Purpose and Meaning without God

We received a letter from “Rob,” who asked (emphasis his):

Specifically, I guess my question is this: how do you go from living a life where you 1) believe in a God who guides and protects you, 2) provides eternal security, 3) makes everything work out, and 4) gives current purpose and ultimate hope to your life, to believing that everything is essentially random chance, there is (probably at least) no afterlife, this life is it, and there is death, dying, pain and suffering all around, to continuing after losing all of that? I am finding myself often consumed with the feeling—if not the belief—that continuing to live is an irrational exercise. That it literally doesn’t make sense. Am I wrong? Why? And have others struggled with a lack of purpose and hope upon turning away from Christianity, and how have they death with this?

My reply:

Hello and thanks for contacting our list.

The first step is to realize that none of the things you thought god gave you were god given, and yet you were doing OK. Nothing about reality has changed—only your perspective on it. So, if you felt that god gave you strength to go through a rough patch, for example, you now know (or should know) you have that strength, but no god is, or ever was, required.

The fact is that religion robs us and cripples us by making us believe we need it. It instills that by taking children and not teaching them how to live without god and religion in most cases. When they try to leave the religion often they find themselves tied to it because they have no other mechanism for coping in reality—a reality they were robbed of a chance to get to know and appreciate, and a reality with which they have trouble coping without the blind obedience to authoritarian rules they’ve been taught to adhere to under pain of death or eternal torture.

That being said, know that you have all the things you had before, nothing has been taken, you’ve only been hoodwinked into feeling like something has been taken. You now may have to hone some real life skills you never had to manage before, that’s true. So, for example, any immorality condemned on god’s command now should be suspect. You now are responsible for determining whether and why actions are truly wrong or harmful. There is no more “I just say it because god said so.” This is another religious projection. Theists claim that atheists don’t want the responsibility and moral obligation of dealing with rules and morality. When, in fact, it is the atheist who must own his own ideas and actions and has no god to blame, only himself. From this day forward, you are a responsible human being in a way you probably never imagined.

So, that’s #1 and #2 of your questions above.

Three (#3) is that things don’t always work out. The universe can be a horribly cruel and pitiless place in which to find yourself. Many people live horrible and short lives or horrible and long lives and never know love, comfort, or compassion from another human being. Be very glad you aren’t one of those, and think about how you might feel if you were. Consider if that is sufficient to motivate you to want to help—knowing that no god is going to fix it, and only other people can lend a hand. To me, that puts, again, greater responsibility upon us all to do what we can to help other people. We can’t suggest they suffer for some divine reason, or that they will have a better reward someday. We must own up and step up. If they suffer for reasons we can alleviate, then they suffer due to our lack of compassion and assistance. And we help them with the knowledge that if we need assistance, most often other people will be there to help us in a similar fashion, because—thank evolution—most social animals really are biologically driven to care about group welfare.

Above may answer #4 as well. That depends on you. You have your life ahead of you after years of living in indentured servitude to a lie. It’s like being let out of prison after having been railroaded in, in the first place. “What do I do now?” can be daunting, but my answer is “live your life.” Find joy in what you do. Show compassion to those around you. Remember that it wasn’t just Jesus who observed that treating others in good ways is a good idea that helps everyone out and makes us feel good about our usefulness. There are countless people and animals and environmental issues just hurting for support and aid. Where to being?! Now is your chance to ask not “what does god want me to do?” but “What do I care about? Where am I needed? What makes me happy?” (Considerations religion often condemns.) The fact that you’re concerned about these questions tells me you have nothing to worry about. You are the sort of person who values introspection and reason. Those things will serve you well and guide you for your entire life in ways god never could have.

On your deathbed, when you say “I lived a full and satisfying life, I did what I thought was right, and I am proud of how I lived,” what would that be referring to? What would allow you to be able to say that at the last? That’s what you need to find and to do and to work hard at during this life—the only life you can be guaranteed you’ll ever have.

