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An Atheist's Thanksgiving Day Thoughts On The Question, "Why Are You Here?"

Updated on December 1, 2014

I get the impression, at times, that the question as to why I’m here, or as to why I think my life has any meaning or purpose, is a bit intrusive. It strikes me as similar to someone entering an owner’s home and demanding to know why the owner is there. This space I take up in my 5’ 9” frame is my own; I don’t have to rationalize my existence to you. And so, a part of my psyche takes offense at the question.

Most of the time, though, if you don't answer the “why are you here” question satisfactorily, you give people the impression that I am trapped in a kind of nihilistic meaninglessness and am therefore depressed. To some extent, this concern makes sense -- there could, I suppose, be enormous satisfaction in knowing exactly what your life is for without question. And some religions – we’ll take Christianity as an example, since I know it best – seem to provide that. While some of us on the outside might think the assigned purpose a Christian often accepts as a tad oppressive (because you’re not really allowed to ask, much of the time, if the prescribed purpose makes any sense), many religious people do, in fact, feel a certain peace in confidently choosing their path in life without having to entertain an intimidating array of options. It can, at times, be somewhat bewildering to realize that where you go and what you decide to think is important is largely up to you.

I think, however, that the concept of “you” – the way you think about yourself – is not something that happens all by itself. When someone thinks about who they are, it’s fairly common for them to come up with a list of qualities that, largely, have to do with relationships or interactions with other people. So even though there’s a basic deep-down “you” that exists and that you have a right to, the way you express yourself in the world often reveals and constructs situations that give you a sense of identity, and your attitude towards this sense of identity can help you determine your next steps as you seek to preserve or change it..

Right now I’m a decent typist as my fingers type the keys, and I’m a decent eater as I showed in eating Thanksgiving dinner, and I’m a brother to several sisters, and I’m a son of mom and dad, and I’m fairly passionate, and also can be fairly rational most qhwn trying to come up with solutions to problems in my field of study. Like, all these qualities and many others come together as I define the place I hold in the world. I exist and I own my existence, but, in addition to that, the results from the expression of this existence, as well as the situations this expression occur in, helps me make choices in day to day life. But no matter what choices I make, I belong here; I have a right to be here.

There’s plenty of talk going around in atheist circles as to the Christians concept of gratitude, and it seems that atheists are – rightfully – hesitant to say what they are thankful for (outside of the intentional actions of some human beings) because it implies gratitude to God. Far better, for some, to simply say they are fortunate.

That's a good point, but in addition to that thought I’d like to say that I think that what Christians are expressing when they say they are thankful for something is, much of the time, the evidence that God is planting direction and positive reinforcement of that direction in their lives so that they can say their lives matter. I think that, for myself as an atheist, I don’t need that insecurity satisfied. I belong here, and my direction is a product of my surroundings and my choices. As long as we are in the world, we belong here; we don’t have to be embarrassed at the fact of our existence, no matter how dim things may seem or how little you have or what you’ve done; even if you die, the space your body is taking up on earth is going to be used and recycled and thus exist, still, in one form or another. We can, however, choose our direction by taking stock of our surroundings, choices, and desires – the things that complete the sentence “I am ____.”

And these characteristics of my expression of my existence and my environment of existence not only help me feel that I exist without apology, but also that I’m connected to and am an unimpeachable part of the world. The thanks Christians give to God for giving them positive direction in their lives – I see myself as not having to give. I am worthy of existence in my own right, but the environment I am in, the place I am located – this can give me access to direction, it can be my way to make choices, it constructs a place that makes me laugh and cry and live.

And I’m it. Like, I don’t have to give any of this joy in the fact that I belong and that I am in the environment I am in – I don’t have to give it away to a nonexistent being, and I don’t have to feel embarrassed at my bare existence, no matter how the environment of my existence looks. I can keep it all for myself, and thank individuals not for my existence (because that’s something that’s my own anyway), but for being a part of the environment that allows me to express it and makes me able to make decisions and choose direction in life with the confidence that, again, I belong here. I’m not some alien looking in; I’m as much a part of the universe as the stars above me right now in this dark night sky.

Now that this thought is yours, it’s true that one of the individuals who has helped construct this environment is you, dear reader. So I’d like to take some time, on this Thanksgiving Day, to say thanks.

