Don't let believers dictate your meaning and purpose of life. These are ideas for you to build yourself, and to sculpt as you desire.

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The age-old problem of deciphering the meaning of life never gets old as a philosophical project. The word “decipher” here is the wrong word to use from a humanist’s point of view, of course. It is not that meaning is hidden in the fabric of the universe, laid there carefully by some deity for us to discover. It is not a code to be cracked or a treasure to be unburied. It is not a dream to be dreamt of or a revelation to experience.

Meaning is to be built. Sculpted. Formed from the source material of our lived experiences.

And yet so often we hear this:

Without God, life has no purpose, and without purpose, life has no meaning. Without meaning, life has no significance or hope.

Pastor Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life

When religious people claim that humanists lack meaning or purpose to our lives, I react in several different ways.

Freethought is tough

In the freethought community, we laud our liberty and ability to think what we like. We get to construct everything from scratch, from knowledge to morality, purpose to meaning. But the flipside of this is that such a pursuit can be really hard work.

It is a far more noble affair to construct meaning and purpose for myself—for ourselves—rather than have it thrust on us from above.

There is a reason billions of people like going to church or the mosque or the synagogue every week. We don’t all like the effort of having to build up an entire worldview from scratch. After a heavy 60-hour week, having to sort out kids and their activities, and navigating the vagaries of modern life, many people like to shuffle into church on a Sunday morning to be told what to think.

Freethought, for some, is not the attractive thing it is for others. Freethinking takes effort.

Sculpting one’s own meaning or even purpose in life is difficult. It’s certainly more difficult than being told what your purpose is, what you are here to do and why it matters. You can enter the church on a Sunday with an empty head and leave a few hours later with a mind brimming with new knowledge about your reality, a new sense of purpose, and stuffed with someone else’s meaning.

That’s your meaning, not mine

So I can understand why people might find the shortcut attractive. Personally, I value truth and an accurate sense of reality too much.

But having someone else—whether that be a conduit of God or God himself—tell me what my purpose is, and how my life has meaning, is rather authoritarian. Or, at the very least, it is rolling over in submission and very cheaply giving your own personal responsibility away to someone else.

It seems a far nobler project to construct my own meaning than to defer to a third party and let them define my life for me.

Doing our own spadework

The central problem with most theistic notions of a purpose is that it requires a purposer (someone to import purpose onto something else). If we ask, “What is the purpose of a spade?”, we assume that the spade has a purpose outside of itself to another entity, for a specific end (let’s say, for a gardener to dig). The same question with regard to (human) life purpose would imply there is another entity outside of humanity that can use humanity to achieve a certain end. In this case, humans serve a purpose rather than have a purpose. This obviously raises the question as to whether there is an entity outside of humanity that can give human life a purpose. Is there a creator who gives us purpose?

If we assume that there is a god, and that we do indeed have an objective purpose, where does that leave us? If we say that our objective purpose is provided by a god, it simply becomes a subjective purpose to that god.

It’s not that we should be looking for the meaning of life, but meaning in life.

Let’s use that spade analogy again. If the spade were sentient, and decided that it didn’t fancy being used to dig holes in my garden at my behest (I am the purposer here, the god), but wanted to take on a nobler cause of digging gardens in the community, and helping criminals rehabilitate their ways in a gardening program, then the spade is entitled to feel that its own purpose was superior (even if it was something less morally upstanding). As a god, I could chastise and cajole the spade, through punishment and reward, towards aligning its purpose with mine. But then objectiveness simply gets transformed into a consequentialist purpose, with the spade only adopting a purpose to avoid punishment (banishment to the tool shed) or gain the reward from me as the god.

There is an intuitive lack of objective purpose in the happiness of the spade, since pleasing me gives the spade less punishment and more reward. Thus objective purpose is replaced by the subjective gaining of happiness.

Where does this leave us?

A former pastor and now-famous atheist writes in his book The Good Atheist (and these ideas were further fleshed out in Life Driven Purpose, countering Warren’s aforementioned book):

There is no purpose of life, but that does not mean there is no purpose in life. Purpose does not come from puffing up the glory of an imaginary praise-hungry slavemaster in a magical world, but from solving problems to make a better world of this, the only world we have.

Dan Barker’s The Good Atheist

What happens when we accept the awkward truth that God doesn’t exist?

We necessarily jettison ultimate meaning. I never really fancied having my purpose dictated to me by some untouchable entity. It doesn’t have my permission to define my purpose.

It is a far more noble affair to construct meaning and purpose for myself—for ourselves—rather than have it thrust on us from above.

Without God, it’s just us. You, me, all of us. Thus, meaning is, of course, whatever you want it to be. If you want to change the meaning of the word “table” to mean “chair”, go for it. You are free to do that for yourself. But be warned that it might be advisable to consider others in the process for the practicalities of navigating life.

Likewise, the meaning of life itself is whatever you want it to be, but I would still advise you to consider others in your cogitations and calculations.

It’s not that we should be looking for the meaning of life, but meaning in life.

It might be useful to pose a question at this juncture: What do you want out of life?

This question is met almost universally with some variation of “To be happy, for my friends and family to be happy, for as many people as possible to be happy.” And happiness can entail pleasure, a lack of pain, and well-being in general. We could even talk in terms of fulfillment and flourishing. 

But while we may not be able to achieve ultimate meaning, we may be able to achieve at least some degree of transcendence. Meaning and impact can live on past our lives, through our children or the people we know or the people and world we influence and affect, progressing into the future. Okay, we might have to admit the eventual heat death of the universe or some such scenario. Just don’t be afraid that meaning might be much more about living in the here, living in the now, and perhaps working hard for the future, even if it is not eternal.

What is the meaning of your life? Your purpose? That is not for me to dictate to you. Your meaning and purpose are for you to generate yourself.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...