Using Science, Not Religion, to Find Your Purpose

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By Gleb Tsipursky
Intentional Insights

Wait, what? Science can’t answer life’s big questions – that’s the job of religious dogma, right? Well, a wave of recent research in psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and other disciplines has explored how we find meaning and purpose in life, with or without belief in a deity. So we as secular people can use science to fill that emptiness deep in the pit of our stomach that comes from a lack of a personal sense of meaning and purpose. We can use science to answer the question “what is the meaning of life for you?”

Some may scoff at the importance of gaining a rich sense of meaning and purpose. Well, hold off your scoffing. Studies show that people who feel that their life has meaning experience a substantially higher sense of wellbeing and even physical health. For example, Michael F. Steger, a psychologist and Director of the Laboratory for the Study of Meaning and Quality of Life at Colorado State University, found that many people gain a great deal of psychological benefit from understanding what their lives are about and how they fit within the world around them. His research demonstrates that people who have a sense of life meaning and purpose feel in general more happy as well as more satisfied on a daily level, and also feel less depressed, anxious, and are less likely to engage in risky behaviors. A deeper sense of life meaning and purpose also predicts better physical health. An increased sense of life meaning and purpose correlates with reduced risk of heart attack, the leading cause of death in the United States, and stroke, another of the top five leading causes of death. With such benefits for mental and physical well-being, it’s no wonder that a strong sense of life meaning and purpose predicts longevity.

the meaning eyechart

According to faith-based perspectives, the meaning and purpose of life is to be found only in God, as exemplified in The Purpose Driven Life (2002), a popular book written by Rick Warren, a Christian mega church leader. But some thinkers disagree with the notion that religion is the only way to find meaning and purpose in life. Jean-Paul Sartre, in his Existentialism and Human Emotions, advances the notions of “existentialism,” the philosophical perspective that all meaning and purpose originates from the individual. Another prominent thinker is Greg Epstein. In his Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, he advocates striving for dignity as a means of finding “meaning to life beyond God.” James Croft draws attention to the importance of secular communities in gaining a sense of life meaning.

thinking

So what does research on this issue show? Apparently, the important thing is simply to gain a sense of life purpose and meaning: the source of the purpose itself is not so important. Religion can be one among many channels to help someone gain a sense of life meaning. The pioneer in this field, Victor Frankl, was a Viennese psychiatrist who lived through the Holocaust concentration camps. In his research and work, both in the camps and afterward in private practice, he found that the crucial thing for individuals surviving and thriving in life is to develop a personal sense of purpose and meaning, what he terms the “will-to-meaning.” Frankl’s approach to psychotherapy came to be called logotherapy, and forms part of a broader therapeutic practice known as existential psychotherapy. This philosophically-informed therapy stems from the notion that internal tensions and conflicts stem from one’s confrontation with the challenges of the nature of life itself, and relate back to the notions brought up by Sartre and other existentialist philosophers.

purpose-within

These findings fit well with my own research on secular societies. I study how people in the Soviet Union, where my family came from, found purpose, happiness, and fun in life. The Soviet Union is typically perceived as a militaristic and grey society, with a government that oriented all of its efforts to taking over the world. Well, that’s simply not true, as the Soviet authorities put a lot of resources into providing its citizens with opportunities to find meaning and purpose in life, as well as fun and pleasure – although they also certainly wanted to spread communism throughout the world, and put a lot of efforts into this goal as well. Present-day societies with a more secular orientation than the United States have similar stories to tell, as illustrated by research on contemporary Denmark and Sweden.

So where does this leave us? Religion is only one among many ways of developing a personal sense of life meaning and greater sense of personal agency. Based on the research on meaning and purpose, I developed and videotaped a workshop for anyone who wants to learn more on this topic. I also created a free online course, which combines an engaging narrative style, academic research, and stories from people’s everyday lives with exercises to help you discover your own sense of life purpose and meaning from a science-based, humanist-informed perspective. These are part of our broader offerings at Intentional Insights, which aims to help us as reason-oriented people use scientific evidence to live better lives and achieve our goals. The Richard Dawkins Foundation also has plenty of resources to help you find meaning and purpose from a secular perspective, including videos of Russell and Keryn Glasser and Neil deGrasse Tyson discussing the meaning of life for those without belief.

So use science to find your purpose, and let me know about your experience by emailing me at gleb@intentionalinsights.org!


gleb-tsipursky

Gleb Tsipursky, PhD, is the Co-Founder and President of Intentional Insights, a nonprofit that helps people refine and reach their goals by providing research-based content about improving thinking, feeling, and behavior patterns. He is also a professor at Ohio State.

113 COMMENTS

  1. If a basketball decided that it no longer wanted to be thrown into a hoop but rather kicked around on a soccer field, did it identify a new purpose for its existence? No, rather it re-evaluated its goals and desired activities. Yet, it was made by the manufacturer to be played in a basketball game. The purpose of something can never be changed and can only be identified by the manufacturer or producer of that object. The object itself can never self-identify its purpose, unless it created itself. It seems you are trying to use the term purpose in replacement of self-fulfilled activities. These are two different things. Purpose is a predetermined reason of existence, which can only come from the creator. If there is no creator, there is no predetermined reason for existence, hence no purpose. In that case, we can attempt to identify goals in our life that produce some amount of usefulness and benefit to ourselves and society; yet this is different than purpose.

  2. No, rather [the basketball] re-evaluated its goals and desired activities.

    What a truly bizarre universe you inhabit, believing you have all the functional utility and purpose of another’s plaything.

  3. No, if you present an irrational and poorly thought response (and bring religious pretty much guarantees that) then you will be shot down, and rightly so.

    Try harder next time, if there is to be a next time ….

  4. My purpose in life is to feed my cat.

    I thought it was to feed your mortgage?

    If anything’s real for you, that is…… (erm, appropriate smiley thing)

  5. Steve
    Apr 21, 2015 at 2:36 pm

    My purpose in life is to feed my cat. Does the fact that I have a purpose mean I have disprroved a creator?

    My cat is a devout radiator worshipper (radiators and boilers definitely have creators).
    However, as the season progresses she prostrated herself for several hours today as she is reverting to sun-worship!

