What existential "Meaning and Purpose" do theists have which Atheists do not?

I often hear from theists that they could never become an atheist because they are afraid that they would have no purpose and meaning to their lives.

While I was a dedicated Christian I do not recall what was so meaningful and purposeful about my life during this stage. Nor do I recall why I feared that these feelings would dissipate if I ever lost my faith. The reality, if my memory is not too distorted, is that this part of my life was not particularly happy or especially meaningful. All I can recall is that there were a number of nice emotional "highs" relating from the feeling of being "right" and in warm supportive company (when it was). There were also emotional highs from the hypnotic music, chanting, meditation and mind focusing. But that's all.

I recall a catecism phrase which intoned that: "Man's chief end in life is to glorify God". The language was quaint and always made me think of another saying: "Man has two ends: one to think with and one to sit with. His success in life depends on which he uses the most." This was prior to the consciousness raising of the women's liberation movement so I failed to notice the implied sexism in these statements. What, pray, is Women's Chief End in Life?

Obviously, now that I have been forced to cross the bridge, the fear of meaningless proved to be unrealistic. Life just simply went on and the gaps filled in relatively quickly, like skin growing over a wound. I don't recall ever actually perceiving a "hole" where religion used to be.
Can anyone recall their own experience?

Has anyone here ever recieved anything more than frothy answers from Christians, or followers of other religions, about what they percieve to be the "meaning and purpose" of their life? My suspicion is that theists would be greatly embarrassed if they were asked to justify their claim that they experience better or more "meaning and purpose" than non-theists.

In my experience, people's perception of meaning various enormously. It is extremely fickle. Changes in hormones and brain chemistry is enough to upset it dramatically. People with religious beliefs are no less prone to developing clinical depression and just as likely to commit suicide as any other group, given the same set of predictive factors: personality type, poverty, social isoloation, genetic history, precipitating experience, etcetera.

How do theists explain the "meaning and purpose" in the lives of those with serious medical conditions, especially when they affect the brain and the personality of the person. What is life's "meaning" for someone with Alzheimer's Dementia? Parkinson's Dementia? Frontal Lobe injury (affects the personality and ability to make and carry out decisions)? Children dying young of an incurable disease? Memory loss from accident (near drowning, CO2 poisoning) or disease (prolonged vomiting, persisent seizures? Prolonged coma? In fact, what is the meaning and purpose in life of a whole heap of suffering people?

The theist might claim that their god has a purpose for these lives, but is it something which the individual finds positive and meaningful? Does this even make any sense when the person in question cannot think or perceive properly? Does it make any sense when pain is so severe that it blocks out any existential consideration? Does it make any sense when the person is so spaced out on pain killing medicine that they live in a virtual dream world where the internal and external merge in fuzzy confusion and nothing matters save the timing of the next dose of blissful release?

Views: 6

Tags: angst, existential, goals, life, meaning, purpose, theism

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Comment by Rosemary LYNDALL WEMM on April 21, 2009 at 11:37am
I agree with you, Matt. I have long thought that the question "What is the meaning of life?" is just as stupid as the replies given by Douglas Adams (42) and Monty Python.
Comment by It's just Matt on April 21, 2009 at 7:44am
I agree with Jennifer W and to further elaborate, I'll say this. When I am asked by someone what's life meaning or purpose is, I first give them the simple and all too real truth-"To Live"

The simplest and most truthful answer is just that, to live. Regardless of what one's beliefs may be, this oversimplification of fact can't be ignored.
Now depending on how they respond I elaborate even further until I'm breathless or they are utterly confused.

My own personal, deluded opinion is, however, that asking such a question is a fallacy in of itself. After an initial curiosity of your own existence, you need not to continuously wonder and question it, for you are going against the simplest answer-To Live
Comment by Jennifer W on April 20, 2009 at 11:51pm
Religion playing the "meaning and purpose" card is one of the best marketing ploys ever. I can't think of anything less brainwashing than creating a great phony answer to a complicated question.

To me my meaning and purpose is to experience life, good and bad. This may be the only time you have on Earth or as a living breathing organism!
Comment by Sentient Biped on April 20, 2009 at 10:10pm
Maybe the concept of 'meaning' in live comes from an internal place. Someone who beleives that service to others gives meaning, could find it with or without theism. Someone who finds beauty in the natural world, can do so with or without god. Someone who finds meaning with family? Theists and nontheists alike, will find meaning.

My personal sense of meaning is as great as it's ever been, despite some huge challenges and losses. However, having transcended theism in my late teens, I really don't know if that is an issue of religion, or experience, or becoming an adult, or aging.

It would be interesting to ask someone in severe chronic pain, or with drug addiction, or cognitively impaired, or in abject poverty, what they think gives their life meaning. Maybe meaning is a luxury that just doesnt come into play, or maybe we would be surprised by the response.

My Mom has advanced dementia. I know that until recently, she responded to cheerful words, sometimes happily sang along with nonsense words, could sometimes smile, sometimes respond to sweet foods. Maybe that's meaning, maybe it isn't. My dad derived significant meaning in taking care of her, and when he could no longer, it was a terrible loss for him.

Rosemary, thought provoking post! Thanks!
Comment by Buffy on April 20, 2009 at 9:32pm
They're led to believe you need some "meaning and purpose" outside of living life. So they create this nonsense (serving god, blah blah blah) and think that our lives must be empty and meaningless because we don't have invisible sky fairies and made-up Mission Statements to get us through life. How very wrong they are.
Comment by Dionysus on April 20, 2009 at 7:47pm
While "glorifying god" never seemed me to be a genuine purpose, I guess I have a more hedonistic view of people. I see attempts at glorifying a god as self serving since they are the means to an end. The end being eternal life in heaven with their grandparents and Spike, their childhood pet Labrador welcoming them in with the most noble sense of ethereal, transcendent love. To a theist, winning the favor of a god has its rewards and is there really any more to it than that? You want something, you give some form of payment. Tererestial capitalism invading celestial kingdoms and passing for reverence the way Evangelical proslytizing passes for an invitation to salvation.

Fortunately for me, my early skepticism kept me clear and free of such hypocrisy. I never entertained the idea that all my life was meaningless except as preparation for the next one. There's where the meaninglessness lies. How can much meaning can your life have if you live it with a god in mind; one who gives you the meaning instead of allowing you to discover it and persue it on your own?

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