Agnosticism, Atheism, Christianity, Culture, Faith, God, Religion, Truth

Purpose

For many theologians, their biggest complaint against atheism is that it would mean there is no grand purpose to our existence. I can understand why they would find that depressing, though of course, that doesn’t have any bearing on whether or not such a purpose really exists. The truth just might be sad. Nevertheless, let’s explore that line of reasoning for just a moment. Should we consider that God exists because the alternative is too depressing?

I recently watched a debate that took place at the University of Kentucky on October 12 of last year. The subject was “Science and Religion: Are they Compatible?” Biology professor Jerry Coyne took the “no” position, and theologian John Haught took the “yes” position. Haught’s main argument for thinking that God exists was based on purpose. Around the six and a half minute mark, he noted that our lives can have purpose and meaning if they contribute to something of lasting value: peace, justice, love, truth, etc. But is there anything comparable in the Universe? Is there a larger point to our collective existence?

This question stuck with me for a while. I think his overall point is that while our lives might have some immediate meaning to ourselves and those around us, if there’s no big purpose for life and humanity as a whole, then it’s all just pointless. But if that’s so, then how is God any different? I know that might sound confusing at first, but bear with me. If the value we create for ourselves is ultimately pointless without a higher purpose, doesn’t that same rationale apply to the concept of God? Theologians maintain that if we were the ultimate intellect in the Universe, then life would be meaningless. Therefore, if God is the ultimate intellect in the Universe, then his life would also be meaningless. His only purpose would be the one he creates for himself, because there’s no higher purpose for him to fulfill. If needing a higher purpose is the only thing that gives us true value, then God has no value either, because no purpose is higher than him.

Of course, in the end, I don’t view things that way. I think the fact that we can give our lives meaning is reason enough to appreciate life. 400 years from now, it’s likely that no one will know or care that I was here. But why should I be overly concerned with people 400 years away? It should be enough to me that my friends and family care that I’m here. I can make a difference in their lives, and I think that’s good enough. Would it be nice to live forever in a place of utter bliss? Sure — who wouldn’t want that? But I don’t have to pretend that such a place exists just to find enjoyment in life. In fact, not worrying so much about what might come after death allows me to focus more on making this life meaningful.

60 thoughts on “Purpose”

  1. Hey Nate! I’m not quite sure what to make of these blogging awards but I recently received the “Sunshine Blog Award” and I thought I would pass it on to you. It states that it’s for “bloggers who positively and creatively inspire others in the blogosphere”, and you have definitely been an inspiration in the relatively short time I’ve been reading. Whether or not you choose to accept or pass it on isn’t the big deal to me, but letting you know you’ve made a difference, I thought, was. 🙂

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  2. I’ve been thinking about this recently. Do some of us feel the mystical need to belong to something greater than ourselves? Yes. Would it be nice to know that we will see our dead relatives again? Yes.

    But, do I have to believe any hogwash explanation because of that? No. I have to face the fact that there is no proof of an afterlife and that all evidence points to the lack of a god or an afterlife.

    There is, however, lots that is greater than ourselves: family, friends, country, the human race. We do belong to lots of units of people. We need to appreciate those folks instead of wishing for an unlikely heaven.

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  3. This is quite a good post, Nate. I’m really impressed.

    I guess about the only thing I can add to the discussion is that we exist in time. The fact that we won’t exist later on can never negate the fact that we did exist — and that we are doing that right now. My legacy in time is based on me trying to do something meaningful now.

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  4. @ rodalena
    Thanks for the great comment! I completely agree.

    @ Donald Miller
    Thanks! I wrote something similar a while back. You can find it here. I basically made the point that eternity is somewhat meaningless. Since time would no longer exist in a meaningful way, the sum of our existence wouldn’t equal how long we existed (since that would be forever), but would equal the sum of our experiences. In a sense, that’s exactly what we experience now in our physical life. When I die, I won’t be around to worry about not having an “afterlife.” So the sum of my experiences will happen now, in this life. Therefore, from a certain point of view, this life is “eternity” for me.

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  5. the Ink Slinger :
    Hey Nate, interesting post. Let’s see if I make some semblance of an answer…
    Theologians maintain that if we were the ultimate intellect in the Universe, then life would be meaningless. Therefore, if God is the ultimate intellect in the Universe, then his life would also be meaningless. His only purpose would be the one he creates for himself, because there’s no higher purpose for him to fulfill.
    The difference is that God is God and we are not. God is fulfilled in Himself – He is the I Am. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism sums up, God is “infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” He is complete and entire in Himself. He needs no higher purpose other than His own glory.