  6. If purpose is defined as the reason for existence, then we have no purpose beyond the biological imperatives to survive and reproduce. One can give one’s life purpose, but there is no purpose to life.

  7. For me, as I contemplated atheism earlier in life, this was a serious downside about the philosophy, although it’s not the reason I rejected it. As a Christian, I believe the “good” actions I do (kindness, patience, gentleness, etc) have eternal value and effect. A kind word does not evaporate into the ether in a moment or week or year. It has a lasting, eternal importance and purpose. What I do has intrinsic value and meaning, instead of illusionary meaning that disappears once I’m gone. A life without eternal good would be sad.

  8. I’m only 18 and I’ve been in and out of Christianity, and the times I was out, I was in atheism, so I see your point 100%. Of course, I am still looking for answers; the main reason why I am n this site and have been researching from 6:00 AM- 6:00 AM about life in general and the more I look at life in a platonic, materialistic way, the more depressed I become and the more things don’t quite make sense. I believe that’s why I go back to Christ. Life without him, for me, is sad. (The key words are “for me” before anyone decides to attack this post.)

  9. Nordic11, I don’t think you intend to argue that the universe is as you believe it to be because otherwise it would not be to your liking. But that is how your comment reads to me.

  10. the devil is a deceiver.

    there is no God
    and Dawkins is his prophet.
    the good news of God’s non existence.

    I know God is real, and he will judge you atheists, and you will be punished in hell, and i’ll see you from heaven burning and in agony for eternity.
    punished – for disbelief
    punished – for mockery of the servants of Christ
    punished – for attacking and denying and distorting the truth.

    the worst circles of HELL are reserved for atheists. God is merciful, and after your death, you will be given a chance to again accept God’s word. If you reject then, there is no hope for you.

  11. NoOnes
    Apr 21, 2015 at 6:40 pm

    I’m only 18 and I’ve been in and out of Christianity, and the times I was out, I was in atheism, so I see your point 100%. Of course, I am still looking for answers;

    It takes a while to work out your own philosophy rather than being spoon-fed one from mythology.

    I’ve been an atheist since I grew out of supernatural beliefs as a teenager, and have never been depressed.

    the main reason why I am n this site and have been researching from 6:00 AM- 6:00 AM about life in general and the more I look at life in a platonic, materialistic way, the more depressed I become and the more things don’t quite make sense.

    I f you develop an understanding of the wider picture of life and the universe, things do make sense, but we have to work out our own aims and objectives and thinking is a responsibility some wish to avoid.

    I believe that’s why I go back to Christ. Life without him, for me, is sad.

    Apart from atheists, there are of course many religions Buddhists, Hindus, animists, and deists, who are not at all interested in stories of “Christ”, so have developed no dependence on that belief or those communities for comfort.

  12. Kay
    Apr 21, 2015 at 6:38 pm

    without God, there is no real purpose. Its all nihilism.

    That is your view because you know nothing else except dependence on your indoctrination.

    for what reason were we put on earth?

    We don’t need a reason! We are on Earth, as were our ancestors for the last 3½ billion years. The rest of the living organisms don’t need a reason either.

    it can only be to know and praise God.

    Gods are delusions in the brains of believers. They come in a huge range of forms as you would expect with individual imaginations.

    the scientists praise the nandiwork of God,

    A few religious ones do, but most just seek to understand the workings of the universe.

    but they do not praise the creator.

    The myths of creators are many, diverse, and all fanciful.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_creation_myths

  13. Kay
    Apr 21, 2015 at 6:43 pm

    the most important thing to realize is that SATAN is real.

    Satan, like hell, is a scary story to frighten children, and adults whose minds have not matured beyond those of children, into becoming the mind-slaves of religious cults and sects.

  14. Kay
    Apr 21, 2015 at 6:47 pm

    the worst circles of HELL are reserved for atheists. God is merciful, and after your death, you will be given a chance to again accept God’s word. If you reject then, there is no hope for you.

    I have to ask:- “How do you know this”?

    Let me guess!

    Some trusted fundamentalist preacher or parent told you this and you believed them without question! – A bit like the suicide jihadists who blow themselves up, because some trusted Imam told them it was a direct route to heaven where they would be given 72 virgins for their amusement for eternity!

  15. There is a tendency of humans to presume importance of whatever they are putting effort into. Only later do you realise it was a lot of sound and fury.

    Some questions you could ask yourself.

    on my deathbed, is this what I would have considered most effective use of my time?
    after I am dead, will this matter to anyone? You can sometimes have a perfectly valid purpose just for your time.
    Does anybody else but me (potentially) care about this project?
    If I had to go on global TV and tell the world what I had done with my life, would I be mortally embarrassed?
    am I being buried alive in trivial goals?
    does it matter to me? Does it generate a strong emotional reaction? If you are living out someone else’s goal, (e.g. Catholic church”s) chances are won’t have much energy for it.

  16. Hey Sean,

    I can definitely see how you could read it that way , and I’m certain that part of my reason I am a Christian is because I do want the universe to be a certain way (perhaps that is the same for atheists as well, I don’t know). But as I get older, that part becomes smaller and smaller, and I seem to be more convinced all the time (not that I never have doubts). It’s nice, actually.

  17. Hi Kay,

    You definitely sound like a troll (much like the Muslim one on this sit a few years back), but if you are not, I’m not sure what you’re doing here. The atheists on this site will go to church if they want to be preached at.

    By the way, many Christians do not believe in a permanent hell (and the circles are Dante’s creation not found in the Bible). If God can restore the fortunes of the city of Sodom (Ezekiel 16:53) He can restore the rest of us.

  18. So let me get this straight, alan. Billions of people on this planet are delusional (as in psychotic and do not believe in reality?) You see to be getting crankier as time goes on.

