Believe it or not, this is by request. Also, lots of words (3,135 of them). Also, it’s my opinion . . . which means I meander in thought. I put this together rather quickly so if you find fault with it . . . well, I won’t be surprised.
Anyway, coming from a friend, the request carried weight.
I was asked to answer this question:
How do you get purpose and meaning without God?
Mind you, he already has answers but was curious to read what I had to say. Well, now, you know I won’t offer up the answer without many words leading up to it.
A number of my previous posts address this question either directly or indirectly, but I thought I would revisit the issue. In this piece, I’ll speak primarily about Christians. Other religions might be more or less descriptive in such matters but if there’s a god involved, that’s who believers say gives their lives meaning and purpose.
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Perhaps the most popular single source summarizing all the arguments for finding purpose and meaning through god might be “The Purpose Driven Life”, by Rick Warren. If you ever discuss the topic with a Christian, it’s probable they’ll quote many of the cherry-picked Bible passages mentioned in the book.
Warren lists the purposes as follows:
- to bring enjoyment to God (p. 63)
- to learn to love others (P. 125)
- to become like Jesus Christ (p. 171)
- to serve God (p. 231)
- to fulfill one’s mission (p. 281)
Despite some Christians criticizing the book, most believers were looking for easily digestible pablum confirming the legitimacy of their commitment. And thus, the book became a best-seller.
It may seem strange that Christians criticized the book . . . but don’t be fooled. They criticized the particulars and not the overall belief that our purpose here (humanity’s purpose) is to glorify God. The main message remains that only in God can one find a purpose for one’s life. Oh, yeah . . . and salvation.
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What do it all mean, really?
Well, this is interesting in itself. I’ll speculate on how we got to this notion, but it should track somewhat with what others have postulated. If you know all this, skip ahead to the part where I answer the main question.
Quick side trip:
Do you remember the movie The Lion King? There was an explanation given involving the concept of the Circle of Life. It was neat; it was inspiring; but if you weren’t a top carnivore, it sucked, didn’t it? Even as a top carnivore, after you died scavenger munched on your rotting carcass and the way you make it back to the soil is, essentially, by being turned into shit.
We call this a hypothesis based on observation.
That’s one flaw but here’s another; let’s go back to the gazelles bowing to the future king . . . they know their fate is to be hunted down and feasted on while still alive, futilely struggling even as their flesh is torn from their bones.
. . . but that’s OK because they get to eat the grass. We don’t know how the grass feels about that.
And here’s a third flaw with the idea . . . basically, the purpose of all living things is to become food and return to the earth as shit. I don’t know how others feel about this, but were I a part of the Circle of Life, the notion would be underwhelming at best. There has to be a better purpose to existence.
A bit of history.
As humans developed and gradually became aware of ourselves as distinct individuals and — especially — mortal individuals, I’m thinking a few individuals began contemplating the notion of a purpose. It’s important to stress this . . . only once we had the capacity for thought — and time for thought — did humans have the luxury to contemplate if we had a purpose.
Before that, our main purpose was to find water and food (number one purpose) and to find safe shelter (number two purpose) and survive so that we might reproduce (number three purpose). The reproducing part wasn’t so much a purpose as a biological drive, meaning, it wasn’t even our purpose; it was our genes’s purpose; we’re just the mechanism for reproduction.
By the way, in times of crises and disasters, we readily revert to the first two purposes. Not as amazing as serving a god but, on the other hand, it keeps us alive.
Still with me? OK, let me backtrack just a tiny bit.
Long before we developed self-awareness, we were social animals. And not social as in everyone gets a trophy; nope! We lived in groups, and within the group, there was a hierarchy. Back then, the top honcho wasn’t a nerd who sold a computer program for a gazillion dollars; nope. It was someone with a combination of smarts and strength; everyone else was happy to defer to them or they didn’t have the smarts and strength to challenge them, or they waited until they died before vying for a leadership role.
If the group was lucky, the leader cared about the lesser beings comprising the social group. If not . . . well, we got Trump, so you know the score.
Occasionally, someone else with more smarts and strength successfully challenged the top honcho and replaced them. Again, this was either good or bad.
This went on as we continued evolving and as we become more aware, we noticed the correlation between action and reaction, cause and effect.
If you hit someone’s head with a rock, you’d leave a dent or even crack the skull open, and the person would die or — if they survived — not be the same afterward; they’d be more Trumpish (although they didn’t have a word for it back then).
We thus learned to be more purposeful with our actions; meaning, we did things to achieve the desired result, be they with good or bad intentions.
Other things also came along like shared memories and communication and oral history and passing hard-won knowledge from generation to generation.
