Friday, July 24, 2009

A Purpose to Life

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.
(See: Atheistm 101: The Purpose of Life)
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 will need to get the question formed better before we start to look at the possible answers.
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 over it being true that you are just a product of random chance?

The answer to that question is an unqualified, "No, Absolutely not."
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 gave them 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?
No. Absolutely not.
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 being a prop used to set up conflict and suffering 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 thwarting God. Specifically, I would work to promote cooperation and well-being and reduce suffering and conflict. If this thwarted God's plan, so be it. These purposes have a quality all their own.
They are also purposes that I can carry out even if I were a product of random chance.
So, not only is it not the case that would prefer to have a divine purpose. Depending on what that purpose was, I may actively prefer not to have it. 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.


Sabio Lantz said...

"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?"

As an ex-Christian, I think if I asked this question, I would have to say that I assumed my listener would understand that by this I meant that since I was given a purpose in life by God, it must be unique and special. And indeed in Atheist 101 article, that is what he refers to -- a "special" or "magical" life.

So, though your analysis of the words themselves is excellent, I think a "generous translation" would have been nice to see you analyze -- because I learn much from watch the process. By "generous translation" I mean giving the actual quote as you did, and then offering what you feel is the strongest version of their question such that the person who asked the question would agree that, though changed, it was true to her/his intent. Write a strong version that forsees all the objections you would make to the weak version.

Now I probably would not be able to do that in this case, and in some ways you alluded to it in your last paragraph when you said "What matter is is the quality of a purpose". So I guess you'd have to come up with what you think the strongest version of purpose a Christian (and you'd probably have to make it a non-literalist Christian) would agree to. That answer would be fun to hear.

Lastly, I think the question is also odd in the notion of "random" which is a commonly misunderstood nuance of evolutionary theory. In all, the questions like this always come packed, don't they.

Thanx for the post. Loved the hit on the God who wants us for cheap entertainment -- this is certainly a version I have heard by some Christians who then chastise us for questioning such folly by quoting scripture saying, "Should the pot question the potter?"

Doug S. said...

I am so reminded of this comic strip.

And this one.

Mike said...

Christians always lose me when they condemn honorable and charitable people to eternal suffering for lack of belief in their faith. I always imagined myself standing in judgment being scared, but proud, to know that in God's eyes I belong more with Gandhi than with Pat Robertson.

As an agnostic, I find it a therapeutic exercise to imagine all the great people who will be in hell with me with versus the miserable and uninspired people I would find in heaven if I converted. I want to deny the blood salvation of Jesus just for the music alone.

Luke said...

Great post! I look forward to the rest of this series. I knew I picked you for the last chapter of my fantasy dream-team atheist book for a reason.

anton said...

Alonzo, how can you answer "NO" to an "Either/or" question?