  19. “Billions of people … do not believe in reality?” Er, yes. There are a large number of people who believe in one god (with various personalities and incompatible secondary beliefs), huge numbers are polytheists, and then there’s all those who believe in alien abductions, Nessie and Bigfoot and the Yeti, fairies at the bottom of the garden, homeopathic remedies, black helicopter tinfoil hat conspiracies, Elvis lives, faked Moon landings, hollow earth, serpent folk and other aliens living among us, spirits and ghosts, vampires and werewolves, ancient visitations from aliens, pyramids sharpening razor blades, the power of crystals, …

    A lot of people are delusional, there’s no doubting that: they can’t be all right.

    As has often been stated, we’re both more or less atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you.

  20. Billions of people on this planet are delusional …

    Going on Mad Englishman’s list plus a few more I could think of, I’d estimate that the number of people who are of the sub species Homo Irrationalis, is 6,800,000,000. To hold a belief without evidence, or contrary to evidence, is by definition, irrational. So Alan is correct. It’s only left to determine the final numbers.

    We are by nature, an irrational species, due in large part to our evolution. One of the ironic consequences of evolution is a propensity to believe in supernatural explanations for observe phenomena. Evolution enables religion.

  21. Don’t be in a hurry to make any decisions. You have time. Just try to be skeptical about all storys,,,,,,,,confirm,,,,confirm.

    Just keep asking questions.

  22. I would say your comment is flippant.
    Almost all on this planet one hundred years ago thought the world was flat.
    One hundred years ago, the Earth was the center of not only the solar system but the universe. And everybody thought that was correct. And still some do.

    Your argument is weak at best.

  23. I really can’t tell the difference between an Islamic extremist and a Christian extremist.

    Same threats. Same rambling……..

  24. My goodness, Kay, I feel the absolute loving rays of your Christianity shining through in this post! /sarcasm
    You’re nearly drooling in anticipation of watching me and my family, among others, burning in agony for eternity. Sounds like you plan on getting off on that, in fact.

    Hmmm…tormenting beings in a horrible place of fiery hell? Yes…what a marvelous place your merciful god has created. You must be so proud of that psychopathic plan.

  25. What you’ve failed to establish here, unlike the basketball, is any reason to assume that we, as humans, have been ‘created’. Basketballs are branded with the manufacturer’s details, we can go and see the factory where basketballs are being made, we can review the specifications for basketballs – none of this is possible for people.

    Basketballs do not make other basketballs, humans do make other humans – if anything we should be looking to our parents for direction. In my case, my parents taught me to find my own path to happiness.

  26. Billions of people on this planet are delusional

    Once you start to understand how brains work and how cultures work, this possibility can be seen as effortlessly easy. We are uniquely, amongst the animal kingdom, prone to the condition of schizophrenia where we lose track of some of our semantic knowledge and generate material to plug the gaps (and it is a continuous, though not necessarily uniform spectrum of lived experience with episodes occurring to all). This is at once a boon and a risk. It may relate to the way very recent evolution finessed how the prefrontal cortex works. It may well have resulted a lifting in our ability to produce a plethora of inferences of “what ifs”. It may be the key to our creative and metaphorical minds and to the advent of rich language and thought. Finely tuned as it is to allow the less experienced to notice more and infer more from the seeming chaos of reality, it is often defeated by the second order effect of confirmation bias, where our speed and enthusiasm to learn and understand exceeds the informational content of our observations (our brains can’t do the maths well enough) and we discard later material thinking the job is done. Cultures finally nail the error into us by its trick of training the very young, before they even have the brain development for careful autonomous thought. Hands together. Eyes closed.

    The single most atheist professions are those of psychiatry and psychology. Physics less so and maths less again. The more very bright people understand how the mind works, its cognitive failures, its confirmation bias the more they can see the very patterns of religious thinking revealed and the less religious they seem inclined to feel.

  27. And you know satan is real because…

    What does he look like? Where is he right now?

    If you read the bible cover to cover, ironically Jehovah behaves far more wickedly than Satan. To me it seems Jehovah has tricked you into thinking he is the good guy. If you have not read the bible cover to cover, you have no right to disagree.

  28. A kind word does not evaporate into the ether

    I apologise for this repeat, but the story grew just a little bit more recently, so it gets retold.

    My dad has never been more alive for me, his aspirations his values. Recently I discovered my son investigating, for a university thesis about Edwardian literature, a man who had inspired H.G.Wells to write his various encouragements and warnings about science, economics and politics. My son and I talk about his grandad, my dad and his great passion for these things also and the thrill it creates knowing we can contribute to this stuff just by helping to think it through and talk and talk. He didn’t realise the man he encountered, Professor Frederick Soddy, was actually the man who once taught and inspired my dad, who because of it infected me, who now infected him (how could I not?), who had just found the Nobel winning discoverer of radio-isotopes, who infected the Edwardian writer who infected generations.

    When my dad died, just before, he was happy to put me at ease and say he was glad to make way, as the evolving story demands, and gift in turn “the best seat in the house” for this great shared infectious adventure. It takes us all to make it happen, soup bringers as much as any. This is the real poetry of life. A most spectacular adventure only possible with a grand mutuality and a personal letting go. And at our end a little glee at what little Lucy may get to see from her front row seat.

  29. Nordic11
    Apr 21, 2015 at 8:57 pm

    I do want the universe to be a certain way (perhaps that is the same for atheists as well, I don’t know).
    But as I get older, that part becomes smaller and smaller,

    That’s what science does for us. It provides real evidence to replace imagined gap-filling. Over here we are looking at some of the frontiers of exploration at planetary scales. They are far more awesome than could even be imagined 100 years ago.

    https://richarddawkins.net/2015/04/nasas-new-horizons-spacecraft-nears-historic-july-14-encounter-with-pluto/

  30. Nordic11
    Apr 21, 2015 at 8:58 pm
    .
    alan,

    Why are you goating [goading?] her?

    Education in reality!

    People need to think critically about the origins of their assumptions – especially simplistic fanciful ones.

  31. David R Allen
    Apr 21, 2015 at 10:33 pm

    We are by nature, an irrational species, due in large part to our evolution. One of the ironic consequences of evolution is a propensity to believe in supernatural explanations for observe phenomena. Evolution enables religion.

    Rational deduction is a taught and learned process, which can be achieved once a certain level of mental development (Formal Operations) is reached.

