The atheist’s purpose: readers’ responses

August 11, 2015 • 9:05 am

I’ve just skimmed the responses to Tom Chivers’s series of interviews on how atheists find purpose in their lives, and one reader’s response stuck out like a sore thumb. It’s a perfect example of confirmation bias: believing what you WANT to be true. Here it is:
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I don’t have an innate desire to find meaning, but rather an innate desire to make the best I can of my ephemeral existence. When pressed to say why we see our lives as having a “meaning”, we tend to answer by saying what gives us pleasure and satisfaction. The reader above somehow tries to gather this behavior under the tent of religion. At any rate, as Voltaire said in 1763 (in French, of course), “The interest I have in believing in something is not a proof that the something exists.”

Another reader gave the appropriate response to Mr. Irvine:

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90 thoughts on “The atheist’s purpose: readers’ responses

    1. Yeah, exactly. Even within Christianity there are multiple interpretations of the faith, so for Christians, while they all may believe in the same god and saviour, the meaning they find in life is still, ultimately, subjective.

      1. Several years ago, a Methodist minister told me there were nearly four hundred identifiable Protestant denominations and concluded with, “So much for a definitive Christianity.”

        1. The Methodist Episcopal Church had no fewer than three schisms between 1840 and the end of the Civil War. These were not so much because of theological differences (though there was some of this) but rather arguments over slavery and church polity. Still, the propensity of Protestant denominations to splinter has been evident ever since the Reformation began 500 years ago. Many of today’s more popular churches are ‘non-denominational.’ But even these are subject to walkouts and bitter divorces.

          1. True, if Christianity had a definitive characterisation, but Methodism is a non-creedal religion, yet most Methodist services include one of the creeds.

            John Wesley’s, the founder of Methodism, who remained an Anglican, said, “Think and let think.”

  1. I have to agree with Ryan on his main point, that the universe gives no hint of meaning. However, if meaning is what you’re after, being a Christian doesn’t solve the problem, it just props up a silly fiction under which a deity provides a pat on the head. I think that’s why many Christians spend so much time holding hands and encouraging one another to believe what is unbelievable.

    1. Exactly. And if the universe had meaning, putting a magic agent between us and it would as per usual make the godsplanation less … well, meaningful … than what nature then would be.

      Religious reflex action: speculate before thinking and make d**n sure you never have to think.

  2. It seems to be a common fallacy among religious folks that their dislike of the consequences of a proposition is somehow evidence that the proposition is untrue. If there were no god, they argue, then life would be meaningless (and we certainly don’t want that). If evolution is true, then humans aren’t “special” (and we certainly don’t want that). If there’s no immutable god-given morality, then morality is whatever humans declare it to be (and we certainly don’t want that). Of course, the fact that you don’t like to the conclusion that follows from a particular proposition is completely irrelevant to to the truth of the proposition. They might as well argue that disease doesn’t exist, because if it did then people would get sick and die, or that gravity can’t be true, because people would fall off cliffs.

    1. Why does the belief that a creator made them allow Christians to feel that their lives have some purpose? OK, maybe there is some overarching purpose, but the events of our lives, such as the loss of a beloved spouse, suggest that if there is a god, it works in exceptionally, pointlessly, and needlessly cruel ways. Why does it provide comfort to be a part of some monstrously cruel experiment by an evidentally arbitrary and capricious deity? And what can possibly be the ultimate overarching purpose of such a deity? Based on how the world works, I don’t see how anyone could conclude that the purpose would be to provide any comfort to humans.

    2. I liked this post! added category in my “Reminders” iPhone under-“What is the meaning of our existence?” I can keep adding other comments!

    3. I’ve heard this fallacy called various things, such as the Argument from Negative Consequences. But I personally like to borrow Mark Vuletic’s phrase and call it “The Argument from Boo-Hoo.”

      My, aren’t we just so special, that the entire nature of existence just MUST be focused on fulfilling every one of our precious little needs … or what, exactly? We take our balls and go home? Stay in our rooms and refuse to come out?

