose. The basic point is that we know that SGPs (self given purposes) exist. We don’t know of any transcendent, eternal purpose.

      • Your’e begging the question here (assuming without even making an argument that God doesn’t exist), but surely you know that.

        Also, if atheists claim they don’t think it’s “important” for there to be an ultimate purpose in life, I’d bet that’s simply a defense mechanism, because it’s obvious (as you admit) that, on atheism, there IS no ultimate purpose in life. In other words, my worldview doesn’t permit X, so I declare X to be unimportant so I can avoid changing my worldview.

      • This response is for Jeff’s response below, but for some reason, there is no Reply button for it.
        Jeff: who is begging the question? What is assumed? What shouldn’t be assumed? Your first paragraph seems to complain about something, but it is not clear what.
        The “importance” of an ultimate purpose is not the issue: the issue is whether or not we know of an ultimate purpose. Atheists claim that humans do not. Theists (wrongly) claim that we do. Most of us would prefer to live longer, and to be part of something bigger (such as an eternal purpose). But that is just wishful thinking here.
        Yes, atheism, and science, and the facts, show that we know of no ultimate (god given) purpose. Atheism denies that most mentioned gods don’t exist. It actually doesn’t rule out anything specific. Atheism is compatible with eternal life, for example.
        Again, the issue isn’t about the importance of an ultimate purpose. The issue is whether we know of one. We don’t. We only know of human, man-made, self given purposes.
        (If I say Zeus has an eternal purpose for my life, we will both know that to be false).
        Atheists aren’t just declaring this. The facts are on their side.
        Nothing shows that atheists should change their worldview.
        The author’s argument has failed if it claims that atheists have no purpose, unless he mean’s a god-given purpose, which is true, since there is no god, and thus no one has a god given purpose.
        The whole point of the author’s article is to say: if there isn’t some outer space judge to declare something meaningful/better/purposeful, we will have to decide such things for ourselves. That’s true. But the author is wrong that there is a god/eternal judge that we know of, and thus we are left to decide what things we find valuable, and the author is right that a person might (but probably won’t) find gathering specks of sand to be meaningful.
        Atheists don’t have an eternal purpose, because no one does, as far as we know.
        If the author assumes god exists, then he is the one begging the question (assuming what needs to be proven, appears to be false, and probably isn’t true).

      • This is in reply to jcb33612. I have a few questions. I’ve never heard the claim that Atheism is compatible with eternal life. Could you explain?

        Again you have made the same mistake you did in arguing morality here with an ultimate purpose. You have argued that in order to know something exists we must know what it is ie to know there is an ultimate purpose we must know what that purpose is. Scientists right now know that there is a law of gravity, and they know what that law is. At one time they knew there was a law of gravity but they didn’t know what it was. The same can be said of purpose, we can know that an ultimate purpose does exist and yet not know what it is, that is not contradictory. I can know there exist people in South Africa, even though I don’t know any of them.

        You say “If there is no creator (person/intelligence/designer), then humans have no specific/ultimate purpose (True).” That’s my main point so we agree.

        Also, “SGPs are of no relevance in the end (in a billion years…) (T)” That’s my second point and we still agree so. . . not even sure why we are arguing anymore.

    • I agree with what you’re saying. Atheists cannot say there is a ultimate purpose. Most people I believe not like a worldview that has no purpose in that way. That doesn’t in turn mean Atheism is wrong, there are things within Christianity I don’t like. A worldview isn’t right or wrong because you like it or don’t like it. All I think this can do is make the atheist consider their worldview in an honest light that there can be no purpose to their life outside of what they make, which in some ways I believe makes life feel meaningless even if you try to make it purposeful.

