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Religious Beliefs Influence Purpose

Religion has defined purpose for humankind for ages. It typically tells us what THE Purpose of life is and secondarily structures what is possible for A Purpose in life for the individual, meaning that each religion has its own way of justifying an individual’s life and prescribing their purpose. Religious or non-religious beliefs regarding the purpose of life can influence the attractive options for a Purpose in Life. Check out the following table for some examples (it gets expanded on later on!).

Religion The Purpose OF Life A Purpose IN Life 1 A Purpose IN Life 2 A Purpose IN Life 3
Christianity Uphold the tenets of the Christian faith and dedicate one’s life to God as defined in scripture A soldier in a Christian nation To raise a Christian family Earn enough to contribute to Christian-valued philanthropies
Islam Serve and believe in Allah; make the world a better place Business man in a business that supports many people Social worker A woman who stays home to raise the children
Hinduism Fulfill your dharma and reach Nirvana Astrologer Yoga teacher Caste-appropriate profession
Buddhism Follow the 8-fold path to enlightenment Cook for monks Lab technician Researcher
Atheist Any self-cultivated purpose that is aligned with your personal value system Nurse Mother Conservationist

Another way to look at it is to embellish Scott Barry Kaufman’s sailboat of needs.

The sailboat of needs explains that we must first fulfill the primary needs of survival and security such as food, shelter, and safety (represented by the boat itself) before we focus on growth needs such as exploration, love, and purpose (represented by the sail). To repurpose this for explaining the framing religion imposes on our sense of purpose, imagine the boat and the sail representing different sources of purpose, and religious (or non-religious) belief representing the type of vessel overall. The type of boat will influence what options are available for Purpose in Life, assuming the security purposes are met.

The yellow boat below outlines the elements of the sailboat while the different colored boats below are examples of Purposes in Life influenced by both religious/non-religious beliefs and the prioritization of survival purpose.

While in no way a prerequisite for purpose, religion is a reliable source for guiding purpose for many people.5,6,7,8  The research gets a bit confusing when it comes to causation, though. Religion itself does not stand apart from community, relationships, and sense of service in its ability to predict purposefulness.35, 36 However, because religion tends to foster community, relationships, and sense of service, it becomes a natural path to purpose for many.

Yet it’s still important to keep in mind the difference between THE purpose OF life and A purpose IN life when it comes to religion. A religion may prescribe a purpose OF life and the people who practice that religion may additionally value various life-paths that indirectly (or directly) support their purpose OF life. Imagine how different religious communities perceive those who clean the Mosque, people who make a great deal of money, or perhaps doctors.

Another interesting correlation regarding Purpose and religion is a relationship between the religiosity of a nation, its economic standing, and its sense of purposefulness that shows up in studies. The poorer a nation is, the more religious it is bound to be, and the more purposeful they often claim to be.9 Likewise, wealthier nations tend to be more secular and can score lower on overall purposefulness.5 This phenomenon is very complicated as there are a wide variety of subjective and objective experiences being cross-examined across cultures that perceive and define things differently. Researchers are attempting to untangle the ideas, and it is difficult to draw any definitive conclusions regarding their work at this time.

Victor Strecher, a purpose researcher and author, urges us to acknowledge that the presence or absence of religion does not determine a sense of purpose or the long term ethical value of a purpose. In his book, “Life on Purpose,” he explains that there are two approaches of relating purpose to God:

  1. Reject social values (like the belief in God or religiously defined moral principles) and create your own purpose.
  2. Reject social values (like materialism) and live God’s Purpose.

The first option is essentially rejecting God to create your own purpose (which he credits both Nietzsche and Hitler with doing) or taking a leap of faith by embracing God to find purpose (such as Kierkegaard, Clergy, monks, some therapists or social workers- even jihadist suicide bombers would qualify). Strecher asserts that there are plenty of remarkable (and dangerous) people in both categories. (See noble and ignoble Purpose).

