My mother likes to tell me that “God put me on this earth for a reason,” or liked to. There are a lot of things like that she used to say to me that she tries not to anymore, after my last few sorties into our conversational DMZ. I want it to feel welcome, like a level of acceptance I never expected to get, but that’s not what it feels like. She reflexively reaches to place an affectionate sign of the cross on my forehead at night and instead pulls back, eyes full of pain, and I can tell she doesn’t see the situation at all like I do.
It’s a common refrain, in its numerous forms. “God put you on this earth for a reason.” “You have to find what you’re here to do.” “Seek your destiny.” “God has a purpose for you.” Purpose. Purpose. Purpose.
That’s something many religions say, and that Christianity and Islam are most famous for demanding of atheists they come across. What’s your purpose? What are you here for? And they don’t like our answers: biochemistry, evolution, primordial soup, parturition, the Roman Empire, colonialism, a bottle of wine sometime in February, the love of two people who had far too little else in a cold and scary world.
What’s your purpose?
What they’re really asking is, whom do you serve? What is your role in the grand design? What’s the item number on your cosmic cog? How do you know who you are if no one tells you?
There is a terror underneath their aggression, a terror one can almost see as they demand to know what “purpose” we all serve in an atheistic universe. The Abrahamic theist’s universe is carefully crafted, not a nut or bolt out of place. Every twig and caterpillar, every wave and breeze, every traffic snarl and TPS report, every rape and genocide, has a role to play in the cosmic scheme. Every little thing is part of YHWH’s design, they rejoice, endowed with meaning by its importance to this cosmic game master and the downstream effects it was lovingly and specifically created to mobilize.
Whenever I describe a weird and wonderful animal to Mom, especially a scary one like the giant Japanese hornet, I get the same question: “But…what purpose do they serve?” She wants to hear an ecological role like “scavenger” or a habit of eating agricultural pests, something to indicate the animal’s utility to this planet’s human masters or at least to maintaining an ecosystem. I’ve described a part of the machine that she didn’t know about, so I have to tell her what it does.
And it has to do something, or its existence is without meaning. This attitude brings many atheists to bemusement, but it leaves me dripping with horror.
For what is the meaningof the football stars of Steubenville brutally raping a teenage girl? What is the meaning of 800,000 people being burned and drowned and plagued and shot and stabbed to give Russia a little more Black Sea coastline? What is the meaning of dracunculiasis and Ebola?
What was the role in God’s great design for the multitudes who spent their last days in iron lungs before Jonas Salk’s vaccine could make polio virtually disappear?
It all has to meansomething. All of that suffering has to serve a broader purpose. Some good has to come of all that bad. All of those people’s pain is the raw material of some grander edifice that this god-monster is building, an edifice that is good and therefore justifies and absolves all of that bad.
What does that make those among us who desire to end suffering?
And what is the meaning of three children three-and-change years apart?
When Mom was infuriated with us, she would sometimes say, “I brought you into this world, and I can take you back out!”
It was an idle threat, meant for its shock value more than anything else. Yet in between that is the notion that sets up the plot of most “creature feature” films: if you created it, it owes you something. We serve a purpose. They are sprockets in God’s widget, and we were sprockets in theirs. Atop the respect and love they deserve for being the parents they are, this view demands the unswerving loyalty of the screw and hinge, objects that serve the purposes their creators and owners declare. God is the King of the world, the King is the father of the country, the Father is the head of the household, and the household are heads of nothing.
That is what we repudiate when we declare that there are no gods.
All of these roles, all of these goals and events and happenings, must serve a purpose for the believer. They contemplate a world without this purpose, without a cosmic organizer who painstakingly put all the parts together in the best way possible, and they see meaninglessness. They see a world whose guinea worms and gang rapes do not even have the redeeming glimmer of some grander goal that could be advanced no other way, a world filled with terror and pain for no reason at all.
They ask us what is your purpose because they are afraid the answer is nothing—only to suffer.
They ask us what is your purpose because they imagine themselves totally impotent—only by alignment with the will of the Purposer is anything accomplished.
They ask the what and the why, but the only answer is how.
Why did my grandmother die? A series of strokes and heart attacks after a life of sickliness and dementia.
Why does the sun rise? The earth rotates, continuously changing what half of its surface faces the sun.
Why am I here? Biochemistry, evolution, primordial soup, parturition, the Roman Empire, colonialism, a bottle of wine sometime in February, the love of two people who had far too little else in a cold and scary world.
A cold and scary world whose trials and Japanese hornets and brutal, senseless evil serve no grander purpose at all, so we can defeat them.
A cold and scary world whose hills and tides and inhabitants simply are, to do with that incontrovertible reality what they can and what they will.
A cold, scary, beautiful, amazing, terrifying, sublime, monstrous world that imposes no purposeon us, and in which we can choose what our purposes will be.
That is our world: matter made beautiful by our being here to experience its beauty.
That is our lot: to live.
That is my purpose: what I choose it to be.