In this post, I'm going to refute the claim that "life without God is meaningless." I'm also going to address some related arguments, as well as some counter-arguments to my position. Furthermore, I'll explain why I think that the purpose that comes from religion is bankrupt and faulty.
We're going to start by taking a look at an article written by William Lane Craig entitled "The Absurdity of Life Without God." There, he writes the following:
"If God does not exist, then both man and the universe are inevitably doomed to death. Man, like all biological organisms, must die. With no hope of immortality, man's life leads only to the grave. His life is but a spark in the infinite blackness, a spark that appears, flickers, and dies forever . . . And what is the consequence of this? It means that life itself is absurd. It means that the life we have is without ultimate significance, value, or purpose.
. . . If each individual person passes out of existence when he dies, then what ultimate meaning can be given to his life? Does it really matter whether he ever existed at all? His life may be important relative to certain other events, but what is the ultimate significance of any of those events? If all the events are meaningless, then what can be the ultimate meaning of influencing any of them? Ultimately it makes no difference.
. . . Mankind is a doomed race in a dying universe. Because the human race will eventually cease to exist, it makes no ultimate difference whether it ever did exist. Mankind is thus no more significant than a swarm of mosquitos or a barnyard of pigs, for their end is all the same. The same blind cosmic process that coughed them up in the first place will eventually swallow them all again.
And the same is true of each individual person. The contributions of the scientist to the advance of human knowledge, the researches of the doctor to alleviate pain and suffering, the efforts of the diplomat to secure peace in the world, the sacrifices of good men everywhere to better the lot of the human race--all these come to nothing. This is the horror of modern man: because he ends in nothing, he is nothing."
William Lane Craig's perspective here is problematic for a number of different reasons. His argument is that the finitude of our lives makes them meaningless. I would argue that the fact that we have only a limited number of days to live makes each day extremely valuable. Since there is no afterlife, we just have this one shot, this one-way trip, to spend our time as productively, as fulfillingly, and as enjoyably as we possibly can. The clock is ticking, and you can't get any wasted time back. Once you reach the end of your life, that's it: your time is up, and then you die forever. So the atheist truly does have a powerful incentive to live every single day of their life to the fullest.
Contrast this with the religious person who devoutly believes that an eternity in the afterlife awaits them. If you believe that you have an infinite number of days ahead of you, where does the sense of urgency come from? Where does the motivation come from to use every single day to the fullest, to make it as productive and worthwhile as possible? Why push yourself to finish that project tonight, or to read the rest of that book today, if you can just do it tomorrow, or if you can just do it ten thousand years from now when you're snuggled up next to Jesus in the afterlife? From the non-believer's perspective, there might not be a tomorrow; there might not be a future opportunity to do the thing that we would like to do, so unlike the religious person, we have all the motivation in the world to use as much time as possible each day to try to accomplish our highest and most meaningful ambitions in life. Ironically, death—the very thing that Craig argues makes our life meaningless—actually makes each moment of our life enormously valuable.
And not only that, but because the people in our lives could die any day, and because we don't believe in an afterlife in which we'll be reunited with them, I would argue that the atheist has a much more powerful incentive to appreciate the people around them and value the time that they have to spend with them, because they will not be around forever.
I also reject this idea that nothing we do matters because we will one day inevitably die. That's because, on the one hand, after each of us individually dies, barring some planetwide extinction event, there will still be people around in the future to look back and assess our lives and our actions. So the way we lived our life can continue to have importance for as many years into the future as the human species continues to live on.
But you might retort with the point that eventually, we will reach a point in time where the human species dies out. William Lane Craig makes this point in his article when he writes the following:
". . . the universe, too, faces death. Scientists tell us that the universe is expanding, and everything in it is growing farther and farther apart. As it does so, it grows colder and colder, and its energy is used up. Eventually all the stars will burn out and all matter will collapse into dead stars and black holes. There will be no light at all; there will be no heat; there will be no life; only the corpses of dead stars and galaxies, ever expanding into the endless darkness and the cold recesses of space—a universe in ruins. So not only is the life of each individual person doomed; the entire human race is doomed. There is no escape. There is no hope."