Your upbringing in faith (or the absence of it) has most likely influenced how you understand purpose. Below are a few examples of what various religions have to say about purpose (mostly adapted from the Templeton Psychology of Purpose Paper). Can you find yourself in there?

*A note before reading: There is a great deal of subjectivity to the morality present in each religion’s idea of what is “God’s will.” Consider, for example, the common religious premise that it is important to make the world a better place. What a devout Muslim believes will make the world a better place may be different from what a staunch Atheist believes will do the same; while the Muslim may think the adoption of Islam by more people would benefit the world, Atheists may argue that the spread of religion is harmful. This idea gets explored more in “Morality” below.

Similarly, keep in mind that the views on purpose listed below are incredibly general and broad summaries– clearly lumping 6 billion people into a handful of groups is an impossible task. Each of these religions are divided into many unique subgroups with distinct flavors for each of these ideas!

Religious Purpose of Life Sanctioned Purposes in Life Unsanctioned Purposes in Life
Christianity teaches that one’s purpose is to have faith in and love God while also spreading the gospel and the power of Christ’s salvation. Acting in a “Christ-like” manner and attaining “Christliness” is purposeful. Author and pastor Rick Warren proposes in his book that a Christian’s purpose is to put aside personal agendas and submit to the service of God.
Raising a large Christian family
Being a soldier
Being a doctor or nurse
Working in ministry
Being an abortion doctor
Being a pornographer
Anything you do for money or fame rather than for the glory of God or goodwill of others
Hinduism teaches that an individual’s purpose is to break the cycle of reincarnation and reach Nirvana through practicing your dharma (duty) and building good karma. Stephen Cope, author of “Great Work of Your Life,” describes dharma as the intersection of your gifts and the needs of the times you’re living in. Hinduism offers that one’s purpose is to righteously fulfill one’s dharma.
Raising a family
Yoga teacher
Taking work that is associated with your caste (For example, lower castes=cleaning work while higher caste= knowledge work).
Being a cattle butcher
Someone from a lower or higher caste taking work typically sanctioned for another caste.
Being a stay-at-home dad
For Muslims, the purpose of life can be found in pleasing and serving Allah by believing in him, worshiping him, fasting, charity, and pilgrimage. Making the world a better place is central to Muslim purposefulness.
Being a successful business man and thus supporting the lives of everyone under you.
Working for the welfare of others (doctor, social worker, lawyer, etc)
A woman who stays home and runs a household and raises children
Working in alcohol production or sales
Being a loan shark and accumulating excessive interest
Work that involves haram or subjecting others to haram (taboos/sins)
Judaism defines purposeful living in terms of fulfilling the teachings of the Torah in the Hebrew Bible. This typically means acting in ways that channel God’s love and positively influencing the world beyond the self, which often involves helping others live in the god-like way that is guided by the Torah as well.
Working for the welfare of others (social worker, medical practitioner, etc)
Raising a Jewish family
Being a gambler
Being dependent on charity when one can work
Buddhists believe that one’s purpose in life is to live “virtuously” by following the 8-fold path and achieving enlightenment. The 8-fold path includes being compassionate, honest, moral, not harmful to others through your work, pursuing goodness, and being diligently aware and attentive.
Engaging in endeavors that support the welfare of others and are done ethically, avoiding “wrong livelihoods”
Lab technician, cook, teacher, nurse, researcher
“Wrong” Livelihoods, endeavors that result in harm
Business in weapons
Business in intoxicants
Business in meat
Business in humans
Business in poison
While Atheists believe that the universe itself is without purpose, Atheists can still be purposeful people. They often subscribe to secular doctrines of self-defined purpose and can create purpose in life through contribution to a cause. “Finding Purpose in a Godless World,” is a book dedicated to the topic of purposefulness amongst atheists. It argues that meaning and purpose are the result of cognitive biases towards causation and our propensity to create narratives. Contrary to first impressions, the author argues that this conclusion does not negate the value of purposefulness, only acknowledges that it is man-made.
Any self-cultivated purpose that is aligned with your personal value system A position in which you lead or represent a religious community
Any position that is out of line with your personal value system

What does your religious background tell you is true about yourself, others, the world, life? Do you agree? Why?

