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