First of all, I think this assumption that "there is no escape" should be questioned. If the human species manages to continue living and advancing for millions or even billions of years, we very well might discover how to travel from universe-to-universe, thus escaping the dreary end to each universe that Craig outlines here. You might think that's a fanciful idea, but just look at how much scientific and technological progress we've made in a few hundred years. Imagine if we continued our current rate of progress for not just a few hundred more years, but several million or even billion more years. Developing the capacity to move between universes is a possibility in the distant future that is worth considering.
But setting that aside, let's assume that yes, ultimately, the human species—as well as all other life in the universe—will die out, and thus, there will be nobody around to look back at our lives and contemplate what we've done. Even then, I would ask: Why does meaning even need to persist for an infinite period of time? Craig repeatedly uses this term "ultimate meaning," and I think from the context it's clear that what he really means is infinite meaning. Why does it matter if meaning extends into an infinite period of time in the future? Why isn't it good enough for meaning to exist within our individual lives? Why does meaning need to somehow transcend the people who experience this meaning, and is this not a nonsensical concept, because how can you detach meaning from the very people who experience it? This strikes me as a very weak criticism of atheism.
I would also respond to the position that nothing we do ultimately matters by pointing out the obvious fact that what a person does with their life matters to that person while they are alive. Sure, when I'm dead, I'm not going to be around to think to myself: "Man, that was a good life. I'm happy with the way I spent my time, and X, Y, and Z really made the world a better place." But while I'm alive, what I do matters because I'm stuck here with the consequences of my actions. We inhabit a life, we have an experience, whose quality and character is very much in our own hands.
I don't think you're likely to find a person who will say: "I'm going to shoot myself in the ass with a shotgun, and the consequences don't matter to me because I will one day die and everything is thus ultimately meaningless." Yeah, you are going to die one day, but you're alive right now and you have to experience the consequences of your actions. So if you shoot yourself in the ass with a shotgun, you're going to have serious injuries and you're going to be in excruciating pain, and no philosophical mindset that you subscribe to is going to change that. Thinking to yourself, "Oh, I'm going to be dead one day, so nothing ultimately matters," is not going to make the pain from the gunshot wound magically disappear.
What we do matters because what we do determines the experience that we have while we're alive, and insofar as a person wants to improve their experience, or insofar as a person doesn't want to deliberately degrade their experience, they have a vested interest in doing and not doing certain things, in moving towards and moving away from certain activities and patterns of thought.
Craig goes on to argue that the inevitability of death means that it makes no difference if the atheist does great or terrible things while he's alive. He writes the following:
"If life ends at the grave, then it makes no difference whether one has lived as a Stalin or as a saint. Since one's destiny is ultimately unrelated to one's behavior, you may as well just live as you please. As Dostoyevsky put it: 'If there is no immortality then all things are permitted.' On this basis, a writer like Ayn Rand is absolutely correct to praise the virtues of selfishness. Live totally for self; no one holds you accountable! Indeed, it would be foolish to do anything else, for life is too short to jeopardize it by acting out of anything but pure self-interest."
Craig gets it wrong here for a few different reasons. He writes that "Since one's destiny is ultimately unrelated to one's behavior, you may as well just live as you please." The first problem is that our destiny is not unrelated to our behavior. If I shoot myself in the ass with a shotgun, my destiny of excruciating pain will be directly related to my behavior. He's making the mistake of using this term "ultimate" once again; he's basically saying here: regardless of our actions during life, every one of us will one day die, an outcome that equally awaits the brutal tyrant or the compassionate philanthropist. But again, what we do matters to us while we are alive, and it's the "while we are alive" part that matters to us living creatures.
Another problem I see with his argument here is that improving our own experience is not mutually exclusive with improving the experience of other people and other creatures around us. In fact, I would argue that the two go hand-in-hand: With the exception of people with mental defects that turn them into psychopaths or sadists, people feel good when they do things to make the world a better place. This is just the way that our minds work. Normal, mentally healthy people simply would not feel comfortable living a life of complete selfishness, a life where we try to get ahead at the expense of other people, where we try to improve our experience by degrading other people's experience.
Craig writes that the atheist should "Live totally for self[, because] no one holds you accountable!"
This is plainly untrue because, on the one hand, we hold ourselves accountable: We scrutinize our own conduct and we feel bad when we do shitty things; we beat ourselves up when we treat people poorly or do something that harms other people, even when we do so unintentionally. As an example, even when a person accidentally steps on a dog's paw, causing it to cry out in pain, we immediately feel bad about ourselves and apologize to the dog. Why does this happen? Because we don't like causing other conscious creatures to suffer. Again, this is just the way the normal mind works.
