Finding Purpose Without God
Will society lose purpose, meaning, and morality as religion declines?
Posted May 28, 2019
"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved."
—Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species
A hundred and sixty years since his famous publication, science declares confidently that Darwin’s phrase “having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one” is mere metaphor: No creator was needed to start the process of life. Nor, for that matter, to bring the universe into existence in the first place.
It might have been reassuring to believe, if only it were not contradicted by everything that we now know about the organization of the universe and of life on earth, that we and nature were created by a creator God for a special purpose. It might have been nice to believe that we have an immortal soul that merely resides temporarily in our vulnerable mortal bodies, that our minds and self-awareness are more than the product of “just” our brains. To believe in such a god would have given us a reassuring feeling that someone or something is in charge, in control of it all (“Our Father, Our King,” in the words of many prayers—reflecting a very basic human psychological longing). It may have been comforting to know that there are cosmic rules and that there is ultimate justice, albeit in the next life—since there is patently little cosmic fairness or justice in this one. But there is no indication of a master plan. Nature is awesomely beautiful, but it is also self-evidently indifferent to suffering.
Nature, red in tooth and claw1
As Sir David Attenborough, the much-beloved narrator of many highly popular nature documentaries such as “Planet Earth,” “Blue Planet,” and “Our Planet” has noted:
I often get letters, quite frequently, from people who say how they like the [nature] programs a lot but I never give credit to the Almighty power that created nature. To which I reply and say, “Well, it’s funny that people, when they say that this is evidence of the Almighty, always quote beautiful things. They always quote orchids, hummingbirds, butterflies, roses. But I always have to think too of a little boy sitting on the banks of a river in West Africa who has a worm boring through his eyeball, turning him blind before he’s five years old.” And I reply and say, “Well, presumably the God you speak about created the worm as well. I find that baffling, to credit a merciful God.”2
Religion says that creative intelligence and purpose gave rise to the universe. Science tells us it’s the other way round.
Before the advances of modern science, it made intuitive sense to think of conscious purpose (i.e., intelligent design) as a primary property that must have existed at “the beginning of time” and was required a priori to bring the universe and all its complexity into existence, including our conscious selves.3 The remarkable insight modern science has given us is that the exact reverse is true: the universe came into existence first, complexity followed; then, with the emergence and evolution of life, purpose entered the universe—first without consciousness and then with it. Astonishingly and counter-intuitively, every part of this process absolutely could have emerged and evolved entirely spontaneously and unguided—initially out of nothing! (the explanation for how all this is possible is the subject matter of the entirety of modern science. For a summarized version, see here).
The emergence of purpose, meaning, and morality
Not only the universe, life, and consciousness but also purpose, meaning, and morality, could, in fact, have emerged and evolved spontaneously and unguided. There is persuasive evidence that these qualities evolved naturally and without mystery, biologically and culturally, in humans as conscious, goal-directed social animals.4
While there is no sign of a higher creative force in the universe, fortunately, we ourselves have evolved to possess creative powers. Humans have evolved to be highly purpose-driven, and we are well-equipped to find (or, rather, to make) meaning in our world. And as for morality, while we are a flawed species with a sometimes dark nature, in the long view of our history the better angels of our nature have tended to gradually prevail—for reasons that have been well delineated by extensive research.5
Those reasons have little to do with religion. Religion is not the source of human morality—religion co-evolved with morality, incorporating both the better and darker aspects of human nature. Religion served as social glue in early societies, binding large groups together against rival groups with competing religions. Religion had an internally stabilizing, organizing effect on societies in early history, promoting within-group cohesion with religion’s hard-to-fake costly rituals and beliefs serving as reliable signals of group loyalty. And its threat of supernatural punishment was seen as useful in early societies that had not yet evolved effective systems of law.
Will people become immoral without religious belief?
Atheists are routinely asked how people will know not to rape and murder without religion telling them not to do it, especially a religion that backs up the orders with threats of hell. Believers, listen to me carefully when I say this: When you use this argument, you terrify atheists. We hear you saying that the only thing standing between you and Ted Bundy is a flimsy belief in a supernatural being made up by pre-literate people trying to figure out where the rain came from. This is not very reassuring if you’re trying to argue from a position of moral superiority.