      Playpen Theory of Reality.

      1. Ha – “argument from boo-hoo” is priceless! I think I’d be tempted to reply to this person with “so?”. So what that there are a series of harsh, impersonal events…I hope not all are harsh but why do we need everything to be so personal? Narcissist much? It’s the argument of a 2 year old.

    4. This, and the appeal to an incoherent utterance by an irrelevant authority (C. S. Lewis, really?), immediately struck me on glancing at Ryan Irvine’s response. You expressed it beautifully.

      (And really Clive, simply because you’re poorly suited for the current world doesn’t mean there is a special place purpose built for you elsewhere. It just means you’re a misfit. The quote is irrational.)

  3. I can tell you it make him feel better to say this. He can justify his beliefs and he can feel like a part of a group and feel better than all the “smarty pants” It is human nature.. or a cognitive bias something “the process” (natural selection) wired in our brains

  4. Here’s my take:
    The adage that we give ourselves purpose or meaning must be false if the concept of free will is false.

    Any purpose I might feel, while interesting, is a result of my environment. Or in more prosaic terms … the universe unfolding.

    1. True enough, but the question of meaning in that case really is, how do you accommodate your sense of the meaning of your life with the meaninglessness of the cosmos? So giving ourselves meaning through an act of free will is beside the point. All inputs from genes or environment are used to accomplish the accommodation.

  5. The CS Lewis logic is easily shown to be wrong. Another logical explanation for desires we can never completely fulfill is that an instinct for ‘the chase’ is adaptive. Whether the chase is for food, or social rank, or mating, or whatever, evolution has evolved in animals a desire for gain separate from a desire to satisfy wants.

  6. He says existence has value and purpose because we have been endowed with value from g*d. That doesn’t even make sense. Does that then mean there are things in existence without value and would that reason be that g*d did not create it.

    So g*d made the Atheist as well so it has the same value. That’s a relief.

    1. It’s not even an explanation, is it? It just passes the buck to God while leaving the nature of valuation and purpose untouched. “Value and purpose come from God. Don’t question how, just accept it.” It’s in the same category of “explanations” as vitalism.

  7. Existence hasto be pointless; otherwise you don’t get to createa purpose for it, you can only go along with or resist a purpose that has been handed to you.
    Free will may not be literally true but it still works in a romantic sense. Maybe I didn’t create my world by free will but it is still created through my agency.

  8. It appears that the religious desire that there already be a purpose to life before they live it. They need for there to be a plan that is already laid out for them, created and sanctioned from some deity who watches and judges its humans like a d*g breeder will their d*gs.

    For me, I am quite happy to make my own way. I find my own purpose, or rather, I make up my purpose as I go through life. Right now my purpose is to do some carpentry this morning, and later to sneak out and take pictures of insects. My greater, long-term purpose is to raise my kids to be happy and independent and to stay employed and to live for as long as I can.

    1. all that I can imagine is that the concept of creating our own meaning is harder than belief in a god that allows your life to have that meaning. humans can be (and are) often lazy. some cannot make the mental leap, it seems.

    2. Again I like this comment. I have often thought that people realized that there were people who did things that were wrong in their eyes, but were not being punished like they wanted them to be punished. It was not fair or just! So a creator God was satisfying for a number of reasons including he was watching and JUDGING OTHER PEOPLE! This was their desire and the Hell concept allowed in these people eyes a way for these people to be punished and punished for ETERNITY! Give me feedback please!

    3. “They need for there to be a plan that is already laid out for them”

      I’ve long found it baffling that an adult makes it a virtue to devote his life to deference to another. Could this just be a desire to return to childhood, where your parents had a plan for you and making them happy with you was enough?

      1. I think that it is a reasonable hypothesis that atheism is basically adulthood and that theists are mentally still children. I started thinking this way when considering the rather silly things that religions expect their followers to believe, and that these are the kinds of things that are normally only believed by children. I now think that this idea applies in a much wider way. Your idea about trying to please parents hits the nail on the head IMO.

