The question of purpose is a scary one for me. It's one of those topics that I find it very difficult to think or speak rationally about. For those who haven't read my story, losing my sense of purpose when I left Christianity was a big deal to me.
And here's the frank truth for an Atheist:
We don't matter.
None of us do. Not one single bit. Everything we do, love, fear, hate, strive for, work for, suffer for? Doesn't matter.
I say this, of course, in the grander sense. We are a bunch of specs of dust on a tiny rock hurtling through a small corner of one small galaxy out of billions. And then we die. More than that, we would attempt to attach meaning to our interactions with other people, or our impact on this world, or on the universe. But all of these are dying too! The universe is expanding, and will one day simply run out of enough heat to go around. It's only a matter of time until the sum of all existence is transformed into a barren wasteland, a graveyard of whatever insignificant little bit "life" managed to get done before the curtain closed.
Even more than that: everything we do that we attribute meaning to is ultimately just a deterministic chemical reaction in our brains that stimulates some part of our anatomy to make something happen. We are the universe's great Rube Goldberg Machines.
To the first point, I think the atheist an effective response: So what? Why should what happens in another couple of Billion years even matter to us to begin with? Is anybody even actively thinking about that on a day to day basis? Why not say that the meaning of this life is to enjoy yourself, or to help others, or any number of things we value as "good"? I find this a fairly effective argument- I see no reason we need a grander meaning to be happy day to day. Moreover, I've been happy as an atheist- granted not in a consistent way, but I do tend to think that in the right circumstances, I could be happy. Certainly there are other happy atheists, just as there are unhappy Christians. After all, having a grander sense of purpose is different from being happy. Nobody stops in the middle of sex and says "Gee, you know, this really doesn't ultimately matter, so lets just call it a day".
It is the second point, however, that distresses me. It seems to me that if I'm an atheist, I am obligated to admit that I am ultimately just a bag of atoms, firing off chemicals in some semi-random ordering so as to interact with the world around me. How can I claim meaning if I can't even claim control of my own actions, my own thoughts, my own feelings? Even scarier, what has happened to my precious reason in this scenario? It seems to me like both its validity and even its desirability have disappeared. Why bother being reasonable if it ultimately doesn't matter anyway? Doesn't it make more sense to be happy, no matter what framework that entails? And if I can convince myself that reason still has value, what justification do I now have for thinking my view of reason (i.e. my deterministic chemical releases) is even accurate? These are questions that I have no good answer for, and have yet to hear a good answer for. If anyone has a good answer, or a link to one, please feel free to comment.
We need to make the distinction here about whether purpose is important in and of itself, or whether its important only insofar as it gives us greater satisfaction with life. I would tend to side with the latter, but I say that with very little confidence. But then, I have to question why I even have this desire for purpose. Can this be evolutionarily explained? Maybe. No other animal seems to suffer from this. They live, they procreate, and they die. But perhaps this is simply a relic of increased intelligence, an inevitable outcome of any creature that is truly self aware?
In point of fact, many people do try to fill this "hole" in their life with a family, which seems to be a good argument for evolutionary selection. But I think this falls short. Why is this any more effective than the pure animal desire to procreate? If procreation fills the role of purpose in life, I have to believe that would be a better selector than the arbitrary need for meaning, which may or may not be filled with children. But perhaps I traipse too far off the beaten path here. Evolution to the Atheist is sort of like God to the Christian, in that it can be invoked to explain just about any discrepancy between his view and reality. I think I ought not speculate on what "evolution" would and would not select for (there are some interesting blog posts over at unequally yoked about the danger of treating evolution as a sentient force that selects "for" what we consider desirable things- moral goodness, for example). I will conclude this point, then, by saying that I remain open to the idea that both our desire for purpose and our (or at least my- I can't speak for every atheist) inability to find it outside of religion could be pointing to a God.
I think we also need to admit that purpose (along with fulfillment, joy, and all other emotions generally claimed by the religious) exists entirely in the self, and is not external in any way. That is to say, the definition of someone with purpose is someone who thinks he has purpose. An individual's purpose cannot be judged as "good" purpose or "bad" purpose. For example, Christians and Muslims essentially share the same "purpose" (to glorify God with their actions and relationships), so you can't possibly claim one purpose as superior to the other. What matters (at least in terms of their satisfaction in life) is not whether or not they are correct, but whether or not they believe they are correct (and how strongly they believe it).
Finally, I'll leave you with these questions, all of which are unresolved in my mind. The scientist in me says one thing, and the human says another:
Can we ultimately believe in God because we just can't bear to not believe in him? Is this enough of a reason? And does it even matter if it's a rational belief at that point?