A friend of mine recently read my essay, Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, and she had an interesting criticism of it.
Well, not a criticism exactly. What she said was that it didn’t address her own existential crises. Her non-believer crises aren’t about “What happens when we die?” She’s not troubled by that. Death isn’t the problem for her.
Life is. The non-believer question that keeps her up at night is, “Why am I here?”
So I want to talk about an atheist/agnostic answer to the question, “Why are we here?”
Let’s make it more general. Let’s not ask why we, human beings, are here. Let’s ask why anything is here.
When you ask why something is here, the question can have two completely different meanings. The first is, “How did it get here? What caused it to be here?” The second meaning — often totally different from the first — is, “What is its purpose?”
Example. If you ask, “Why is the television in the living room?”, you could answer by saying, “It’s there because I put it there.” That’s the first kind of answer — “What caused it to be here?” Or you could say, “It’s there so we can watch ‘The Simpsons,’ and the living room is where the sofas are.” That’s the second kind of answer — “What is its purpose?”
So what does this have to with God, and why we’re here?
I think the problem with the famously big philosophical question “Why are we here?” comes, to a great extent, from a confusion of these two meanings of the question.
I mean, if you do believe in God, the answer to both versions of the question is the same. The answer is God. God is the cause of us being here — and God is our purpose for being here.
But if you don’t believe in God, then those two versions of “Why are we here?” become very different questions — with completely opposite answers.
The “what caused us to be here?” version of the question has a very straightforward, physical answer. We are here because of evolution and natural selectionâŠ and in a larger sense, because of the laws of biology and chemistry and physics. We are here because this planet supports life, and life happened to evolve in a certain way, and our ancestors — and their ancestors, and theirs, and theirs before them, ad infinitum — were successful in surviving and reproducing. It’s spectacular, it’s wicked cool, there’s huge amounts of detail about it that we don’t understand — but it’s not conceptually difficult, or philosophically traumatic. It’s physical cause and effect. It doesn’t keep anyone up at night.
Of course, like any other “How did it get here?” type question, any answer to the question “What caused us to be here?” just begs the new question of what caused the cause to be there… and so on, ad infinitum. Once you answer the question of how you personally got here, you then have the question of how humans got here. When you answer the question of how humans got here, you then have the question of how life started at all. When you answer the question of how life started… you get my point. But even when you reach a place in the cause-and-effect chain that’s currently mysterious and unanswered, the basic concept of physical cause-and-effect isn’t mysterious at all.
But let’s look at the other version of the question.
When you don’t believe in God, the question “What purpose do we serve?” is as elusive as “What caused us to be here?” is solid. It isn’t simply mysterious. It’s unanswerable. Or at least, it has no objective, external answer. There’s no-one who put the TV in the living room. There’s no creator or designer with any job for us to do.
But I don’t think that means we have no purpose. I think it means we get to make up our purpose for ourselves.
I think it means we’re free.
And I much, much prefer that. I don’t want my entire reason for existing decided by someone else’s design, like I’m a memory chip in some cosmic video game. I want my place in the world decided by me, based on my own values and ideas and experiences. It’s a huge responsibility — it sometimes feels like I’m carrying a sixteen-ton weight on my shoulders — but I want to decide my own purpose in life. (Lately I’m leaning towards some combination of “Connect with other people and other living things,” “Work on making the world more like you’d like it to be,” ‘Be a strong, interesting link in the chain of history,” and “Get as much joy as you can out of this very short life that you were unbelievably lucky to get”… but it’s still evolving.)
There’s a passage from “The Lathe of Heaven” by Ursula K. LeGuin that says part of what I want to say better than I can, so I’ll just quote it: The hero, George Orr, has been asked what he thinks man’s purpose on Earth is. This is his reply:
“I donât know. Things donât have purposes, as if the universe were a machine, where every part has a useful function. What’s the function of a galaxy? I don’t know if our life has a purpose and I don’t see that it matters. What does matter is that we’re a part. Like a thread in a cloth or a grass-blade in a field. It is and we are. What we do is like wind blowing on the grass.”
Of course, we aren’t quite like grass or a galaxy. We have consciousness, and conscience, both of which make everything less simple. But conscience and consciousness don’t hand us any external purpose. They’re tools we use to help us create our own.
The thing is… believers in God have this exact same freedom as well. Even if you believe that there is a God and we’re here to fulfill his or her divine plan, you still have to choose which of your religion’s specific teachings you should follow, and what to do when different teachings conflict — and of course, which basic religion to follow in the first place, and indeed whether to believe in God at all.
So it’s not as if believing in God gets you off the “What is my purpose?” hook (although many believers do act as if it does). All of us — believers, non-believers, doubters, everyone — we all have the same freedom, and the same responsibility, to decide what our purpose is, and to act on it.