An Atheist Reads The Purpose-Driven Life
001 - Introduction
- One of the best-selling books ever. As The Case for Christ is to popular apologetics, so The Purpose-Driven Life is to inspiration. Whether you have Christian family or friends, or are a Christian yourself, chances are you have had, or will have to reckon with this book at one time or another.
- Laid out as a 40-day devotional, divided into six sections of seven chapters each (except for the final section, which has only five), each chapter representing a day in the 40-day period. This series will be presented in six parts, each video examining a section of the book.
- I declare my bias: I am an atheist. I will be reading and analyzing this book from my own atheist perspective. That being said, as with the other series I’ve done on works of apologetics, I’m always open and eager to hear from those who hold different positions. If you have a response to something I say in one of these videos, please leave a comment. I’d love to have a conversation with you.
- The book opens with a dedication: “This book is dedicated to you. Before you were born, God planned this moment in your life. It is no accident that you are holding this book. God longs for you to discover the life he created you to live — here on earth, and forever in eternity.” —Dedication, THE PURPOSE-DRIVEN LIFE
- Throughout this book, Rick Warren displays a type of falsely modest megalomania that should be familiar to those of you who have spent time talking with evangelical Christians. This dedication is but the first example.
- Warren also shamelessly panders to me as the reader, with constant reminders of how special I am, and what big plans God has for me.
- A few pages later, after a brief section explaining how this book works (because after 5,000 years of written language, I guess Rick is concerned a few people in his target audience might not be able to figure it out), there is a covenant page where the reader (and a partner, because The Purpose-Driven Life is designed with the buddy system in mind) is invited to sign his or her name, along with a reproduction of Rick Warren’s signature. The covenant reads “With God’s help, I commit the next 40 days of my life to discovering God’s purpose for my life.” (p. 13) And you make this covenant with Rick Warren, whom the vast majority of people reading the book will never have met, and will never meet, ever. I would ask how such a covenant could possibly mean anything, but then again evangelical Christians are used to making promises to people who aren’t really there, so I doubt it raised too many eyebrows among the intended readers.
- Returning to that explanatory section for a moment: It’s titled “A Journey With Purpose: Getting the Most from This Book,” and its purpose could hardly be more obvious: to sell more of Rick Warren’s books. In explaining the “Verse to Remember” and “Question to Consider” features placed at the end of each chapter, Warren pimps two spin-offs of this book: The Purpose-Driven Life Scripture Keeper Plus, and The Purpose-Driven Life Journal. The phrase Purpose-Driven is printed with a copyright symbol (©).
WHAT ON EARTH AM I HERE FOR?
DAY 1: IT ALL STARTS WITH GOD
- Warren begins each chapter with a Bible verse and a quote from a non-Biblical source. He hops from one translation to another with his Bible quotations, seemingly choosing whichever version of a particular quote fits the best with whatever point he’s trying to make. He almost admits this in one of the appendices, actually, though he claims he uses different translations for different quotes so that the nuances of the scripture being quoted won’t be lost, or that the reader’s familiarity with an often-quoted verse won’t obscure its meaning.
- Anyway, the secular quote used at the start of the Day 1 chapter is by Bertrand Russell, and it reads:
“Unless you assume a God, the question of life’s purpose is meaningless.” —Bertrand Russell, atheist (quoted on p. 17)
- Now, Warren has never struck me as a serious person, and this is certainly not a serious book, so my first thought was that this quote must have been taken out of context. But I did some research and it’s even worse than that. From what I can tell, Bertrand Russell never even said it, or wrote it, or issued those words in any manner that has ever been recorded. The source of the quote appears to be a debate that Russell had in 1948 with a priest named Frederick Coplestone, the transcript of which is printed in Russell’s book Why I Am Not a Christian. Very early in that debate, Copleston says:
“Would you agree with me that the problem of God is a problem of great importance? For example, would you agree that if God does not exist, human beings and human history can have no other purpose than the purpose they choose to give themselves, which — in practice — is likely to mean the purpose which those impose who have the power to impose it?” —Frederick Copleston, “A Debate on the Argument From Contingency,” (BBC, January 28, 1948)
- And Russell responds to that question:
“Roughly speaking, yes, though I should have to place some limitation on your last clause.” —Bertrand Russell, ibid.
- Note that Copleston isn’t arguing that life in a godless universe is totally without purpose, but that in such a universe, humans would have to create their own purposes, and it’s this statement with which Russell is agreeing.
- So not only did Russell not actually say the quote being attributed to him by Warren, Warren’s rephrasing actually distorts the point which Copleston was trying to make. Not a very good start, Rick.
- Warren begins the chapter proper by informing me, as the reader, that the purpose of my life is greater than myself and my happiness, or that of my family, or my career, or my ambitions. He says that the search for purpose has been so enduring and so confounding because most people are self-centered in the seeking of their purpose.
“You didn’t create yourself, so there is no way you can tell yourself what you were created for!” —Rick Warren, THE PURPOSE-DRIVEN LIFE (p. 18)
- Not sure I follow your logic there, Rick.
- Warren says that we may only find our purpose and meaning through God. Every other path leads to a dead end.
- The problems with this are obvious. First, Warren, a Christian minister who quotes the Bible extensively throughout the book, is talking about a single, specific conception of God out of thousands of competing and often contradictory theologies. Why is it that only believers in his God can find meaning and purpose and identity? Is there no such thing as a Hindu secure in his or her life’s purpose?