The five major world religions – John Bellaimey
If you’re curious to go a bit deeper, this 11-minute video covers the five largest world religions (Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism) and explains the fundamental beliefs of each one. You can also visit A Meaning of Life’s Spiritual (and non) Traditions page.

Try This: Think About It

Contemplate the following questions on paper, in your head, or discuss amongst friends (or strangers!)

Briefly for each write one main thing that your religious background tells you is true about the following things?

  • Purpose
  • Work
  • Yourself
  • What is most meaningful
  • Where happiness comes from and what it is
  • What passion is and its role in your life
  • What is success and what is the point of money? How should you relate to them?
  • What is your personal duty in life?

Next to each narrative, write a ✔ if you agree or an X if you do not.  For each narrative, write down a behavior you engage in related to the narrative and how you feel about it. For example, if your culture tells you success is being highly acclaimed and you agree with that, write what kind of actions/choices you’ve made because of this belief, like seeking highly visible jobs with a lot of social responsibility. Or vice versa if you disagree and believe success is actually having a lot of free time, write about ways you try to maximize free time.

Then, beside each narrative write a + if you think the story is helpful and enhances your life (based on the choices you made and how they felt), or a if it does not (regardless of if you agree with it).

Finally, look over the list. Does anything stand out? Is there anything you would like to change? Write down one small change you could make (or more if you’re inspired!)

Morality Determines “Positive Impact” in Purpose

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” -Rumi, Sufi poet

How do you know what is “good” or “right”? What is the right way to behave? What is good for the world?

Some people answer this question through the doctrines of their religion:

  • “Spreading the word of God is good, the [insert name of religious text] explains this.”

Some answer this question through defining their values or exploring the philosophy of ethics or functional evolution:

  • “I value kindness, which I believe looks like generosity, so being generous is moral and good.”
  • “Evolution explains morality as prosocial behaviors that increased survival potential, so acts that support the well-being of others are right.”

What we believe is right or wrong affects our choices and behavior (sometimes in a limiting way). These beliefs are our ethics, or what we believe is moral. This section defines and explores the source of morality, as well as its relationship with purpose. It is intended to deepen understanding and offer background on the topic that can enhance your reflection process.

Morality affects purpose by determining what a “positive impact” specifically looks like, helping us understand the contributive, self-transcendent element of purpose. What we believe is good or right (and bad or wrong) can define the possibilities of what is worth doing with our lives. Often this is influenced by how we rank our values. If you grew up in a protestant culture marked by the value of hardwork and industriousness and think that art is a frivolous, self-indulgent activity (and therefore a wrong way to spend one’s effort and time) you may never try it. And never having tried it may never discover if there is passion or meaning in it for you.

Knowing the source (and order) of our value systems and determining if they are authentically OUR values or someone else’s values we’ve adopted without conscious examination will help us define and cultivate a sense of purpose that is fulfilling for us personally. Otherwise, we could end up in our fifties feeling disappointed and confused as to why we aren’t fulfilled by how we’ve lived our lives. Religion and morality are essential sources to excavate for self-wisdom.

Professor Paul Froesee emphasizes the role of morality in how we define purpose in his book, “On Purpose.”  He offers that purpose gives our lives “moral significance,” and makes us virtuous. We pursue being virtuous because moral pleasure is long-lasting and deeper than other sources of pleasure.9

Human beings are born with an innate sense of morality that is nursed by our families and cultures.11, 12 While religion tends to define particular views of right and wrong behavior by influencing our interpretation and prioritization of different values, it is impossible to know if religion is the source of morality.13 Basic moral behavior may be a product of our social and biological evolution. In order to live together peacefully and prosperously, our ancestors needed to cooperate, and those who didn’t cooperate or consider others were less likely to pass their genes along.