  9. I remember several years ago, we were catching small mammals in the mountains of Spain, close to Candelario. We stayed on a man-made platform, at the top end of a little road, the start point of a ski lift in winter. A place whith a nice view toward west above the tree tops.
    For three successive evenings, a black cow came on the platform, stayed for ten-fifteen minutes looking at the sunset, and then turned around and disappeared in the wood. We were a bit anxious first, because, well, these cows roaming freely in the mountain are the mothers of the fighting bulls, but she didn’t care about us. She just looked at the sunset, and went away. We wondered: do cows have aesthetical sensations ?
    If even a cow can enjoy a sunset, why should human atheists not enjoy their life, their world and their universe, without worrying about meaning ?

    1. What a wonderful story. I can’t help ( I got no damn free will anyway) think the cow did have some aesthetic response. It fits with my sense of purpose anyway, so I’ll go with it.

  10. If the Rhea person whose comments are cited above is a good example of Goddian “thinking”, then she’s a remarkably poor advert for her case :

    There is a lot of comfort in accepting what we don’t know.

    I guess there is a name for that sort of logical fallacy, but I can’t think if what it is. False premises, I guess, ultimately, But so false that we don’t even know what it is we’re accepting. I mean, if you don’t know what it is that you are talking about – a carburettor, a thermal lance, a purpose in life – then how on earth can you take comfort from it. You don’t know what it is, so you don’t even know if you’re meant so fold it, spindle it or otherwise mutilate it.
    How did Wheeler put it? “Not even wrong,” because at least the essay he was marking he knew what the subject was meant to be.
    Quoth Marvin : “It gives me a headache to think down to that level.”

    1. that made me laugh, thanks. mental gymnastics are just as difficult as regular gymnastics and some are Olympians.

      1. Agreed. Rhea thinks the religious gain comfort from contemplating propositions that they think could be or are likely false. Like my d*g who must gain comfort from thinking the next time she sees a rabbit behind the garage, she will overtake and catch it.

  11. What if we did find out God’s true purpose for us in a holy book entitled ‘To Serve Man‘? I know the older sci fi nerds will know what that means.

  12. “There’s a lot of comfort in accepting what we don’t know”

    True, but I think that people could benefit from having a healthy measure of discomfort – at least relating to ideas.

  13. I find this a lot less comforting than the Christian belief that existence has value and purpose because we have been endowed by our creator who created us in his image.

    I think this Christian needs to be more confused by the response. Where does God get its value? Why is it valuable? Can you make an argument or give an answer which doesn’t presuppose that we already agree on what is, or isn’t, valuable according to standards which we hold and endow upon God?

    Or, to put it in a different way, imagine that God exists but that, when you come to understand God, you are terribly disappointed and unimpressed. God has an innate “value and purpose” which doesn’t matter to you. Or any other human being, for that matter. Do the thought experiment and SEPARATE the great big ‘cosmic’ meaning from little old insignificant personal human meaning — and watch what happens.

    Looks like the meaning flows the other way, doesn’t it? “God” is no longer “God.” Without our approval, it’s gibberish even to believers.

  14. Reminds me of a CS Lewis quote: “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”

    What a strange and childish sentiment. As always, Lewis was fond of inventing evidence where none is available.

      1. Indeed, that’s the primary purpose of all apologetics, whether stated or otherwise: to keep the faithful in the flock, not to convert the heathens. There’s an entirely different strategy and set of literature for that purpose.


    1. Lewis is also fond of deepities. “Desires which nothing in this world could satisfy” can be taken several ways. If animals had taste buds specifically for tasting “salty” on a planet which had nothing which was in any way salty, then that would be a puzzlement. But just because you can’t stop eating potato chips doesn’t mean there’s some giant magic all-satisfying Chip out there which you were designed to crave.

      Every aspect of ‘God’ can be found in the world. Love, altruism, consciousness, goodness, peace, comfort, justice, authority, will, etc. There’s nothing unique about it except for the mental addition of “more/better than I can even imagine” — a concept which takes no great skill in explaining.

