“Who can explain it, who can tell you why ? Fools give you reasons; wise men never try.”
The lyrics from the Broadway musical, “South Pacific”, may or may not be true of chance encounters across a crowded room on some enchanted evening. But religious leaders, from time immemorial, have not hesitated to tell us “why”, to proclaim their certain knowledge, “revealed” to them in various forms by our “Creator”, that our lives have a purpose, a finality, which will be confirmed when … we die. With variations as complex as the Goldberg, they see life as a brief preparation for an eternal after-life – for better or for worse – a time of trial and testing in this vale of tears for God to judge whether we have the right, and the right stuff, to contemplate His face.
To call such prophets and preachers, shamans and showmen, fools, would – not so long ago – have led to being burned at the stake or hanged, drawn and quartered by the secular arm of the Church, merciless representative of a supposedly merciful God. Even today certain theocracies decree a fatwa against anyone who would dare to question their authority and certitudes. (At least the Catholic Church is no longer likely to put my book, “From Illusions to Illumination” on the “Index of Prohibited Books”. A pity. My opus could have used the publicity.)
What about the wise men ? Should they even try to fathom the reason for our personal existence, the purpose of our lives ? Agnostics, eminent, famous philosophers, or many ordinary people like me, lucky enough to have discovered the real questions and the inanity of the religious answers, content themselves with an honest admission of ignorance. But we atheists affirm that not only do we not know the purpose of life. We know there is none. Trial-and-error evolution is itself the proof of the purposelessness of existence. There is no Intelligent Design, no plan, no Providence, no future . . . Bill Bryson put it very simply : “It is a natural human impulse to think of evolution as a long chain of improvements, of a never-ending advance towards largeness and complexity – in a word, towards us. We flatter ourselves. Most of the real diversity in evolution has been small-scale … If you totalled up all the biomass of the planet … microbes would account for at least 80% of all there is … We large things are just flukes – an interesting side-branch.” (“A Short History of Nearly Everything”, Black Swan, London, 2004, p. 379).
It is not surprising that all this is not hailed as particularly good news by believers or even non-believers. But that’s the way it is. So why bother ? We didn’t ask to be born, and Woody Allen notwithstanding, we do not really expect God to make an exception in our case, concerning our inevitable demise. So what’s the point ? Once you have accepted that there is none – no divine purpose, no plan for our “salvation”, “redemption”, eternal bliss or punishment – you are free to make of your life whatever you like. You can opt for eat, drink and get smashed, laid, high or whatever, heaven help the hindmost, might is right, the survival of the fittest – or love your neighbor as yourself; become a sadist, a Stalin, a Saddam – or a saint, a Gandhi, a Mandela, a Mother Teresa. It’s up to you.
I am a realist. I believe that since there is no preordained purpose for my fleeting existence on earth, I might as well make the most of it. My life will not have been without meaning if I respect and apply the famous “Carpe diem”, “Seize the day”, of Horace. (One rarely sees the second line of the couplet : “et quam minimum credula postero”, “and think as little as possible about tomorrow”, because most prefer the positive attitude of seizing present opportunities rather than contemplating the uncertainties and emptiness of the future.)
I woke up in time to renounce clerical celibacy. I am delighted to have fathered three marvellous children, privileged to have time to enjoy the gift of grandchildren, content that at least the latter part of my life was spent, as a non-religious educator, helping others acquire knowledge and develop skills to enrich their lives. I retired at age 64, and celebrated the occasion by rewriting Paul McCartney’s “When I’m Sixty-Four” (as “Now I’m Sixty-Four”). It will never become part of a Broadway musical, but for what it’s worth, it’s what I think :
“When I look back to where I’ve come from, I’m surprised to see My life is divided into four sixteens; I’ve no idea what all this means. Australia, France, the State and now France. Sixteen years by four, Schooling, studying, teaching and working, Now I’m sixty-four.
“I don’t plan to die Until I’m twice as old. At least I will try.
“When I look forward, sixty-four more, I feel like a kid, So much fun to be had, so much life to live, To travel, write, grow and to give Any help that I can to loved ones.
“I can’t ask for more. Life is just starting, as I look ahead, Now I’m sixty-four.”