In 2002, Pastor Rick Warren published The Purpose Driven Life, which went on to sell more than 30,000,000 copies. The book is all about how we can live to satisfy the Christian God through worship and ministry and being Christ-like and so on.
Now, Dan Barker, the former pastor and current co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, has provided a fantastic rebuttal with his latest book.
It’s called Life Driven Purpose: How an Atheist Finds Meaning (Pitchstone Publishing, 2015):
In the excerpt below, Barker goes right to the heart of Warren’s thesis:
It is about you.
Forget what pastor Rick Warren says. When it comes to purpose, it is about you and no one else.
This doesn’t mean everything is about you. Morality is how you treat your neighbor and truth is how well your statements match reality. Behavior and opinions can actually be objectively right or wrong, independent of your thoughts.
But purpose is personal. It can’t be right or wrong. It can’t be true or false. It can’t not be about you. It’s how you decide to live your own life. If someone else tells you how to live, you are not free. If you don’t choose your own purpose, you are a slave.
In a few pages, I am going to tell you the truly good news about purpose, the surprising and perhaps counterintuitive message that atheists offer to the world. I will explain exactly how we nonbelievers find or create meaning, and why the uplifting, edifying, and self-actualized stance of atheism is superior to the irrelevant and impoverished world view of god believers.
When I was a Christian minister, I thought it was the other way around. “The fool hath said in his heart, ‘There is no God,’” I believed. I imagined atheism was bankrupt and depressing. I preached the “good news” from John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” On its face, that sounds very special — love, belief, escaping death, everlasting life — but what does it actually mean? What is this great evangelical news that we are supposed to be excited about?
Suppose you are walking by my house, and I come out on my front porch and say:
Hey! I’ve got some good news!
Stop! Listen! This is great news! You’ve been passing by every day and you have been ignoring me. I love you, and I have so much to offer you. I am special, and I am worthy of admiration. You can’t keep walking by as if I don’t even exist. So I have some good news for you:
You don’t have to go down in my basement!
That’s right. This is great news, because since you have been ignoring me all these years, and have not been giving me the proper respect I deserve, you have made me very upset. I become an angry person when I am not honored, when my loving character is not appreciated.
So, I built a torture chamber down in my basement.
It’s dark and hot down there, with sharp knives and chains and hooks on the walls, and a furnace with flames, and some smelly vats with caustic Lake-of-Fire chemicals. It’s horrible. But the good news is that you don’t have to go down there.
I sent my son down there.
It was ugly. It was horrific. My only-begotten son experienced an agony of suffering and shame.
But that satisfied my anger, and I’m not mad any more. It is finished. And that is great news for you! All you have to do is come up here on my porch and thank my bleeding son for what he did for you. Tell him you love him. We’ll forgive your arrogance. Give us a big hug, and come into my house, and we’ll live up in the attic together, and you can spend an eternity of gratitude telling me How Great I Am, while your ingrate friends and relatives are screaming down in the basement. Won’t that be wonderful?
Isn’t this just the best news you have ever heard?
So, what would you do? Would you keep walking?
That is Christianity in a nutshell. It is ghastly news. Ignore it. Keep walking and get on with your life.
“What is the purpose of life?” is a slippery question because purpose has more than one meaning. In its primary usage — the one relevant to living beings — purpose is striving for a goal, an intentional aiming at a target. There is no striving without a reason, and the reason always has something to do with surviving or enjoying your life. If you are not enjoying life — or striving to enjoy life — you are not living your life. Enjoyment doesn’t exist for its own sake; you exist for your own sake. Enjoyment results from successfully reaching or striving to reach a goal.
The goal can be to get something you want, or to avoid something you don’t want. The purpose of your actions might be the need for food, water, or shelter. It might be to find a mate, or repel a threat. It might be physical exercise, to keep fit to meet future challenges. These goals, and others, when achieved by some kind of striving, are pleasurable or positive, because they ultimately relate to survival. Less tangible goals, such as beauty, love, friendship, learning, adventure, and entertainment — and these all have risks as well as rewards — are enjoyable when obtained because they contribute to well-being, which enhances survival. Even indirect goals, such as helping others to survive, are enjoyable. They all affect the brain, which is a physical organ striving to control and protect a natural organism in a natural environment.
That is your life. That is what purpose means. Life is purpose, and purpose is life.
Purpose also has a secondary usage, which is what we mean when we transfer a goal to the method used to achieve that goal. When we ask for the purpose of a hammer, we are not imagining that a tool has any intentions. We are really asking for the purpose in the mind of the person who designed or uses the hammer. The hammer was invented by organisms with opposable thumbs as a way to deliver a large direct force to the head of a nail (not to the opposable thumb), driving it into wood, or to leverage the force to yank it back out. It was designed to help construct things like shelter, bridges, and military defenses, all having something to do with survival. If you didn’t know what a hammer was, you might be able to reverse-engineer and guess its primary purpose, but you might also use it for something else, perhaps as a juggling toy, or to strike a musical instrument, or as a weapon. The purpose of a tool does not come from within itself. It comes from within a living mind striving to enhance survival. It is only living things that possess purpose. When we ask, “What is the purpose of a hammer?” we assume that the hammer is lifeless.
So asking, “What is the purpose of life?” assumes that life is dead. The question hinges on an equivocation that comes from confusing two different usages of purpose. Since purpose is life, asking for the purpose of life is like asking, “What is the life of life?” That question is based on a belief that life, like a tool, has no internal purpose of its own. If you don’t have the freedom to choose to strive for your own goals, then you are not really alive. You are a hammer. If you think your purpose must come from outside yourself, you are a lifeless implement or a slave to another mind.
And that is exactly what most religions teach. The so-called good news of Christianity, for example, cheats its followers with the sleight of hand of trading purpose for purpose, euthanizing the individual by cutting out the heart of life and implanting it elsewhere. It turns a living creature into a dead shell.
The apostle Paul taught exactly this, that we are empty clay pots: “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.” He told believers to “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” Those words were written by a man who called himself a “slave” of Christ: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”
In Christianity, you have to die so that someone else can live through you.
You know you want to keep reading…
Life Driven Purpose is available online and in bookstores beginning today.