    Many unfortunate individuals never achieve this – frequently because of indoctrination in fallacious and circular thinking, along with glorification of dependent childish thinking, retarding their development.

  32. alf1200
    Apr 22, 2015 at 2:57 am

    Almost all on this planet one hundred years thought the world was flat.

    Try one or two or thousand years ago.

    A hundred years ago ships were circling the globe.

  33. Hello Patrick.

    Welcome to the forum where ideas about science and reason are posted and exchanged.

    If this is your first post, that would go some way towards explaining it.

    You’ve got off to a fairly wobbly start, but don’t worry, you’ll probably get the hang of it.

    One tip is to avoid referring to matters that can’t, yet, be known; try to confine comments to matters that can be falsified or verified.

    I’ve yet to learn a single solitary thing about the cognitive facaluties of sports balls, so I’m not qualified to comment.

    I’ve just had a frightening thought; perhaps my preordained purpose in life is to do that very thing, and I’m not fulfilling it.

    No, I’ll be alright!

  34. The meaning to Life is lead a life of meaning. It ‘means’ whatever you wish it to mean; and it doesn’t matter what I think or your friend/neighbor thinks; or whatever notions some imaginary sky ghost might have.

    Always liked the line from “Dead Poet’s Society” – “That powerful play goes on and you may contribute, a verse.”

    All you have to do is to learn what you’d like that ‘verse’ to be…

  35. what’s your experience? my life is vastly improved now that I’m assigning meaning to the events in my life, and aware that I’m responsible for what I think, and, most importantly, that I’m responsible for the consequences of my own actions. Honestly, I’m a better person since I left religious delusions behind. In the old days, I did all kinds crazy stuff and it would disappear, magically, with the incantation of 3 Hail Marys and an Our Father. Toss in some plenary indulgences for good measure. Don’t we all know that religious people commit offenses and crimes, just like the worst of us?

  36. ego, first issue that must be dealt with…and destroyed! religions tend to want to enforce it and keep us a slave to ourselves and our beliefs. that was such a limited existence that I am happy to mostly overcome.

  37. Okay…. My best guess is that you are just an Internet ‘troll’ – but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.

    I ‘know’ the Easter Bunny is real. You’d quite likely argue that what I meant was that I believe that the Easter Bunny is real. Belief is NOT knowledge, nor is it fact of and by itself.

    What I find people like you lack, is the inability to ‘step outside the box’ and see things for what they are as opposed to what you would like them to appear to be.

    Let’s start with the absurdity of a supposedly supreme being, creating a species out of nothing for the sole purpose that the species could spend the rest of its’ existence (and ‘after-existence’) telling that supreme being how ‘great and wonderful it was’. Right there, you have a supposedly intellectually entity creating a race of creatures for the sole purpose of making it feel better about itself? Really? A being SO incredibly wise and complex and superior in every imaginable way and yet,,,, it has an insecurity complex? Oh and from the book that superior (imaginary) being left,, he lost his temper an awful lot and he clearly didn’t care for women at all (BTW, don’t ever intercede in a physical fight between your husband and another man or ‘the book’ says that you will have to have your hand cut off).
    The more one reads ‘the holy book’ that the ghost in the sky supposedly left us the more it is clear that it is a vengeful,misogynistic, homicidal, sadistic,,,, the list goes on. Now, I’d hardly attribute traits like the latter to a being that was superior and good. What the book seems to describe is a being like this ‘devil’ you talk about.
    I read the account (wholly fictional) of the great flood (of which there is no geological evidence of course) and think about the pregnant women and mothers desperately holding their babies above the rising waters to try with futility, to save them – 1,000’s of babies gurgling their last trying to get air when they were submerged and drowned. What a monster to worship! Truly, ‘evil incarnate’, so-to-speak.

    BTW, you really should try reading all that book you have in your home but only read parts of and only quote specific sections from- you’d know better….

  38. No promise of virgins with the latter though (written with much sarcasm) … never understood the appeal of virgins? (scratching my head)

    Any persons who insist on imaginary sky ghosts are always going to sound extreme… 😉

  39. and a toy that fills its ‘head’ with nothing but air,,, hey,,, maybe the poster is making the point about themselves? I dunno…

  40. As as psychiatrist I have sympathy with this opinion.
    I am actually a member of the World psychiatric association along with a number of Jews, Muslims , Christians, Hindus etc etc all getting on just fine;possibly because they are educated and mainly atheists!

  41. The scope of science is far too narrow to answer my questions. You guys may believe the entire universe and human psyche can be bottled up in mere observation, measurement, and experiment, but I don’t. There are many things outside the boundary of science.

  42. Nordic11
    Apr 22, 2015 at 2:36 pm

    The scope of science is far too narrow to answer my questions. You guys may believe the entire universe and human psyche can be bottled up in mere observation, measurement, and experiment, but I don’t.

    Measurement and experiments are works in progress.

    There are many things outside the boundary of science.

    There are certainly many things outside present scientific knowledge, but vastly more things outside the scope of faith-thinking and dogma, which simply plagiarises bits of objective knowledge, mixes them with dogmatic mythical notions, and is dragged along protesting, centuries behind modern science.

    The RCC has only recently caught up with Galileo, While NASA. ESA, and Rocosmos, have been opening frontiers in space.

  43. What about “purpose” being just a conceptual artifact the human brain uses to navigate certain aspects of reality? The corollary of which, of course, is that your valiant attempt at splitting the hair between given purpose and self set goals is rather rid— redundant.

    There is no such thing as “purpose” in this universe: there’s just the compulsive need, shaped in millions of years of evolution, of some weird and mostly hairless apes to see thing as means to some end.

  44. the worst circles of HELL are reserved for atheists.

    Good! So the booking I made for the seat next to Ulysses went well!
    You know, you can never trust the payment form made by those devils… some say they use open source software to run their servers!

  45. Indeed anyone who navigated the seas knew that Earth was round from time unknown. Either the mast/sail of the ship, or the top of the mountain would appear first, and then become bigger. The Bible’s authors were evidently land bound and didn’t have to worry about such trivial details, what with their “four corners” n’ all that !

    Eratosthenes worked out the circumference of the Earth some 600 years before Jesus decided to come and confuse us.

