Quite a few Christians think that without Christianity, people will fail to gain a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. That’s so untrue. In fact, the opposite just might be the real truth. With or without Christianity, people tend to muddle along just fine. And today, we’ll explore why that is, and why it’s really the best-case scenario even for Christians.
(Toxic Christians are hyperpoliticized, dysfunctional-authoritarian Christians who seek power and dominance over others. Though they’re usually evangelicals, many hardline Catholics also fall into this definition. They’re involved in the flavor of Christianity they’ve chosen because they perceive it as a permission slip to trample their enemies.)
Defining meaning and purpose
As the days go by, we face the increasing inevitability that we are alone in a godless, uninhabited, hostile and meaningless universe. Still, you’ve got to laugh, haven’t you? [Holly’s introduction, Red Dwarf episode 2.1 “Kryten“]
When we talk about having a purpose for one’s life, we mean a feeling that one is doing something important and/or necessary that we’re uniquely suited to do. Whatever it is, that thing feels right to us. It fits our notion of who we are and what we hope to accomplish before our time on this good dark earth is finished. Some people think parenthood is their purpose in life. Others think charity work is. And others still might think it’s creating art of entertainment for others.
The idea of meaning in life is so related to a sense of one’s life’s purpose that I tend to use the two terms together or even interchangeably. But yes, they’re different. Having a sense of meaning in life means that you feel you’re contributing somehow to humanity. You are significant somehow. Your life satisfies you and fulfills your emotional needs. You’re learning and growing as you age.
The funny thing about meaning and purpose, to me at least, is that they’re mostly manufactured needs. People living on the edge of poverty or depression, for example, or in the middle of war zones, aren’t usually dwelling overmuch on what their purpose in life is. Just surviving every day becomes meaningful enough. (And it really, truly is.) Meaning and purpose are needs for people who aren’t on the ragged edge like that. They’re way higher up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
I grew up in much better conditions, and yet I wonder if I’d have independently come to the notion of absolutely requiring a meaning and purpose if Christians hadn’t told me I did. Indeed, that was exactly one Redditor’s situation a few years ago:
I am an atheist, mostly because my parents raised me that way. Because I was born in a communist country most people in the municipality that I grew up in were totally irreligious too. This is why I have great trouble understanding the religious mindset. Some time ago I moved to another city, where I met a lot of christians, that invited me to their meetings. Since they were nice people I went and we discussed their faith. One thing that I heard more than once was the claim, that without out, my life would me meaningless in the end. This claim confuses me, because it presupposes, that with god, my life would have meaning. But how is this supposed to work?
OP got some interesting answers from both non-believers and believers, by the way.
Having created a need for meaning and purpose, Christians are then in an excellent position to offer the only cure for these needs: belief and fervent devotion to their imaginary friend. It’s the underpinning to the only product they sell: active membership in their religious groups.
How Christians position meaning and purpose (aka: the meaning-and-purpose in-the-wild segment!)
If you check out that Reddit thread, you’ll notice that some answers got downright dizzying in their philosophy. (Toward the bottom, mods erased a number of what must have been some funny attempts to proselytize.) But most Christians don’t get anywhere near that complicated. Interestingly, almost all of these sources were written after the pandemic started.
Rick Warren suggests that “God’s Purpose Gives Life Meaning And Value.” He thinks that ickie gross secular people “devalue” life because they “value their own happiness and fulfillment over God’s purposes for their lives.” It is this divinely-granted purpose that grants the only meaning and value in life. Then, Warren shakes a finger at his readers to warn them that they can never, ever, ever discover their lives’ purpose by “focusing on themselves.” Only his imaginary friend can possibly tell them that, because his imaginary friend totally “created” everyone! Only the being who creates us can tell us what our purpose is, gyahhh! I guess he forgets that people create children.
There’s hope, though! If Christians want to know what their life’s purpose might be, all they must do is ask his imaginary friend! He’ll always tell them! (Unless he doesn’t. But we’re getting there.)
Rowdy John Piper over at Desiring God has similar thoughts as he gaslights a young woman facing some serious emotional struggles. Meaning comes from purpose, and purpose comes only from his imaginary friend. Piper also blames literal demons for making Christians think any different. He also sneers at poor widdle atheists who just don’t understand such lofty things.
