Purpose, Meaning, and Morality Without God
Why we care even if the universe doesn’t.
Posted Sep 09, 2018
“Without God, life has no purpose, and without purpose, life has no meaning. Without meaning, life has no significance or hope.”
–Pastor Rick Warren, in The Purpose Driven Life.
In the last couple of decades, religious affiliation has been on a steep decline in all modern societies.1 Many worry that religion’s loss of influence will result in nihilistic societal values—a loss of the sense of purpose, meaning and morality. This fear rests on the assumption that religion is the source of these qualities, and that they were inherent at the origin of the universe, imbued by a benevolent creator.
Before the transformative scientific insights of the last few decades, it could quite reasonably have seemed self-evident that our world is purposefully designed and controlled by some sort of intentional higher power. It might even have seemed naive to suggest that the ingenious complexity that characterizes our world could have arisen spontaneously.
Despite many seemingly convincing arguments in favor of a grand design, modern science tells us otherwise about the nature of reality. A powerful scientific worldview has been steadily constructed over the last four centuries, at a pace that has been accelerating almost exponentially in modern times. In the last decade or two, several key parts of the overall picture have been snapping into place. We now have highly compelling and entirely plausible models for how our world, life, and consciousness could have emerged entirely spontaneously and unguided—all the way from the universe’s origin (astonishingly) to its present complexity. No external or first cause is required, no intelligent designer, and no guiding hand.
But if these scientific insights compel us to regard all existence as random, where does this leave us? Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg had famously written, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”2
Philosophers have long pondered how such abstract and intangible qualities as values and ethics could arise from the material “stuff” of the universe? Even if they somehow could, wouldn’t morality be relative? How can purpose and meaning arise in a random, material universe?
Biological evolution enabled purposive, meaning-oriented human behavior and morality; cultural evolution refined them.
The universe may not be purposeful, but humans are. Our sense of purpose is not at all dependent on the universe having a purpose. All living creatures are purposive, in a basic sense. Even a bacterium or a plant is purpose-driven. Human purposive behavior has evolved to become much more embellished, elaborated by conscious intention, but it is fundamentally driven by the same basic instinctual goals of all living things: survival and reproduction.
Meaning derives from the physical world too: it is simply the value and significance something has to a living organism—whether it is good or bad for the organism's survival and flourishing. We humans, with our extravagantly embellished evolution of consciousness, have evolved to be a highly complex meaning-seeking species. The meaning we attach to events and to our sense of self is as richly layered and interconnected as our complex neural networks.3
It is a human habit to infer deliberate intention to events in self-referential ways. Adopting a secular worldview entails recognizing that meaning is a human attribution and things do not happen for a predetermined reason, unless of course caused by deliberate human action.
We are very adept at finding meaning in life experiences and events. We often succeed at doing this even more so in the face of adversity than we do in times of plain sailing. People find many sources of life satisfaction and meaning, regardless of whether they are religious believers or not.
Unavoidably, meaning in life can be hard to find in some life circumstances. Believers in a purposeful universe struggle to explain why bad things happen to good people. Such situations can often trigger a painful crisis of faith, feeling abandoned by God. Non-believers suffer just as much in the face of adversity, but their understanding of randomness frees them from the sense of cosmic injustice.
A fundamental source of meaning for most people is knowing that we matter—that our life matters to others, that our life has an effect on the lives of others, and that others care about us. When bad things happen to people, suffering can be partially mitigated if the sufferer has reason to expect that something good might come out of their misfortune—perhaps some positive impact on others. Most people, religious or secular, want to know that they matter to other people—to know that people care about them. Religious people additionally want to feel that they matter to God—they want the universe to care.
As for morality, much has been researched and written in the last couple of decades utterly dispelling the long held assumption that religion is the origin of morality, and delineating in detail the naturally evolved basis (biological and social) of the human moral sense. Humans have both prosocial and antisocial traits—cooperative, caring tendencies as well as competitive, aggressive tendencies.
In the long view of history, multiple cultural evolutionary factors have contributed to an unmistakable trend toward more compassionate, purpose-driven societies.4 Societal progress in our modern era has been uneven and faltering; catastrophic derailments have occurred along the way and will always be a risk. But the overall positive trend has been a strong, definite one nonetheless. Increasing secularism has played no small role in this, when coupled with democracy and human rights.
The loss of religion in modern societies will not lead to nihilism
Religion is not the source of purpose, meaning, and morality. Rather, religion can be understood as having incorporated these natural motivational and social dispositions and having coevolved with human cultures over time. Unsurprisingly, religion has also incorporated our more selfish, aggressive, competitive, and xenophobic human proclivities.
Modern secular societies with the lowest levels of religious belief have achieved far more compassion and flourishing than religious ones.5
Secular humanists6 understand that societal ethics and compassion are achieved solely through human action in a fully natural world. We can rely only on ourselves and our fellow human beings. All we have is each other, huddled together on this lifeboat of a little planet in this vast indifferent universe.
We will need to continue to work actively toward the collective goal of more caring societies in order to further strengthen the progress of our species.
Far from being nihilistic, the fully naturalist worldview of secular humanism empowers us and liberates us from our irrational fears, and from our feelings of abandonment by the god we were told would take care of us; it motivates us to live with a sense of interdependent humanistic purpose. This deepens our feelings of value, engagement, and relatedness. People can and do care, even if universe doesn’t.
1. The Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study found that “nones” (people who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, or say their religion is “nothing in particular”) made up roughly 23 percent of the U.S. adult population. This was a dramatic increase from 16 percent in their 2007 study. Lack of religious preference was more common among younger Americans (34 to 36 percent of millennials). Corresponding statistics in other Western countries reveal similar trends toward loss of religious belief. Most Western countries are already far less religious than the U.S.
2. Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe (New York: Basic Books, 1977), 154.
3. Also, our brains are highly evolved as semiotic information-processors (i.e., processors of signs and symbols, assigning meaning to patterns of signs and symbols—this is the basis for human communication). [CLICK 'MORE' TO VIEW FOOTNOTES 4-6]
4. See Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: Viking, 2011); and Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (New York: Viking, 2018).
5. See, for instance, the Human Development Index, Gallup Global Reports, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, and the Global Peace Index.
6. Paul Kurtz, Humanist Manifesto 2000: A Call for a New Planetary Humanism (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2000).