The Purpose of Purpose

“We can judge our progress by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers, our willingness to embrace what is true rather than what feels good.”

Carl Sagan

Historically, one of the main survival mechanisms of organised religion has been to exploit human frailties. A classic example would be our fear of death: by promising eternal life in the hereafter, religion captures those who are struggling to cope with their own mortality; by promising that believers will be reunited with their loved ones in heaven, religion ensnares those who are not mentally prepared to deal with loss. Consolation is an indispensable tool for indefensible ideas.

Not content with exploiting our fear of death, religion also preys upon our species’ need for meaning, or purpose. In his best-selling book The Purpose-Driven Life, the Christian evangelist Rick Warren argues that meaning in life can only be found in understanding and doing what God has supposedly placed us on Earth to do. The chapter titles of this book include ‘You Were Planned for God’s Pleasure’, ‘You Were Formed for God’s Family’, ‘You Were Created to Become Like Christ’, and so on.

Warren’s book has been met with many scathing critiques by atheist authors. In his excellent rebuttal Life-Driven Purpose, the former Christian evangelist Dan Barker rightfully takes exception to the notion that subservience to God should be one’s purpose in life. Barker also challenges the equally degrading notion that religion is required to have purpose in life, pointing to the millions of non-religious people in our world who are leading perfectly happy and productive lives. In Barker’s words:

Asking, “If there is no God, what is the purpose of life?” is like asking, “If there is no Master, whose slave will I be?”. If the purpose of life is to become a submissive slave, then your meaning comes from flattering the ego of a person whom you should despise.

The significance of our lives derives from our own wisdom and courage, not from some deity. The likes of Warren would prefer it to be otherwise, but there is no good evidence for a cosmic slavemaster who decides our worth. Indeed, in a vast universe where suns are made and worlds destroyed daily, where humanity clings to an obscure chunk of rock, it is hubris to think that our purpose has been ordained. The responsibility is on us to decide what the meaning of life is, and us alone.

But why do we look for meaning in the first instance? What is it that compels our species to find a purpose in life other than passing on our genes, to do things “bigger than ourselves”? Insofar as we value what is true, we must at least attempt to answer this question. In a 2009 lecture titled ‘The Purpose of Purpose’, Richard Dawkins provides us with a very elegant and convincing explanation of this need. In this article, we have preserved this video in its entirety for truth-seekers everywhere.

In essence, our brains have evolved with various capacities that assist the survival of the genes that made them. Among these is the ability to set up goals, or purposes. This goal-seeking capacity, built into us by natural selection for propagating genes, is inherently flexible and reprogrammable; thus, it is highly prone to seek new goals. Consequently, humans seek goals that have nothing to do with the survival or propagation of our genes, from climbing mountains to composing music.


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Support network for Ex-Muslims in Ireland. Empowering apostates from Islam and raising awareness of the jihadist threat. Affiliate of Atheist Alliance International.

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