And furthermore, not only do we hold ourselves accountable, but the people around us hold us accountable: People are not going to treat you with respect or civility if you're a selfish scumbag who's constantly trying to take advantage of others and pull yourself ahead at their expense. Not only that, but we also have a legal system in place that holds us accountable for our actions. So it's obviously not accurate to say that you should live totally for self because no one holds you accountable.
And what does it say of the moral compass of the religious person if the only thing holding them back from doing terrible things is fear of divine punishment? Who knew that lurking just beneath the surface of every neighborly religious person was such a contemptible sadist? Of course, I don't actually believe that without religion, William Lane Craig would become the next Joseph Stalin, because we're perfectly equipped to operate with decency and compassion without religion. But these are the implications of his own words, so either the implication is true, or the words are false.
Craig writes that:
". . . if God does not exist and there is no immortality, then all the evil acts of men go unpunished and all the sacrifices of good men go unrewarded."
Yes, if there's no afterlife, you may not be held accountable after death; there may not be some final, post-death judge, jury, and executioner to assess our lifelong conduct and mete out punishments or rewards accordingly—but while we're here alive, we hold ourselves accountable, as do the people around us and as does the society that we inhabit. And the reputation that we leave behind will outlive us and continue to persist into the future, with our legacy being either admired or criticized by posterity.
William Lane Craig goes on to write the following:
"If death stands with open arms at the end of life's trail, then what is the goal of life? Is it all for nothing? Is there no reason for life? And what of the universe? Is it utterly pointless? If its destiny is a cold grave in the recesses of outer space the answer must be, yes—it is pointless. There is no goal [nor] purpose for the universe. The litter of a dead universe will just go on expanding and expanding—forever . . . And what of man? Is there no purpose at all for the human race? . . . This is reality in a universe without God: there is no hope; there is no purpose . . . What is true of mankind as a whole is true of each of us individually: we are here to no purpose."
There are several different questions being considered here that we need to be careful to disentangle. One question is: What is the purpose of the universe? I think he's correct that there is no purpose to the universe; it simply is the way that it is and the things that we observe when we look out at the universe are simply the product of the laws of the universe operating on the energy and matter within it.
Another question is: What is the goal of life? Well, if you look at the behavior of organisms across the entire biological spectrum, it's clear that the goal of life, broadly speaking, is to continue living and to reproduce. But that's a separate question from: What is the purpose of the human race?, which is also distinct from: What is the purpose of individual humans within their lives?
I'm not so sure that there is some collective purpose to the human race that applies equally to every single one of us. The biological goal of all life—namely, to continue living and to reproduce—obviously does apply to us, as we are a form of life, but this is more a subconscious goal that's programmed into us as a result of evolution. When Craig talks about the purpose of the human race or individuals, I think it's fair to say that he's talking about the sort of conscious, deliberate purpose that we think about and decide upon. This kind of purpose I don't think exists in a sort of one-size-fits-all fashion for the entire human race, and that's because individuals are different: we have different passions and preferences, and thus, our individual purposes are going to differ accordingly.
So the answer to the question: What is the purpose that individual humans have?, is that that is up to each and every one of them to decide for themselves. But if we had to boil this down and summarize what all of these different purposes share, it would probably be something like: A desire to live an enjoyable and fulfilling life in which we leave behind meaningful accomplishments and improve the experience of the people and creatures around us.
Craig goes on to write the following:
". . . But more than that: even if it did not end in death, without God life would still be without purpose. For man and the universe would then be simple accidents of chance, thrust into existence for no reason. Without God the universe is the result of a cosmic accident, a chance explosion. There is no reason for which it exists. As for man, he is a freak of nature— a blind product of matter plus time plus chance. Man is just a lump of slime that evolved rationality . . . What is true of the universe and of the human race is also true of us as individuals. If God does not exist, then you are just a miscarriage of nature, thrust into a purposeless universe to live a purposeless life."
In this section, he makes the mistake of bundling together the conditions of our universe and the conditions which brought about our individual existence with the purpose that fully formed and thinking human beings operate with. Yes, our birth might be the product of chance and blind forces, but that doesn't mean that we can't create a meaningful purpose for ourselves once we're born and capable of thinking about such things.