Thanks :)

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    • HeadlyvonNoggin profile image

      Jeremy Christian 2 years ago from Texas

      You touched on a couple of things that always trip me up when trying to consider atheism a viable alternative. One is that if there is no deliberate creator then there is no 'why'. The second being our choices. It makes no sense in the purely causal universe vein of thinking to think any of our choices are our own. We can be nothing more than biological machines, our free will merely an illusion because we experience a physical brain considering options and choosing from them. Those other options make it seem as though there was an alternative choice we could have made. But with no non-physical element of the self, ie a soul, then there is no choice. The brain is a biological machine as well and whatever choice it makes in a given situation is the only one it physically could have.

      If there is free will then that is the 'why'. If we were deliberately created then the purpose was to create free will. If not, then we're simply passive observers in a progression we have no control of.

    • Joseph O Polanco profile image

      Joseph O Polanco 2 years ago

      You express a heartfelt sentiment when you say "you belong here" however, on Atheism, you actually don't "belong" here or anywhere else for that matter. After all, on Atheism, we are merely concomitant nimieties of the natural world having developed fairly recently on a minute speck left high and dry somewhere in a dreary and meaningless universe, doomed to oblivion one by one and certainly collectively in a relatively not too distant future.

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      barrierbreaker 2 years ago

      We are nothing more nor less than anything else in existence. We belong here as much as existence belongs anywhere.

    • HeadlyvonNoggin profile image

      Jeremy Christian 2 years ago from Texas

      Nothing more? If we are actually capable of willfully choosing our actions, and are not wholly determined by physical/natural law, then we very much are more than most everything else. That would mean our behavior, unlike anything else in the known universe, is the only behavior not totally dictated by established laws.

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      barrierbreaker 2 years ago

      "Natural Laws" are not external gods. They are just the way our universe, which includes us, tends to work. They do not make me feel small, but like I belong.

    • Joseph O Polanco profile image

      Joseph O Polanco 2 years ago

      “Atheism certainly promotes a low view of humanity- how much lower can you get than thinking yourself an accidental by-product of a series of even larger accidents!”

      ― John Dickson

    • HeadlyvonNoggin profile image

      Jeremy Christian 2 years ago from Texas

      "external gods", like "natural laws", is just a label for something that undoubtedly exists. To say "they are just the way our universe ... tends to work" is to close the mind to ever really understanding. It's giving up. Not that it's bad to acknowledge there is such thing as the 'unknowable". The "boundaries of the knowable" ... https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL3096540179...

      And they shouldn't make you feel small, whether in the context of a God or not. You do belong. You and I are as much a part of this universe as the hydrogen molecules inside the sun. As every star in the sky. We are made of star stuff, as Sagen once put it. And that's no small thing. All religion does is assigns a purposeful will to the workings of the natural world. Giving our existence genuine intended purpose. The natural laws just being the way the universe tends to work is one way to look at it. To dismiss all that humanity is as nothing more than biological machines experiencing sensations evolved throughout our history, none of which having any real meaning, then that's what you're left with. Just sensations that are biproducts of evolution. Unintended and meaningless.

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      barrierbreaker 2 years ago

      "Accident" implies there was someone acting to bring about another result. Without God, it's just the way it happened, not an accident.

      To illustrate:

      Is your God's existence, in your mind, an accident or just the way it is?

      See how nonsensical that thinking is?

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      barrierbreaker 2 years ago

      What is "real meaning"?

      Maybe this will help: What gives God "real meaning"?

    • HeadlyvonNoggin profile image

      Jeremy Christian 2 years ago from Texas

      Real meaning is the opposite of unintended causation. Real meaning is having actual purpose, forged by the universe for a purpose, rather than just being an imagined meaning we ourselves, in our small-mindedness, assign to things like love and companionship and empathy, just to make our high functioning brains feel better about the choices we make. There's real weight and purpose behind "real meaning", not just something we assigned long after the fact to just wrap our heads around it.

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      barrierbreaker 2 years ago

      What gives God "real meaning"?

    • russinserra profile image

      Russ Inserra 2 years ago from Indianapolis, In

      I have often thought the ability to ask the question "why" is what gives humans their unique place in the world. It seems to be a huge leap in evolution to even be ABLE to ask the meaning of life. Thus, my belief in some sort of divine which gives us "soul" or "spirit" or whatever one may call it.

      I appreciate this article and the comments from Headly and Joseph. The discussion itself gives me a belief in that we have an existence that goes further than mere physical.