>that continuing to live is an irrational exercise

You are right that this thought doesn’t make sense. I have helped people before in ways I know made them very glad I was alive and there for them. I have, likewise, been helped, as well, by people—one person who wanted to commit suicide, believe it or not. But I was glad he was alive, as I was literally stranded in a blizzard in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere—locked out of my car with nobody around. He helped me get to safety, and in doing so shared a story about his family, expressing that he just wants to finish his life and end it all. But if not for him—I dread to think what could have happened to me that night. Suicide due to want of purpose is a sad and supreme waste of resources on a planet where every hand that helps can make a difference and can matter in ways we may never fully appreciate.

I’m glad you also have uplifting feelings. That’s good news. I did a blog post that got some comments that relate a bit to what you’re describing. Maybe reading what others had to say could help? You never know what will make an idea finally click in your head?

http://atheistexperience.blogspot.com/2009/12/wasting-your-life.html

Again, it was mainly the comments I thought of when I read your letter, not necessarily the post itself.

I hope this helps.

—th

Picking Up the Pieces

When I receive a communication like this one, I don’t know whether to be happy or to cry. On the one hand, it’s nice to be able to help someone. On the other hand, I’m sorry to have to help someone put their self-worth back together after it’s been badly damaged so unnecessarily.

I received this note privately from someone on Facebook:

I watch AE on ustream and just wanted to say that something you said really helped me work through a few things :) Forgive me for being candid about the subject!

While not brought up in the Catholic faith I went to Catholic schools and have suffered problems relating to sex due to various things (minimal relationship advice from embarrassed parents, virtually no sex education from school other than in science lessons). I have been in emotionally abusive relationships since a very young age and was taught to feel nothing but guilt and shame about anything sexual. Being English (and from Yorkshire to boot), we just don’t talk about those things with our parents.

Through my self-education over the past few years (and my interest in issues related to atheism) I have started to work through these things that have plagued me since I can remember. It really clicked for me however whilst watching you responding to a caller on one of the archived programmes a few days ago. You were explaining to the caller how we do not need saving from being human. You stated that seeing a person and thinking sexual thoughts is a normal state of being and entirely natural (even essential) to being human and why would we need saving from soemthing so inherant to us?

It sounds silly to say it now but I had never thought of it that way. I’d had so much misinfomation and guilt piled on me that I couldn’t see the blindingly obvious.

I’ve been reading John Gray recently and this concept of the human as animal and natural is only just now sinking in (I don’t agree with everything he says but that part got to me). It seems that you don’t need faith to be still affected by some of the dogma!

I turn 30 next year and have had so many good relationships ruined by this, so many tears and recriminations that I can’t explain it here. I can’t even begin to think how much I have lost.

I’d been working towards it for a while but you really made it finally click with your matter-of-fact approach. I felt like “duuuuuuuh” when I realised the crap I put myself through! And it was totally unecessary! :D

So thank you. I managed to open so much of my life recently and this was one part of the puzzle that bound me to that old guilt.

###

All I can say to her is “you’re welcome, and best of luck.”

And all I can add for anyone else is “Don’t tell me the average believer doesn’t cause any harm.”

Burning Korans, drawing Mohammed, avoiding hypocrisy, creative vs. destructive protests — religion just makes the whole frickin’ world crazy!

There’s a truth about the upcoming Koran cookout planned by Dove World Church and its grandstanding (and light-fingered) pastor Terry Jones: they have every right under the Constitution to do this thing. Are they a bunch of dicks who don’t care about the potential devastating backlash of their actions as long as they get the publicity they crave? Yeah, I suppose they are.

Recently, atheists proudly participated in an online event called Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, which was as deliberate a middle finger to Islam as we could have thought up. Before that, PZ Myers famously threw a cracker in the trash, making him the bête noire of Catholics worldwide. (Though they conveniently forget that he also trashed a copy of The God Delusion at the same time.) As people who are not above acts of deliberate provocation ourselves — indeed, as people who are currently arguing amongst ourselves about the merits of “being a dick” in our encounters with religionists — it would hardly be honest of us to join the chorus of chest-beating outrage against Jones’ church for the horrible offense of burning somebody’s holy book. While most of us, I’m sure, take Fahrenheit 451 to heart and deplore book-burning on general principles as a disgraceful act of intellectual cowardice and the suppression of ideas, we should also acknowledge the legitimacy of the act as a form of protest speech. After all, I can’t very well defend the rights of flag-burners while condemning a Koran-burner. Don’t work dat way!