When someone states that they believe rape is wrong purely because their religion states it, it is not exactly an example of morality; rather, it is religiosity. However, believing rape is wrong because you value freedom, have respect for sovereignty, and believe that harming others against their will is wrong would constitute a moral judgment. That moral judgment may happen to align with what your religion espouses.

  • One Christian could believe being wealthy without donating to charity is immoral, while another could believe that being wealthy and not donating is only fine because their wealth is evidence of their virtue, and thus they deserve it.
  • One Muslim may believe that women being uncovered or unaccompanied by men is fundamentally wrong or bad for society, while another may see uncovered and unaccompanied women as morally right and humane.
  • One Buddhist may find it completely unacceptable to eat animals while another may consider it okay under certain circumstances.

While people may disagree on what specifically constitutes each behavior, society typically agrees about general moral behavior:

Good/Right Behavior 

  • Charity
  • Kindness
  • Honesty
  • Respectfulness

Bad/Wrong Behavior

  • Murder
  • Stealing
  • Lying
  • Cheating
  • Rape

Considering that most people agree that the above lists are true, why is there so much debate as to right and wrong in the world? The answer may lie in the nuanced differences between cultures and how we define and prioritize our values.  An evangelical Christian would consider an abortion to be murder and thus immoral, but a more secularly leaning individual would consider the same act moral and humane towards the woman (and not murder). Similarly, the idea of “positive impact” is defined by the various moral codes of each culture. The variety of moral codes leave room for one person to believe something is good, while another views the same act as evil.

What would you add to these lists? Try making your own.

Try This: What do I think is Moral?

Make two lists of behaviors you consider moral and immoral.

When you look back over it, ask yourself (and write beside each) the following:

  • Why do you believe each thing on your list is good or bad/ right or wrong?
  • Where or how did you learn that each item was good or bad? Did a specific person, community, religious group, institution, or experience teach you this? Write down the earliest memory you have of believing or learning this.
  • How has your belief in this behavior as good/bad affected choices you have made? How do you feel about those choices?
  • Have any of these beliefs impacted what you’ve chosen to do with your life? If so, which ones? How have they influenced your decisions? Is there anything you would do (or would have done) differently if you had a different system of values?
  • Bonus: Put your lists in order of best to worst; i.e., the most moral behavior to the least. Then explain why you ordered it in this manner.
  • Bonus: Think of someone (or a few people) with similar religious/spiritual/non-religious tradition as you- essentially someone of similar background with whom you share a similar worldview. Now consider something important that you disagree on. It could be money (what is its role? Is it good or bad? What do you do with it when you have a lot of it?), politics, when it is justifiable to take another life, etc. How do you imagine you came to disagree on this topic despite coming from a similar traditional background?

Learn All About Your Morals! is a site dedicated to helping you define and understand your morals. Signing up is quick and easy, and after an introductory quiz you gain access to roughly 20 well-researched quizzes for identifying your moral compass and beliefs.

It is possible to have an “evil” or “ignoble” Purpose?

Keep in mind that what is evil is subjective. Historically, groups of people have justified actions in the past as sanctified and moral that most consider ‘evil’ today.

  • The horrific torture of “guilty” persons in war
  • The Spanish Inquisition
  • The Holocaust
  • Japanese internment camps in America in WWII
  • Civilian casualties in a war
  • Treating people of different economic statuses differently, like the caste system

It is possible to commit these acts and feel they justified because our morality is justified by our cultures and our communities. If the people we trust and listen to support what we are doing, we believe it is morally correct. Beyond insular actions this is equally applicable to purposes.

