Commentary | The missionary’s question

Why we don't need a divine purpose

A few weeks ago, I woke up late in the morning to find my roommate talking to a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses at the door. Now, I’m aware that Jehovah’s Witnesses tend to rank just slightly above telemarketers on the general scale of likeability, but I enjoy talking to missionaries in general. It’s always an interesting exchange of views, and it helps me get into the heads, so to speak, of those that are truly inspired by their religion. Also, it gives me material for the pamphlet collection that I keep meaning to start.

So when I came to the door, I introduced myself as an atheist that tried to keep an open mind. I then stood back and let my roommate do the talking, which he was quite happy to do. We talked about intelligent design, largely; they’d come prepared with a copy of their magazine Awake! And, of course, a Bible, both of which they read us passages of. I won’t go into the details – that’s yet another topic for yet another column – but we found ourselves discussing evolution versus intelligent design before they decided they needed to move on to somewhere else.

“One last thing I want to say, though,” said one of the missionaries. “The biggest problem I have with evolution is that it doesn’t have purpose. Don’t you feel like science leaves you without any sort of meaning in anything?”

It’s a fair question. When talking to people that hold a belief in a higher power, one of the things I tend to find is that such a belief has an emotional draw to it, a feeling of comfort and security in knowing that there’s some sort of larger force personally invested in your well-being or that there’s some sort of larger justice in the world. I can’t deny the appeal: sometimes it would be nice to think that the universe was working for me, and that what I did in my own life had some sort of cosmic meaning to it. By contrast, atheism is thought of as offering a much less sympathetic view: the universe doesn’t really give a damn what you think, good and bad news comes more or less at random, and there’s no particular significance to anything you do. Not exactly comforting.

Many people claim that such a worldview automatically leads to outright nihilism – the idea that life has no intrinsic value or meaning. I’ve even been told that this is the logical conclusion of atheism (which mystified me somewhat). I don’t want to be unfair to nihilists that identify as atheists by trying to exclude them from the movement, but I will say that it’s entirely possible to be an atheist and still have a purpose; obviously, many atheists do have one. Some find it in dedication to an ideology or social justice; others find it in their personal lives, in their families and friends. To go back to the idea of the atheist worldview I sketched out in the last paragraph: this is despite there being no cosmic significance to any of this. There’s no divine stamp of approval that anybody cares about these things.

Because having some sort of larger endorsement for something that you do is entirely worthless if it’s not something you’re satisfied with yourself. Why would you want somebody else’s purpose? If you have no investment in what you do, then it simply becomes a job, and unfulfilling regardless of the wider connotations; “Doing God’s work” becomes “Doing God’s paperwork.” Atheists simply do away with the need for cosmic validation for the things they enjoy and get on with their lives. So, in a way I do agree with the missionary’s question: science doesn’t provide any purpose. But science doesn’t need to: we, as atheists, provide ourselves with our own meaning, and we don’t need to justify that to anyone but ourselves.

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