I suppose where the conversation ought to go from here for atheists is in whether or not Jones is motivated by a desire to conduct a legitimate form of protest, or if he’s simply a crass political opportunist, playing into a rising tide of anti-Muslim bigotry in order to increase his profile from “obscure pastor of an outcast hick church” to “internationally famous martyr and warrior for Christ”. Well, what is legitimate protest in this context? Yes, radical Islamists brought down the World Trade Center. But all Muslims are not radical Islamists, and all Muslims did not partake in, let alone condone, the 9/11 attacks. So if Jones’s idea is that he’s protesting Islam for 9/11, he’s clearly throwing his net way too wide. The thing is, I suppose he knows it, but doesn’t care. He’s getting the publicity he wants.

The potential for hypocrisy in criticizing the upcoming burning has been much on my mind, and I’ve been forced to think about the similarities and differences between what Jones is about to do, and, say, Everybody Draw Mohammed Day. And then I’ve been forced to question whether or not any of my ideas are simply bullshit justifications I’ve been making up to feel better. I don’t think they are. But I do think it’s a positive thing, overall, that I’m willing to be self-critical. This is an advantage the godless life offers, I think, over the brazen certainties of God-botherers like Jones, who confidently assert that God (i.e., their projection of themselves upon the universe) truly wants them to do what they’re planning.

Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, for one thing, was on the whole a creative rather than destructive act of protest. It was a response, not only to the real Islamist violence and threats of violence that erupted in the wake of the publication of a few innocuous (and not especially good, when you think about it) cartoons, but to the arrogant assumption on the part of Islamists that non-Muslims were somehow obligated to follow Islam’s rules. Also, at the end of the day, what you had were a bunch of silly cartoons. While there was a little huffing and puffing about EDMD, in the end, the message I think got across (to the general public, if not to radicals) that taking someone’s life over a lame doodle was both insane and pitiful in equal measure. Lame doodles themselves can’t possibly hurt a fly. EDMD might have offended some Muslims. But in the end, no one killed anyone.

Now, piling up a couple hundred copies of the Koran and torching them — that would be a destructive form of protest. Furthermore, it’s hypocritical of Jones to justify it by condemning Islam as a hateful, intolerant religion, when he has a history of hate speech (against gays, the usual suspects) and intolerance. While I think Jones has the right to go through with his speech, I don’t think his motives are honest. He’s exactly what he condemns, except that his religious radicalism wears a cross rather than a crescent moon and star. (The atheists who took part in EDMD might condemn Islam and Islamist violence, but we’d never want to deprive Muslims of their right to worship, as many right-wingers do right now.)

Could this event trigger more terrorist attacks and counter-strikes against our troops overseas? Yeah, I suppose it could, though it isn’t as if they needed more reasons to do that. But if Jones ends up giving them one, the first such attack will be all the vindication he needs. “See, we were right about how violent Islam is!” Not caring that, in this instance, he threw the first punch. Yeah, it’s entirely valid to condemn radical Islamists for doing what they actually do, which is kill people who aren’t sufficiently “respectful” to their beliefs. But you limit your condemnation to those individuals and groups who do the violence. As has been pointed out to an indifferent Jones, it’s absurd and dishonest as hell for him to suggest that he’s only protesting the violent Islamists, and that “moderate Muslims” ought to support him, when it’s their holy book he’s burning too.

In the end, I think what we as atheists should take away from all this insanity is a sobering realization that this is the kind of world you get when religion runs the show. Belief pits us against our fellow man for the most absurd of reasons: failure to worship the correct invisible magic man in the correct way. And for all that defenders bleat about the alleged benefits of religion — that sense of charity, well-being, love and community we are told believers enjoy better than any of the rest of us — they always leave out the part about religion’s innate tribalism. Whatever benefits religious beliefs confer are only enjoyed by those within that particular belief community. If you’re an outsider…run.