Humans slowly gained quite an advantage over other animals because of our developing brains and the ability to build on previous knowledge. We could innovate and plan complicated strategies and make long-term plans.
We planned for the future because we hated uncertainty. It was OK for a lion not to know where its next Circle of Life meal was coming from, but humans sought to control the supply chain.
Unfortunately, Nature — and the weather — was as annoying then as it is now. Cold waves, heat waves, droughts, floods, fires, volcanic eruptions, tornadoes, damaging winds, game animals moving or dying off, . . . you know the drill.
Did I mention humans planned and learned and sought to control their environment? We learned when it was the best time to plant stuff and where, where we could find plenty of game and when, and so on.
But, despite all our best effort, stuff
sometimes often went wrong. Perhaps someone fell ill or a particularly heavy rain wiped out the crops or animals herds fell ill and died; all events that were poorly understood. Times were tough then.
Couple the notion of the intent of actions with the notion of hierarchy and it’s not difficult imagining humans began to see Nature and the elements as powerful and aware and acting with intent. Humans thus attributed human-like qualities to natural phenomena; for example, storms were aware, had emotions, and showed intent.
Remember, above all, humans want to control their future to remove anxiety about said future.
The situation was ripe for some asshole — or multiple assholes — to make claims about how humans might appease these capricious demons or gods or spirits or whatnots.
You know the rest . . . but, forward closer to the present.
Long before modern religions, other religions worked the same scam; some shaman would claim communion with some god or other and act as an intermediary between “regular people” and the gods by rolling bits of bones or smoking hallucinogenic herbs.
However, the model was all wrong, you see, as it was rightly recognized the gods were . . . well, they called them capricious but I prefer the term assholes.
It seemed most gods went out of their way to screw with humans. Some even made it their pastime. Some favored certain humans over other humans. It didn’t matter if you prayed or sacrificed all your goats, the gods would still mess with you, especially if someone else sacrificed more goats than what you could afford to sacrifice.
. . . because you still had this hierarchy system and if you were born down, you stayed down. Even the afterlife was segmented with those favored by the gods living it up (so to speak) whereas regular citizens drifted in shadows.
The time was ripe for a new model; one with the same basic idea but different trimmings.
An appealing message.
The appeal of the new model was simple . . . everyone has a chance for the better afterlife, and everyone is equal in the eyes of god in this life. Also, this god didn’t try to screw you over; nope! It was our own failings that brought us misery because we were born cursed but god was kind enough to offer a path for your eventual salvation.
These new ideas offered membership in a community here on Earth without a hierarchy (except for priests and shamans and the likes) and of an idyllic afterlife also devoid of a hierarchy (if you excluded god and angels and saints and other privileged individuals).
All you had to do is pledge your life to god or one of its — if you’ll pardon the pun — incarnations.
The Purpose Angle — where do it come from?
This is where it gets tricky. Go read Genesis (all the books) and then keep reading . . . tell me where it explains god’s purpose for creating the Universe and Adam and Eve.
I’m sure you’ve heard things like:
“God created families as a vehicle to advance the gospel and fulfill the Great Commission!”
For the uninitiated, the Great Commission refers to Jesus telling his disciples to indoctrinate the world . . . but that’s in the New Testament.
You might hear Deuteronomy 6 mentioned as giving a purpose but that’s not how one would read it without preconception. It just says to teach your children and remember where you came from. It’s more like advice than a purpose. Actually, more like a threat. No, not “like” a threat; exactly a threat (Deut. 6:15).
Even then, it’s not a purpose but rather a warning not to follow other gods (Whoa! There are other gods? . . . do tell!)
Any way you slice it, Genesis is clear: god wanted a nice garden and was too lazy to tend it so he made himself a gardener.
Side note: why the heck create an immense Universe if the idea was to have Adam and Eve live in Eden? Could it be this psychotic god intended all along for humans to fall from grace? I mean, it sure sounds like it. I wouldn’t build a nice home for my kids and at the same time create a separate dump lacking basic sanitation unless I planned to have them end up there. Don’t even contemplate why the Universe is as big as it is.
Want to know what I think? All this purpose stuff was a con from day one.
Think about it? Who benefits? Why, priests, ministers, shamans, mystics, and televangelists.
Let’s remember the premise we’re operating under (as told by our priests or equivalent):
- we are told we’re all sinners because we’ve inherited sin
- we are told the only salvation is to accept Jesus as your savior
- to accept Jesus you must follow his teachings
- you must pay us to teach you (in negotiable currency or goods)
- you will be repaid in the afterlife (in eternal bliss or virgins or both)
Side note: HERE‘s a wonderful and succinct look at vicarious redemption.