Some religious people argue that my position on this issue is problematic. Associate professer of theology and philosophy James Anderson does precisely this in an article entitled "Can Life Have Meaning Without God?" There, he writes the following:
"Many atheists will concede that if there is no God then the universe and human life have no objective meaning. But they’ll quickly add that we shouldn’t conclude that our lives lack any kind of meaning. They’ll suggest that we are able to give our lives meaning, to bestow meaning on ourselves. Since there’s nothing outside us that could ascribe meaning to our lives, any meaning must come from within us, either as individuals or as a society. As Stanley Kubrick once put it, 'The very meaninglessness of life forces man to create his own meaning.'
. . . On the face of it, this sounds quite plausible, even attractive. Why couldn’t we make our lives meaningful by choosing to live in certain ways, by choosing to embrace certain worthy goals? Unfortunately—for the atheist—this idea faces two serious objections."
We're going to start with the second objection. Why, you might ask? Well, because if we live in a godless universe, why should I care about doing things in order? As Anderson writes:
"The second objection arises from what has been called the bootstrapping problem. This challenge is faced by any system expected to initiate and sustain itself without any external assistance. Just as it is impossible for you to lift yourself off the floor by your own bootstraps, so it seems impossible for you to confer meaning on your own life if your life lacks meaning at the outset (whether meaning-from-outside or meaning-from-within). If your life is meaningless to begin with, how could any of your choices be meaningful or meaning-creating? How could meaningful choices arise out of a meaningless life? Can you get things off the ground by simply choosing that your choices be meaningful?
Cornelius Van Til brilliantly captured the incoherence and absurdity of such a view by likening it to a man made of water in an infinite, bottomless ocean of water, trying to climb out of the water by building a ladder of water . . . Could anything be more futile?"
This is a counter-argument that I would describe as verbal prestidigitation. Let's take a closer look to see where he goes wrong. He writes that:
". . . it seems impossible for you to confer meaning on your own life if your life lacks meaning at the outset . . . If your life is meaningless to begin with, how could any of your choices be meaningful or meaning-creating?"
What he appears to be saying here is: When you're first born, when you're an infant or a very young child, you haven't yet deeply thought about and decided upon what your purpose in life will be. So if you start out without purpose, how can you later formulate your own purpose? Well there's a very easy answer to this question: You formulate your own purpose or meaning in life when you've developed the cognitive abilities to think about and answer such a question.
This argument is analogous to saying: You start out as an infant without political views, so how can we later in life create our political views? How can political views arise out of a life that's devoid of political views to begin with? The basic answer is that simple, undeveloped minds are incapable of thinking about such complex and difficult questions, but once our minds mature and develop, we then become capable of grappling with these questions. Yeah, newborn babies can't think about and answer difficult questions like this—but adults can.
This argument is just a word game that has zero force or substance behind it. It is little more than some sleight-of-hand applied to the mere observation that babies don't have the same cognitive abilities as adults do.
Anderson raises another objection when he writes that my position:
". . . suffers from a problem of arbitrariness. If the meaning of life is subjectively determined, then anything could become the meaning of life depending on one’s personal preferences and predilections. Sitting around all day eating donuts and playing video games could just as well be the meaning of life as finding cures for illnesses. A suicidal person would be entitled to make the meaning of life the destruction of his life. Worse still, a homicidal person would be entitled to make the meaning of life the destruction of other lives.
Once we recognize that the meaning-from-within view requires us to treat Osama bin Laden’s self-ascribed purpose on an equal footing with our own, that position seems considerably less appealing. The only way we could non-arbitrarily discriminate between all these subjectively meaningful lives—to deem one better or more worthy than another—is by smuggling some objective values through the back door. Sooner or later the meaning-from-within camp has to pilfer from the meaning-from-outside camp."
I see several problems with his analysis here. First off, just because the meaning of our lives in a godless universe is individually determined doesn't mean that we're completely clueless and that all standards and comparative abilities get thrown out of the window. Why wouldn't people conclude that the meaning of their life is to just eat donuts and play videogames all day? Well, that's because most people's highest ambition is not to be a fat loser who lives an unaccomplished and unfulfilling life; instead, people want to do something important and meaningful with their finite lives, and it's very difficult to argue that eating junkfood and playing videogames is an important and meaningful lifestyle—especially when compared with alternatives that can make the world a much better place in some tangible way.
