In my essay, “The Myth of Christian Joy,” I dealt with the proposition that faith in God is a source of additional happiness. God’s love, Christians argue, is both cause for continuing joy and a means by which they can recover their happiness in the face of adversity. In this essay, I would like to address the flipside to that discussion, the idea that lack of belief in God is reason for despair.
Christians argue that it is only because God created the universe with a plan and that humankind is central to that plan that life has purpose. They assert that if God did not exist, if the universe simply is and if the future will blindly roll on in accordance with the laws of nature, then human life would have no ultimate purpose. If, as an atheist, one rejects the notion of a divine purpose, then life has no meaning and that has to be a cause for despair. I am here to tell you that that conclusion is simply not true.
The problem is not with the logic of the first part of the argument. In fact, I would agree that absent the existence of God and the existence of a divine plan, our lives do not have an ultimate purpose. My disagreement is with the idea that the lack of an ultimate purpose is reason for despair.
Here is where the confusion lies. We are actually speaking about two different kinds of purpose. There is “divine purpose,” if you will, the one I just mentioned. This supposes that we are actually living out God’s plan, which we know through scripture or other authority. And then there are “personal purposes.” Such purposes may be specific and near-term, like a purpose to write and post this essay or to plan a vacation or to go to dinner with friends. Or such purposes may be more general and long-term, such a purpose to live a good and moral life. But whatever they are, they are ones that we create for ourselves.
As an atheist, I believe that divine purposes are illusory. Since there is no God, there is no ultimate purpose to the universe. But rather than being a source of despair, that fact becomes a source of joy. Why? Because I derive considerable happiness from establishing my own personal purposes and then setting out to fulfill them. In short, that is the adventure of life and it’s something we all do, Christians and atheists alike. That’s not to say that I always achieve my purposes, my goals. But that just makes life more interesting. Moreover--and this is key--in developing my personal goals I am not constrained by rules that were created under the premise that this life is just a prelude to the next or that are designed to force conformity to a particular moral perspective.
To help understand this point, I would suggest the following thought experiment: Ask yourself how you would live your life differently if you knew that there was no life after this one, that this was the only one you would have. It is clear, I believe, that you would do certain things differently. There are some things that you would want to do while you had the opportunity and there other behaviors that you would probably discard. Moreover, there are almost certainly some matters of guilt that you would no longer entertain. Well, I’m here to reassure you that you can make those changes. And it’s OK.
© 2014 John M. Phillips