    • HeadlyvonNoggin profile image

      Jeremy Christian 2 years ago from Texas

      Yes, russinserra, exactly. The ability to ask 'why' is a big deal. There is no why, no questioning, without free will. There's only contentment. Like Blaise Pascal famously said, “All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Free will brings discontentment. It brings about an acute awareness of self, of one's place in the world, of others maybe getting more than you, of 'unfairness' when comparing oneself to others.

      Like the elements of this universe. There's no questioning. All things behave as the physical laws dictate. So consistently that we can define those laws by observing those elements. What if all the elements of the universe would ask 'why'? What if they could choose whether or not to adhere to those laws or behave in some other way? That's what sets us apart. Our minds are capable of making decisions where the outcome is not wholly determined by what the physical laws say about how the matter in your brain must behave. Without free will we have no more choice in our actions than a river has in choosing its path. Asking why's not a part of it. There is no why. There is no questioning. There's only doing. Like a river running its course.

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      barrierbreaker 2 years ago

      What gives God meaning?

    • HeadlyvonNoggin profile image

      Jeremy Christian 2 years ago from Texas

      Sorry for not addressing your question earlier. I'm not ignoring you. I'm not sure how I want to answer. I've been thinking it over. I mean, I know the way of thinking you're trying to inspire. I get it. That's not what's tripping me up. It's just that I find it a strange question to consider. To try to answer it directly comes out something like this.

      Everything gives God meaning because everything that exists has form and behavior and action because God wills it. Matter binds together and vibrates because of God. Life breathes and begins anew because of God. The perpetuation, age after age, in how galaxies eat and burn energy and live out the phases of its life like any other living thing, it all keeps going. Life feeds on life and breeds life. And in the same way the inanimate universe does the same. Order out of chaos. Laws. Rules. God is the lawgiver, the rule maker. And because He's God, all things (except us free willed beings) adheres.

      So to consider what gives God meaning, the answer is infinite. Everything that exists gives God meaning because it 'is' because God wills it. Everything has a purpose because its God's will that it exist. He deliberately intended it to exist.

      We are more than just cold, surviving biological machines. One of the evolutionary changes that came about along the way, that made us actually care for and take care of our young and one another, that sets us apart from reptiles and fish and such, are emotions. Feelings. Add to that these high functioning brains, feeling brains, and this acute sense of "I", and you've got a creature unlike anything else in the universe. A creature capable of contemplating its own place in this universe. A creature that yearns to find meaning in things. To understand.

      Everything in the natural world has order. Various interlocking systems that are consistent and predictable in their consistency. They establish a sense of normalcy and make sense. It's comforting. The sun will, as it has every day of each of our lives, it will rise tomorrow. It always goes away and it always comes back. You can count on it. Plan your future around it.

      It's the unknowns that trouble us. That's what we try to protect ourselves against. We buy insurance to try to ensure that no matter the unknowns of life that present themselves, we'll still be okay. We'll be taken care of. We'll still be able to provide for those we care about. And its important to us that those we care about feel secure. Comfortable. We want to spare them both physical pain and mental anguish. The better we understand, the better we can protect against those unknowns. Like the weather. If we can predict the unknown, we can protect ourselves against it.

      If you'll notice, throughout human history, atheism ebbs and flows with logical thought. Reasoning. Atheism first came about in ancient Greece. It later had a major resurgence during the age of reason. And of course now, in this age of information, the same. God, or belief in a higher power in general, has to be reasoned away. The default state is to believe there's something greater that created all of those consistent systems. That created us. The reasoning mind thinks this is just a continuation of that need for normalcy. Something that can be counted on to provide comfort. Normalcy. It makes sense.

      And that fence swings the other way as well. Being able to understand and predict feels comforting as well. Knowing you can prove all you believe, leaving nothing to intuition or instinct, is comforting. Being fooled into thinking we now understand enough about the world that we know what's what, what does exist and what is necessary to exist as it does, is comforting. We like established fact. Certainty. We like to KNOW we're right. I get it.

      There's no concrete certainty where God's concerned. That would influence our free will. It's necessary that it be this way. The point to everything is about our free will. We're bundles of matter in this universe, brought about by this universe, made of the same stuff as this universe, yet our behavior is not governed by any laws. We're not compelled by God's will as everything else is. We're compelled to act and behave according to our own will. If you think of the universe as a body, made up of trillions of parts that all adhere to a set of rules, like DNA, then we're cells with malignant tendencies. Like cancerous cells, we're capable of behaving contrary to what the body's DNA dictates. And because of this, cancer doesn't behave in the interest of the bodies well being. It can and often does become a detriment to the system it is a part of. All the rest of the components of the universe do adhere to the rules. But we are capable of acting on our own behalf and not in the interest of the system we are a part of. And, like cancer, and as we've shown throughout our history, we can be detrimental to that system.