And we see much the same stuff over at the NIV Bible translation’s site. They ask these questions to start:
Why are we on earth? What’s our purpose? What is the meaning of life? How do we know if this is where we’re supposed to be?
Having asked these questions, they answer all of them with variants of “to Jesus as hard as we can.”
Kyle Blevins at Christianity.com and Crosswalk thinks that: “The meaning of life is connecting with the purpose, and for that purpose to guide us into development and service.” (Christianity.net.au did a little better by grounding their advice in relationships. Again, stuff like depression really is where the rubber of marketing promises meets the road of reality.)
How Christians position atheism regarding life’s meaning and purpose
Of course, Christians would be poor salespeople indeed if they conceded that their manufactured need could be met through other products than their own. Only their product can meet the need they’ve created. No other product can. In fact, any other product claiming to meet this need offers only a sad, laughable substitute that is lacking in every way. If a Christian encounters one of these other products, they must trample it to dust so that their product remains the only one on the shelf.
One person offers us what looks like class notes from a lecture given by evangelical apologist William Lane Craig. It’s titled “The Absurdity of Life Without God.” It’s the usual apologetics blahblah, but it’s very funny that the notes end with the Appeal to Consequences that Craig likes to offer instead of evidence:
1. If God does not exist, then life is meaningless.
2. But, life IS NOT meaningless.
3. Therefore, God exists
The notes leave us with the impression that Craig (and by extension the person offering the notes) thinks that atheists trudge through life being delusional and in denial as they try to cobble together some poor, pathetic substitutes for meaning.
Of course, Craig has never offered any real reason to believe his god is real, and neither does the person offering these notes. Nor does Craig offer us real evidence in support of his claims in an essay he wrote on his own site called “The Absurdity of Life Without God.” His essay’s summary is a pointed stab at his tribal enemy, though: “Why on atheism life has no ultimate meaning, value, or purpose, and why this view is unlivable.” Yes, it’s another Appeal to Consequences. We see the same exact appeal over at a hardline Catholic’s blog.
Kyle Butt of some apologetics site called Mathetis even titles his essay “The Despair of Atheism.” He gets really, really heated up about the notion of constructing one’s own meaning. (Bonus: He’s a Creationist midwit who calls real science “Darwinism.” Creationists love to slam their version of atheism as being meaningless and despairing. See also: Answers in Genesis.)
The Gospel Coalition, not to be outdone for slamming tribal enemies and straw atheism, offered their own take on the question. This one’s hilarious. See, atheists have told this writer, James Anderson, for ages that their lives are meaningful and they do too have purpose. But Anderson’s beliefs cannot allow him to accept that some people don’t need his product. So he decides that they’re just delusional. They have meaning and purpose “in spite of [their] atheism, not because of it!” Anderson drills down even further into his failboat by insisting that atheists can only feel their lives contain meaning and purpose “because their atheistic beliefs are false.” If those poor widdle sad atheists would only convert to his religion and consume his product, then they’d really see how meaningful their lives are!
Don’t you love evangelicals’ straw atheism? Atheists don’t have god-beliefs. Atheism is the lack of god-beliefs. It’s Christians who have beliefs, and they can’t support those beliefs at all. So they push their burden onto others and claim that their tribal enemy, atheists, do too have atheistic beliefs. And their beliefs are false, obviously! Anderson is projecting hard, isn’t he? Alas for him, he’s just set yet another claim onto his pile of unsupported claims.
Rounding out our list, a guy claiming the trendy title of ex-atheist claims that to him, atheism represented only “despair of meaninglessness.” If you’re wondering what evidence persuaded him, don’t. His emotional response to his own cosmic unimportance drove him to religion. See? Those manufactured needs work!
So how do Christians figure out their lives’ meaning and purpose?
I could be a scamp here and just answer with the truth: “the same way atheists, Buddhists, pagans, and everybody else does.” But that’s too easy, and Christians certainly wouldn’t agree. They think they have a magical invisible wizard friend who is standing by to take their calls and dying to talk to them all the time. They think he is eager to hand them their life’s purpose so they can go out and feel meaningful. So let’s check out how they think that process works.
As we go, though, think about how purely earthly and human this advice really is.
Faithward’s very underpants-gnome advice: Step 1: Study Bible verses that you find significant and meaningful, along with (Step 2:) verses regarding your god’s promises. Step 3: You are now ready to identify your purpose! DO IT!
Got Questions insists that the only purpose people have is Jesusing 24/7. Way to dodge the question, guys.