  46. ego, first issue that must be dealt with…and destroyed! religions tend
    to want to enforce it…

    Could you expand on that, please? The reason I ask is because it is the exact opposite of what Ayn Rand used to ‘preach.’ That is, unless you’re talking about a collective ego.

  47. @ Nordic 11:

    Oh, dear. This is a heavy blow. I had so hoped you would like the book. I know Professor Dawkins will be simply shattered by this news.

    Steve

  48. So we as secular people can use science to fill that emptiness deep in the pit of our stomach that comes from a lack of a personal sense of meaning and purpose.

    I must be sick. I don’t have this emptiness deep in the pit of our stomach What’s wrong with me that I don’t need a label for a meaning to life. Oh the shame. Why won’t my stomach pit….

  49. Of course kindnesses (and unkindnesses) do not evaporate in a moment or week and sometimes, not even for years. They are very long lasting – for generations, in fact. “Eternal” seems to be rather a stretch – but then, the reputed punishment your god meted out for the act of “original sin” seems rather excessive to me. The meaning of anyone’s life does have intrinsic value and meaning regardless of whether one attaches religious importance to it or not. I feel it is sad for people who can only find purpose, value and meaning through a religion. Why limit yourself to just one religious purpose when you could have so many more that are just as meaningful with just as long lasting value?

  50. Succinct and to the point. We can look for a meaning to life, but bottom-line is we have one. “Making the most of it” is wonderful advice. I’ll file this under “most important thing to remember”. Thanks Stafford

  51. Yes. Both, actually. A victim of her own superstitious beliefs. She also has confused a great many atheists – with folks who couldn’t actually give one shiny ‘dropping,’ for what she thinks.

    Her own God would slap her into next week, if he was actually able to keep morons like her from putting words in His mouth. But then, that is all any of these man-made ‘terrible deities,’ have ever been good for: putting high-toned words into their mouths. By idiots – who couldn’t form a genuine thought of their own, if a personal philosophy depended on it.

    Just one more pismire ant – from a no doubt local colony of identical pismire ants. Willing to strike out and attack any of those other colonies of equally deluded pismire ants – or sheep – as the case may be.

    Or merely put Bitch-Bites on the rest of us. (May she go to her rest, secure in a personal conviction, of her God’s love.)

  52. The road to personal, inner knowledge, really is hewn from an acknowledgment of one’s basic ignorance – in humility. Genuine humility. Not the Christian humility, that still places one front and center – as the central part of some God’s eternal plan.

    You’ve got to ditch the bullshit. Recognize that the apotheoses of the man Jesus, to the godhead – as Christ, the so called Son of God – was a creation of overly enthusiastic followers, time, and mythology.

    Accept that we evolved from the mud of creation, along with every other living creature here on earth.

    That we didn’t evolve from the apes. We simply ARE the most evolved branch, of the Great Apes. And that human intelligence is easily and woefully corrupted, by ridiculous notions of fanciful beliefs. That science is the only reliable ‘lifeline’ mankind has been able to find.

    Ayn Rand? She had possibly the most base ‘theory’ of existence – with or without God – that barely deserves recognition as a cogent form of philosophy. ( IMHO )

  53. Patrick
    Apr 23, 2015 at 8:49 am

    No, a creator is not needed to live an authentic, meaningful, purposeful life. Authenticity is.

    Quite so – making the most of our one and only genuine life, without adding fake or false delusions, as aims or objectives.

  54. Your premise is simply not true. You said, “Purpose is a predetermined reason of existence.” You can assert things like that all day long, or say you’re a basketball, but it does not make it true. Forget that there is no evidence for this but it does not even square intuitively. Our brains are meaning making machines and that’s where goals and personal meaning come from, not from an unfalsifiable source that changes with the wind.

  55. A rambling response to various things…

    I was indoctrinated as a child to be a Christian. It all rang hollow. Much of the “meaning” proposed by the Christians is actually horribly immoral. Shedding religion is not only liberating but it allows you to build your own meaning, with the help of others, guided by the morality that develops independently of religious doctrines. That is far more meaningful and gratifying than one of the thousands of pre-made religions you can choose from…if you actually made a choice. I’ve never been depressed about outgrowing religion. I can’t imagine what a religious person would say I’m missing? They usually say something like Christ or God but those ideas are non-existent to begin with. They hold you back. I think the sentiment that atheists or secular humanists are missing something is really intended for the religious crowd. Finally, the idea that because science can’t answer a “big” question makes is less satisfying also strikes me as hollow. Maybe the better word is entitled…and I do NOT mean that as an insult. Religion has never answered anything. Science continues to inform us. So what if you can’t answer a “big question.” Personally, I like the feeling of mystery that comes with my own limitations.

  56. FattyLumpkin
    Apr 23, 2015 at 12:06 pm

    Finally, the idea that because science can’t answer a “big” question makes is less satisfying also strikes me as hollow.

    This is of course laughable smugness.

    Science has answered thousands of “big questions” where religions had no idea where to start, so made up nonsense. (“What is the place of the Earth in the universe,/ galaxy,/ Solar-System?” – “What were out ancestors?” – “How do atoms form or cease to exist?” – “How were the atoms of various elements made?” etc.)

    The so called religious “big questions”, are usually, arbitrary judgements, fantasy objectives, unknowns, or semantic pseudo-profundities.

  57. Nordic11: If you don’t believe atheism is the way, yet don’t truly believe Christianity is the way, either, then look at some other world religions (Native American, Buddhism, Taoism, etc.) I, personally, really respect Native American religions, because they teach things like inter-connectedness and leaving small footprints.

    BTW – you don’t need to accept any world religion, if you don’t like them. Make up your own – I’ve heard stories of people who did who were very happy.

  58. I’m not a follower of the Rand theory, but I think she had some good points. Primarily, one’s responsibility for one’s own actions.

    No, I got the feeling that Troy’s post had more to do with anthropomorphism than egotism. I’m always fascinated by the reasons behind religions, and humankind’s ongoing quest…

  59. Nordic April 21st 9.13 ” so billions of people are deluded?” Yes Nordic billions of people are deluded. It is possible for billions of people to be wrong and act very badly too. Google women’s rights Vikings and Valhalla slavery treatment of prisoners flat earth leeches as treatment for illness and Mercury to extend life. People can be wrong wicked stupid AND deluded.