We rationalists can only hope humanity outgrows its penchant for religious tribalism one day, and that all these vile superstitions are eradicated from our cultural landscape completely. (Not through violence, of course, but through intellectual and moral awakening.) There really ought to only be one tribe — humanity.

But until then…yeah, go ahead, burn that Koran. Whatever. I’ll be at home that day. Let me know when the smoke clears and it’s safe to breathe free again.

Something to read with your Monday morning coffee

Everyone loves a good beatdown of those two adorable sad-sack clowns, Ray Cameron and Kirk Comfort. (Or is that the other way around? Oh, who cares!) And here, a fine young atheist writer named Nathan Dickey provides one for your reading pleasure. Enjoy.


Talking to Nathan on Facebook this morning, he brought up that he was inspired to take the opposite approach suggested by this post of mine from a year ago, in which I tried to encourage atheists simply to ignore Ray. My opinion then, which I still hold, is that the vast majority of what Ray says and does is every bit as much about self-promotion and aggrandizement as it is about evangelizing.

It’s nothing but a publicity stunt when Ray and Kirk do things like publish their own version of Origin of Species, or “challenge” people like Richard Dawkins to a debate (simply so they can crow he must have chickened out when he refuses). And Ray’s legendary dishonesty is so shameless in all of his dealings with atheists that for atheists to continue to seek engagements with him can only be seen as an act of futility. This is quite simply a man who cannot be trusted to show any degree of integrity whatsoever. He is a pathological liar, straight up, as we saw most recently in an exchange where Ray informed an atheist commenter to his blog that he would be delighted to phone in to AETV if we extended an invitation to him, as he did not want to invite himself. I immediately went to Ray’s blog and posted an invitation. Ray replied by posting a link to his “interview request” form, which would seem bizarre, considering that I wasn’t requesting an interview with him, only extending the invitation to call us that he had asked for. I say it would seem bizarre, until you realize that Ray is dishonest in every imaginable way. Then you realize this behavior is par for the course for him.

Weeks later, we were told by a reader that Ray was once again repeating the whole “Sure I’d love to call them, but they haven’t invited me!” thing, which makes him nothing less than a blatant, bald-faced lying sack of shit. So in this regard, yes, I still say, atheists should ignore Ray, because he has demonstrated through his every behavior that honesty at even the most basic level is just not part of his playbook.

But then, to do as Nathan has done, and critique the content of Ray and Kirk’s evangelism — well, that remains an entirely legitimate exercise in counter-apologetics. And a fun one too, as Ray and Kirk are without question the most laughable excuses for apologists alive — and when you consider the generally low intellectual level the bulk of religious apologetics is working in, that’s really saying something. So keep tearing apart their silly books and websites and TV programs. As Nathan notes, beating down Ray and Kirk’s drivel can be thought of as the training wheels for newbie atheists just learning to ride the counter-apologetics bike. It’s good sport, and good practice.

Praise Jesus and pass the Pringles!

There is, I suppose, a certain breed of believer with whom there is no point in talking or engaging in any way. They just float around in Happyland with wide eyes and big smiles on their faces, impervious to any incursions by reality. Of course, they often feel compelled to contact us and share the “good news” of their delusions. Take this mail we got today (the rampant misspellings here can be attributed to ESL).

the one way to find out that God eksist, is to lay all your soul and heart to find him. and when you find him, you will see the world different, and see the truth.
but your an atheist so i know that you never will see the world through a different perspektive.

thats the way to find god

Ooo, got us on the ropes there. You may wonder why, since folks like this seem convinced that we’re unwilling to see the world through a “different perspektive,” they even bother to write us at all, but it’s easy to understand when you realize that remarks like this are the defense mechanism of a believer who wants to pat himself on the back for doing his bit to “witness” to the godless while at the same time preemptively shielding himself from any responses he lacks the intellectual muscle to understand or rebut.