Like all tyrannical dictatorships, religion acts like any self-respecting mobster and asks you kindly for protection money . . . and then proceeds to break knees if you don’t obey. They’ll also go to war if competing mobsters try to intrude on their territory.
The problem for religion is that progress never stops. Once the enlightenment started rolling in earnest, religion had to change its tune. (Side note: only by necessity; the basic precepts and tendencies for oppression are still there.)
OK, enough history.
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Purpose as expressed in today’s world.
I had a boss at my last job . . . he introduced himself the following way:
“I’m a dangerous idiot and this is what is important to me and in this order: God, Country, and family.”
He didn’t call himself a dangerous idiot (he said his name) but the rest is verbatim; he literally believed god intervened in his life and gave him success so he could be an asshole to his employees and cheat his way to even more wealth.
Look at the hierarchy . . . All-Powerful God; powerful by size and might; and, oh yeah, also family.
But, it was OK because he used his wealth and power to help spread the word of god.
It’s OK to persecute people as you spread the word of god.
It’s OK to deny them rights.
It’s OK to oppress others in the name of one’s god.
It’s called doing the Lord’s work.
If you’re religious, you either accept all of that, or you go against the teachings of god (as interpreted by self-serving, greedy toads).
Some people (many people but not nearly enough) see this as a major moral failing but can’t bring themselves to let go of religion . . . so they come up with their versions of what’s right, wrong, what purpose one has, what god wants. In short, they get rid of the middlemen and find an acceptable version of god’s teaching by supposedly dealing directly with The Boss.
Unfortunately, they still fear death and thus retain the message from The Man: put god above all else in your life and you shall live forever.
It’s interesting so many religious people maintain you cannot have morality and purpose without god even as they edit, pick and choose, and basically come to a decision regarding what to believe based solely on their own desires and needs. That’s why, by the way, there are thousands of different sects, all purporting to know the “true” message.
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What happens if you tell god to “shove it”? What purpose then?
Let me answer this way . . .
I love my wife. I put her well-being ahead of my own. I want my wife to be serene, secure, and as happy as possible within the reality of life. A purpose of mine is to do what I can toward that end. Had we chosen to have kids, that would also apply to them.
That’s the first answer I would give to someone asking for a purpose if they give up god.
I say that’s a grand purpose, no?
But, what if you have a massive ego and don’t think your wife is worthy of all this attention. I mean, it reflects badly on you if you’re seen attending to just a regular person.
Truly, the only way to feed your ego is to champion an all-powerful being and make yourself be a servant to its bidding . . . now you’re cooking! You’re serving a god, I tell you what!
I mean your wife is nice and all, but when did she ever create a Universe? Never! Sometimes, she’s even late with dinner!
I mean, how is serving such a god a purpose to begin with?
How is that a satisfying purpose? Again, what kind of god would demand such a thing? Does god even understand the definition of “god”?
“But, I don’t have a wife and family. I don’t even have a dog.”
Well, Bob, say you’re not married and have no intention of getting married. What purpose could you find in this life other than to serve god?
Don’t look to Catholic priests, bishops, and Popes for answers; they have a mighty lurid and dismal record.
Look to yourself, to those around you, to the world around you.
Call them purposes or just responsibilities or meaning or whatever you want, but here’s where I find a broader purpose and what gives meaning to my life in the absence of an imaginary psychotic, cruel, unjust, lying, and capricious god.
Be the best person you can be. What does that mean? Well, you first have to decide what makes a good person good. If you don’t know, here are a few suggestions aside what I mentioned about wife and children.
You should be someone who cares about the environment . . . not because god said to (it didn’t) but because you recognize the benefit to both yourself and others.
You should be someone who cares about the wellbeing of others . . . not because god said so (it didn’t) but because you recognize the value of shared purpose and the benefit to society if we prop each other up.
You should care about learning, knowledge, wisdom, and reason . . . not because god said so (it didn’t) but because you recognize that’s where all progress stems from.
You should be curious and question things . . . not because god said so (it damn well didn’t) but because you recognize it as a path to learning, knowledge, and wisdom.
Can we encompass that in an overarching purpose? Call it a Grand Unified Purpose?
I think so . . .
In recognition of the amazing sequences of events that resulted in you existing, strive to make the most of this one life because it is a gift. There never was another you before now and there will not be another you after you’re gone.
Whether grand or minuscule, strive for your footprints to aid the advancement of humanity toward a better shared future and not to hinder it.
. . . so, to help pave the way to a better future, be a loving person who values this life and wants to make it the best it can be for both yourself and others.
. . . or, you can be religious.
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That’s it. This post has ended . . . except for the stuff below.
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