One of the most common religious objections to humanism or materialism is that such worldviews don’t have any basis for objective purpose or meaning. They claim that without assuming a specific god is real, we can’t figure out if anything else is real, or distinguish between good and evil, or know anything about whatever specific topic they are trying to claim ownership of for their religion.
There are many problems with such arguments, which can vary depending on what the subject is. If you’re talking about morality, I’ve written quite a lot about why morality is inherently subjective and adding a god to the equation doesn’t actually fix the “lack of objectivity” the religious person thinks non-theistic morality suffers from. This time, I’d like to examine the idea of an “ultimate” purpose for humans, something Christians seem to think we need despite it being a vacuous and imaginary concept.
In one of my answers to a list of questions for atheists, I wrote, “…why would such a purpose be superior to the individual momentary purposes we have throughout our lives? What’s the purpose of having an ultimate purpose? In everyday life, most people (even theists) aren’t concerned with the ultimate purpose of humanity, but rather their duty to and enjoyment of the people, culture, and natural world around them.”
But let’s go a little deeper than that. What, precisely, do theists mean when they talk about an ultimate purpose for humanity, or the meaning supposedly found in their specific religion? If I understand correctly, it mostly comes down to a simple sense of wanting to belong within the universe and have a meaningful effect that lasts longer than just our short physical lives…which of course is a natural desire for just about anyone.
Like morality, our sense of purpose and belonging grows out of our ability to empathize, and more broadly from our DNA, history, and life experiences as social animals. Like morality, it started in the context of families, then extended to tribes and became the foundation of violent tribalism that still plagues our world today. In fact, like morality, this sense of belonging is just another natural step in the evolution of an intelligent social species, because those members who feel strongly connected to their group will be more likely to remain in it, form close relationships, and produce offspring.
This is the natural aspect of human nature that religion exploits in order to grow. When the tribal border is drawn around a group of people who all believe in a specific deity, those people naturally feel a connection with each other and act in ways to perpetuate the well-being of the group, often at the expense of outsiders and dissenting insiders. At that point, it’s simple to claim that the deity is what actually makes them feel a sense of purpose and meaning for their life, especially when enough members are raised from infancy to believe it. Also, members who convert into the religion often feel a great sense of hope and purpose, partly from the specific promises of the religion and partly from the sense of belonging to a group, and mistakenly attribute that feeling to the active meddling of a deity in their brains.
All of that is normal human experience; I do not doubt that new Christians feel the things they say they feel. I doubt that they feel it because of a god, and for good reason: people who convert to other religions or deconvert from a religion often have the same experience.
Of course, feelings are a different matter than the objective meaning that deities supposedly give to human life. Or are they? The whole idea of having purpose is rooted in our desire to belong. The whole concept of an objective meaning is based on the subjective experience of desire for meaning. And meaning itself is subjective, just like morality. It is an abstract concept used by humans to explain how we think about things, and without a thinking mind there is no such thing as meaning or purpose.
So we run into the same issue as we do with morality. Why would a subjective god-defined purpose for human life be inherently better than a subjective human-defined purpose? Is there really any difference between the two? How can there be, when we have no way to reliably contact and communicate with any deity? All purposes for human life, even the ones offered by Christianity, are defined by humans. The bible was written by humans, translated by humans, and is now read and interpreted by humans. Any purpose or hope or meaning it offers is just as subjective and human-defined as the purpose or hope or meaning offered by any other religion or philosophy.
Christians sometimes claim that their religion gives a uniquely satisfying reason to live, yet I found it to be the opposite. I found that the promise of eternal life after death cheapens this life; it reduces meaning in this world rather than increasing it. If we are going to live forever, why does anything in this world matter? How does that give my life, here and now, a better purpose? All it did was make me want to leave this stupid and painful world and get on with the eternity part.
On the other hand, if this life is all we get (and that is a reasonable assumption given the data we have), it would be much more precious. Don’t we value life because it ends? Isn’t it more satisfying to follow the unique purpose we desire, rather than being handed an absolute and globally uniform purpose by an authority figure?
Christianity has taken this natural human desire to feel a sense of belonging and crammed it into a weak, self-serving caricature of what human purpose really is. It’s a bland lie that rejects the beauty in diversity and leads people to punish individuals who differ from the norm. It is not original, or revolutionary, or uniquely useful in any way. It’s just another one of the many human-invented religious doctrines that people use to fulfill their longing to be part of a special group, to relieve their anxiety about death, and often to shirk responsibility for making their time on this earth actually meaningful.