  60. @OP- Using Science, Not Religion, to Find Your Purpose

    In the modern world, whatever aims and purposes you choose, it is almost certain you will be using the products of science to achieve the

  61. Sorry, but rationalism fails here. Attempting to rationally choose your meaning in life tends not to work – try it if you don’t believe me. The rational mind will deconstruct its own goals endlessly and leave you back where you started: existential despair. The solution being offered here is apparently to make atheism like other religions, using atheist “evangelists” and “priests” who appeal to their great god Reason for meaning and purpose. But your problem is the same as with other religions: your first principle is easily deconstructed and revealed to be without foundation. Reason? Science? Who cares? They’re not my gods. Nihilism is not refuted.

    This nihilism problem might explain why secular rationalists fail at the most basic task of any species: reproduction. Birthrates among the secular natives of Denmark and Sweden are anemic and unsustainable (as they were in the Soviet Union). So it appears that secular rationalism, more than religion, functions as what Mr. Dawkins called a “mind virus”: a meme that propagates at the expense of its host’s own survival and evolutionary fitness.

    Isn’t all this obvious to rationalists? Why can’t you admit that there might be something outside the comprehension of your rational mind that is important to human well-being? Why allow yourselves to be tyrannized by the barren god Reason? Is Reason your replacement for Jehovah? No thanks; I’ll pass on the monotheism of Reason-worship.

  62. Right, and in a nihilistic universe we are free to be monsters. Genghis Khan created his own meaning; so did Hitler. I agree with Sartre that Atheism is the great liberator; just don’t be surprised when it produces a few Stalins and Pol Pots.

  63. Attempting to rationally choose your meaning in life tends not to work

    Strawman. Being rational means rejecting a god given purpose especially when you have feelings in quite another direction. No one decides on a purpose ex nihilo. Like it or not we come with a package genetically and culturally conferred values and aesthetics. We reject the unappetising.

    secular rationalists fail at the most basic task of any species: reproduction.

    They have purposes beyond the selfish. Besides at 12bn in 2100, reproduction beyond 1.9 offspring is profoundly stupid.

    Isn’t all this obvious to rationalists?

    No. They are rationalists.

  64. Stafford’s comment is profoundly cleverer than your dull observation. You, each of you is left to fill in his or her blanks. Life is to be filled as you will. But filled it must be! This is the entire point.

  65. in a nihilistic universe we are free to be monsters

    The f*** we are. Give it a shot and report back here when successful.

    Monsters are mostly licensed by some ideology or other. Or made by psychopathy born into power.

  66. Of course I mean we are philosophically free to be monsters. To act upon it is just a matter of opportunity and instrumental rationality. The question is, can a scientifically-empowered humanity survive its atheist monsters going forward? Can it survive Enlightenment, or will it, in Lovecraft’s possibly prophetic words, “free from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age?”

  67. But Christians are philosophically free too, or that being granted free will schtick was a con.

    I fear the ideological monsters, not those free of ideology and I fear the religious monsters most of all. Having faith in their ideology, they are particularly brain fritzed against reason and evidence should they go all Islamic Westboro State.

  68. I fear them too, but I fear the nihilistic monsters most of all — those who say: “God is dead. Life is absurd, and no better than death. We are just collections of atoms, so why not arrange them in such a way as to eradicate all life and end suffering forever?”

  69. Life is absurd, and no better than death.

    Never met on of these creatures ever.

    Is this in fact your feeling? You seem obsessed with it with not a one like it on show, here amongst all of these atheists…

  70. This how mystics operate; we look inside our own minds, into the darkness and the monsters we find there, and conclude that, since we are not different from other men, that these monsters threaten us all. The fact that no one openly discusses such things here doesn’t mean they aren’t troubled by them. The point is to make conscious what the rational mind tries to bury before it erupts into the material world, and to realize that science is rather useless in this domain. Science cannot describe or understand subjective experiences, though they clearly exert a powerful influence on the material world. But if it makes you feel better, go ahead and call me a monster, it doesn’t bother me…

  71. Read “The Ancestors Tale”, I think you’ll change your mind that he’s a bad author. At least when it comes to discussing the subject he’s an expert in.

  72. Imperius
    Apr 24, 2015 at 8:35 pm

    This how mystics operate; we look inside our own minds, into the darkness and the monsters we find there, and conclude that, since we are not different from other men, that these monsters threaten us all.

    That is a rather crass assumption, – especially since the human brain cannot do self-analysis, and various psychological conditions are only diagnosed within certain individuals.

    The fact that no one openly discusses such things here doesn’t mean they aren’t troubled by them.

    I’m not troubled by them in the least, except when I encounter others who are being troubled by them.

    The point is to make conscious what the rational mind tries to bury before it erupts into the material world, and to realize that science is rather useless in this domain. Science cannot describe or understand subjective experiences, though they clearly exert a powerful influence on the material world.

    That seems to be an absurd assertion!

    http://www.livescience.com/18612-brain-scans-predict-subjective-beauty.html
    “For the first time, we can ask questions about subjective preferences and relate them to activity in the brain,” lead researcher Semir Zeki, a neurobiologist at the University College London in the United Kingdom, told LiveScience. “There are some people who would prefer [beauty] to remain a mystery, but that’s not how scientists view things.”

    Brain scans predict effectiveness of talk therapy to treat depression – http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/02/150204111954.htm

  73. What makes you think that Atheists do not engage in “good actions” as well? We express patience, kindness, gentleness, humor, irony, joy, happiness, love, hope, awe, etc. We just do not subscribe it to an imaginary friend. The “words” of a Christian, Hindu, Muslim, etc. last no longer than the words of a nonbeliever… Life and reality is fabulous! If you are sad, I am sorry but perhaps it is an indication that you might want to think on this some more…

  74. Hi Patrick,

    It seems to me that your analogy fails on many levels – most egregiously in comparing thinking, acting and socialising human beings with inanimate objects.

