This question, or argument, is usually an attempt to go on the offensive by asking you a question you’re not expected to answer, and then following it up with a religious answer that supposedly shows how beneficial religion is compared to atheism. It often takes the form of: “What is the purpose of life, or of the universe?”. If you answer that there is no such thing, or that you don’t know, your non-religious position might be declared as inferior to a religious one that can give you these answers. If, on the other hand, you do give an answer, it will be quickly challenged for being “Just your own personal opinion, one that’s lacking any objective basis”.
The best way to contend with this question is to call it out for what it is – a false, loaded question – a question that has a false assumption built into it, so that it can’t be answered without accepting the assumption. As such, it doesn’t actually deserve to be answered, since doing so will only pile falsehood upon falsehood; forcing you to take part in the charade.
If you want to see the logical problem more clearly, consider, for example, questions like ‘What is the color of confusion?’ or ‘What is the smell of abstraction?’. These might sound like proper, grammatically correct questions, but they come pre-loaded with nonsensical premises. In the former case, it’s loaded with the idea that confusion actually has a color – you just need to figure out which one it is; and in the latter, that abstraction actually has a smell – you just need to figure out which one. In exactly the same way, the question about life, or the universe, is preloaded with the subjective assumption that such things contain an objective purpose – you just need to figure out which one it is. Purpose denotes a desired outcome, which is a subjective idea; and claiming that a subjective desire can objectively cover all life, or the totality of the universe, is false on its own terms.
If you want to see why purpose (a subjective value) can’t be objectively applied to something like life or the universe, try it out on a few other things: What, for example, is the purpose of the Andromeda galaxy, or of our entire cluster of galaxies? What is the purpose of dust mites or of Salmonella bacteria? The problem here is not so much that we lack enough reason and evidence to come up with objectively valid answers, but that these loaded question themselves don’t make any sense to begin with. If the question doesn’t make any sense when it’s applied to a galaxy, what makes you think it can be applied to the entire universe? If the question doesn’t make any sense when applied to a single form of bacteria, what makes you think it can be applied to life altogether?
From my experience, one of the easiest ways to get this point across to your religious counterpart is to ask him/her what is the purpose of god. The two most likely answers you’ll get are: 1) “I don’t know/you can’t expect anyone to know something like that”, or 2) “This is an invalid question because it’s loaded with the nonsensical idea that humans can establish an objective purpose for god”.
And there you have it.
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