Billboard Heckler – Meaningless Purpose?

Sooner or later I’ll post something about my recent trip to the Barossa Valley, but in the meantime, here’s the next in the Billboard Heckler series. The photo is from the Epping Gospel Chapel, but the sign is also displayed by a few other Baptist churches:

GOD EXISTS - otherwise life's purpose is meaningless

The glare and font make it a bit hard to read, but it says “GOD EXISTS – otherwise life’s purpose is meaningless“, and quotes Colossians 1:16. (They probably mean either “life is meaningless” or “life has no purpose” – I’m not sure what it means for a purpose to be meaningless. But I’m not here to debate syntax.)

It’s a pretty common question levelled at atheists, of course. If there’s no god, if you cease to exist when you die, if you aren’t serving some purpose greater than yourself, then what is the point of life? Why should you bother to get up in the morning, let alone bother being nice to people, if the end result of your life is to rot in the ground and be eaten by worms? It’s certainly an argument I’ve used in the past.

The first and most obvious response is that this proves exactly nothing. Even if I concede that the statement “either god exists or life is meaningless” is true, that says nothing about whether god does exist. Attempting to make it do so assumes that life obviously must have a purpose. Obviously this appeals to something in us, that we want life to have a purpose; but wanting something is a long throw short of making it true. If life doesn’t have a purpose, in whatever sense, then we can want it to be different all day, but ultimately we’re just going to have to grow up and accept it. I see no reason why life logically must have a purpose in order to exist.

Of course, this is where Christianity steps in and says that your life is meaningful, that your soul does live on after you die, that you never have to come to terms with the scary thought that nothing that happens during your life can make any difference to you when your consciousness ceases to exist. I’ll readily admit, this is a powerful concept. A large part of my mind still wants it to be true. I don’t want everything I’ve learned and felt for the eighty-odd years I’m alive to just disappear. But if anything, this is the biggest reason to be suspicious of the idea. Our minds have a natural bias to believe what we want to be true, and it shouldn’t be a surprise to find out that enormous numbers of people believe something that’s comfortable but false. As an atheist, I obviously believe this to be the case with religion – many, many people believe in a god, and particularly in an afterlife, simply because they aren’t comfortable with the alternative, and regardless of what is objectively true.

To take a step back though, what purpose does the Christian God offer to our lives that is so comforting? Any good Christian will tell me that the answers lie in the bible.

Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. (Ecclesiastes 3:19, NIV)

Really? That’s not what the billboard says.

Now, it could well be argued that Ecclesiastes was written as the thoughts of someone who was looking for meaning outside God, as sort of a devil’s advocate, and that he comes to a different conclusion by the end of the book. We should probably look elsewhere.

A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isaiah 40:6-8, NRSV)

People wither like grass? Doesn’t sound much like an eternal purpose to me. The bible declares that God’s existence is meaningful on every page, but this always seems to be in stark contrast with our existence. We are the tiniest insignificant blips on his divine radar.

But I suppose you could say that, although we are inherently worthless ourselves, God gives our life purpose, and has a greater plan for us to make our lives meaningful in a way that we couldn’t do ourselves, right?

And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created – people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” (Genesis 6:6-7, NRSV)

This is one of a vast selection of passages that give the impression that God doesn’t much value our lives at all, and will gladly eliminate us if we are in the slightest conflict with his great purpose. It definitely seems that our lives aren’t meaningful to God at all.

But, an apologist would say, our life’s purpose is given by God, so only by following that purpose do we have value to God. It’s when we try to look for a purpose outside God that our life becomes meaningless. So, ultimately, it’s our choice whether our lives have meaning or not. Right?

What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy. For the scripture says to Pharaoh, “I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses. You will say to me then, “Why then does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use? (Romans 9:14-21, NRSV)

Hang on a second. Paul seems to say that God chooses which people’s lives have a higher purpose and which don’t, and we get no say in the matter. Indeed, it seems that some people’s God-given purpose is to ignore God so that God can show off by squashing them. Those of us who are shown mercy are selected entirely at God’s whim. Paul anticipates the obvious question of the justice of this approach, and answers it by saying, essentially, God’s bigger than you and can do whatever he wants. Forgive me if I’m not ecstatic.

So, to summarise the meaning of life as offered by Christianity: God made us as his playthings. He makes some of us rebel against him, then makes a show of being upset before annihilating them. He makes others worship and praise him, acts pleased, and rewards them by letting them live forever doing… well, he never quite says what, but he promises that it’ll be really good. At any rate, they’ll be with him for all eternity, which is obviously the best gift anyone could ask for.

If this is accurate, then it’s not really very encouraging. Personally I’d rather not spend eternity with a childish omnipotent being who derives pleasure from being praised by creatures he made to praise him, and tormenting creatures he made to reject him. If this is the case, I suppose there’s not much I can do about it, because apparently I’ve been chosen to reject him (six years of praising him to the contrary). But it’s a bit presumptuous to try to entice me to believe in God on the basis that this gives greater meaning to my life.

I want to briefly return to something I skipped over earlier, which is the assumption that life can’t have meaning unless it’s given by a higher power. Some atheists would agree with this, and say that life is just the emergent behaviour of a collection of atoms that isn’t of any particular interest or importance. There’s no single agreed position on this – we don’t refer to some Atheist Bible to determine our unanimous doctrine. However, I would say that life is far from meaningless. Indeed, you could make the point that life – that is, the physical life that we know about – is more valuable, second for second, if it’s known to be finite than if there’s the suggestion of a second, everlasting life following it. Becoming an atheist has made me far more determined to achieve what I want to achieve in this life, since I won’t get another one.

But what can I achieve that is in any way meaningful? I think that to answer this, we should look at what life actually is. Life is, to begin with, an extremely rare combination of molecules that can construct copies of itself, and which gradually grows in complexity over millions and billions of years through a process of natural selection, to become one of the most intriguing structures in the universe. I say “extremely rare” because it seems like it has only started once on this planet (that we know of), and so far we have seen no strong indication that it has happened anywhere else in the universe. That may be because we haven’t looked in the right place yet, but at any rate, life is not something that you can readily come across outside our world. Intelligent life – a very difficult concept to define, but one we all have an intuitive idea of – is even rarer.

The point I’m getting to is this. I believe that the purpose of life is to explore just how far this “life” thing can go. Life may have started completely by chance, but now that it has, it – we – have a rare, and possibly unique, opportunity to explore just what this mechanism is capable of. How much of the physical nature of the universe is our evolved mind capable of understanding? Can we use physical laws to our advantage, to see or even travel to other places in the universe to understand even more? What range of emotions and thoughts is it possible to induce in others’ minds through art? Can our minds understand, model and even reproduce the processes that led to our existence? There’s something fundamentally exciting about this. And, of course, since life is so rare, we should always be looking for ways to preserve it. Carl Sagan said, “Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.”

I can only wax philosophical for so long before it starts to feel cheesy. Ebon Musings has an excellent essay called Life of Wonder that goes a lot further down this path. (I consciously avoided referring to it while writing this post, so that I’m not just adding to the web’s redundancy factor.) Different people will reach different conclusions about what purpose life has without God. But the point is that religion’s offer of the only possible meaningful life is, on balance, not very impressive.


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