So occasionally, I think it’ll be fun to reply to one of these, and I do.

It always amuses us when believers write to us to tell us we “will never see the world through a different perspective,” because it means they clearly haven’t figured out that most of us came from a religious upbringing. Furthermore, in our experience, it is almost always believers who refuse to see the world through any “perspective” that isn’t centered on their God. When they accuse of this, it is something psychologists call “projection”.

We are perfectly happy to look at other perspectives, but — and here is the important part — they must be rational perspectives, rooted in evidence. The problem with the advice you give us for “finding God” is that it is not rational. You are basically saying, “If you decide you want to believe in God, you will.” But this is obvious. Anyone can fool themselves into believing whatever they wish if they are being irrational. They may even say they believe in things they really don’t, simply for social acceptance, and they lose the ability to know what it is they really believe and what they don’t.

To understand why your advice to us is irrational, watch as I take the exact sentence you wrote, and replace the word “God” with a number of other mythical beings. You will notice the advice works just as well for each one.

“the one way to find out that Zeus eksist, is to lay all your soul and heart to find him. and when you find him, you will see the world different, and see the truth.”

“the one way to find out that Shiva eksist, is to lay all your soul and heart to find him. and when you find him, you will see the world different, and see the truth.”

“the one way to find out that The Great Pumpkin eksist, is to lay all your soul and heart to find him. and when you find him, you will see the world different, and see the truth.”

“the one way to find out that Sparkles, the Magic Fairy Unicorn eksist, is to lay all your soul and heart to find him. and when you find him, you will see the world different, and see the truth.”

You see, it is all exactly the same. So, assuming you do not believe in Zeus or Sparkles the Unicorn, I hope you understand how this can hardly be good advice for distinguishing what’s true from what’s false.

The simple fact is that your beliefs, and the way you think people should decide what to believe in, are irrational. And you do not even respect the claims of your own religious beliefs as much as we do, because you are simply willing to accept them with a bare minimum of serious thought, while we insist on giving them very serious thought indeed.

So, do you think any of that sank in at all? Do you think the guy even heard a word I said? Let’s check his reply…

hello again i will thank you for your answer:-)

Its important to see from your perspective also
because not every human do not see the world like i do.

i will not try to make you beliving, but if you change your mind somtimes God is always there. and i will say you that Love of God is bigger then you can imagine.;-)

(ps. love is the answer to all the mysteris in the bible. and its the only place evil can not find)

Thank you fore reading:-):-)
:-)God is Love:-)

Aw, isn’t that sweet. All those smileyfaces. It’s like he really wanted to drive home how completely unencumbered by actual brain activity his empty little head is, bless him.

Of course, he gave no indication he saw my perspective, or that he ever had any intention of doing so, or would know how to even if he did want to. He gives no indication that he engages in the trying task of thinking at all, at any time, about any subject, including his religion, which he simply allows himself to bask in the emotional euphoria of like someone who’s just fired up an especially awesome blunt. Religion is indeed the opiate — or THC — of the masses, everyone, and it comes in dime bags. I’m guessing our correspondent has the munchies something fierce.

An unsolicited chat about Pascal’s Wager.

Out of nowhere just now, I received a message on Gmail:

12:40 PM some guy [screen name withheld]: So you’re an atheist?

Naturally I thought, “So who the heck is this guy and why is he pestering me?” Searching through my email , I found a long exchange with a Muslim, which I eventually got sick of. I even posted about it here, here and here.

12:41 PM me: We had a ten email long exchange about this already.
12:42 PM I posted it on the Atheist Experience blog and linked you to it.
Remember?
12:44 PM Muslim apologist: ah thats right
12:45 PM Why don’t you take advantage of Pascal’s wager?

