No Afterlife, No Purpose?

Question from Josh:
Do you have a purpose in your life without there being a possible god? If so what is it and what good is it without an afterlife?

Answer by SmartLX:
Andrea wrote about purpose in a previous answer, but I don’t think I’ve had my chance yet.

First, I’ve never said there can’t possibly be a god. There might be one, there’s just been no substantive evidence for one so far so if anything it’s too early to believe it.

Anyway, there’s an underlying assumption in your question that the only purpose in life for anyone who does believe in a god and an afterlife is to please the god and achieve the best available afterlife. I doubt this very much, because there have got to be non-atheists out there who do great works out of genuine altruism and not just to win points with the big boss. One’s desire to help one’s friends or family could actually trump one’s own hopes of heaven; if a friend was determined to commit suicide, as a last resort one might murder him first, endangering one’s own soul to save that of one’s friend. For another example, a good man might steal to feed his family, and not be at all sorry that he has done so despite having sinned, because his children can eat.

I’m trying to demonstrate that even for believers, their purpose in life is a personal choice. It’s the same for non-believers but, since they don’t think they have an afterlife to prepare for, it doesn’t factor into their options.

Believers often take for granted the idea that they will be able to savour their rewards forever, and are horrified by the idea that they might not. Well, if that’s the way things are, then tough. Whatever we achieve in life, we may have a few good years to enjoy it, and we can be content in the thought that it will persist after we’ve died, but then that’ll be it for us.

It’s in this spirit that many non-believers take up the popular pursuits of happiness, helping others and making the world a better place. Since we only accept the existence of one finite life and one world to live in, our priorities tend towards that life and that world. Those who are more self-centred will concentrate on their own lives, while those with more empathy are more likely to go out into the world and work to improve others’ lives. My own purpose, like most, is a mixture of the two.

One thought on “No Afterlife, No Purpose?”

  1. Purposes without god are an easy point to tackle.
    Speaking from some experience, without the god concept your purposes tend to become more practical, realistic and earthbound. You start considering the real consequences of your actions – how they will effect you, other people etc. Thinking about these consequences and experiencing the effects of your actions fully (without the refuge in god crutch) further define and re-define your purposes. You basically stop hoping / pretending that god will intervene to straighten things up when you screw up. This revelation in turn straightens you up for the most part. There may be some pangs of melancholia regretting the “awakening” – but those are the “teething troubles”, if you will, of atheism.

    After-life is an amusing topic for two main reasons:
    1) If you believe in an afterlife where you stay in apparition form forever after bodily life, then its really amusing that the 80 – 100 odd years we have on earth define our state afterwards for eternity. It’s something that a brain-dead god might invent but its not likely that a god as imagined by most “enlightened” theists would invent such a thing.

    2) If you believe in birth after death type of afterlife, where you spend some time in apparition form and decide your purpose for the next episode of “life”, then the really amusing portion is that in your new episode you do not remember any of your past lives – i.e. you do not remember past mistakes you may have made and cannot learn to live better from them. Heck – you don’t even remember the plans you made while in apparition form for the latest episode of “life”. And yet, somehow, you are accountable for your deeds.
    Bizarre.

    The thing is – you have to believe in either of the above two versions of afterlife, unless there is some other obvious version that I am missing. And none of the two seem to make much sense to me at-least.

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