Purpose Matters

One reaction mourners get when admitting to atheism or any form of non-deism is the incredulous, well-meaning but slightly accusatory, “How can you live with the idea that it was all just pointless?”

Better critics than I have unpacked the ridiculousness of that statement at a general level, so what I want to discuss here is the implied underlying belief that most religious people (and many non-religious believers)  have that “everything happens for a reason.”

As a skeptic I can scoff and say, “yes, everything happens for a reason, it’s called cause and effect.” For example, if someone is killed by a drunk driver running their car off the road, then the reason that person died was because a drunk person ran their car off the road.

But that’s really avoiding what is actually meant by the phrase, which is the idea that even horrible, terrible things are all part of God’s (the Universe’s, the Great Spirit, Dark Matter…whatever) plan. Which, let’s be honest, is a very comforting thought. Who wants to believe that murder, rape, torture, starvation, suicide etc. are just random, meaningless events? Who would not be comforted if we could prove without a doubt that a higher being truly only has our best interests at heart?

But that’s not the case. All evidence points to “meaningless random” or in gamer terms, “Chaotic neutral.”

And I’m not entirely sure I would be comforted knowing that a supernatural parental figure thinks that letting my parents die slowly, painfully and full of regret is a kindness to me, or to them. Theological arguments aside, that just sucks.

“Everything happens for a reason,” though, is a loaded term, because it implies purpose, a cause and effect reaction that has conscious design behind it.

What does it mean for an event, a death, to have purpose? Who decides what that purpose is? The devout say it is not for us to know God’s plan. I say that is immaterial: we supply the purpose, whether or not we claim it is a paranormal one or if we acknowledge as our own..

The “reason” is something we supply afterward. Purpose is not gifted, it is a meaning we create out of what is left. The reason my parents died has nothing to do with a great design or a supernatural motive to balance the scales of justice or anything ridiculous like that. The purpose I made out of that tragedy is to live my life to its creative potential, and to help other people along the way.

I suggest that we turn the definition and application of “purpose” from something suffered for mysterious, supernatural reasons, and use it in its true form: a sense of determination to create a life for yourself that is built upon the love you had for the person who died; a resolution to remember them and honor their memory; and create a goal of living a life worth living because you know that’s what they would have wanted you to do.

Purpose. It matters differently for those of us who grieve without god, but it matters.


  1. […] “Purpose Matters” in KimBoo York’s awesome secular grief blog, Patience and […]