Rick Warren advises that all Christians must do is “just ask!” That’s his words, not mine! But in the end, he lands on Jesusing as well:
Fortunately, there is an alternative to speculation about the meaning and purpose of life. It’s revelation. We can turn to what God has revealed about life in his Word. The easiest way to discover the purpose of an invention is to ask the creator of it. The same is true for discovering your life’s purpose: Ask God.
God has not left us in the dark to wonder and guess. He has clearly revealed his five purposes for our lives through the Bible—to worship, fellowship, grow in Christ, serve others, and share Christ with others.
See? It’ll be one of those.
Some Christian leader named Kevin Payne has a 7-point list for finding one’s meaning and purpose. It makes as much sense as you’d imagine.
1. Turn To The Bible
2. Pray For Direction
3. Follow The Will Of God
4. Promises Of God
5. Living A Purpose Driven Life
6. How To Apply God’s Purpose In Your Life
7. A Personal Challenge
Wait! He has diagrams too! Here’s one:
Diagrams are what Christians do when they don’t have any idea what they’re doing but want it all to look very Jesusy, but also science-y and real.
A Cru (Campus Crusade for Christ) website offers advice as well: Read the Bible, “surround yourself with wise counselors,” pray a lot, “prioritize doing God’s will,” which they never really explain except to stress that it’s important, and “pay attention to your passions.”
All that said, I kinda liked the straightforward advice from this Lutheran guy, David Scharf: “Grow where you’re planted,” and “Fulfilling others’ needs.”
Finding meaning and purpose as a Christian looks exactly like it does for anyone else. Christians just add extra steps to the equation and talk to the ceiling a lot more.
The problem: It doesn’t work for them
When I was Christian, I remember not having any clue in the world what my purpose was. I knew what it wasn’t: motherhood. But aside from that, it could have been anything! Nor was I the only young adult suffering with this exact problem. Most of my friends, male and female, were about my age. And they wondered along with me what on earth their cosmic assignment from Jesus would be. We prayed and prayed, but none of us got the answers we sought.
The problem we were having was simple: We expected the answer to take a recognizably divine form. But without a god animating our religion, we were never going to get that. The best we would ever be able to do was what the advice above commands: Read the Bible, try to find verses that resonate, meditate on—er, I mean, pray about them, and try to relate the results to something you feel drawn to do in the world.
Everywhere in the Christ-o-sphere, we can see Christians lamenting that they lack a feeling of meaning and purpose. One lady on Reddit even laments that becoming Christian made her life feel meaningless. Someone on Quora feels that their life is “meaningless and hollow” despite their fervent faith in Christianity. Really, it’s difficult to avoid these cries from the heart:
- “I feel depressed because I feel like life is meaningless” [a different Reddit person]
- “How do we continue on when this life feels pointless, like when we are treading water and it feels like we’re just passing time until this life is over?” [Desiring God]
- “[W]ith life being a vapor, and death inevitable, even as Christians, how do we live life with any kind of purpose or enjoyment without falling victim to coming up with false meaning?” [Redditor 3]
- “Why is my life so meaningless? I try to seek God in prayer, in books, in meditation, but I can’t find him.” [Redditor 4]
The Christ-o-sphere suffers no lack of advice for Christians feeling this way, either:
- “When Life Feels Meaningless,” Christian Courier
- “3 Things to Do When Life Feels Meaningless,” YMI
- “When Life Feels Meaningless,” Lynn Pryor
- “God Understands… When You Feel Life is Meaningless,” American Bible Society
So we’re left with an absolutely inescapable conclusion: Ain’t nobody telling these Christians anything.
The terrible truth—for Christians at least—about meaning and purpose
Christians might believe in a general way that their god has some purpose in mind for their lives. They also might believe in a general way that their lives have meaning because he has assigned meaning to their lives.
But the stunning reality speaks louder than these beliefs: Christians struggle hard to figure out what their purpose might be. Often, they set forth on a project thinking it is Jesus’ purpose for them, but the project goes haywire and fails. They were wrong about whatever they thought their purpose was! Worse, many others never even get that far. They pray and study the Bible just as they’re told, but the answers never materialize for them. Eventually, they fall into a vocation (and maybe an avocation) that seems like it’s going in the right direction.
As for having meaning because it is assigned to them, all too often the sad truth is that Christians don’t feel that either.
