Thursday, June 15, 2006

Purpose And Reason In A Godless World

When the god-ridden run up on some stressful event, one of their stock phrases goes something like this: "Everything happens for a reason." And I don't disagree in the least.

Everything has a cause. There is no event since Universal Time Zero that hasn't had a cause. And every single one of those causes is completely and totally physical. Causality is a pretty easily understood concept in our everyday lives, even if it is difficult to justify philosophically. So, in a very real sense, there is a reason for everything that happens.

But what the god-ridden really mean, I do believe, is something more like this: "Everything that happens, happens with a purpose." And this, not to put too fine a point on it, is utter bullshit. I am constantly trying to get some god-ridden goob to explain how you have a choice in something if Skydaddy already knows what's going to happen. If you watch a DVD twice, is there a chance something different's going to happen the second time through? Not unless you have a really bizarre DVD player.

No, purpose is something that is only imparted by intelligence. Things only have a purpose if someone assigns it to them. Think of all the interesting uses to which a spoon can be put. Go ahead. Think about it for a second. I'll wait.


See what I mean?

Purpose is an applied property of actions and objects. Reasons are just causes. My grandmother died of lung cancer. Saying there was a reason behind that event is perfectly accurate. She died of lung cancer because she smoked cigarettes for several decades, and developed a yellow slick of nicotine-laced mucus on her lungs and a lump in one of them the size of a goose-egg. Harsh reality, but true nonetheless. I wish she had never picked up a cigarette, because she was a very warm and wise woman, and there are a lot of people who could benefit from her talents, myself included.

But to say there was a purpose to her death is sickening, at best, and infantile, at worst.

That's one of the beauties of being godless, be it atheist, agnostic, secular humanist, freethinker, what-have-you. The godless know that our actions are our own. Every mistake I've ever made is mine. No one else's. I'm not proud of those mistakes, but they help to define who I am. No mischievous spirit with horns and a tail prodded me on to make them. I screwed up six ways from Sunday on my own. And I'd like to think that I learned a few things along the way. Heck, I'm still screwing up, and trying to learn.

But the flip side of that is also true. We, the godless, know that every triumph is ours and ours alone. My wife and I didn't buy our home under the auspices of a benevolent deity. We bought it under the auspices of hard work and good planning. My recent promotion didn't come along because I fall to my knees in praise of an invisible spirit. It came along because I try to maximize my opportunities and use my talents judiciously.

In other words, I condescend to my lab partner because I'm still more cocky and arrogant than I should be, but I got a raise and a new title because I'm at least close to being as good as I think I am. Neither of those things occurred because there are cosmic beings warring over and through my actions. Neither of them has cosmic purpose.

But they both have real-world reasons, and far-reaching consequences, most of which I can't even begin to foresee. But neither can anyone else. And I like it that way. The idea that some god knows what's in store for me just makes life seem safe, secure, bland and boring. It's much more exciting to think that what comes next is completely unknown, if not unexpected.

Other entries in the Godless World series: Flexibility and Loss.


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"Loyalty to petrified opinion never broke a chain or freed a human soul..." -- Mark Twain


Fire does not wait for the sun to be hot,

Nor the wind for the moon, to be cool.

-- the Zenrin Kushu