      You’d think apologists like Lewis would have realized that, given that analogs in nature are supposed to both describe and indicate the nature and existence of God. But using an argument which directly contradicts another one of your arguments never seems to phase the faithful very much.

      1. But just because you can’t stop eating potato chips doesn’t mean there’s some giant magic all-satisfying Chip out there which you were designed to crave.

        I seem to remember from when I was in high school that lots of girls were certain that they were designed to crave this purportedly magically all-satisfying Chip, though I never quite understood why. Does that count?


  15. I am at an utter loss as to think of how Christianity, even if all claims are true, give any true meaning or purpose to lives. At best, it is the meaning and purpose a master gives to a slave. Meaning and purpose can only even in principle be self-generated from within; if you get your from somewhere else, you’re just submitting yourself to somebody else’s equally-arbitrary whims…save, of course, you’re now serving that other entity’s purpose, not your own.

    It’s like taste preferences. What do you want to eat? Only you can decide if you prefer chocolate or vanilla. Does your choice somehow gain some “higher” meaning if you let somebody else choose for you? Sure, there can be a lot to be said for letting another guide you, such as by going to a fancy restaurant and letting the chef pair the vanilla with the fruit and the chocolate with the coffee or whatever…but, again, I fail to see where the purported meaning or purpose enters the picture.

    …and if there’s not enough really mind-bogglingly amazing stuff to choose from in the smorgasbord of the Universe that you can’t find anything to satisfy your wildest dreams, then I feel truly sorry for you.

    These days, especially. Just pick a random Wikipedia page that interests you and follow through to the citations. If you can’t make sense of the details of something, put the effort into making sense of it…and, hey-presto, you’re on a mind-blowing adventure of discovery. You may even find some paths nobody else has trod before, new ground to blaze…that somebody else after you will have to work hard to make sense of, leading to even more new discoveries….


  16. That thing about us being made in God’s image always bugs me. The Christian concept of God is nothing like us for a start. In any case, the Bible passage on which the idea is based comes from the author that scholars call the Elohist. This is a guy who believed in a pantheon of gods called the Elohim. The chief god El was addressing the Elohim when he said “Let us make man in our image”. When you think about it this makes so much more sense than YHWH saying this to himself.

    Oh, and my life has plenty of meaning thank you.

    1. I’ve always figured that any god who made us in its image could never reward credulity, as this one is said to do.

  17. Finding meaning is like finding exercise. The whole premise is wrong. You don’t find it; you make it, you do it, you ACT it. In fact maybe meaning should be a verb.

  18. Didn’t Epicurus answer this question 2300 years ago? All the rest is what you do in the short time in-between.

  19. It may come down to what Simon Pegg’s character (Gary King)asks in the film WORLDS END: “What the f*ck does “WTF” mean?”

  20. It may come down to what Gary King (Simon Pegg asked in the film WORLDS END: “What the f**k does “WTF” mean?

  21. The Voltaire quote is specifically from his commentary on Pascal’s Pensees (“Thoughts” in English) and largely a rebuttal to Pascal’s wager. (The Voltaire work is “Remarques sur les Pensees de Pascal”).

    I hate to pick on a Christian apologist who was a genuinely good and generous spirit like CS Lewis (he doesn’t have the arrogance or glibness of many American evangelicals though he still has his high horse). But a desire that starts off as fulfilling an authentic need can get derailed when it is inflated to a grand/cosmic scale.
    The desire for sugar originates in an authentic need. But we don’t have a mechanism for restraining it when there is sugar in abundance.
    More relevantly, an orphan’s desire for a parent originates in an authentic need (and is in a sense evidence for the existence of parenthood as a phenomenon), but is not evidence of a Sky Daddy.

    A careful short book-length rebuttal to C.S. Lewis is John Beverslius’ book (about 100 pages) entitled “C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion”, written very amicably.

  22. Do people want to find meaning in atrocities? Atrocities are just that – atrocities. Why would we want to rationalise them away, that somehow the shooting of a bunch of primary school children was written into the cosmic order? That seems really messed up!

