Oct 14

Christian and Atheist Round Table Discussion and Q&A: Purpose

A few days ago, I discussed the roundtable discussion and Q&A with local Christian and atheist speakers. I recapped some general thoughts and provided some further arguments pertaining to the origins discussion. Today, I want to discuss the next topic—purpose. I don’t recall any substantial arguments offered from the theists that required rebuttal. So, I’ll simply mention a few points that were made and discuss some general observations about purpose in these arguments.


Arguments about atheists and purpose tend to be cost-based arguments. They present some cost you wouldn’t want to lose, if you can help it, and then say atheism will make you lose it. I’m not a fan of cost-based arguments because they don’t concern what is true, but what we want to be true. That’s enough in my mind to not spend too much time covering it. However, I will still touch on a few points.

Given what I’ve just said about cost-based arguments, these are generally used by apologists merely because they are effective at creating an emotional response. People are susceptible to feeling hopeless sometimes or to fearing death. I’ll take my cue from John Danaher and offer this quote from Macbeth as an example of a very human reaction:

“She should have died hereafter. There would have been a time for such a word. Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time, and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Apologists will say that atheism doesn’t have any way to answer such sorrow or hopelessness because it doesn’t give you any ultimate purpose in life, but theism does. The first thing to note is that it’s not clear theism provides any advantage in making people feel better about tragedy or fear of death. Plenty of religious people commit suicide, cry for lost loved ones, or experience great fear and uncertainty at the end of their own lives. You might even say Jesus experienced something like this when he was close to death.

The second thing to note is to be wary of attempts to conflate having no cosmic or everlasting purpose with having no purpose at all. Purpose, I think we can safely say, is derived from reasons for action. Such reasons might be caring for a child that needs your help, feeding yourself to stay alive, putting gas in your car when it is low, reading because you enjoy it, working to pay for things you want, or perhaps a God demanding obedience to some law. Clearly, reasons for action exist for both atheists and theists. Theists ought to admit this because they don’t want to say their only purposeful actions are those derived from God’s commands. Rather, I think it’s fair to say they think we can distinguish between ordinary purpose (OP) and cosmic purpose (CP).

Now, we ought to ask, “What are the crucial differences between OP and CP and is it important?” There seem to be two. First, according to the theist, the commands in CP come from a being capable of issuing ‘ought’ sorts of commands. I will save this for next time when I recap the morality discussion. Second, the commands in CP are everlasting through space and time. Consider this common phrasing of the problem from William Lane Craig:

“If God does not exist, life is ultimately meaningless. If your life is doomed to end in death, then ultimately it does not matter how you live. In the end it makes no ultimate difference whether you existed or not. Sure, your life might have a relative significance in that you influenced others or affected the course of history. But ultimately mankind is doomed to perish in the heat death of the universe. Ultimately it makes no difference who you are or what you do. Your life is inconsequential.”

The claims here tend to make me say either “So what?” or “you’re exaggerating.” Who cares if the universe ends in a heat death? Imagine you wake up tomorrow to some new scientific discovery that says the universe will just continue on forever. Does that make any difference to you? I would suggest it does not make our purposes any more valuable, even if you add in that some being will exist through all time that will remember what I’ve done. I don’t particularly care what will happen 30 billion years from now. My concerns are more immediate than that and don’t have any aspirations to become eternal.

Nothing has ever been done by theists to show that this eternal aspect is necessary for purpose. All they do is make exaggerated statements about inconsequential lives or hopelessness. Again, this is a cost-based argument. Nothing is really being shown here. Craig and others just hope you’ll find this depressing. I don’t find it depressing because I don’t think my life is inconsequential. The sorts of consequences and hopes I care about don’t happen in a magical cosmic realm and they don’t happen tens of billions of years hence. This difference between OP and CP simply does not seem to matter. I suppose the only way the difference between OP and CP would matter to me is if I really did have to live forever in a Heaven or Hell. But this argument from purpose doesn’t even attempt to establish that such a future realm really exists. Nor do I think it can be done.

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1 comment

  1. Pro

    Atheists apparently make their claim of “having purpose” by expressing that others do not have purpose.

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