    This seems to be the same kind of ‘special pleading’ used when discussing the Argument for God’s existence by design. Things of a complex nature require something of a more complex nature to design them, except God. A universal rule that somehow does not apply universally after all.
    The reasons given, seem to me, to be the same. God, by definition, is God and because he is God by definition, he needs no designer or, in this case, needs no purpose other than his own purpose. I find this to be a non-answer really and I agree that we can’t go much further if we can’t agree that God is essentially defined as existing or not existing. Still, I feel it is a worthwhile topic because it begs the question, “What does it mean to be self-fulfilled if we claim self-fulfillment as a definition of one’s existence?”. Doesn’t including the premise in the argument make the term completely empty?
    Thanks for the post Nate! Really enjoy your writing.

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  6. Hi Nate, Sorry I’ve been off the net for a few days so I wasn’t able to respond to portal001 when they posted their questions until now. This should be fun.

    “this is more related to testimony, but I have a question to anybody who has a faith in Christ… Have you ever had a direct experience of God?”

    Yes. Every morning that I sit and commune with him. And my coffee. And my cigarettes. I doubt this is the concrete answer you wanted but there you are.

    “Can you please explain what happended?”

    It depends. Most of the time I start daydreaming because it;s like 5 in the morning and then I can feel my mind wander into directions I normally wouldn’t have come up with. This has brought me insight into situations at work, at home, with my family and so on.

    “Biblically speaking, is our relationship with Christ meant to be a personal relationship?”

    I honestly don’t care. My relationship is with my God not some book.

    “How does this look like?… what is this relationship?”

    It looks pretty boring. It’s a lot of meditating and trying to see people and situations as you think God see’s them. For instance, I had a friend at work who was a smoking buddy. He was an awful boss to his employees, lazy, and just all around not fun to be around, “at work.” Away from work he was great. My communing allowed me to see that the real problem wasn’t that he was lazy or stupid he was just very unhappy. Once I knew this was able to talk to him about it. AND his performance and joy at work did improve drastically. he just needed to be told he was unhappy to bring his attention to it.

    “How can I have a relationship with someone I can’t see, that I have never heard, and from memory who has not directly responded to me like a friend or family member or a stranger might respond to me?”

    You just have to try. Well you don’t HAVE to try. Contrary to popular Christian belief whether you believe or not, you’re fine. That’s what Yeshua was scourged for. But if you wan’t a relationship with him, you have to try and you will get better at it the more you try.

    “If draw a relationship from answered prayers,even then this is very different from the way I interact with everyone else in my life.”

    Answered prayers are just answered prayers. They don;t mean anything. Much like knights of old settling an argument with a dual because the most righteous one would win. No the stronger knight would win. Winning has nothing to do with anything. As for it being different, well yeah. God permeates through the universe on a subatomic level. What were you expecting?

    “What a strange relationship, is this a relationship?”

    It depends. Do you want it to be?

    “…what relationship is there to indicate that Frank exists? has anyone had a direct experience of God?”

    Lot’s of people have had experiences like that but I doubt that would serve as proof to you. If I were an atheist it certainly wouldn’t change my mind. The best I can give you here is have you risked asking him? If you’re right and there is nothing there, then you won;t hear anything. If I’m right, then you will. Simple.

    “If you read in the Bible, with great revelation came great responsability. God used those people he directly communicated with.”

    Yeah. That parts wicked sweet!

    “Jesus I think said that he would be with the apostles even until the end of the age, What does that mean. Is He with me? What does that look like if I’ve never heard from Him, or seen Him?”

    I Ass-U-Me it means he will always be with us. As for him being with you now see my previous statement; God permeates through the universe on a subatomic level.

    I think that’s enough for now. Go talk to the man. He loves you. Or don’t. He still loves you.

    God bless.

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  7. @ haydendlinder

    Thanks for your response

    You said: “God permeates through the universe on a subatomic level”.

    What do you mean by that? I understand conversing with someone to be a two way interaction.

    A definition of converse:

    1. To engage in a spoken exchange of thoughts, ideas, or feelings; talk.

    2. Archaic – To be familiar; associate.

    http://www.thefreedictionary.com/conversing

    I have asked God to respond to me (maybe I haven’t been faithful enough) and so far I have not (unless I have not noticed) heard or seen a direct response. I haven’t been interrupted in my questions either, which is also something that can happen in a conversation between people.

    It seems to me that a question without a response is a Monologue, not a conversation.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monologue
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conversation

    If God communicates to us on a more profound way than this then I am confused, because the relationships I have between friends, family and even strangers is based on some kind of response.