  23. Life would be less fun for me knowing that a malicious God is responsible for all the misery we see in f.i. Syria, Iraq. And there would be no way we could do anything about it; we are supposed to even praise this monster.

    So, by far, I prefer the meaningless and purposeless life.

  24. Does life have to have meaning? It’s like asking why don’t I have super powers? Why am I not a god? I feel special already, but not special enough.

    I fail to see why people need to find meaning. And, further, promotion of any of the vile, theistically congested definitions of god is epistemologically repulsive.

    It’s 42 anyway.

    1. It does if the god is the square root of -1. And, considering that I’ve yet to meet a believer who thought that his or her god disagreed with him or her about any subject, I’d say there’s a good chance that “i” really is an accurate descriptor….


      1. Well that makes sense of prayer. It would be, like, your prayer zings our from “self” module of your brain and ricochets off the inside of your skull, maybe several times, before – THUD – it embeds itself back in the “self” module. Amazing!
        It’s like firing a hand gun inside a dumpster.

  25. And crawling on the planet’s face
    Some insects called the human race
    Lost in time, and lost in space
    And meaning.


  26. It’s curious how Irvine dismisses several years of a fine and happy relationship as if it were nothing at all, simply because his magic spirit isn’t present. For his next trick, he’ll convince us that the sun is a dark squeaky toy, and a flying, squawking bird in its vigour and prime is as dead as a comet in deep space, without his magic spirit being present.

    I’m not sure what’s worse: the sheer philosophical noob-level train wreck of his argument, or his breath-takingly snobbish anti-humanistic insensitivity towards other people and their relationships.

  27. I find it curious that those who believe in eternal existence of some kind, immortal souls, often associate the afterlife with eternal love, joy, fulfillment (or pain, suffering for “bad people”) – essentially some kind of perpetual satisfaction (or denial) of a need.

    If life cannot end, what purpose would needs themselves then have?

    What purpose would joy, or fear, have when it makes no real difference in the future?

    If survival of what is essentially you is a given, who needs anything?
    No need for improvements, no need for love, friendship, food, warmth, comfort, or any emotions really.

    Judgement, even thinking and consciousness itself, would be irrelevant, because by default, automagically, we simply continue to exist.
    Memories too have no real value when there is nothing in the future that depends on them.

    So, I would say ultimately if death is not final every human activity, sensation, perception, experience, cognition, would be rather pointless, and thus without any meaningful purpose in the end.

    To me, an afterlife brings no more meaning to anything, it just moves the discussion to the metaphysical arena.
    I guess that involving metaphysics is a distraction to obfuscate the simplest and most rational conclusion, simply avoiding the up front answer by going on detours through the infinite paths that an imaginary world unbound and unconstrained by natural laws provides.

      1. For the believers, they’re identical. Heaven is typically described in terms that render it indistinguishable from a never-ending church service. It seems the purpose of both is to kiss Hank’s ass.


  28. Why is this theistic question always about humans as if they were somehow different from other animals? How does Summer-the-stripey-cat find meaning in her life? What did the lives of my two best-canine buddies Sam and Snowie mean? What about any other animals that any and all of us have known? Any meaning there? If not, why not?

    As for the question of death I find it a much more scary thought that there might be somekind of existence after death. What would it be like? why do theists assume it would be better than their lives here? Maybe it’s much worse…..better to accept that when you die that’s the end of it; oblivion like before you were born. Or like general anaesthesia. Not so hard to accept.

    What we have here is a failure of theistic imagination.

  29. Just occurred to me, watching animals (ants, specifically) – I’m sure they don’t worry about ‘meaning’. So far as I can see, ‘meaning’ is a product of consciousness.


  30. Once again I’m impossibly late to the dance, but for me, it was all answered by Arthur C. Clarke (from his book Rama II):

    In my life I have found two things of priceless worth—learning and loving. Nothing else—not fame, not power, not achievement for its own sake—can possibly have the same lasting value. For when your life is over, if you can say “I have learned” and “I have loved,” you will also be able to say “I have been happy.”

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