Do Atheists Have Less Purpose and Hope?

by Luke Muehlhauser on July 17, 2009 in General Atheism

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Christians ask me less about the rational reasons for atheism than they do about the emotional consequences. They ask me questions like:

  • “How can you be happy without God?”
  • “Without God, what hope do you have?”
  • “What is the meaning to life if everything is just bouncing particles?”
  • “How does your life have any purpose without God?”

Frankly, they seem not so interested whether or not atheism is true, but instead whether or not it would be comforting. Understandably, people want a worldview that hugs them warmly and tells them nice stories, not one that demands we face reality for what it is.

But still, these are good questions. Today, I want to address two of them.

Do atheists have less purpose?

Christians believe that the entire history of the universe – covering billions of years of time and billions of light-years of space – was a vast conspiracy to produce us, who have a crucial role in this cosmic play, for which the center stage is an out-of-the-way dustball called Earth.

The life of a Christian quite literally “echoes for eternity.” His actions have eternal consequences. He has a cosmic “calling” on his life from the Creator of the Universe, which tells him what his role is in the most epic battle between good and evil imaginable, played out by earthly creatures and magical spirits for thousands of years.

So yeah, Christians have some serious purpose to their lives.

Do atheists have less purpose than that?

Yeah.

Atheists have less purpose because we accept that our actions will not have eternal consequences. We accept that we are but tiny ants on a dust speck circling a tiny star in a tiny galaxy in an irregular galaxy supercluster amongst millions of other galaxy superclusters. We exist for the blink of an eye, and our influence lasts only a few blinks more.

But there is purpose to an atheist’s life. It’s not like there’s no reason to attend a party just because it will be small and it will end. The difference between Christian purpose and atheist purpose is that atheist purposes might be real.

What is that purpose? It can be many things. I will suggest one major purpose in a minute…

Do atheists have less hope?

Christians have the hope that at the end of time:

  • all pain and suffering will end for the righteous
  • every evildoer will be punished, every good person rewarded
  • those who believed in Jesus will be sent to a place of eternal bliss and reunited with their loved ones

That’s a lot of hope. It’s false hope, but it’s a lot of it. Do atheists have less hope than that?

Yup.

Atheists have less hope than Christians have in the same way that adults have less hope than young children on Christmas Eve. The adults know that special gifts do not come from a jolly man in the sky with infinite resources. Young children – and Christians – have not yet grasped this.

But this does not mean atheists are without hope. It just means we hope for more realistic goals. It also means we face reality square in the face, figure out how reality works, and use that knowledge to better mankind.

One example is Norman Borlaug. Instead of praying that the hungry would be fed, instead of telling the hungry comforting fantasy stories about eternal bliss, Norman got busy. He got a Ph.D. in plant pathology and genetics, and used his scientific training to figure out how to modify existing plants so that they would produce more food per acre and better resist disease. As a result of his work, poor countries can afford to feed much more of their population on the same amount of land, and Norman’s crops have saved nearly a billion lives.

As an atheist, I have hope that this is the kind of thing humans can achieve if we decide to move beyond superstitious incantations and delightful fantasy stories.

I’m a dreamer. I dream of a better world, and I think we can make a better world if we decide to figure it out, together.

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Kevin July 17, 2009 at 7:51 am

“Christians have the hope that at the end of time:

all pain and suffering will end for the righteous
every evildoer will be punished, every good person rewarded
those who believed in Jesus will be sent to a place of eternal bliss and reunited with their loved ones”

I think you’ve got things a bit wrong here.  On most versions of Christianity, there is no guarantee that evildoers will be punished, or that those who do good will be rewarded.  Such things have nothing to do with one’s eternal fate.  Rather, as you indicate in the last bullet point, only belief or lack thereof in Jesus determines one’s fate.  On this score, you can give another point to the atheist, since most atheist worldviews have a better system of moral deserts.  What hope or solace can a Christian have if great evildoers are not punished because they believe in Jesus (e.g., maybe Hitler sincerely accepted Jesus in his bunker moments before death)?  How is it comforting to know that someone like Norman Borlaug (assuming he hasn’t accepted Jesus as personal savior) will burn in Hell?
 
As you say, the atheist can face things more honestly, and a big part of this is facing up the reality of our obligations to see that justice is done here and now, since it won’t be done by God.  Certainly, some, even most evildoers, would be punished by God, but not for the right reasons.  Justice would be accidental.

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Reginald Selkirk July 17, 2009 at 7:59 am

Kevin: On most versions of Christianity, there is no guarantee that evildoers will be punished, or that those who do good will be rewarded. Such things have nothing to do with one’s eternal fate. Rather, as you indicate in the last bullet point, only belief or lack thereof in Jesus determines one’s fate.

The solution is simple: define belief in God/Jesus as good, and lack of belief as evil. No wonder Christians often look upon atheists as more evil than child molesters; lack of belief is the purest form of evil.
 