    Has God audibly spoken to you?
    or has a representative of His physically presented themselves to you?

    Unless there is a direct response am I left looking for patterns in my life and attributing those patterns to God.

    However does God directly tell me that I should or should not do something? Some might say God “speaks” to us through what we might call our conscious? Or he “speaks” to us through His Book.

    But is this a relationship?

    I have had a conversation within every personal relationship I have ever had, otherwise I wouldn’t consider them personal relationships. I wouldn’t consider having a personal relationship with John Travolta, although I might feel a kinship to him, or admire the films he is in I don’t know him personally. Yet I assume he exists through group discussion and videos. However I’ve never had a conversation with John Travolta. Therefore any understanding I have of him is one sided, meaning that there is no relationship between us; he doesn’t even know I exist.

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  8. @ haydendlinder

    Thanks for your response

    You said: “God permeates through the universe on a subatomic level”.

    What do you mean by that? I understand conversing with someone to be a two way interaction.

    A definition of converse:

    1. To engage in a spoken exchange of thoughts, ideas, or feelings; talk.

    2. Archaic – To be familiar; associate.

    I have asked God to respond to me (maybe I haven’t been faithful enough) and so far I have not (unless I have not noticed) heard or seen a direct response. I haven’t been interrupted in my questions either, which is also something that can happen in a conversation between people.

    It seems to me that a question without a response is a Monologue, not a conversation.

    If God communicates to us on a more profound way than this then I am confused, because the relationships I have between friends, family and even strangers is based on some kind of response.

    Has God audibly spoken to you?
    or has a representative of His physically presented themselves to you?

    Unless there is a direct response am I left looking for patterns in my life and attributing those patterns to God.

    However does God directly tell me that I should or should not do something? Some might say God “speaks” to us through what we might call our conscious? Or he “speaks” to us through His Book.

    But is this a relationship?

    I have had a conversation within every personal relationship I have ever had, otherwise I wouldn’t consider them personal relationships. I wouldn’t consider having a personal relationship with John Travolta, although I might feel a kinship to him, or admire the films he is in I don’t know him personally. Yet I assume he exists through group discussion and videos. However I’ve never had a conversation with John Travolta. Therefore any understanding I have of him is one sided, meaning that there is no relationship between us; he doesn’t even know I exist.

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  9. so again, how does God communicate with us?

    If its through other people, then what makes us think God has arranged this?

    If its through feelings, how do we know certain feeling are from God? Unless He tells us?

    If its through His Word, what makes this Book more relevent than other faith texts? Does God need to directly tell us that this is His text

    If its through Himself how does this relationship begin personally?

    Everything I have been told about God has been through other human beings, and the Bible.

    Why doesn’t God express this to me Himself? Not in an abstract way, or in a way that would keep me guessing, but in a DIRECT response, or even a intervention? A conversation?

    is that part of faith – So that we are told things we should accept without God making it clear to us that it was directly from Him? Am I just too spiritually blind to see?

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  10. “God permeates through the universe on a subatomic level”.

    Adjective:

    Smaller than or occurring within an atom.

    in other words does thism mean that God interacts with me on such a profound level within my my existence that I don’t understand if he’s ever directly responded to me?

    or that I am currently in a relationship with Him?

    or if its just a Monologue?

    Maybe I dont want to know, maybe Im scared of having a direct response from God. But then again it all relates back to me?

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  11. Look I think that even if God hasn’t yet directly responded to me in a personal conversation that doesn’t mean that He doesn’t exist.

    but just because I’ve read Bill Gates biography, or heard others speak about Bill Gates? does this mean I know Bill Gates personally?

    if I have read about God, or heard others speak about God
    does this mean I know God?

    The difference is I have seen videos of Bill Gates, and He doesn’t claim to be divine (at least not that Im aware of, after all I dont know him personally)

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  12. noticed I keep typing, if no body I was addressing this to ever responded to my questions and I was to express this verbally this would be a Monologue 🙂

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  13. @portal001
    maybe god isnt there. didnt elijah mock the prophets of baal for begging to their god without getting an answer…

    or maybe god doesnt care… either way, the bible is still written by men, assembled by men, and given to each of us by men. God has not written it, has not told us about it, didnt hand us the copy and didnt even tell us which letters or books were to be included or excluded from the cannon.

    and you’re absolutely right, if we can simply claim that god has spoken to us through a book (that was written by man) or through an event (which anyone could claim about anything), then those are just interactions with random events or other people – god still remains absent.

    in any religion it boils down to believing the claims on other people. if god actually spoke to each of us, .well… that would be different.

