How do the atheist and the theist answer the question of purpose?
Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.Viktor Frankl1
Have you ever asked yourself, “Why am I here?” It seems everyone does at some point. Even the most non-philosophical or irreligious person at one time or another wonders what it’s all about.
What’s my purpose? What’s the meaning of it all? Why am I here? Where am I going?2
Our answers to these questions depend very much on our worldview.
The atheistic or naturalistic explanation of the world is that there is no higher reason we’re here. The universe and everything in it—us included—happened purely by accident.
Thus, we should all “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”3
Embodying this perspective is a small but vocal minority of the population.4 Some of the more evangelical advocates of this view call themselves the “New Atheists.” Differentiating themselves from other skeptics, they argue that “religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises.”5
In other words, they have become missionaries for the view that we are here by coincidence—the chance combination of gases, random mutation, and natural selection.6
On the other end of the spectrum, the theistic worldview suggests that God, gods, or some supreme being is responsible for the world and our lives. In this view, most advocates would suggest our purpose is to please or in some way live up to the standards of our creator.
And of course, there are many perspectives between that of the atheist and that of the theist.
For example, Aristotle, in the first line of his treatise Nicomachean Ethics, argued that everything is to be done with a goal, and that goal is to do good.7 In other words, our highest and best use is to be an agent of good works in everything we do.
Cynics, representing another school of philosophic thought, propose that the reason we’re here is to live a life of virtue. This usually entails overcoming the ubiquitous temptations of power, wealth, fame, and possessions.
Beckoning people in yet another direction, Epicureans argue that life’s purpose is to seek simple pleasure.
God or No God?
When we boil it down, though, the biggest factor in answering this question is whether or not there is something or someone outside ourselves to whom we owe our existence. For if there is no creator, then there is no ultimate purpose.
Indeed, philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre went as far as to say that because life is meaningless, perhaps the best thing we can do is to end our lives. “Suicide is, according to Sartre, an opportunity to stake out our understanding of our essence as individuals in a godless world.”8
But as unsatisfying as suicide is to most people, so too is the idea that there is nothing more to this life, nothing more than this life.9 In the United States, while the majority of the population is not actively involved in organized religion, more than 80 percent believes in God.10
Theists would argue that this belief is caused by an innate wiring to seek the transcendent. C. S. Lewis wrote, “If I discover within myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”11
And if there is a creator—assuming he/she/it is not arbitrary—then each of us has meaning and purpose simply because creators create for a reason. I bake a cake to share with others or to enjoy myself. I build a house to live in. It would be meaningless to create these things with no purpose.
Faith, Either Way
In the end, because God’s existence and divine will cannot be proven or disproven, it seems we’ll continue to ask questions of meaning, purpose, and destiny. Belief or disbelief in God is a matter of faith, either way.
Yet if answers implicitly hinge on the existence or nonexistence of a God, perhaps we’re all left with a decision, or as Blaise Pascal called it, a wager.12
According to Pascal’s Wager, either God exists or he doesn’t. And either I believe in him or I don’t. Those who believe in God lose nothing, even if he does not exist. But those who do not believe in God run the risk of losing everything.
So, as the wager suggests, bet in favor of God; if you win, you win everything. Bet against God, and if you’re right, nothing gained, nothing lost. If you lose, though, it’s a really, really big loss.
In other words, resolve the God question first, and “Why am I here?” becomes a much easier question to address. But start with the latter question, and you may never be able to answer either.