I have been wanting to say some things about meaning and purpose for a while now. I just haven't had a good idea on how to present the information.
However, a recent article in the Philadelphia Examiner has given me the springboard I needed.
The article begins with:
Christians ask this of atheists all the time, "What would you rather believe that you were created with a divine purpose in life or that you are just a product of a random chance?"
In discussing meaning and purpose, I would first like to point out that this is not a well formed question. We need to get the question formed better before we start to look at the possible answers.
I also want to make it explicit that this is an atheist casting of a Christian question, and not a Christian question itself. As a result, there is a certain risk that the atheist has stacked the deck. Atheists do that sometimes.
The most important fault with this question is that it is a question about what I "would rather believe".
Consider the question, "What would you rather believe? That you have $1.75 million in your retirement account, or that you have $1.75?"
What I would rather believe is irrelevant. I would rather it were true that I had $1.75 million in my retirement account than that I had $1.75. And if it were true I would want to know about it. However, I have no interest in believing it if it were not true.
So, let's ask the proper question.
Would you rather it were true that you were created with a divine purpose in life or that you are just a product of random chance?
The answer to that question is an unqualified, "No."
What matters is the quality of a purpose, not its source.
To understand this answer, consider the following possibility:
Perhaps I was created by a God who got bored and who was seeking some way to entertain himself. He came up with the idea of creating a planet and populating it with people who he have a strong disposition to accept religious teachings without question. He then went to different groups and said, “You are God’s chosen children. You have a right and a duty to rule over the world. All others are infidels who should be either converted or killed.”
When he was done, he sat back in His heavenly recliner with his heavenly beer and potato chips and watched the unfolding drama of Survivor Earth, and he saw that it was good. Or, at least, he was entertained.
Would I prefer to be a toy built to generate conflict and drama for the sake of entertaining some God?
It would be true, in such a case, that I was created for a divine purpose. However, what matters is the quality of the purpose, not its source. In this case, the purpose has a particularly low quality.
Not only would I prefer NOT to have such a purpose, I would go so far as to actively thwart God's purpose if that were the case, and would count my life as having meaning in doing so. I would work to promote cooperation and well-being over conflict and suffering and, if this went against the purpose of my Creator, then so be it. These purposes still have quality, regardless of whether they are consistent with or in conflict with whatever purposes some God might have in mind.
So, not only is it not the case that would prefer to have a divine purpose. Depending on the quality of the purpose, there are cases in which I would be actively opposed to having a divine purpose. What matters is not the source of a particular purpose. What matters is the quality of a purpose.
I will have more to say on the quality of a purpose in the posts ahead.