    If we look real hard at a cloud, with an image in mind, we may actually see it. say we were trying to see rabbits in the clouds – it wouldn’t be long before we might find one that looked like a rabbit, but you know, it’s just a cloud that looks like a rabbit – not an actual rabbit.

    if we look real hard for an all knowing benevolent creator who knows us intimately out of all creation, then we might start to see it when good things happen to us (taking care of us) or when bad things happen to us (punishment or testing), but those might simply be good and bad things that happen naturally without god’s involvement.

    but keep searching. My search has brought me here, to the realization that the bible is a product of man. I feel like i was blind, but now i see.

    “do you want the blue pill, or the red pill?”

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  14. Thanks William,

    I think what keeps me believing in God at this moment is fear. Fear that God is real. I haven’t yet read all of the Bible front to back. I haven’t yet read enough on biological evolution to reach a conclusion.

    And then of course there is: How will my friends with faith respond to me if I turn away, I dont want to be a stumbling block to others, what if Im wrong?

    I dont want to lead other people the wrong way, especially considering the terrible consequences if did turn away and God is real.

    Most of all I don’t want to be a stumbling block to others I think. which makes me question even writing on this blog, and others.

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  15. @portal001
    I completely understand. it wasnt that long ago that I was n that exact same place. I finally realized that I never really had faith in god, but in the claims of the bible. Since the bible was handed to me by man, written by man, preserved by man, etc, I realized that my faith had been in man. faith that the authors of the bible were telling the truth. Faith in those who loved me and who told me that the bible was god’s word. I also realized that had I been raised on another book, with a family and community that believed in another god, that I would have been influenced to fear that god’s wrath, and be amazed by that god’s grace, whether i fully or completely understood everything in that religion.

    when i actually sat back and thought about it, I saw that the “hard to understand parts” of the bible were hard to understand because they didnt make sense. the parts that looked like problems were actually problems.

    It’s a difficult thing. i liked being a christian and morality makes sense, in my opinion. But i didnt want to go along with a lie or a falsehood. The bible seems to have no more evidence of divine inspiration than homer. any rationalization for the bible can be made for any other book – at least that’s how it seems to me.

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  16. @portal001
    and it’s not between evolution and the bible. Those aren’t the two choices that we have. they are among the choices, but denying one doesn’t mean that you fully accept the other.

    So this is not a case where, “I dont find the bible believable, therefore I now believe in evolution.”

    neither is it, “I dont find all aspects of evolution believable, therefore I now believe in the bible.”

    we believe things based upon whether they’re believe or not, not as choice or by ruling other beliefs out.

    make sense?

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  17. Looks like you guys are having a great conversation here.

    @portal001
    The only thing I might add is in relation to the fear that you might be wrong. Let’s imagine for a moment that God is real. According to some passages in the Bible, he wants everyone to be saved. And according to things like the Parable of the Talents, all he really expects from us is that we do our best. Matthew 7 says that if we seek, we shall find. The truth shall set us free. So I think the question is this: are you trying your best? Are you sincere in your search for truth? If so, then I don’t think you have to worry about your conclusions.

    Plus, I think belief is less a choice than it is a realization or conclusion. If you’ve come to the conclusion that Christianity seems too problematic to be true, but you’re afraid of that conclusion… it’s not like you can pretend otherwise. In other words, if you feel that way, you’ve already come to the conclusion that Christianity’s not true. Faith isn’t something you can fake — I tried it for a little while. But yes, it’s very scary to go through it. Luckily, everyone I know has come out feeling much better on the other side. And it’s not because we didn’t think about the heavy consequences of rejecting Christianity. It’s just that once we realized it wasn’t real, it stopped having an affect on us. For instance, do you worry that Islam or Norse mythology aren’t real? Of course not. Why should you be afraid of ancient myths? The same holds true for Christianity, your mind just hasn’t quite come to terms with that yet.

    As a quick caveat, forgive me if I’m misreading your comments. It sounds to me like you’ve pretty much come to your conclusions, but if you feel like you’re still in the middle of the process, then I didn’t mean to jump the gun on you. But I hope you soon have some peace of mind about things. Really, there’s no reason why you should fear rejecting Christianity any more than you feared rejecting Islam.

    Take care!

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  18. Nate, good post. This comment is just intended to contribute to the discussion.

