The Purpose of Human Existence (why we are here)
by Herb Silverman
This guest post is from Herb Silverman, who I count as both a friend and as a hero of mine. Herb was the principal founder of the Secular Coalition for America, and he got it established despite strong skepticism from many of its most important beneficiaries nationwide. He’s also a secular humanist leader of long standing, the author of several books, and a guy who ran for Governor of South Carolina as an atheist. He didn’t get elected, but his sense of humor became legendary. And he became not only a professor with a Ph.D. in math, but, amazingly, a notary public! (It’s a long and funny story. His books are worth reading.)
Herb: I was invited to speak at a Hindu Temple in Charleston on Sunday, Jan.15, which held an Interfaith Forum on the topic: “The Purpose of Human Existence (Why are we here?)” There were 8 other speakers from a variety of religious faiths. After our presentations, followed by a discussion, a number of religious people in the audience came up to me and said they thought my presentation was the best because I was the only one who showed a sense of humor. This was the presentation:
The Purpose of Human Existence (why we are here)
I’m an atheist and secular humanist, and I’ve been asked for my ideas about the purpose of human existence. I think there’s no innate, biological purpose beyond surviving and reproducing. Humans are the fortunate result of billions of years of evolution. The more we learn about our natural world, the less significant humans seem to be. Charles Darwin showed that we are all animals in a long evolutionary line.
But purpose for humans is about more than mere surviving and reproducing. It’s about what we believe we should do in the brief time we’re alive. To have purpose, we need goals and plans that give us direction and meaning, and helps us engage in productive ways. I believe we each need to find our own purposes.
For example, my wife Sharon has a T-shirt that says: “Be Good, Do Good.” She says that’s her main purpose.
I know and respect many fine religious people, certainly including the folks here. If loving & worshipping a god inspires a person to treat others with loving kindness, that’s great. Unfortunately, love of a god can often make people less loving of those who don’t believe & worship as they do.
Some religious morality is certainly worth keeping, like love your neighbor, don’t murder, steal, or lie. But that’s necessary for the survival of any culture, with or without religion. Regrettably, some religions throughout history have justified committing atrocities. Today, an influential group of White Christian Nationalists believe we were founded as a Christian nation and our laws should be based on biblical Christianity. They are trying to turn our secular country into a theocracy, and one of my purposes is to keep religion out of government.
I think part of everyone’s purpose should include making good moral decisions. But for some believers, the purpose of this life is to prepare for an imagined afterlife. By following certain prescribed ancient rules, they believe they will get into heaven and avoid hell. Now what kind of morality is that? I view our deeds as more important than our creeds, and that religious dogma should never override our compassion for others.
So how do atheists and secular humanists make good moral decisions, and decide on our purposes? We are guided by the expected consequences of our actions to other humans, other species, and our planet. Humans create problems and humans must solve them. No gods will do this for us. We should look at what has withstood the test of time in creating a livable society.
Happiness is probably a major purpose in just about everybody’s life. Robert Ingersoll, known as the Great Agnostic, said: “Happiness is the only good. The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make others so.” And I like the purpose expressed by atheist mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell: "The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge."
I’ve had several purposes in life that have changed over the years. As a child, my main purpose was to be educated and become a moral member of society. As an adult, my main purpose was to teach mathematics, pass on knowledge to future generations, and do mathematics research. Now at age 80, my purpose is to be a good husband and citizen, to help other people as much as I can, and to remain healthy and active for as long as possible.
We have one life to live, and one chance to do something meaningful in it. We can all contribute something useful. Sometimes our choices and their repercussions live longer than we do, impacting on family, friends, people we don’t know, and even future generations. Immortality for everyone includes the good works and offspring that live long after we have disintegrated.
Here’s something we all need to consider. Life is a sexually transmitted disease with 100% mortality rate. Yes, we are all going to die. And I’ve accepted a purpose for my death. When I die, I’m going to medical school, just like my Jewish mother always wanted me to do. I expect to use my body parts to their fullest while I’m alive, but I assume our medical university will make good use of them when I’m dead. I also encourage all of you to make some “future” plans.
Finally, I’d like to thank the organizers at this Hindu Temple for being one of the few houses of worship that would tolerate a “sermon” from me. Most of us atheists like to collaborate with religious people on worthwhile projects to achieve common goals. An added bonus is that negative stereotypes might change when religious people and atheists get to know each other in this way. I must confess (which I’m told is good to do in a house of worship) that I always wanted to be a preacher, but the god thing got in the way. That’s why I chose the next best calling and became a professor, so I could profess—if only mathematics. But my favorite part of professing or speaking at public forums like this one is the questions, comments, criticisms, and lively discussion we’ll have about your purposes.
Note: Anyone may copy and publish what I or my guests write, provided proper credit is given, that it’s not done for commercial purposes, that I am notified of the copying, and provided that what we write is not quoted out of context or distorted. Once I get a reply from a pending inquiry to Creative Commons (https://creativecommons.org/) I expect to make this more formal, but in the meantime, share away if you agree to this note.