If we remember that a purpose is personally meaningful, goal-oriented, and impactful for the world beyond the self, we can classify some of the following people’s actions as purposeful:

  • Hitler – He believed what he was doing would improve the world and was very meaningful for him. His goal was to create a pure Aryan race.
  • Suicide Bombers – Have made the ultimate sacrifice for their faith, believing their actions will aid in saving humankind.
  • B52 Pilots dropping bombs during war – Believing in their nation’s missions, these fighters have killed thousands of people for something they believe was personally and socially meaningful.
  • White supremacists, the KKK – These people believed that African Americans were a detriment to society and believed that killing or jailing them was beneficial to the world.
  • Robinhood – Robinhood stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Like all of the above, he did something ignoble in the name of being noble.

An ignoble purpose is one that involves immoral, antisocial or harmful actions to justify an end result. Despite harming others, those with ignoble purposes still believe they are making the world a better place.

Scientist and author Scott Barry Kaufman believes this abhorrent manifestation of purpose is linked to an under-development of basic security needs, namely self-esteem and belonging:

“Modern research suggests that underlying violent extremism is the dominant need for personal significance– the desire to matter.14

A strong sense of purpose can motivate us to take harmful actions, like suicide or killing. For a suicide bomber,37, 38 this may partially explain their choices. They may also be inspired by the fact that we’re enculturated to believe that giving up our life for our group is one of the noblest purposes an individual could enact.15 Depending on the culture, purposeful people are often willing to kill themselves and others for their families, community, or nation.

None of this means that you personally are likely to have an ignoble purpose. It simply urges us to question if our values are ours, and why we believe in them.

A noble purpose differs from an ignoble one because both how and what are honorable.

How do we determine if our purposes are noble when we’re often blind to our cultural ethical systems? These systems vary widely and are highly debated. While separating our beliefs from ourselves is a crucial step in unpacking what drives us, assessing the nobility of a purpose may be a simpler process.

William Damon asserts in his book, “The Path to Purpose,” that, “Finding noble purpose means both devoting oneself to something worth doing and doing it in an honorable manner. For this reason, a telling way to distinguish between ignoble and noble purposes is to analyze whether both the means and the ends are honorable.”

This can get a bit muddy when groups of people define something like ‘murder’ differently (e.g., abortion), but based on the general moral, pro-social lists from above, one ought to be able to determine the nobility of a purpose.

While Hitler imagined a world of purity and excellence for mankind, his how of getting to that end was egregiously depraved. Could he have found a nobler way to execute his purpose?  Perhaps. He would have had to have deeply examined his definitions of ‘excellence’ or ‘purity’ as well, however, which may not have been in the cards for someone whose psychological development was likely stunted.

Just as Scott Barry Kaufman asserted that ignoble purpose was related to a lack of self-esteem and belonging, he offered the flipside:

“He is to blame for the war”

“The most growth-fostering purpose is one that is built on a strong foundation of a secure environment, belonging, connection, and a healthy self-esteem, and is driven by exploration and love.”14

Noble Purposes in History

Jonas Salk invented the polio vaccine purely to benefit society and not for monetary gain. He refused to patent the vaccine in a time of tremendous need, in order that it may belong to everyone. Estimates suggest that this action lost him roughly seven billion dollars.

Harriet Tubman was an activist, nurse, and escaped slave and nurse who committed her life to freeing slaves through the Underground Railroad during the Civil War in America. She cared for and protected people in their time of need.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a leader of the nonviolent civil-rights movement.

Jane Goodall was a Chimpanzee researcher who became an activist for environmental and animal rights. By acknowledging and working with the needs of people, communities, and eco-systems to benefit everyone involved she invented a new approach to conservation work.