      • Hi,
        One can be an atheist (claim that the gods people claim to exist do not exist) and still think we will live forever. No, I am not saying an atheist, or anyone, should say that we will live forever. I simply was saying that denying the one (gods exist) is not to deny the other (we will live forever). But yes, there are no supernatural persons (gods), and no eternal life for us, as far as we can tell/know.
        “You have argued that in order to know that something exists we must know…there is an ultimate purpose.” No, I never argued for, or asserted, any such thing. In fact, I said that we don’t know of any ultimate (eternal, god-given) purposes.
        Yes, science has discovered certain patterns of behavior in the universe, one of which we refer to as gravity. Yes, at one time, scientists knew little about this pattern/force. No, the same cannot be said (yet) about ultimate purpose. We do not know that there is any ultimate, eternal, god-given purpose to our lives. (Feel free to show that there is such a thing and how we know it: you don’t seem to do that in your post. Is it that obvious to you that there is such a thing?)
        Yes, it is possible to know one thing, but not another. X may know that the Eiffel Tower exists, but not know who constructed it. But that is not relevant here. Here, we do not know that there is an ultimate purpose. We know there are people in South America given what we have read, seen, who we have talked to, maps we have seen, etc. The same cannot be said for the existence of an ultimate purpose. (Again, feel free to show how we know that there is one).
        Yes, if there is no god, there is no god-given (ultimate) purpose. There is no god, and no god-given purpose (as far as we know).
        Your article seemed to try to say that there was something faulty about atheism. I showed in my response that there isn’t. If you agree that there are SGPS (there are), then the only other point was whether there is a known ultimate (god given) purpose. (there isn’t). Perhaps I misunderstood what you were trying to accomplish in the first place. (Feel free to re-state what that was).

      • I agree one can deny God and believe in eternal life. I don’t think they are mutually exclusive. I guess I am wondering how an atheist would believe eternal life exists without something supernatural. How does eternal life look for an atheist?

        I must have misunderstood what you were arguing then when I brought up South America and football players. I was thinking you were arguing that if I can’t tell you what the ultimate purpose was then it can’t exist. I was just showing that doesn’t follow logically.

        I agree with most of what you’re saying. This article doesn’t give an argument for God as you pointed out, you’d have to read some of my other posts. If God does exist, as myself and others believe than an ultimate purpose could exist and we could know it.

        My point is just that we wish that there exists an ultimate purpose. Perhaps that is wishful thinking, but perhaps it is because there actually is one. It doesn’t really prove anything simply makes one think.

        C.S. Lewis kind of makes what I was trying to say simply when he says something to the effect of ‘we have hunger, there is such a thing as food. We have a desire for relationship there is such a thing as love and companionship. We have a desire for an ultimate purpose, there is such as thing as god.”

        Again doesn’t prove anything but it shows theism makes more sense of that desire.

      • Atheists (those who claim that god does not exist) cannot say that there is a god given (ultimate) purpose. True. Yes, many people are upset by the idea that we won’t live forever (have an ultimate purpose, etc). And yes, many people believe things that are false, sometimes out of wishful thinking.

        Yes, everyone should consider their views honestly. If one does, they would see that there are SGPs, but no known eternal purposes.
        Yes, if there is no extra, additional, meaning to one’s life, then it is by definition less meaningful than if there were. (If I save a life, and the family thanks me, it would be even MORE meaningful if God also thanked me). But again, this is just wishful thinking. Many people want their lives to be more meaningful (i.e., god giving us an eternal purpose), and so they claim that there is an eternal purpose, even if the evidence for such is lacking.
        Perhaps the middle ground is this: many people (Theists) Want more meaning in their lives, so they make up false stories because, For Them, it makes their own lives more meaningful (to them).

      • Let me just say I really appreciate your comments and dialogue.

        I would almost agree with your middle ground, but of course I don’t believe theists make it up. I believe there is good evidence to believe and God and from that clear things he has told us of what that ultimate purpose is.

      • I said an atheist could believe in eternal life. I didn’t say that an atheist would believe in eternal life. Yes, most atheists probably don’t believe in eternal life. (I said that in my previous post). (The evidence we have doesn’t support the claim that we will be alive in any meaningful sense in a billion years.)
        Again, yes, something could exist (like a cat), even if you didn’t know its name. Likewise, eternal life could exist, even if we don’t know if we will have bodies, etc. But the difference is, we know cats exist, but we don’t know that eternal life of any sort (other than the particles in space sort) awaits us.
        Yes, lots of things follow if one assumes other things. If Zeus exists, then…
        I was showing that the argument (that I thought you had) given against atheism fails.
        We do wish for more, such as an ultimate purpose (most of us). And there might be one. But we don’t know of one. There’s a huge difference between an article that simply says “maybe A, maybe B, consider C”, and an article that says “we know X and Y, thus we know that Z is true”. I thought you were doing the latter, but now I hear you saying you were doing the former.
        Yes, that’s where C.S. Lewis is wrong: We have a desire for ultimate purpose, true. But it doesn’t follow that “there is such a thing as god” (an ultimate purpose, etc.)
        Yes, if one desires happy thoughts over (even at the expense of) truth, religion sometimes wins/is the wise course of action.

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