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Chuck July 17, 2009 at 7:59 am

It reminds me of Palmer in Contact. When asked what was more plausible, that an all powerful and mysterious God created the Universe, and then decided not to give any proof of his existence, or that he doesn’t exist, and that we made him up, he said.
 
“I don’t know. I couldn’t imagine living in a world where God didn’t exist. I wouldn’t want to.”

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Maggie July 17, 2009 at 8:09 am

I’m glad you bring this up. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the purpose and responsibility that goes along with an atheist worldview. Jokingly, I call it “God Is Dead; Do It Yourself” (or GID;DIY, a slogan suitable for little plastic bracelets). I don’t have the luxury of believing that people with hard lives will get a better afterlife. I don’t have the luxury of believing that there’s a plan for their lives that will make their suffering have meaning. I don’t have the luxury of believing that Somebody bigger than me will protect and care for all these people.
So yeah, I don’t have that Christian hope. But losing it gives me one hell of a purpose and a great responsibility. There’s no hope of deus ex machina. The only hope is that people will choose to make a difference in the lives of other people. It’s my purpose and my responsibility to make the world a better place than I found it, and to help and care for those in need.
Atheism turns “Be the change you wish to see in the world” into a moral imperative. I really, firmly believe that I (and other atheists) have an obligation to help the poor, the sick, and the needy…and to change systemic causes of these things so that when we die, we can do that knowing that the people who come after us will enjoy a better world.
And, despite all the lip service paid to this within Christianity, this is something I feel more strongly (and have taken way more action on) since leaving the church, because I can’t just pray and feel like I’ve done my part.
I wish atheists were easier to organize. I would love to have explicitly atheist (or even just more generically secular) charitable organizations to work through.

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Reginald Selkirk July 17, 2009 at 9:26 am

He has a cosmic “calling” on his life from the Creator of the Universe

Which entails having someone else’s purpose thrust upon you. This is not the same as having your own purpose.
 

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Penneyworth July 17, 2009 at 10:19 am

The sense of cosmic purpose is one of the strangest aspects of christians. If pressed for what that pupose is exactly, they always say either “who knows, but it must be grand,” or “to glorify Him.” This so called cosmic purpose seems to me to be so ludicrously banal when compared to any number of earthly purposes I can come up with off the top of my head. How about figuring out how to build a solar panel from raw materials, or defining a system of tonality against a musical scale with non-linear note seperations. Those things would be cool as fuck, whereas the idea of “glorifying Him” fills me with boredom and an intense desire for anihilation. Now some knucklehead will always say that cool stuff like that is glorifying god. Wow! It appears that everything you do glorifies god, and thus there is no extra purpose to be gained by declaring that you follow some incoherent system of subservience to a flying zombie.

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Chuck July 17, 2009 at 10:44 am

 

Maggie:I would love to have explicitly atheist (or even just more generically secular) charitable organizations to work through.

Have you looked into this?
 

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Maggie July 17, 2009 at 11:22 am

Chuck,
Many thanks. I hadn’t heard of them. It sounds like a great organization (or will be). Do you know of any secular/humanist/atheist groups involved in volunteering, direct action,  or organizing teams of volunteers for other charities?
M

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Steven Carr July 17, 2009 at 11:33 am

If I understand the Christian story correctly, there is going to be a bit of a rumble between the forces of good, and the forces of evil.

Are Christians going to get some popcorn and soda and watch from the sidelines?

Or will they be pitching in, killing a few of those pesky unbelievers?

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lukeprog July 17, 2009 at 4:15 pm

God is Dead, Do It Yourself! Love it!

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Chuck July 17, 2009 at 4:39 pm

Maggie, if you mean something along the lines of Habitat for Humanity, then no, I really don’t.

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Maggie July 18, 2009 at 7:51 am

Yeah. That’s one of the benefits of having something like chuch that brings people of similar beliefs together on a regular basis — it’s way easier to organize the money, resources, and bodies needed to put together a soup kitchen, or a homeless shelter, or literacy program.
I’m fine with getting involved individually in those things through certain religious organizations (there are plenty of good ones that don’t heavily proselytize the people they serve), but part of me would love to see the secular humanists of the world running orgs like that, too–given how much obligation we have to do provide those services.

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Jeff H July 18, 2009 at 12:02 pm

Maggie, keep in mind of course that there are many “secular” charities out there. I think that I personally would rather see a charity that makes no stand on religious issues, rather than one that is specifically atheist or secular humanist, etc. I think that the more we distance ourselves from the notion that morality/charity is linked to religious beliefs of some kind, the better. I mean, I’m not saying that atheism is a religion, but why bring it up when talking about charity at all? I am a generous person because I feel it is important to be generous, not because some person in the sky does or does not tell me to do it.