So yes, while there's no law of the godless universe chiseled in stone which says that people must go down path A, B, or C to live a meaningful life, it's reasonable to assume that there will be some commonalities among the lifestyles that we consider meaningful. These commonalities would probably include hard work towards self-improvement, striving to accomplish great and difficult tasks that make you happy, and leaving work or improvements behind that people will remember and admire you for and that will continue to enhance the lives of people in the future. These common attributes among what individuals consider meaningful lives are not built into the fabric of the universe or implanted within us by a supernatural being, but instead, I would argue that they're simply the product of the average human mind contemplating mortality and deciding upon what is important in life.
And to reiterate, we have the ability to compare things against one another and assess how they stack up. So let's imagine that one person says their highest aim in life is to cure all forms of cancer, thus preventing countless people from dying miserably and suffering. Another person says their highest aim in life is to smoke weed in a dark room and masturbate all day. Even if our purpose is individually determined, that doesn't mean that all bets are off and every person's purpose is on an equal and unimpeachable footing. We can apply reasonable evaluative standards such as: How does your lifestyle make the world a better place? How does it contribute to progress in some area? How does it improve you and the experience of the people around you?
And this is assuming that there even are such people who would genuinely believe and say that their purpose in life, that their highest ambition, that the most important way to spend their time, would be to eat donuts and play videogames all day. If you were to ask people who were out of shape, eating junk food, and playing videogames all day, if they're doing those things because it's their highest ambition in life, I don't think a single one of them would say yes. Instead, they would confess that they have other goals that they're neglecting, that they're struggling to overcome their laziness and poor habits, or that they haven't yet figured out what it is that they want to do with their lives. Just because a person is doing a certain thing in their life doesn't mean that they've made a careful decision to make that thing the highest purpose in their life. So in order to even make the point that Anderson makes, it is necessary to create a hypothetical, non-existent person to point to. This critique therefore boils down to an imagined problem.
The suicidal person also is not a very good example, as such a person is very likely to have some serious problems with their mind and their life: clinical depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, etc. Suicide is a behavior brought about by unbearable anguish, by extreme unhappiness. It is a mistake to place it in the same category as people saying: "Here I am in a godless universe. How will I make the most out of my time?"
Just think about the sort of life that eventually drives a person to suicide: maybe they were relentlessly bullied in their youth; maybe they lost their job and got buried in mountains of debt; maybe their marriage fell apart; or maybe they're addicted to a drug that's destroying their life. Suicide is what happens when things have gone wrong—not when they've gone right—so I just don't think it's accurate to describe suicide as the realization of a person's purpose in life. It's not like the suicidal person sat down one day, contemplated the godless nature of our universe and the finitude of our life, and decided that his highest ambition in life is to get abused by his alcoholic father as a kid, to get bullied in school, or to have his marriage fall apart. Rather than being the achievement of a person's purpose in life, suicide is often what happens when a person has been unable to live in accordance with their purpose in life: when they've not been able to live a happy life, pursue a fulfilling career, or have a successful marriage with the woman they love.
What about the existence of a homicidal purpose who finds killing to be so enjoyable that he decides to make it his purpose in life? Well people like Jeffrey Dahmer or John Wayne Gacy would properly be described as sadistic, mentally-ill criminals, and once caught, such people would almost certainly be institutionalized or imprisoned for the rest of their lives, if not outright executed for their wrongdoing.
But what about the more difficult case of a person who kills not because of mental illness, but for what they believe to be noble purposes? I would simply reiterate that the individually-determined nature of atheistic purpose doesn't make all purposes equal and doesn't mean that we have no ability to evaluate these purposes. Examining the consequences of actions, the intentions of the actor, and performing cost-benefit analyses are some of the principles that we could use to guide our analysis and assess which purposes are inferior to others. Just because the atheist doesn't have God-given standards doesn't mean he lacks evaluative standards altogether. Rational thought as well as ethical debate and progress can take place without a God or holy book to shepherd us along the way.
The Osama bin Laden example that Anderson gives is problematic for the obvious reason that he was NOT an atheist; he was devoutly religious. My contention, and the view that Anderson is responding to, is that when you don't believe in the existence of a God or an afterlife, then it's up to you to decide what your purpose in life is. It's not exactly the most brilliant refutation of this view to point to a devoutly religious person's purpose as evidence that atheistic purpose is fraught with difficulty.