There is still much injustice and human cruelty in today’s world, but the world is, in fact, a very much less violent, less oppressive place than practically any time in human history. This is a phenomenon mainly of the last few centuries, not attributable to religion. Of course, there is no guarantee of continued moral progress, since there is no metaphysical force driving it forward. As we all know, the overall positive historical trend can be and has been catastrophically reversed at times even in modern societies. But the long term trend of moral progress has until now always recovered and continued forward. The reasons for this are well studied.7
Science as a candle in the dark8
Since the 18th century Enlightenment and the era of modernity it ushered in, Western scholars have been questioning ancient religious assumptions. The Enlightenment was inspired by the Scientific Revolution, which had begun in the 16th and 17th centuries. As science advanced, it systematically contradicted or disproved various tenets of faith, undermining trust in religious authority. Modern science became spectacularly successful, leading not only to new insights about the nature of reality but to useful technologies that revolutionized every aspect of day-to-day life. Quality of life and health were greatly improved.
Initially, scientists did not necessarily consider themselves antagonistic to traditional religion. Newton, for example, felt that he was delineating the laws of nature and the regularities of the universe that God had ordained. Only later did modern scientific naturalism seek to explain the world in terms of fully natural, rather than supernatural, processes. Darwinian evolution was the most dramatic example of this, fatally undermining the foundation of traditional religious beliefs about creationism, within the field of biology.
The pleasure of finding things out, and the exhilaration of discovering we’re wrong
The scientific method is successful because it employs a critical thinking approach of skeptical authority-questioning, evidence-seeking, and hypothesis-testing. As the famous philosopher of science Karl Popper described it, science is a process of conjecture and refutation (i.e. hypothesis formation followed by attempts at disproving the hypothesis). Peer-reviewed criticism of methodology is a crucial component of attempts at refutation.
Faith and science are opposites. Faith is based on belief without evidence, whereas science is based on evidence without belief. That is, scientists follow the evidence regardless of what they believe or assume to be true.
Democracy also employs a version of the scientific method
The process of conjecture and refutation is also the basis of democracy—political candidates or parties put forward political proposals or platforms (conjecture), and the electorate votes them in, giving them a chance to run the experiment, then evaluating the results at the end of their term of office (refutation). A rigorous free press is a form of peer-review. The political process of democracy is much messier than science, but it too has brought about stunning progress in societal flourishing, albeit in fits and starts.
Crucially coupled with democracy is the development of increasingly rational systems of law, a process achieved through intellectually sophisticated informed debate in highly educated societies.
Reason and rigorous critical thinking are our best tools in the continuous task of creating more cooperative, compassionate human societies.
According to religion, the best ideas were revealed in the past; according to science, the best ideas will be discovered in the future.
Developing more caring, flourishing societies is a realistic, non-naive project for humanity. But it will not be achieved by unquestioningly conferring authority to the writings of a magical-thinking, ignorant people of the ancient Near East. Certainly, there is some beautiful philosophical and psychological wisdom to be found within the mixed bag of religion, and much richness of tradition. As I have written elsewhere, I am a proponent of being careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We just need to be clear on what is fact and what is fiction. The scientific worldview is not as soothing and reassuring as the old stories we have been telling ourselves about a benevolent, purposeful universe. But neither is it nihilistic. The scientific view of an unguided universe is awe-inspiring and foundational to building a more compassionate society.
1. Parts of this article are taken from: Ralph Lewis, Finding Purpose in a Godless World: Why We Care Even If The Universe Doesn’t (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2018).
2. David Attenborough, “Sir David Attenborough’s View on Science & Religion - Life on Air,” BBC interview by Michael Palin, posted November 3, 2008, YouTube video, 2:22, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gfa88SeNohY.
3. Note that for followers of Judeo-Christian religions, the question “is the Judeo-Christian God of the Bible real?” is a narrower, separate question than the broader question “is there some kind of higher power in the universe?” The question about the Judeo-Christian God depends on whether biblical revelation is true—is the Bible the revealed word of God? (Especially the Five Books of Moses, which are believed to have been directly dictated by God to Moses on Mount Sinai, and within which are contained the Ten Commandments). Or is the Bible and its God the product of the imagination of an Iron Age people with limited knowledge of the world?
[CLICK 'MORE' TO VIEW FOOTNOTES 4-8]
4. Ralph Lewis, Finding Purpose in a Godless World: Why We Care Even If The Universe Doesn’t (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2018).
5. Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: Viking, 2011).
7. See for example Michael Shermer, The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom (New York: Henry Holt, 2015); Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (New York: Viking, 2018).
8. Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (New York: Random House, 1995).