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Crazy July 19, 2009 at 9:00 pm

Athieists are evolving into super intelligent beings – I cannot refute that fact, it is supported by much scientific evidence. At some point in the very near future, they may have to create their own universe in order to free themselves from the rest of us idiots who are living in the Universe created by God!

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Teddy August 4, 2009 at 12:28 pm

Steven Carr: If I understand the Christian story correctly, there is going to be a bit of a rumble between the forces of good, and the forces of evil.Are Christians going to get some popcorn and soda and watch from the sidelines?Or will they be pitching in, killing a few of those pesky unbelievers?

This reminds me of an anecdote from my childhood. One of my best friends had a friend who was Muslim – generally a very intelligent, polite kid. One day when my friend went to the toilet and left his Muslim companion alone with his mother, the kid told his mum that because he liked my friend, he’d personally make sure he died a quick and painless death when the end times came and the infidels were slaughtered. He thought this might offer some consolation to her. At the time that story had a profound effect on my feelings towards religion and it has always stuck with me as a perfect example of how people’s religious views impede their ability to empathise with anyone who doesn’t share their world view.

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Katie August 12, 2009 at 2:54 am

Kevin: How is it comforting to know that someone like Norman Borlaug (assuming he hasn’t accepted Jesus as personal savior) will burn in Hell?

Hahahahahahahahahahahahaha. You, Kevin, are why atheists love writing articles like these. How do YOU find it comforting to sit around believing that someone like Normal Borlaug (assuming he has in fact saved billions) would ever BURN IN HELL?  That has got to be extremely stressful and I would look into psychotherapy to deal will possible trauma. Those are some sick thoughts, pal.
By the way, in case you think that atheists simply do not believe in God, we also do not believe in Hell…. Ridiculous…

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pollux August 12, 2009 at 3:20 am

The world would be a better place if people woke up and smelled the coffee of reality, instead of pertruding their every thought with occultism (yes, every religion is occult superstition), and blind obedience masqueraded as faith.
In fact, check out this card game, seems the producers have the same idea: http://www.opus-dei.co.uk

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RtPt August 12, 2009 at 7:34 am

I understand the point of making a comparison to Christianity or some other religion ( it is usually Christianity). Obviously atheists or anyone else for that matter have a purpose. We decide what our purpose is, even if that purpose is nothing. Hope is just what you want to happen (this can be realistic, wishful thinking, or nonsense faith).
I would like to see more dialogue without having to make some comparison to religion. Let talk about secularism without the prefix of religion.
 
 

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DaveA August 13, 2009 at 3:32 pm

Katie, if you read his post a little more clearly, you would have noticed he was speaking from a 3rd party Christian viewpoint, not his own.

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Brian August 30, 2010 at 12:58 am

Ah, fundies, when will you ever learn?

Here’s a really good atheist store I found. Well, primarily atheist and science stuff…

Aristotle’s Muse

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Ryan Graetz January 23, 2011 at 6:22 pm

Hi all.
I am afraid that most of you here have a mistaken viewpoint of Christianity. You talk distantly of a “cosmic “calling” on his (the Christian’s) life from the Creator of the Universe, which tells him what his role is in the most epic battle between good and evil imaginable, played out by earthly creatures and magical spirits for thousands of years”, and try to make it sound as unbelievable and silly as you can. I myself try to take an honest viewpoint on life, and in my searching for the truth, have come to realise that there is in fact a Creator, and that Christianity is true. Christianity is a bit more like this: We were all created by God. He gave us everything we need, and a great life on earth. We, however, sinned. By that I mean we disobeyed His commands, His laws. Being perfect, He cannot allow sin into his presence, that would deny who He is. Therefore because of our sin, we now have death, and are destined to an eternity without Him, which is what Hell actually is. Being loving and merciful, however, God didn’t like that situation. So He sent His Son, Jesus, who, also being perfect, died in our place, and took our sin on His shoulders. But because He is God, He defeated death and sin by rising from the dead. We now no longer have to be afraid death and an eternity of suffering (because of our own wrong, not because of God being mean) because Jesus has forgiven us and can wash us clean, letting us be with God. As a consequence, Christians love God and live to glorify Him, which means to give Him glory and praise and tell anyone they can the truth so that they can also be saved from Hell.

This is Christianity, not the patronising jibes designed to make it sound so ridiculous and stupid that I have read on this page. How can you immediately dismiss a Christian’s purpose as not being real? How do you know its not real?

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Nate January 1, 2012 at 11:48 pm

I find it ironic that you’re trying to say Christians don’t really do anything to better mankind, but your counter-example is Norman Borlaug… an incredibly devout Lutheran whose work was heavily influenced by his Christianity.

Did you bother to give a look at his Nobel acceptance speech? It seems like you just watched the Penn and Teller episode where they talk about Borlaug and tried to throw together a quick post on your blog to make it sound like it’s something you came up with on your own.

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