I’m often asked (as are many non-theists): “If you don’t believe in God what do you believe in?” It seems to me that the question being asked here is more than a question of origins. Rather it is a question of what my life’s purpose is. When approached this way even atheists wonder (perhaps more so) how to discover a purpose to guide their lives in the absence of the pre-packaged traditional religious dogma they reject.
There is little debate among thinkers, psychologists or philosophers, both theist and atheist alike, that religious beliefs allow us to rationalize (though I would argue not to explain) our darkest moments. Theistic beliefs also allow us to attempt answers (though I would argue unfulfilling ones) to questions about the nature and meaning of the universe we find ourselves in. I have touched on these topics in an earlier post.
It is also true however that the progress of scientific knowledge pushes us to a world where we no longer run to the supernatural to answer questions about natural phenomena. In parallel, technological advances allow us to better tackle the harsh difficulties of being human on a sometimes unforgiving planet. As we arrive at the realization of the inefficacy of the supernatural at tackling these traditional areas we have become increasingly more comfortable with departing from faith and religion as a crutch for our ignorance and helplessness.
Belief systems however do more than just comfort us and pretend to answer questions about nature. They often serve another function which is real and non-trivial. Throughout our history we have accepted and taken for granted the meaning and purpose ascribed to our lives by systems of belief. I am careful here to use the broader term “belief system” rather than simply religion, because even secular systems of human organization often do the same.
It is easy to quote scripture on this subject:
“And I Allah have not created the Jinn and Mankind except that they should worship me.”
The Quran, Surah AL-Dhariyat, Verse 56
Religion tells us what our purpose here on earth must be, it excuses us from defining our own reality independent of the wishes of some alleged deity. But let’s be fair, so do Capitalism,Socialism or Anarchism to some extent. Questioning the idea that we have to work to build wealth may be regarded with the same degree of disdain in some circles as any anti-theistic notion might be in religious audiences.
The truth however is that we need not be tied to any dogmas that are so rigid in their doctrine or their implementation. We are free, armed with an increasing knowledge about the physical nature of our world and the growing realization of our interconnectedness to define our own meaning of life.
Ultimately we have to decide: How do we choose to journey through our short, fleeting and unpredictable lives? Are we to behave (in spite of all the evidence amassed against such a philosophy) as though some external infinitely intelligent agent is the determinant of our fates and more importantly, our purpose? Or can we come to the realization that our existence, though brought about by some measure of chance need not be empty of purpose because of it. Will we accept in an adult, sober and infinitely more rewarding- albeit much more difficult fashion- that the purpose of one’s life is a challenge to be defined by oneself.
Yes, the cost of our freedom from the false specter of dictatorial divine characters, is the obligation to do the intellectual heavy lifting necessary to figure out what purpose to best choose for ourselves; as individuals, as societies and as humanity.
As the number of us who reach a level of material progress that allows us the necessary reprieve to ask this question grows, I am convinced we will be prepared to make the later choice: The choice of self-determination, decoupled from the ignorance of our ancestors.
In so doing we will realize that while the hard work of deciding our lives’ purpose may seem to be a chore, the freedom to live one’s life according to a self-directed purpose is the greatest reward that our enlightenment bestows on us.