So being Christian is no guarantee whatsoever that someone will bask in meaning and purpose in their life. Christians suffer plenty from a lack of meaning and purpose. Sometimes, that suffering leads to them needing very serious help to get out of that pit.
Making matters worse for Christians, their belief about how others find meaning and purpose is likewise false. Being an atheist (or believer in some other religion, but you’ll notice in these discussions that Christians, particularly toxic ones, seem to think that only atheism and TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ exist in the world) is by no means a statement of meaninglessness and purposelessness.
Finding meaning and purpose in a universe without gods
Non-Christians certainly feel plenty of meaning and purpose in their lives. I know I do, and yes, I laughed hard when I first ran across that one Gospel Coalition wingnut who tried to speak over my lived experience with meaning and purpose. It’s just so important to so many toxic Christians that their blahblah be the only way to a life of meaning and purpose that they’re willing to behave in hatefully controlling ways toward their tribal enemies.
In 2019, Pew Research indeed found that atheists think about the meaning of life fairly often, with about 1/3 of atheist respondents saying they thought about it at least weekly. Of great interest, Pew also found that atheists are more likely than Christians (54% vs 45%) to say they often feel a sense of wonder.
(I think I’d probably blow the curve on that one. All it takes is a good science video on YouTube and I’m blown away with wonderment. The first time I saw the first photos from the James Webb Space Telescope, I burst into happy tears. Finally, finally, rang out in my bones and blood. If I were a Sim in The Sims 3, I’d definitely have the Excitable trait.)
But we didn’t need Pew Research to tell us that. If toxic Christians were capable of actually listening to their enemies, they’d have known for years what they still deny now.
In the mid-2010s, during the Great Keyboard Wars between New Atheists and emboldened Creationist fundagelicals, Jerry Coyne’s science blog Why Evolution is True spent a lot of time talking about meaning and purpose in terms of atheism. He also laughed at toxic Christians who tried to deny atheists those qualities.
And the grotesque side of the equation: Yahweh being an asshole as usual
As I said, meaning and purpose is something that’s high up the scale of human needs. It’s something people can navel-gaze about when they’ve got the luxury of food, housing, and all those other physical and social comforts met.
When we look at what Christians claim about meaning and purpose, though, inevitably we plunge into a part of the equation that Christians have rarely even considered, much less confronted.
It’s not at all uncommon for Christians to seek meaning and purpose amidst huge crises in their lives. Why did Jesus allow their baby to die in great pain just hours after her birth? Why did Jesus allow that tornado to wipe out their entire town and kill half the residents? For what possible divine purpose did this woman’s sexual assault occur? What divine meaning can people assign to a genocide? We’ve even seen a few Christians asking questions just like this today, in our linked citations.
I suspect that if someone told some grieving parents that Jesus had a reason for their child to die, that person would walk away with a swollen lip and black eye. I’m similarly just aghast to hear Christian parents struggling to explain the meaning and purpose of that situation. If their god really allows babies to be born like that because it fulfills some cosmic plan of his, then he can kiss my ass and rotate on this on his way out the door. The same goes for gods who purposefully allow their own followers to suffer from depression and other mental illnesses.
The Christian god’s ineffable plan looks a lot like crimes against humanity, basically. It’s a good thing he doesn’t exist. That’s the best-case scenario for everyone, most especially Christians. As it is right now, they’re just going through life without gods while not realizing it. If their god really existed, he’d really be making their lives hell.
Considering toxic Christians who try to deny other people’s capacity for meaning and purpose
Saying that the people who reject Christianity completely lack even the capacity to possess meaning and purpose is flat wrong, as I’ve shown. It’s also hateful and dehumanizing.
But I can easily understand why toxic Christians do it all the time. It’s a lot easier to shift the focus to their enemies and hit them with tons of Appeals to Consequences than to find actual support for their claims.
Sure, it’s intellectually both cowardly and dishonest. But do we expect anything better out of that crowd? It’s almost not even worth rolling our eyes and briefly informing them that they don’t get to speak over our experiences. It’s similarly almost not even worth pushing the burden of proof back onto their shoulders. They know they lack evidence, or else they wouldn’t be using logical fallacies like the Appeal to Consequences. If any of them had any evidence at all, they’d wield it without hesitation or stopping!