    Also; balls are manufactured, humans are born. Although so-called ‘identical twins’ are clones they grow up to be different people. We’re all different in a far more fundamental and profound way than the minute tolerances allowed in a standardised object such as a mass-market manufactured ball.

    You say that:

    The purpose of something can never be changed and can only be identified by the manufacturer or producer of that object.

    This is clearly not true. For a ball that became a human companion – surely a purpose which no ball manufacturer would have ever dreamed of – see the film Cast Away, a year 2000 film starring Tom Hanks. Just one simple example of what must surely be an uncountable number of manufactured objects pressed into service in millions of imaginative ways not avowedly intended by their manufacturers.

    You also gave us a definition of purpose:

    Purpose is a predetermined reason of existence, which can only come from the creator.

    This certainly one way in which the word purpose is used, possibly even the most common use of the word. However, I believe that by giving only this meaning you are attempting to forestall some arguments. That seems evasive to me in this context.

    Consider that another common use for the word purpose is:

    A person’s sense of resolve or determination …

    … or this one:

    One’s intention or objective.

    In the context of deciding the purpose of one’s life these two meanings seem to me to be far more appropriate, far greater, more challenging and interesting, than your small meaning.

    Indeed, the definition you have chosen is highly questionable – as we clearly do not have evidence of a creator of humans it cannot be applied to us.

    You argue:

    If there is no creator, there is no predetermined reason for existence, hence no purpose.

    True.

    If there was a creator we would still have to accept that (a) your definition of purpose is relevant (in deciding our life purpose) and, (b) if your definition of purpose is relevant that it’s the most relevant – the most useful for describing the human condition.

    Even if I grant you that fantastic, outrageous, idea that there is a creator: A creator of humans would obviously be far, far, more interested in our efforts to define our own, moral, productive and humane goals than in simply handing us some checklist. What: She gave us intelligence so that we could pass multiple choice tests?

    Your small description for human life purpose allows you to conclude:

    In that case, we can attempt to identify goals in our life that produce some amount of usefulness and benefit to ourselves and society; yet this is different than purpose.

    I cannot give you any credit for that idea.

    My life’s goals are mine to determine.

    Humanity, life, is more than a checklist.

    My resolve to counter the backward, regressive, ideas of those who promote the idea of a creator of humans is only strengthened by your little dogma.

    Peace.

  75. There is obvious evidence around us that great numbers of people do find or have a purpose without really thinking about it. For example, I’d suggest that the vast majority of ‘nerds’ in Silicon valley who produce amazing technological innovations are driven by intense passion and purpose and creativeness without much thought about religion or other reasons for doing so.
    Medical researchers with a passionate lifelong dedication and purpose of conquering cancer do not do so in case they personally get cancer but do so almost altruistically for the benefit of humanity in general.

    Perhaps it is simply part of an evolutionary imperative to try and improve the quality of life for oneself and ones offspring and for the wider human species with the purpose of improving the chances of survival and propogation of genes.

    The instinctive drive to be creative in some way seems to translate into a unique purpose for an individual and I would dare to say that those who able to live their lives being creative are the happy ones. Those who simply exist without creating, cultivating, or nuturing anything lack purpose and hence happiness?

  76. A major issue for an evolutionary world view is the one of purpose. Evolution informs us that we are all here because of blind random chance. Our bodies and minds are a collection of atoms. Those atoms behave according to the physical laws of the universe. It cannot therefore be that we have purpose, that is an illusion. Furthermore we can’t even claim to have any responsibility since our thoughts and emotions are entirely the result of the movements of atoms and molecules behaving and reacting because of physical laws. Richard Dawkins is passionate about Reason and Science (as am I) but as a product of evolution he cannot be responsible for his passion. His purpose is the result of blind random chance and as such can have no more validity than any other purpose that is the result of evolution.

  77. Hi Phil,

    A major issue for an evolutionary world view …

    What is an evolutionary world view ?

    Evolution informs us that we are all here because of blind random chance.

    No, it doesn’t. Evolution merely means that things change over time. I think you may be referring to the additional, observed, trait of biology called natural selection. A key part of natural selection is that mutations to the base chemistry of biological, replicating, bodies appear to happen at random. Those mutations happen, relatively speaking, very rarely. If the body can replicate successfully, passing on that mutation, there is a difference between the first set of bodies (without mutation) and the second body (with mutation) for selection to happen.

    There is therefore a tiny random element within the overall framework, but the rest of natural selection is far from random. Natural selection requires changing environments – which include other evolving, living, bodies – and a lot of time, a lot of time, for natural selection to affect evolution.

    Our bodies and minds are a collection of atoms.

    If that were true tables would have minds.

    A lot more than atoms are required to make minds. Without getting into a very long and detailed description of atomic physics, chemistry, biochemistry (to the best of our knowledge carbon or arsenic based), amino acids, enzymes, proteins, polysaccharides, and, and and … we arrive at neurons and the synapses that connect them. These form nervous systems, including brains.

    Brains come with about 86bn neurons arranged in a parallel processing network of nodes. This plastic neural network is connected by a mass of synapses and it is estimated that the brain of a 3-year-old has about 1 quadrillion (10 raised to the power of15). This network can, in some ways, be actively changed through influences of will or environment. But that network can’t simply be divided into functional pieces – its circuits are fuzzy.

    From this biological substrate emerges our cognition. As biologists have noted: Cognition is an imprecise description of a range of abilities from worms to humans – and this does not indicate that humans are anything more than the current, marginally higher, peak of cognitive development – just above chimps and other apes, possibly alongside similar peaks such as those occupied by whales and certainly not the ultimate limit.

    From the variable abilities of different brains emerges different kinds of cognition, analogous to software – though brains and Turing machines are very different.

    From our brains and cognition arises our psychology … our minds.

    I said I wouldn’t get “into a very long and detailed description”. The above is merely the headlines. It isn’t even all the headlines.

    To say that minds are based on the physics of atoms is true – but it tells us nothing about minds, or physics, or any of the intervening nine-or-so levels (depending on definitions) of complexity in between.