And there's another easy response to this criticism: Osama Bin Laden is simply mistaken about the nature of reality. Given that the author of this article is a Christian, this is presumably something that even he would agree with me on. There is no good reason to believe that Osama bin Laden's core belief system is an accurate one; his religious beliefs are unjustified nonsense. Thus, any meaning that he derives from this worldview is grounded in delusion and can therefore be dismissed, as can the claim that his purpose is on an equal footing with our own.
It is true that the fundamentalist Muslim believes their worldview to be accurate; but just because a person believes that their beliefs are accurate doesn't make them accurate. A good antidote to people like Osama bin Laden is not the dissemination of even more religion into the world, but instead, the dissemination of more knowledge, critical-thinking skills, and tools that can supply people with a more accurate and rational set of beliefs.
It's also important to understand that even if we granted that individually-determined purpose led to all kinds of absurdities, contradictions, and difficulties for the atheist, this wouldn't provide one particle of evidence that a God exists or that a particular religion is valid. It could simply be the case that we live in a universe that is absurd, where the purpose that guides our lives is completely arbitrary and ultimately meaningless. Even if this was the case, pointing this out isn't evidence of God, nor does it give us a good reason to reject atheism or accept Christianity.
William Lane Craig basically argues in his article that if you're an atheist, this might have philosophical consequences that you're unhappy with. As he puts it:
"Do you understand the gravity of the alternatives before us? For if God exists, then there is hope for man. But if God does not exist, then all we are left with is despair."
What if we are left with despair? So what? Couldn't a person be correct and despondent, and couldn't another person be incorrect and delighted? The barometer of true beliefs is not how happy or unhappy a particular belief makes us.
And why would despair necessarily be the attitude that we atheists are stuck with? Why not gratitude or happiness? Your attitude towards life and our circumstances in this godless universe is largely a matter of perspective. Richard Dawkins, in his book Unweaving The Rainbow, expressed a much different viewpoint than despair when he wrote the following:
"We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here." (p. 1)
And Kimberly Baltzer-Jaray, in Breaking Bad and Philosophy, outlines another source of happiness in a godless universe:
". . . how does this recognition of my being condemned to death relate in any way to happiness? For [Albert] Camus, once you acknowledge the absurdity of the universe you must also accept that your fate is your own matter to handle and belongs solely to you. Knowing the universe is without a god, without an ultimate meaning and purpose, means that you're free to create your own for yourself, and you can stop searching for something that isn't there. Having no master in the universe means you are master of yourself." (p. 48)
Let's now examine the purpose that we're told comes from religion. As Tommy Brooks writes in "The Cornerstone of our Faith: Life Without God Is Meaningless: A Study of Ecclesiastes,"
"As he grew older, Solomon made a conscious effort to research why human effort appears to be without benefit or purpose. He discovered what was missing in his life and he used the book of Ecclesiastes to share this knowledge with us. Solomon later realized that the amount we accumulate during our lifetime is not all that important. What matters is that we fear God and keep His commandments (Ecclesiastes 12:13)."
And as James Anderson writes,
"On the Christian view, it’s easy to see how human life in general, and individual human lives, would have objective meaning in all three senses defined above. Our lives would have a purpose, one defined and revealed by our Creator. One of the best summary statements ever formulated comes from the Westminster Shorter Catechism: 'Man’s chief end [i.e., our highest purpose] is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.' Moreover, our lives would have significance as part of God’s wise and sovereign plan for his creation. And as creatures made in the image of God, designed to commune with God and with one another, our lives would have tremendous value."
I don't know about you guys, but I'm just not that impressed by this. "What matters is that we fear God and keep His commandments?" The religious person's highest purpose "is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever"? What kind of a life is that? Christopher Hitchens had a great response to this perspective in one of his debates:
"Do I think I'm going to paradise? Of course not. I wouldn't go if I was asked. I don't want to live in some fucking celestial North Korea, for one thing, where all I get to do is praise the Dear Leader from dawn till dusk. I don't want this. It would be hell for me."
I really think the North Korea comparison is spot on. "Be afraid of the powerful one in charge of everything and obey his rules, but also glorify him and love him." If you were presented with the preceding statement in isolation and asked whether it's describing God, according to Christians, or Kim Jong Un, according to North Koreans, it seems like either response would be perfectly accurate.
The purpose of the religious person, as described by Brooks and Anderson, is strikingly similar to the purpose of the universally-pitied North Korean citizen, who lives under the boot of a crushing dictatorship and is immersed in the most brazen propaganda from cradle-to-grave. This is a very interesting observation that should make the religious person think twice before bragging about the superiority of their purpose in life.
