Here is a simple question for atheists, especially those atheists who will be attending the Global Atheist Convention: “What is life for?” Simple enough? In a curious way there would seem to be two apparently contradictory answers to this question; each answer could be held simultaneously by an atheist.
Firstly, just to set the scene, atheists’ hold that the universe has either come about completely spontaneously or that it has eternally existed. Either way, the crucial point is that nothing has come into existence due to the intentional act of any supernatural being because such beings are non-existent. Physical matter is all that there is and everything happens solely due to the interaction of molecules acting in accordance with the laws of physics. Thus that with the breakdown of the body at death comes permanent annihilation. Ultimately, there is no purpose for the universe or for anything in it.
So, back to the question, for the atheist, “What is life for?” Given the above premises, one reasonable answer would be that life is not for anything.
Life just is. We did not ask to become conscious bundles of molecules in this world: things just happened in such a way that we are here. Thus there is nothing that we are meant to do, or that we ought to do, or indeed that we ought not to do, with our lives. We just are. Life is not for anything.
The second answer can also be derived from the above premises. Yes, we happen to be alive in a universe that did not intend to bring us about, but all the same we are here. And given that the unconscious, uncaring universe can place no requirements or expectations upon us, we must be totally free. Life then, is for anything.
Somewhat paradoxically, life is simultaneously both, not for anything, and, for anything. In an ultimate sense there is nothing to aim or strive for. In the meantime though, until nothingness occurs, each human being is, in principle at least, totally free to do, think, and say whatever he/she likes.
Much has been written over the years on the subject of atheism but relatively little, as far as I have been able to discover, has been written on presenting the implications of atheism for children and teenagers. To try and help fill this gap I have set up the website www.atheismforkidsandteens.com.
For some reason atheists seem to be somewhat shy about spelling out clearly for young people just what atheism entails. But if atheism is correct, then why shouldn’t children have it made known to them what logically follows?
What is the problem with saying to young people: that we have all come unintentionally into being; that the existence of everything in the universe, from viruses, to rats, to themselves, is the product of mindless, unconscious, uncaring physical forces; that our actions, thoughts and words are merely, and entirely, the chance outcome of molecules interacting; that with death comes eternal nothingness; and that there is ultimately no point to our existence.
But also tell them that because these things are true that nevertheless, somehow, in some sense, that they are also completely free; that because there is no point to their existence they are not obliged to do anything; and that all moral rules, from the mundane to the seemingly profound, are just constructs made up for the convenience of society and thus have no absolute significance.
Atheists may be hesitant to make all this known to children out of a fear that it will upset or confuse young minds. Much emphasis today is put on building up the self-esteem of youngsters and the foregoing information could be thought to be detrimental to that end. Also, it could be thought that if young people are made aware that morality is only a social construct, made up to try to keep people in order, it may result in a break-down of that order.
Truth though is surely highly regarded by atheists, as is seen in the dogged determination of many to expose the errors of religion. Thus if atheism is believed to give a true account of the state of the universe then it is surely better for children to know this truth and all that is entailed, as challenging as it may be, rather than any apparently more comforting mistakes or lies. Integrity, if it means anything, demands that the risk be taken.
So, come on Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and company, don’t be shy. Tell it like it is and tell it clearly to the children too: life is not for anything and life is for anything. And even if society should subsequently fall apart, that wouldn’t really matter as we are all just going to die anyway and we won’t know anymore about anything…Assuming that atheism really is true, that is.