It’s important to note that all this advocating for nobility may be misleading for you; be careful not to read ‘noble’ as ‘epic’. A noble Purpose does not have to be epic or heroic, and such a purpose may be unreasonable for most of us. William Damon offers the following:

“Noble does not always mean ‘heroic,’ if we take ‘heroic’ to mean pursuing daring, life endangering adventures, like the mythical knights who fought dragons in days of yore. Noble purpose can mean this, and our history books are full of dramatic accounts of courageous acts that saved the day. But noble purpose also may be found in the day-to-day fabric of ordinary existence. A mother caring for her child, a teacher instructing students, a doctor healing patients, a citizen campaigning for a candidate for the sake of improving society—all are pursuing noble purposes. So, too, are the legions of people who dedicate time, care, effort, and worldly goods to charity, to their friends and family, to their communities, and to God.”16

As socially dependent beings, some of our morality is innate (keeping in mind, of course, the complexity and subjectivity of various moral dilemmas). It’s the nuance between cultures that can lead to much of the confusion. By exploring where and how we learned what constitutes good and worthy behavior (and their opposites) we can empower ourselves to cultivate purposes that are meaningful to us personally. By ensuring that the deeds involved in the pursuit of our purposes do not harm or take advantage of others, and that our purpose itself aims to impact the world positively, we can develop noble purposes.

Try This: Determine Your Values

Many of the details of what we believe is right or wrong come from our cultures and are passed along to us through experience and people who have impacted us. Our personal value systems are deeply interdependent with beliefs of right/wrong. 

This exercise focuses on determining your main values and where you learned them (if you have done it already, go you!). It is recommended that you also do all the longer Values exercises in the Clarify section to gain deeper insight. 

  • Using the list of “Needs,” make a list of all the ones that stick out to you. Then narrow that list down to ten. Take a moment to define each one and think about it in your life. Are there any similarities between them? Can you combine any of them (are any an umbrella for others)? Rank them in order of priority. It’s okay if some of them tie. Finally, narrow that list down to a final FIVE.
  • For each of your final five, answer the following questions:
    • Where/from who do you think you learned to value this?
    • What is your earliest memory of this being important to you?
    • How does having this value influence your decisions?
    • Ask “Why?” x 5 : Essentially, ask yourself “Why?” In response to “I value ___,” and ask again in response to your answer. Go until you can’t go deeper! When you start getting to questions that are harder to answer, it’s okay to acknowledge that you don’t know. Those are places for exploration and reconsideration.
      • Example: I value success. (Why?) Because it demonstrates my capability. (Why is that important?) Because it indicates my freedom. (Why does that matter?) Because… I’m not sure of it if I don’t test it, possibly. (Why is that?) Because I don’t intrinsically believe I have freedom without success..maybe?
      • Possible Conclusions: I use success to facilitate the deeper value of freedom, which I feel insecure about being accessible.
  • Adjust your list according to any conclusions you drew from answering the questions.

The next step after examining and ranking our values is to assess and align with them. You can learn more about that here.


  • What we believe is good or right (and bad or wrong) can define the possibilities of what is worth doing with our lives.
  • Knowing the source (and order) of our value systems and determining if they are authentically OUR values or someone else’s values we’ve adopted without conscious examination will help us define and cultivate a sense of Purpose that is fulfilling for us personally.
  • The variety of moral codes leaves room for one person to believe something is good, while another views the same act as evil.
  • An ignoble purpose is one that involves immoral, antisocial, or harmful actions to justify an end result.
  • By exploring where and how we learned what constitutes good and worthy behavior (and their opposites) we can empower ourselves to cultivate purposes that are meaningful to us personally. By ensuring that the deeds involved in the pursuit of our purposes do not harm or take advantage of others and that our purpose itself aims to impact the world positively, we can develop noble purposes.

Purpose The Gist of Purpose Parts of Purpose Purpose Fundamentals Purpose in Context Purpose as your Work Should You Quit Your Job Purpose Myths Hindrances to Purpose Benefits of Purpose Passion The Purpose Journey Clarify your Purpose Align with your Purpose Support your Purpose Purpose Practice and Exercises Purpose Resources