‘Atheist,’ ‘agnostic,’ ‘nonbeliever’… You could describe me by any of these terms, but I’ve never been quite satisfied with any of them. ‘Atheist’ and ‘agnostic’ carry such strong connotations; there seems to be a capital-A Atheism these days, to which I don’t feel I belong, and I’ve long associated agnosticism with a kind of waffling, “eh, who knows?” ‘Nonbeliever,’ on the other hand, just feels kind of meh and untrue. I am a nonbeliever in the sense that I don’t subscribe to religious views, but I believe all sorts of things. It strikes me as a bad starting position to call oneself something one manifestly is not. And then you get those Atheists who struggle to accept that they, too, are prone to the occasional magical thinking or unfounded belief, and it’s almost no wonder: if truly a nonbeliever, then how could they be guilty of such things?
Instead, I am starting to suspect that what distinguishes my worldview from religious worldviews is that I lack a sense of higher purpose. I would guess that even ardently religious people find themselves confronted with doubt as to their own private sense of higher purpose, just as I suspect many atheists (and Atheists, too!) actually do have a sense of higher purpose. Not believing in any god or God isn’t really all that important in terms of the way my outlook and beliefs shape my world. It’s that I don’t see a direction to the universe. I don’t see a higher order into which my life fits. I don’t feel the movement of an invisible hand of sorts through my life and history.
Now, I do recognize cause and effect, but I also recognize randomness and immensity. Randomness in such things as the occasional genetic mutation. Immensity in the sheer volume of causes and conditions that together constitute the world, or the universe, or however large you want to make your analysis. (Though I must say, I am also doubtful that the immensity of causes and conditions connecting our little human world has more than a miniscule impact on, say, the nearest galaxy. Perhaps I am being short-sighted, but I’m just thinking in sheer physical terms. At some point in time the worlds may collide, so to speak, but as everything is moving, for the most part, farther and farther away and apart, I’m doubtful about that, too.) Determinism is not implausible because of the human will (which strikes me as a somewhat feeble force), but because of the sheer volume of physical data in the world. Determinism suggests a kind of harmony that I’m not sure I can buy into. If one knew every fact at any single moment in the entire world (a plainly impossible feat), would one be able to accurately predict the future? I don’t suspect so. Perhaps it’s like billiard balls, only so much more complex that one would need a kind of omniscience to “predict.” But the way that all of the peoples and particles and butterfly wings bump around and interact is not like the way billiard balls do. We go on ahead thinking of them that way because of constraints on our imagination.
So– finding no god to “guide” me, I move quickly into a kind of deterministic cause and effect. For a little while I considered this — my interpretation of karma — to be a kind of higher purpose in which I could feel settled. When that started to slip, I turned to consciously constructed causes: I would be the author of my own higher purpose. After all, the meanings that we find in things are made by us, so why not our higher purposes, too? (God’s plan, for example, is a human fabrication (and a kind of unsatisfying one, too, no? for me, at least.))
But as yet, despite a solid effort, I’ve been unable, through my meanderings over the years, to find or create any kind of higher purpose that feels like more than a figment. I don’t suppose I’ll go so far as to say that there just is no higher purpose(s) — that’s my agnosticism again, and my own sense that I’m an ignorant fool. But it does seem relatively clear that I don’t feel or believe in any higher purpose. The mere fact doesn’t bother me too much. It doesn’t make me think I ought to give up on being a good person and cultivating compassion and wisdom and self-awareness, which is apparently a worry that some people have when they consider the loss of a sense of higher purpose, or at least of divine justice. (Awareness and compassion, e.g., make me feel good, and bring joy and love and ease increasingly to my relationships, which helps make others feel good, too. Etc.) I also don’t find, e.g., meaninglessness to be depressing, because of the role I take meaning-making to have in human life.
More on that another time. I suppose this post is just to propose (higher) purposelessness as a possibility.