Insulting tribal enemies is not evidence, any more than apologetics is evidence. Instead, insults and apologetics are what Christians resort to wielding when they don’t have any good reasons to offer. The moment a Christian uses such tactics, we can safely assume they’ve got nothing of value to add to any discussion about their imaginary friend.
But that said, it’s always so interesting to me when Christians act all snide and snotty toward their tribal enemies. If their god were real, they’d never need to do that. All they’d need to do is quietly pray alone and ask Jesus to strong-arm us into changing our minds. Or at the very least, they’d only need to ask Jesus to deal with us! But they know Jesus won’t do anything, so they’ve got to help him out by making sure their enemies know how much they’re hated.
So in a very real way, toxic Christians’ insults about non-believers having meaning and purpose represents yet another thing Christians do instead of finding real evidence to support their claims. Alas for them, I’ve never heard of anyone being insulted so much that they realized that Christianity’s claims are true. Toxic Christians act that way for themselves, always, not to further their god’s kingdom on earth.
As an illustration of that truth, here’s a 2014 debate Neil Carter described that involved Sye Ten Bruggencate, a giga-Calvinist who was a colossal and monumental asshat to literally everyone. In March 2021, Bruggencate’s sex scandal was exposed and his church made him permanently resign from ministry. Natch, the dude didn’t confess till he was forced to do it. A few months later, Bruggencate began making mouth-noises about returning to ministry. Nothing seems to have come of it, though, and he’s been pretty quiet since then. I strongly suspect he’s a raging asshat to everyone on his own side, too, meaning that his crony network was relieved at this excellent excuse to finally shitcan this cringey jerk for good.
When I see people like Bruggencate and his likeminded brethren, it makes me sad sometimes. They’re wasting their lives being hateful and nasty because they fully expect to get a cosmic do-over that’ll last eternally. The truth of the situation is breathtaking, though, because it reveals just how twisted their thinking is.
One dollar versus a billion, one year versus eternity
A while ago, this scene from Troy (2004) perfectly expressed how I feel about human life:
I’ll tell you a secret—something they don’t teach you in your temple. The gods envy us. They’re envious because we’re mortal, because any moment might be our last. Everything’s more beautiful because we’re doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again.
I will also note that in some stories, like Kill Six Billion Demons, immortality is portrayed as a curse upon its formerly-mortal victims.
I’d sure think so.
Look around us. We live on a tiny rock spinning around a mid-tier sun, which itself whooshes through space at dizzying speeds on a far arm of an unremarkable spiral galaxy, which itself is moving at mind-popping speeds as part of a whole cluster of similar galaxies, which are all racing through space as part of a supercluster. Against all of this motion, a gigantic filament web connects everything together. The sheer scope of it staggers my imagination. We still have no idea exactly what’s pulling so many galaxies in our supercluster toward itself; we just call it “the Great Attractor.”
In about 3 billion years, our galaxy will start merging with a neighboring galaxy called Andromeda. We, meaning you and I and the other humans alive right now, will not only be long gone by then, but our sun will also be expanding and engulfing its planets around then too.
Chances are good the human race will be long gone by then too. Right now, the people reading this post have, at the outside, 50ish years to take part in all of this dancing. Some of us have far less time. That makes every single year we have infinitely valuable.
If we had infinity to work all this stuff out, one year wouldn’t matter much. It’s not even a drop in the bucket. It’s not even a quivering string particle within the atoms of that drop. We could easily waste it watching all of the shows.
If, however, we knew for sure we had only five years and no take-backsies and no do-overs, I doubt most of us would want to waste much of that time. We’d want to immerse ourselves in what we love.
Many Christians think that their lives have meaning only if they live eternally and their god grants it to them. They think he assigns them their purpose.
I say, based on the evidence, that people’s lives have meaning precisely because we don’t live forever. Our lives have meaning and purpose precisely because we find it for ourselves. It doesn’t mean as much if someone else hands it to us, even if someone could. It’s like that bar scene in The Wedding Singer that I was talking about not long ago, the one where Sammy says that all he wants is someone to hold him and tell him everything’s gonna be all right. When someone actually does that for him, Sammy doesn’t really appreciate it. He needs to learn to do that for himself, and then it’ll mean all the world.
We’re tiny little blips in this universe, and we don’t ever last as long as we want. Whatever we feel is our purpose, our meaning, it works the same no matter what worldview we have.
And that, to me, is transcendently beautiful.
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