    Santayana evinced a similar sentiment:

    “If you are in the habit of believing in special providences, or of expecting to continue your romantic adventures in a second life, materialism will dash your hopes most unpleasantly, and you may think for a year or two that you have nothing left to live for. But a thorough materialist, one born to the faith and not half plunged into it by an unexpected christening in cold water, will be like the superb Democritus, a laughing philosopher. His delight in a mechanism that can fall into so many marvellous and beautiful shapes, and can generate so many exciting passions, should be of the same intellectual quality as that which the visitor feels in a museum of natural history, where he views the myriad butterflies in their cases, the flamingoes and shell-fish, the mammoths and gorillas. Doubtless there were pangs in that incalculable life; but they were soon over; and how splendid meantime was the pageant, how infinitely interesting the universal interplay, and how foolish and inevitable those absolute little passions.”

    Perhaps, Santayana attenuates the importance of passion and the percolation of life. Perhaps, he speaks in a timbre that possesses a miasma of melancholy for an antiquated era. However, is it not a veridical and developed portrayal of life as is your outlook?

    Who needs divine purpose? As Mackie stated, “Still less do we need anything like a god to counter the supposed threat of aimlessness. Men are themselves purposive beings. In their own nature they unavoidably pursue aims and goals; they do not need these to be given them from outside. To be sure, their purposes are limited, specific, and above all conflicting; diverse strivings do not automatically resolve themselves into any grand harmonious everlasting Purpose. That is why there is a real and continuing task of inventing norms and principles through which we can achieve some rough approximation to harmony or at least contain within tolerable limits the inescapable conflicts of purpose.” I tend to agree with Mackie.

    Btw, who or what could satisfactorily articulate humanity’s divine purpose? The bible? Koran? Joel Osteen? Deepak Chopra? It is the zenith of temerity to profess with incontrovertible certitude that someone grasps the most intricate, toilsome, and amorphous notion–human purpose–ever encountered by the greatest minds of yore. That this person possesses divine knowledge denied not only to humanity’s most esteemed minds, but every beggarly human who has ever existed. A species who bumbled and stumbled their way through hundreds of thousands of years of superstition, barbarity, and ignorance only to recently discover some configuration of peace and indubitable facts. And it is one of these savages who unraveled divine knowledge? Truly? Leslie Stephen, father of Virginia Woolf, claimed, “(…) that the ancient secret is a secret still; that man knows nothing of the Infinite and Absolute; and that, knowing nothing, he had better not be dogmatic about his ignorance.”

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  19. I – Hate – ALL – Of – You… I’m gone for two days and you guys write an entire freakin book for me to read when I get back! It’s not like I don’t have other stuff to do you know?!

    In case you missed it, that first part is sarcasm. We really need to invent a special font for that or something.

    Hi Nate, This thread rocks:)

    @portal001

    “”You said: “God permeates through the universe on a subatomic level”.
    What do you mean by that?”

    To me it just means there is no escaping him. He is in everything and he IS everything.

    “I understand conversing with someone to be a two way interaction.”

    I’m not sure if you have ever owned a pet or not, and no I’m not implying our relationship with God is the same thing, however my relationship with Buddy, a 75lb German Shepherd/Boxer mix, is not a conversation. Due to how he is built and how I am built, our interaction cannot include a normal conversation. That does not mean I do not love his goofy ass. It just means there are limitation that some day his kind may evolve to overcome. I certainly hope so cause I can think of nothing better than getting your dog to actually do chores around the house. That lazy bastard!

    As for God talking to you through the Bible, he can, but you want to be real careful about that. There is a ton of people out there who take their interpretation of it as the only “good” one. So I wouldn’t recommend it. Generally that path leads to assholery.

    “God need to directly tell us that this is His text.”

    Sorry, but nothing he has ever told me has even implied that the Bible IS his text. It’s a good book like the Koran or the Torah or whatever the worshipers of Ahara Mazda read but if you’re hoping IT will answer all of your question? That’s probably not going to happen.

    Must it be an audible voice you hear when seeking God? I’m just curious if that is a requirement.

    God speed.

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  20. @haydendlinder

    Your unspecific and enigmatic god is an inessential appurtenance to the resolution of aimlessness, an attempted buttressing which is as superfluous as it is incomprehensible. I apologize for my brusque statement, but it is accurate.

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  21. “Must it be an audible voice you hear when seeking God? I’m just curious if that is a requirement.”

    No, what Im asking is how does God have a relationship with us. If have a relationship like that of a pet, then a pet can both see, smell and touch his master.

    What is a relationship with God? Is it all faith?

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  22. @the Ink Slinger
    That’s some real circular reasoning you’ve got going there with the I am because I am, etc.

    Also, which is more likely to be correct, the bible or the Theologians? I understand that it’s the purpose of theologians to interpret the bible, but I’m not certain they’re allowed to rewrite it. Doesn’t God show that he is changing — when in the bible he “changes his mind.”

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