Purpose and Atheism or Purposelessness and Christianity, an Exploration
By: Steven G. Harms
Mice has recently asked some challenging questions on his blog (http://www.miceland.com).
See posts on purpose here
“…if one does not believe in God, where does one’s purpose come from? Where does meaning come from?”
Essentially, and if I may be so gauche as to meta-analyze my friend and co-worker, Mice is asking The Great Existential Question. In this, he joins a long legacy of philosophers both atheist and Christian. I provide a quote and and a ‘mindset’ that represents said quote in parentheses.
“Without God, what is the purpose of my existence?” (Ancient Greek, Roman virtue ethics)
“Without God, what is the basis for moral behavior” (Sartre)
or, as the Kierkergaard would have phrased it in Christian terms,
“Under the all-watchful eye of a non-interventionist God, how shall I comport myself?”
I will address the first question and re-state it thus:
“If one does not believe in God, where does one’s purpose come from?”
This reprhasing is a close approximation of Mice’s view. I will examine the two key arguments contained in Mice’s position:
Position One: Without God finding human purpose is not possible.
Position Two: With God, finding purpose is assured.
I will argue against position One with the thesis: Without God, a purposeful existence is possible.
I will argue against Position Two with: Belief in God does not automatically define human purpose.
I shall first build the case to show that without God, human purpose is possible.
Mice recounts vividly in his ‘blog how accepting the non-existence of God causes him great anguish.
Mice clearly feels that in a God-less universe his life, and perhaps all human life, has no purpose. He describes a certain level of dread that Sartre called anguish. He recounts the listless nausea of being directionless. Like Descartes, he feels as if cast head-first into cold water (The Meditations). I will use this concept of nausea repeatedly throughout the rest of this essay.
He is feeling the sickness that comes with leaving innocence and taking responsibility. He is tasting the true bitter fruit of Eve’s blessing and curse- that he will know whether his actions are good or ill.
Imagine man, with total moral agency and total moral responsibility. In the story of Genesis we find our primeval parents acting as such total moral agents and then they eat from the Tree of Knowledge. What follows is a very telling passage where we see the all too weak moral fiber of humans:
KJV: Genesis 3:11-13
11: And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?
12: And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.
13: And the LORD God said unto the woman, What is this that thou hast done? And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.
Saddled with total moral agency, our primeval parents opted to act cowardly, he to turn upon his beloved and she to pass the buck. Hardly a profile in courage.
(Aside:I recall Lord of the Rings where Frodo first starts to feel the weight of being the ring-bearer and he tries desperately to give it away, to fall from the challenge, to return to his Eden like Shire.)
It is so much harder to choose, to direct ones life than to be directed. Man, weak, sniveling, cowardly man, immediately sought to give up responsibility. To be weak instead of strong, to cower instead of choose, to blame instead of to be brave.
This is the essence of the burden of being human in a God-less world - the same world that Adam and Eve suddenly found themselves after this interrogation.
We feel nausea? Surely those two had it much, much worse.
In this tale we see an essential existential truth: Equally cursed and blessed with this great power of moral agency, mankind prefers to escape its terrible weight.
So what did Adam do (with some slight reconciliation with God, a matter of a certain set of BVDs of leaves comes to mind)? He went into the lands East of Eden and by the work and the sweat of his brow would he provide for Eve and their children. Eve would, in turn, use the Godlike power given from the Tree to create Life (with much pain). Their purpose became to exist in spite of being cast out.
Eventually the survival necessity came to define Adam. Adam’s purpose became to be the first made, cast out, but who still survives. As Socrates said, “To be is to do.” In his doing, in his toil, Adam was. As Camus said in The Myth of Sisyphus, despite the fact that Sisyphus' task is futile and absurd, he will not quit, for to be the man that pushes a rock up and down a hill endlessly is what it is to, at the core, be Sisyphus.
Thus in an atheistic world, to act, to achieve, to attain, to survive, to define the goal of the orbit of ones life - and to singularly bear the responsibility for these choices - is ones purpose. Like the fallen host of Paradise Lost we must strike out to find our own purpose anew. We must seek the ribs of gold in the furrows of earth and build a kingdom in our surrounds.[2.5]
Religion and Avoidance of the Burden:
Yet some cannot bear this burden, to act as they see fit and bear responsibility for it. As such, they mortgage off their agency for a myth - a myth that will provide comfort, a myth that will guide them, a myth that will take the nausea away. Adam and Eve didn’t have these myths for solace, but in time powerful people came to realize that by controlling what people fear, you have over the fearful. Thus religion as “Your personal intercessor to spiritual matters, Inc.” was born.
Luther rightly saw what had been done. The burden of individual responsibility had been taken away, as a profit opportunity. This is why his theses against the sale of indulgences were written. Religion created a fix for the symptom (nausea) but at the expense of creating a populous of cowering, weak-willed, children. Marx realized that this false panacea would allow the proletariat to accept their victimization, Nietzsche realized that this model of religion stole away some percentage of the will of man to be beautiful and strong. In short, these philosophers tried to warn us that we were selling bits of our soul to avoid being truly human and truly free.
