FAQ: "What is the purpose of life, if you are atheist?"

"What is our existence for? I imagine there is no real purpose for humanity.....what are your thoughts?"

"If you don't believe in God, or eternal life, or judgment for our acts here in this life, then life has no meaning!"

"If you believe that this life is the only life you will have, then why not just kill yourself? - e-mail from a "Christian" minister.

        The question is a very good one. However, it implies - by the very fact that it is asked - that there is a purpose for our existence, and that we need to find out what that purpose is. But why should we assume that there is a purpose? It seems to be a common assumption, especially among believers in God or the "supernatural", that everything happens or exists for a purpose. But there is no demonstrable basis for such an assumption.

        Richard Dawkins put it well:

The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference    (in "God's Utility Function," published in Scientific American (November, 1995), p. 85).
        Many things obviously exist without any inherent purpose. For example, if I find a hundred-dollar bill in the street, I don't ask "What is the purpose of this money?" It is the purest accident that it is there. I may (assuming there is no way to find its owner) create a "purpose" for it, by spending it, but that purpose is merely one that I have assigned to it myself, not any purpose that was inherent in it, or that had anything to do with its lying there on the street.

        Or, another example: If I win a raffle where the prize is a two-week trip to London, do I ask "What is the purpose of spending two weeks in London?" Whatever inherent purpose it may have can only be expressed in the vaguest of terms: to be in London for a while. Anything beyond that is a purpose that I assign to it. If someone presumes to tell me: "Well, the purpose of being in London for two weeks is to visit all the historical sites there and to become familiar with English history", I would object that there are many other possible ways to spend the time, and that suggestion is by no means the only one or even the best one. I might prefer to shop, to go to the theater, to walk around observing Londoners, to spend time in the pubs and restaurants, to visit the art galleries, etc.

        So, for someone to tell me that the purpose of my existence here on earth is something like "to have a chance to accept Jesus and be saved" or "to learn to reject this existence as 'worldly' and 'evil'" or "to pass a test that God told me to give you" or anything similar, seems presumptuous to me, like telling me how to spend my hundred dollars or my time in London.

        What is the purpose of the whale, or the tulip, or the eagle, or the mountain? Some parts of nature we humans can make some use of, even if only to admire them for their beauty, their power, their complexity, or their mystery. But that use or admiration is only something that is the product of our own minds, and does not reflect any inherent "purpose." They simply exist, and (for living things) they exist simply for the purpose of existing. And I am no different. I also exist, and that is also my purpose: to exist.

        In one sense, all living things have a purpose which is built into their genes: to exist, to survive as long as possible, and to reproduce their kind if possible. For us humans, we also want to make our existence as pleasant and painless as possible, which implies (since we are social animals) getting along with others of our kind. All moral codes developed by human beings are attempts to guide us in doing that.

        Does such a view make life less meaningful, less purposeful? On the contrary, I find that it makes this life the most precious thing we have, to be used and enjoyed NOW, to the fullest. If you had two weeks in London, would you spend the time complaining that it was only two weeks, and that you would never be back? Would you do only those things that you think your friends back home will expect you to have done, because you will have to report what you did, and they will "judge" how you spent your two weeks?

        It's your hundred-dollar bill. It's your two weeks in London. It's up to you to decide how you can use it best. You have to decide what the "purpose" is, because, until you do, it has no purpose at all. But that doesn't mean you should simply throw it away.

- Richard Packham


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©  2003 Richard Packham    Permission granted to reproduce for non-commercial purposes, provided text is not changed and this copyright notice is included

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"[I did not wish] when I came to die, [to] discover that I had not lived."

- Henry David Thoreau, Walden

I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young, and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is none the less true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting.

- Bertrand Russell



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