Many who haven’t been enveloped by Western religion may hear “purpose” and immediately associate it with goal-driven behavior or some kind of deep motivation. To those who are religious, or who spent their developing years inundated with theological dogma (as I did), the word “purpose” penetrates much deeper. It evokes the feeling that your existence is inherently meaningful, that you were not built by the universe, but rather, the universe was built for you. Maybe you weren’t placed here to do something spectacular, but you were placed here nonetheless. There is a warm undercurrent of comfort in knowing that your very essence is beyond natural material and that the thing that breathed that essence into you, whatever it is, carries an inaccessible depth of knowledge—a purview that life is always acting toward your well-being, no matter how bad it may appear. You feel cradled by a set of hands, large enough to gently hold the whole of reality but soft enough that you sink into them like they were made just for you.
Often though, emotions and feelings of promise like this are not absorbed in a psychologically healthy way. They are held with an iron grip, where letting go would be synonymous with emptiness and death of spirit. Such a profound emotional response, though, isn’t an indictment of the mental health of true believers but rather a testament to the intrinsic power of the beliefs themselves. From personal experience, these beliefs pervade one’s entire being when taken seriously, and when lost, they often leave a deep, slow-healing wound.
Much of my youth was spent cloaked in an unpoppable bubble of Christianity, which primed me from birth to be a faithful believer. For much of that time, I was not only compliant in this highly religious culture but vigorously engaged in it. I prayed nearly every night, participated as an altar server in mass, and ironically, incessantly attempted to “reconvert” my grandpa who no longer believed in God. A hint of doubt never dared creep into my mind. My religion was the core of my life.
My trajectory continued unimpeded until the introduction of Christian apologetics in a ninth-grade religion class. Never before had I peered through the lens of reason to explain religious belief, and I was more than eager to bulletproof my convictions with rationality. I began sewing up holes that seemed previously unimportant and figured my religion teacher would be abound with thread. “Hey Mr. Sturgill, how do we have free will if God knows the future?” He stammered on with a word salad full of vague analogies. As I turned to walk to my desk, a switch flipped within me—not an epiphanous flipping of a switch like in an “aha moment” but a realization carrying the velocity capable of sending someone’s entire world into a spiral. I needed to continue down this path of skepticism to find answers—there was no way around it, even if it killed my spirit. At that moment, I made the decision that I’d rather live in truth and be miserable than continue on happily in denial. Blissful ignorance was never an option.
On an emotional level, though, accepting truth in spite of misery was not easy, and for much of the time, it sat scratching at the door between subconscious and conscious. During that period, what ensued was a feverish tug of war between mind and soul—a vicious battle between truth and purpose where there could only be one victor. Every other night was spent restlessly tossing and turning between “How could I have been so wrong? How is no one seeing this?” to “I have to be missing something. Please tell me I’m missing something,” only to wake up the next morning and realize sleep had shattered any headway I thought I made. After about two years of ceaseless conflict, the dust had cleared, and truth remained standing. Yet, left in the grounds of war was a bottomless void of meaning that no amount of hard-nosed rational thought could fill. Nights of tossing and turning quickly transformed into gazes with no destination and catatonia. Nihilism and just about every negative psychological state attached to it were the reward for losing faith. “Good job, Ben! You figured it out!”
The unfortunate, twisted joke of rejecting a higher power is that the lack of belief in a why behind our existence is not some philosophical oversight–it’s completely justified. There’s simply not good evidence for such a purpose. Everything around us, including ourselves, is the result of the gradual unfolding of fundamental physical forces, the origins of which (if they have any at all) we know nothing about and have no reason to believe are divine. To think otherwise is to believe on the basis of faith, which is ultimately belief divorced from proper evidence. Science and rationality can make viable, consistent predictions about the future; faith cannot. Therefore, until further notice, our lives simply are, whether due to random chance or physical inevitability, and as such, our existence is purposeless.
Herein lies the psychological mutilation caused by visceral religious belief. Western religion convinces its adherents that not only does life have purpose but that it requires purpose to persist. It aggrandizes a transcendent meaning and makes it feel completely tangible, if not already acquired. When losing religion, a chasm is created spanning one’s total existence, and the only thing that can fill it is the ground that came before, the ground that was rejected. But, such a deep-seated intuition that purpose must be an inherent feature of life is an illusion. And, it’s an illusion yearned for only when fed the pipe dream that humans are the sacred offspring of the universe.
What we’re left with, however, shouldn’t be a detached, nihilistic attitude toward our existence. We still have beautiful, layered, expansive first-person experiences of the world, including an acute propensity for joy and for pain. While our desire for purpose is clearly a human creation, biology has gifted us an unshakeable, innate objective to which we strive—to seek happiness and avoid suffering. Even greater, we’re able to find fulfillment in extending this objective beyond ourselves toward others; in fact, we’re biologically incentivized to be altruistic.
Although ultimate purpose may be an illusion, we clearly have experiences that feel purposeful and that cause very real changes in our conscious minds, so “Why are we here?” is the wrong question. We are here. What do we do now? How can we best spend our time alive? After all, life is finite, and that’s what makes it truly valuable. All we have is our moment-to-moment experiences, and if we’re living in the present, purpose never even enters the equation as it’s a concept bound by time. Things like compassion, unconditional love, music, art, nature are often overlooked in exchange for the unattainable pearly gates. Yet, the precious, and even mundane, moments brimming with vibrant experiences are what make life worth living. Why engage in an impassable deliberation of our purpose?