To retreat, to find solace in myths and lies which help one find reason to limit one’s total responsibility - this is what Sartre called bad faith. To give up the burden of being responsible, the burden of making choices, to let someone else decide for you … this is a terrible thing. Sartre theorized that if the Church could make you do it today, man could make you do it tomorrow. You would sign over your free will for answers, in short you would stop thinking because it was easier .
So if God doesn’t exist, whither shall we find purpose? How shall we proceed?
The first step is to accept this body-crushing responsibility - one must accept total moral responsibility. Then, at the very least, you are truly a man (or woman). The next step is to take the responsibility of deciding what the purpose of your life is - and to be prepared to bear the weight of your choice. You must avoid dividing your gift-burden of moral agency and selling it to the hawkers of religious snake oil.
“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”
Man's Search for Meaning, p.172
In short, on Earth, we should seek to build Heaven on Earth, where the sick are treated, where the orphaned are cared for, and respect rules over exploitation. This is our atheistic goal, and so long as individuals can mortgage off responsibility under a veil of confusion and the cover of irresponsibility, conveniently supplied by religion the snake-oil hawkers will retain the upper hand.
It informs language even today…
“As a Muslim I celebrate the attack…” - Osama bin Laden
“This is a case of good and evil, right and wrong” - G.H.W. Bush
“They are part of an Axis of Evil” - G.W. Bush
Each of these can be re-stated in a way that puts the choice of action in the hands of the speaker, not in the will of some abstract diety, as if “God / Allah made me do it” is still a legitimate excuse? If I said “Quetzalcóatl made me kill the busload of nuns because they are evil” I would find myself quickly incarcerated - yet the worlds' leaders use this same manner of speech to describe the pathway of our decisions?
Thus I have shown a model of how a purposeful existence can be found in an atheistic world. I now ask, is it necessarily true that belief in God endows one with purpose? The answer is no, and that despite a belief in God’s existence, one winds up living according to the model described above.
Belief in an interventionist God with whom one has a relationship does not define purpose. I believe in God, great. Am I to go to the store, buy food for homeless people, murder a man? Should I feel good about that?
Belief in God can only serve to make one, post-facto, feel good or bad about one’s actions. Many Christians I know state that they don’t know what their purpose is, but they feel that God has a plan for them. This is well and good, but no purpose has been defined. One is still living in the universe described above where evaluative statements about the quality of ones actions are either assented to or judged lacking by a dusty book.
I suspect that God, at the end of days, will ask us how we exemplified His spirit and did His work when we were on earth. Consigning our responsibility is not the first step towards pleasing Him, taking the burden of responsibility is the first step to doing His work. We made ourselves Gods in the garden and we must act in a manner worthy to this custodianship. God built us to be simple and naïve, Eve and Adam opted for something more, to raise the bar. Let us seek to excel in this task and create His Kingdom here.
Mice’s language is imprecise with the term “atheist” (of course, a ‘blog is not a place for linguistic precision, but as we are proceeding to chase that quarry that loves to hide, let us presently take the time to be precise). I understand “one does not believe in God” to be synonymous with “believes in a non-interventionist God”, “believes in a God who has no concern with the Good or Evil of human behavior”, as well as “the person in question is an outright atheist” etc. I do not believe such modification ruins the spirit of his question, although a reader may feel free to contest this.
I find it haunting that this story so closely parallels the fall of Lucifer. Lucifer sought to be like the Most High and wast cast down and has worked to frustrate creation ever since. It seems that the Serpent, if accepted as an agent of Lucifer, pulled a fast one on Yahweh, and got Him to act in exactly the right way to build a bond between mankind and Lucifer. Both cast out, both feel the nausea of severance, both exist both by the grace of and in spite of The Creator. It’s strange that Adam didn’t thumb his nose and begin a more adversarial (Satanic, as the word Satan actually merely means “adversary”) relationship with God.
One might suspect that this parallelism was meant to be a link between the Luciferian plan and mankind.
2.5. I suspect that the human plight mirrors the Luciferian incident and that’s why, quite to the contrary of Milton’s intentions, his Lucifer is a much more sympathetic and interesting character than any other party in the Paradise cycle.
I will also assert that one can harmonize this view with Christian ethic, I believe, but that is beyond the scope of this document and, frankly, is a question that the Church should examine for itself.
- Keep in mind the years that Sartre is writing in Being and Nothingness - in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Sartre had seen his countrymen collaborate with the Nazis to assist in the obliteration of others of his countrymen and for him, anything that obfuscated the total responsibility of the acting agent (Appeals to social norms, appeals to religion, Allah’s Will) was a treason against this absolute responsibility. To be afraid of the Church for encouraging similar behavior is not entirely unreasonable either, the Vatican took no stand against Hitler and the reign of the Inquisition was not an entirely distant memory.