    Each of those levels is so intricate, complex and varied that scientists have – and still do – spend entire lifetimes studying just one, and concluding they will never know all of it. It’s important to understand that with each layer of complexity comes a layer of abstraction – what happens in one layer is distinct and abstract (operates separately from, or in a way not allowed) by the layer immediately below it. In this way details of the particular set of functions at each layer is not directly dependent on the underlying layers.

    Those atoms behave according to the physical laws of the universe. It cannot therefore be that we have purpose, that is an illusion.

    It may be true that, at some deep and yet-to-be-defined level, we are creatures that are driven by being – inescapably – creatures who are a part of nature. If I have understood you correctly, Phil, you seem to think this is a problem. Yet it is the truth, we are just as much a part of nature as nature is a part of us. Why is that a problem?

    Furthermore we can’t even claim to have any responsibility since our thoughts and emotions are entirely the result of the movements of atoms and molecules behaving and reacting because of physical laws.

    As above, the movement of a single atom is too far removed from our psychology to have any direct influence. I experience my life, as most people seem to do, by experiencing what seems to me to be free will. I therefore hold everyone to account for their own actions. I’m prepared to be forgiving when a crook is shown to be running on a psychology that is less then socially optimal, and I’m prepared to allow for people to make mistakes – because I’m human too. The truth is probably that we’re all driven by nature in ways over which we have no control, but that doesn’t make a good basis for a society – and it doesn’t tell the full story.

    Richard Dawkins is passionate about Reason and Science (as am I) but as a product of evolution he cannot be responsible for his passion.

    Yes he can. Part of the reason that it’s important to understand the many layers of abstraction between atoms and minds is because we still have the power to alter our own minds from within – and, as above, this is supported by the science. There is nothing to prevent us holding Richard to account for his actions – passionately driven or not.

    [Richard Dawkins’] purpose is the result of blind random chance …

    No it isn’t, as above.

    [Richard Dawkins’ purpose] can have no more validity than any other purpose that is the result of evolution.

    The science of evolution – even including natural selection – has nothing to say about any individual’s purpose.

    Who are you to judge the ‘validity’ of someone else’s purpose (whatever validity of purpose means)?

    Peace.

  78. Inspirational, moving story. I love it. Thank you Phil.

    My take on this topic is that a creator who assigns purpose to his creatures is a burden on religious folk. I recommend discarding that idea and realising instead that we each have freedom to determine our own chosen destiny, without obligation or responsibility to any but our fellow humans who deserve it. If God did exist then I don’t think he would mind that, otherwise he would surely appear occasionally somehow as himself and say what he expects of us. Until that happens I will continue my purposeful, fulfilling, creative, dissolute life as an atheist.
    Sorry to be unoriginal.

    Btw., I used to be ‘Inquisador’, just popping in under a temporary moniker.

    Take care Phil, Alan, and all of you.

  79. Here is Max Stirner:
    “A man is “called” to nothing, and has no “calling,” no “destiny,” as little as a plant or a beast has a “calling.” (quoted from http://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/max-stirner-the-ego-and-his-own)
    In german:
    “Ein Mensch ist zu nichts „berufen” und hat keine „Aufgabe”, keine „Bestimmung”, so wenig als
    eine Pflanze oder ein Tier einen „Beruf” hat.”
    (Dies spiegelt sich wohl wieder in Tugendhats ‘Wir sind nicht fest verdrahted’.)

  80. I would really like to know where the need to “find” a purpose for my life comes from. I think that’s what the author described as “that emptiness deep in the pit of our stomach”? Could it be that perhaps the chaos our world has been thrown into has produced in me the need to bring about some change in even the littlest of things, such that when I do something nice or good or help someone other than myself then I am fulfilled and I can say I have done something meaningful. If that is the case: imagine a world where there is absolute peace and no wars, or fightings, there is abundance of resources and therefore the need to be selfish, cheat, steal and all the ills associated with the human race is eliminated, what will my purpose be then?

  81. Hi Cindy,

    I would really like to know where the need to “find” a purpose for my life comes from.

    That’s very interesting because, like David R Allen (Apr 22 @10:30), I have no drive for a personal meaning or purpose. I basically have no common touch-point with your view.

    Please don’t misunderstand, I have no desire to undermine you. I believe you really have this need. I can imagine where it might come from; a sense of limited time and opportunity, a desire to do good, a need to be at one with our fellow humans, sympathy for the needy, empathy with nature or Planet Earth, or the greater Cosmos, a sense of wonder and a need to support that wonder … there’s really no limit to the possibilities.

    Could it be that perhaps the chaos our world has been thrown into …

    I don’t really get your second point here either. Our World is more at peace now than it has ever been. Now, before I’m charged with not being serious, I freely admit that there is still much work to be done. From that perspective, I am motivated to use my most limited resource – my time – to work on solutions that I can identify as valuable. I come here regularly for inspiration.

    [The World] … has produced in me the need to bring about some change in even the littlest of things, such that when I do something nice or good or help someone other than myself then I am fulfilled and I can say I have done something meaningful.

    Satisfaction at a good deed, or a job well done – this is life meaning and purpose?

    Imagine a world where there is absolute peace and no wars, or fightings, there is abundance of resources and therefore the need to be selfish, cheat, steal and all the ills associated with the human race is eliminated, what will my purpose be then?

    I don’t think living in a dream World is a good way to think about what we can do, what we can add. Dreams are great for helping us define goals while setting aside the inconveniences of real life coincidences. We can all dream about becoming a Gold Medal Winner. Those of us over 40 have to make sure that the reality of being past our physical peak doesn’t spoil that dream, if we need it to inspire us to just get basically fit.

    This is why dreams can be a problem. Their very unreality can lead us to despair even before we’ve begun.

    Ambition, on the other hand, is the greatest mover and changer. More powerful even than Compound Interest – which Einstein described as the most powerful force in the Universe.

    It is ambition, grounded in reality and the gritty realisation that what we can achieve is limited, that moves mountains … one teaspoonful at a time.

    Peace.

  82. Inqui!!!

    How wonderfull to have you drop by. I hope you and yours are thriving. My very best wishes to you…should you read this…and….well even if you don’t.

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