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13 April 2007

What is your purpose in life?

How being an atheist can mean taking responsibility for defining your own meaning in life

By Ciaran Hanway

For many believers, this world is part of a journey to an afterlife, and the point of this life is to prepare for that afterlife. How can a person who does not believe in an afterlife, judgement and the soul possibly see any purpose in life? Doesn’t the absence of belief in a god lead to an absence of a purpose in life?

I think that such a focus on the afterlife can, for some, strip life of its purpose. If you believe in predestination, you’ve already decided that your life is mapped out for you and you have no influence over it. What use is Free Will then?

If you believe in the Judgement, then the purpose of your life is to avoid Hell.

If you believe in Original Sin, you’re basing your life on the notion that you’re intrinsically substandard. If you believe that you must follow god’s word without question, you’ve been created to be a slave. I don’t think these positions endow life with a true purpose at all.

In any case, even if you were to tie your life’s purpose to god’s will, how would you do it? I’ve outlined what I think of learning the “Truth” from scriptures or what one is told by “holy” men in a previous post: you can’t be sure that this method is the best way of getting to a purpose in life since both serial killers and good people can claim to be acting in god’s name.

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So not only is the purpose one can derive from belief in a god uncertain and unfulfilling, but I think it is also very wrong-headed. For a start, the question, “What is the meaning of life?” is a bit loaded. It assumes that life can have a meaning, each person’s life can have only one meaning, all people’s lives have the same meaning, no-one has to do anything to get a meaning in life.

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Forget all of those assumptions for a moment and consider this: life doesn’t have any meaning or any purpose; life’s just there.

Of course, we can create meaning for ourselves. We can develop our talents, challenge ourselves to become better people, help those around us. We may fail at the goals we set ourselves, but we are made all the greater by the experience of trying.

Of course I do sometimes find it hard to get out of bed in the morning, or tiresome to push on when the going gets tough. Many believers have the same feelings, I’m sure.

The difference is that I’m taking responsibility for defining my own meaning in life as much as I can, whilst recognising the influence of societal and parental pressures, as well as that of “The Man“.

I get angry, I get sad and I get very passionate about what I see as the hijacking of the human condition by religion’s meddling. People I’ve known with strong religious beliefs have felt extreme guilt or been seriously abused by the people they have entrusted with their lives. For example, one chap I know feels terrible about going out on a Saturday night, in case he should be hit by a bus and die with the unconfessed sin of six days; another chap signed an “employment contract” binding him to his church for one billion years! What kind of purpose and pleasure can one derive from life under these circumstances?

I can’t tolerate an ideology that tells me that “… the best man god ever made, deserved to be damned the moment he was finished.

Ultimately, god isn’t a democrat, he’s a bully. You don’t argue with god – you obey. Life can become pretty miserable if you’ve learned from the very start that you’re a flawed human being, unworthy of the one who created you. The misery that comes from this self-violation of sin compounds itself when the realities of life conflict with the ideals of your belief system.

In my opinion, any belief system that cultivates the sense that we’re intrinsically bad, that ties guilt to our nature, that threatens us with eternal torment and that encourages us to humble ourselves deserves to be seriously challenged. We might not all have these thoughts at the front of our minds every day, but for many, they are there; a splinter in the mind.

Instead of striding through life, standing tall and encouraging progress by choosing how to make the world around you a better place, religion encourages blind obedience, self-loathing and guilt. Without passion, self-esteem and confidence; anything is preferable to life on earth.