      Having a free will, and being a part of this system, its all about willfully acknowledging the rules of the system. The authority that sets them. Not because we're coerced, or threatened, but because we willfully choose to be. To acknowledge that we're merely a part of something larger. That its not all about us. It's about the system. We're not the only ones that depend on it. We can have our own thoughts and desires, but if we're going to be capable of this, we have to willfully accept the terms of being a free thinking part of a system. God being an absolute certainty, visibly on the horizon, peering over your shoulder watching all that you do, would infringe on your willfully choosing to adhere. But if you do so without knowing for certain, if you believe and willfully choose without certainty, then that is it. That's what its about.

      See, this is what I mean. This question sends me on a tangent of thought. I could literally go on and on. But I won't. I'll stop here and await your thoughts in reply. Then see where that leads.

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      barrierbreaker 2 years ago

      The confusing thing here is that you wax eloquent when it comes to a universe with God, but a universe without God is somehow meaningless.

      If God's creation is inherently meaningless, how can it give meaning to God? And if the answer is that God has authority, where does that authority come from? Are you stating that the fact someone created something gives them complete authority over it? If I create a child, does that give me authority to say it should not protest when I burn it on a whim? And does the fact that you created something make you, as creator, meaningful simply because you created it?

    • erical2473 profile image

      Erica Ligocki 2 years ago from Colorado

      All of God's creation was created "through Him and for Him" (Colossians 1:16). Above all though, humans were created for Him, to have a relationship with Him. We were even created in "the image of God" (Gen. 1:26). Some people think that after the fall of Adam, we lost our image. But Christ redeemed us and made an atonement for us so that we can essentially live a life with God that should have started and state in the garden. Since everything we have comes from God, then everything

      We use to glorify God came from Him in the first place. This is how all of His creation speaks of His glory (Psalms 19:1). :)

    • HeadlyvonNoggin profile image

      Jeremy Christian 2 years ago from Texas

      Barrierbreaker,

      It's just a matter of fact statement. It has everything to do with whether or not the universe was deliberately created. If a conscious being deliberately created the universe, then the universe has meaning. But if the universe just formed on its own, without having been deliberately created, then there is no meaning. There can't be meaning. How can a purely causal universe that just happened have meaning? We humans can, late in the game, assign meaning to it, but our assigning meaning doesn't make the universe meaningful.

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      MizBejabbers 2 years ago

      Jehovah, Allah, they are external creations of somebody. If not, someone wouldn't be frequently annoying others with the question, "Have you found God?" to which I always reply, "Why, is he lost?"

      But religious or atheist, "why" is the universal question. I ask "why?" My atheist father questioned "why?" Scientists ask why? I believe that as long as we have intelligence, we will ask why. It is in our human DNA to explore the unknown.

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      barrierbreaker 2 years ago

      HeadlyvonNoggin, it seems you have not answered the question or addressed the "problem." Your original question concerned whether we had purpose. You seem to think that there is no way we can have purpose without God. OK, but where doe God get His purpose from? And if God gets his purpose from somewhere outside of Himself, then it is possible for purpose to exist outside of God. If God has no assigned purpose...I suppose He could make one up, but so can I. If God has no meaning, how can He make a meaningful universe? And if He does have meaning and it comes outside of Himself, then there can clearly be meaning without God. And if He can have meaning internally just because...so can I.

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      barrierbreaker 2 years ago

      It’s a bit like Euthyphro’s dilemma. Is God meaningful because it’s a part of His nature, so that that His meaning has nothing to do with any outside assignation or measurement? Well, then God’s meaning would be meaningless; you’re basically saying that God is meaningful regardless of what qualities He would have, because the moment you appeal to certain qualities that make God meaningful, you’re applying a standard to God and measuring Him by the standard, so that God’s meaning begins to depend on an external standard. So you have to throw that ruler out and just look at God – which makes meaning meaningless, because however you describe God, “meaning” would be something He would have. Thus, even if God were like me, He would have meaning…so I have as much of a right to meaning, in a way of speaking, as God. Unless, again, you apply some standard outside of God by which to judge God's meaning, God could have any definition, including mine, and still be meaningful...

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