Now I had to think real hard about whether to just hit the “block” button, because I don’t really want to be hassled at work by some random Muslim apologist. But then I thought about things I might say, and I was inspired. Here is the rest of that exchange.

me: Ah, you mean become a Christian.
12:46 PM apologist: Christian Muslim, Jewish, same god
so ya sure
me: Really? Because a lot of Christians believe that Muslims will go to hell.
So why don’t you take advantage of Pascal’s wager? Aren’t you afraid of Christian hell?
apologist: So do we, I believe alot of muslims are going to hell too
12:47 PM me: So you’re not afraid of Christian hell then.
apologist: of course not. Christians believe those that did wrong will go to hell
me: No.
Christians believe those that don’t accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior will go to hell.
Do you accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior?
12:48 PM apologist: You mean Jesus Christ as in God?
We believe in Jesus Christ
me: Yes, but do you accept that he died for your sins, and have you pledged to let him into your heart specifically?
12:49 PM apologist: We believe he never died…
me: You don’t believe that he died for your sins and then rose from the dead?
Bad news, man. According to the Christian religion, you are doomed to hellfire.
12:50 PM It doesn’t matter if you’re a good person or not. All people who die without accepting salvation go to Christian hell.
Why don’t you accept Pascal’s wager?
apologist: No we believe Jesus is going to come back to earth
12:51 PM me: Then you are a heretic in the eyes of the Christian god, and you deserve eternal torment.
12:52 PM apologist: Accept christian religion was changed over years so you don’t know exactly if thats true or not.
me: I certainly do not know that, but it MIGHT be true.
And even if there is a small chance, then can you afford to take the risk?
I don’t understand why you would risk hellfire over the possibility that you are wrong.
12:53 PM apologist: Well no you see, if the Christian religion was not changed and remained in tact from when Jesus first revealed it then it would be exact similiar to the quran
me: That’s your belief. It’s your business if you want to risk your eternal soul over something when you might be wrong.
12:54 PM Hey, I’m just doing what you asked and taking Pascal’s Wager seriously, you know?
Pascal was a Catholic. You’re not Catholic. Do you think Pascal thought Muslims would go to heaven?
apologist: Why would I take pascal’s theory. Whether I believe in Christianity, Judaism or Islam I am believing that god exists
12:55 PM Christianity and Judaism is just like Islam except for the change documents
only difference is Islam is unchanged
12:57 PM Its just obsurd to think that something came out of nothing
me: Oh I see. So you think there is evidence to support your religion.
So actually Pascal’s Wager means nothing to you at all.
If it did, you’d accept Jesus as your savior.
12:58 PM Why did you bring it up then?
apologist: Jesus himself never died he was replaced by someone else on the cross which latter Christians failed to believe
Islam address this in the quran
me: So you don’t believe Pascal’s wager?
A simple yes or no will do.
apologist: Why would I?
12:59 PM I am in the right religion already
me: then now you know why I don’t believe it, and I have answered your question ;)

Then I blocked him.

We’d like to thank the academy…

Hey, gang, remember that one time when we asked you to go vote for us as best access TV show in the Austin Chronicle? Well, thanks very much for your votes… WE WON!

Got a nice blurb, too:

This international public access show includes debates about religious philosophy while promoting a positive education on atheism. Some of our town’s most delightful free thinkers, including Hepcats author Martin Wagner, computer scientist Don Baker, and aerospace engineer Jen Peeples, host this tasteful approach to lively, interactive conversations with viewers of various beliefs.

Oh my gosh, so many people to thank, if we can just stop crying long enough to put on our tiara.

Congratulations also to our good friends at the Texas Freedom Network, who walked away with “Best Activist Organization.”

Flowchart: Does God send people to hell?

Alert viewer Robert K. was inspired to create this flow chart based on Matt and Jeff’s dialogue with Denise.


The only part that I would object to, a bit, is that it implies that the caller should not be taken seriously if he or she supplies a “wrong answer” to the early questions about what God is actually like. This implies that there is an actual “right answer” to questions like “Did God create hell?”

Of course, the way I see it, the actual right answer is “Of course not, because there is no God.” But even for a believer, there’s no compelling reason why their answers must conform to anything other people believe, or even the Bible. See, that’s the benefit of belief systems that are just made up. Even if they are internally consistent, there’s no chance that you can ever be proven wrong. Even if you are, in fact, wrong.