Now you might say at this point, "But Anton, you're taking an unrealistically literal interpretation here. It's not like the sole purpose of the religious person is just to sit in a room and do absolutely nothing with their life except fear and glorify God all day long; we can do these things, and we can follow his commandments, while still finding our own path in life and pursuing an individualistic lifestyle that agrees with our passions and preferences. So the religious doctor, school-teacher, or construction worker might all believe themselves to be following God's commandments despite pursuing different paths in life."
While this might be the case, I see no reason why this is any less subjective than the atheist's path in life. Unless God directly communicates your path in life to you, in a clear and unequivocal manner, how is this not subjective? How is this any different than a person simply deciding what they want to do with their life and sprinkling onto it a veneer of religiosity by crafting some post hoc explanation of how their lifestyle is in accordance with God's commandments?
I would argue that the religious person doesn't actually solve the difficulties of subjective purpose in life—they just pretend like they do. Recall that Anderson wrote that "The only way we could non-arbitrarily discriminate between all these subjectively meaningful lives—to deem one better or more worthy than another—is by smuggling some objective values through the back door."
Given that there's no good reason to believe that a God exists, people who claim to have a solid, objective moral foundation are instead just blindly adhering to whatever moral positions were enunciated by the authors of the Bible. And the idea that not just the most reasonable, but that infallible, objectively-correct moral positions were solidified many centuries ago by the authors of the Bible is completely absurd when you consider how much ethical and societal progress has been made just in the past 100 years.
And even if we granted, for the sake of argument, that the moral precepts outlined in the Bible were the work of an all-knowing god, it becomes clear that these precepts are grossly inadequate when you simply look at them. Take a commandment like "Thou shalt not kill." Does this mean that killing—in all situations—is unaccceptable? What if it's in self-defense? What if killing one person would save millions? What kind of an action- and purpose-guiding document would be so confusingly unspecific?
The religious position is further complicated by the fact that different groups of Christians disagree with each other on core questions of ethics—which is no wonder when you consider how large and contradictory the Bible is, allowing for people with virtually any viewpoint to pilfer the text and find supporting passages for their positions. And not only are there disagreements of belief, but there are disagreements regarding action and purpose. For example, one Christian might be a staunch pacificist, making it their highest aim in life to end all murder and warfare, whereas another Christian might view it as their purpose in life to kill people who he views as the enemies of God.
I would also ask: What kind of an ethical foundation would contain the sort of flagrantly immoral passages and pronouncements that we read in the Bible? And how can we point to religion as the thing that should guide our ethics and purpose in life when even the most casual student of history could provide example after example of horrendous religious violence? And how can any Christian condemn the perpetrators of such religious violence when the perpetrators almost certainly all believed that they were acting in accordance with God's will—that they were fearing him, obeying his commandments, and glorifying him through their actions? Could the enthusiastic participant in witch hunts, persecutions, and holy wars not cite chapter and verse to support his actions? Who are you to question his religiously-supported purpose in life, and on what so-called "objective" grounds would you do so, given that the two of you would be consulting the exact same holy book?
There may be some philosophical difficulties that arise when purpose in an atheistic universe is individually determined, but the difficulties and absurdities reach immeasurable new heights when such purpose is replaced with an ancient holy book written by people who lived in an Ethical Stone Age.
And this religious purpose would be one thing if there actually was a God that existed; but given that there's no convincing evidence demonstrating the existence of a God, deriving your meaning in life from religion is deriving your meaning in life from supernatural fiction. So the religious person actually has this argument completely backwards, because could anything be more worthless than dedicating your life to ancient, religious fantasies? What could be a more titanic waste of our time than worshipping something and attempting to engage in a relationship with something that doesn't even exist? It is laughable to see the religious person argue from this position that the purpose of an atheist's life is problematic.
Whether we like it or not, it appears that we're stuck here in a godless universe with no afterlife awaiting us. But we have the capacity to decide for ourselves what our purpose, what our highest ambitions in life should be. We can use our limited number of days to the fullest: enjoying ourselves, accomplishing great things, and making the world a better place for the people and creatures within it—and we can and should do so without gaping at contradictory ancient fables and without wasting our limited time with supernatural nonsense. The clock is ticking, so get to it.