- Second, Warren is setting up a false dichotomy (evangelists love those as much as apologists). He tells us that you can either seek your purpose selfishly, or through God. But what about those who find their purpose in helping their fellow humans? What about people who find purpose in raising their families, or spending time with friends, or volunteering at charities, or teaching or doing some other work that benefits others? Are these people being selfish? Are they destined to live meaningless, unfulfilling lives?
- Warren denies that this is a self-help book. Rather, it’s about helping us become what God created us to be. Then he moves straight into another false dichotomy. God’s purpose for our lives, he says, can be found in one of only two ways: speculation, where we think and philosophize and guess at what our lives are meant for, and revelation, where we read the Bible uncritically and do as it tells us to do. Which option do you think Rick Warren recommends?
- The Bible explains our purpose in a way that no self-help book or philosophy ever could, Warren says, and he quotes Ephesians 1:11:
“It’s in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for. Long before we first heard of Christ and got our hopes up, he had his eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living, part of the overall purpose he is working out in everything and everyone.” —Ephesians 1:11 (Msg)
- Warren then explains the three insights this verse gives us to our purpose: that our identity and purpose are discovered through a relationship with Christ, that God’s purpose for us predates our actual existence, and that this purpose is part of God’s larger plan.
- Two things about this section. First, Warren writes that if we don’t have a relationship with Jesus Christ, he will explain later how to begin one. I found this line a bit shocking, since this book seems pitched so narrowly at an audience that already believes. If you’re not a Christian, if you’re the least bit curious and skeptical, this stuff reads like the most mindless Christian happy-talk you could ever imagine. I wonder how much of it Warren expects his unbelieving readers to wade through before he tells them how to hook up with Jesus for themselves.
- Second, Warren says:
“[God’s] purpose for your life predates your conception. He planned it before you existed, without your input!” (p. 21)
He informs us of this as though we ought to be tickled to death over it, but I for one couldn’t be more grateful that there is no reason to believe this is how the universe actually works. Sure, life can be hard, life can be confusing, finding meaning and purpose and fulfillment can be a mighty struggle, but why should I prefer to have someone else’s purpose imposed on me, leaving me no choice in the matter? That sounds like a fate I’d spend eternity resenting and longing to escape.
- Warren closes Day 1 with these words:
“You may have felt in the dark about your purpose in life. Congratulations, you’re about to walk into the light.” (p. 21)
- Is there another animal on the planet that combines grandiose and oblivious as potently as the Christian evangelist? I think not.
DAY 2: YOU ARE NOT AN ACCIDENT
- Warren quotes Einstein saying “God doesn’t play dice.” Einstein wasn’t a Christian or even a theist. This is quote-mining at its most dishonest — and lazy. How many Christian preachers have used that Einstein quote?
- Warren tells us that we are not an accident, that even if our parents didn’t plan us, God did. Furthermore, God designed our bodies down to the last detail. He custom-made us just the way he wanted, and determined our talents and our personalities.
- Does anyone else find this absolutely horrifying? That we’re fabricated beings, made to someone else’s specifications, that even our personalities were predetermined before we were even born? How some people can cling to this belief while sneering at the supposedly meaningless naturalistic universe accepted by atheists is really beyond me.
- God also planned the time and circumstances of our births, he doesn’t make mistakes, he doesn’t do anything by accident, etc., etc. I’m sure this comes as a great comfort to people afflicted with cystic fibrosis or sickle cell disease. I’m sure people suffering from muscular dystrophy are cheered as they experience the slow wasting of their bodies to know that their disease was built into them intentionally by God, and the disability and lingering death it will inflict on them, not to mention the grief and other hardships felt by their loved ones, are all a part of God’s plan. Warren ends the chapter with a sloppy formulation of the fine-tuning argument and says that without God, we would all be accidents and there would be no morals and no hope. Say what you will about the random, hopeless universe of the atheist — only religion could conjure up this kind of cruelty, and only religion could be so depraved as to instruct us to be grateful for it.
DAY 3: WHAT DRIVES YOUR LIFE?
- Warren begins by discussing the dictionary definition of the word “drive.” This is another common trope of Christian evangelism and inspiration. Why are Christians forever trying to mine significance from the shallow depths of dictionary definitions?
- Warren lists five common driving forces in the lives of people: guilt, resentment and anger, fear, materialism, and the need for approval. Warren’s descriptions of these negative driving forces are facile to the point of being offensive, as is his advice for dealing with them. It all basically amounts to “get over it and do what God tells you.” For instance, when discussing anger and resentment, Warren offers this nugget of wisdom:
“Listen: Those who have hurt you in the past cannot continue to hurt you now unless you hold on to the pain through resentment. Your past is past! Nothing will change it. You are only hurting yourself with your bitterness.” (p. 28)
He’s a regular Paul Weston, he is. What a searing insight. I can tell you from experience, saying something like this to a person who is dealing with serious anger and resentment issues probably won’t help them at all, and might actually make things worse, since it makes you sound like a know-it-all asshole who has no fucking clue what they’re going through.
- He deals with the other four driving forces in a similarly glib fashion — God can relieve you of your guilt, love conquers fear, money can’t make you happy, you can’t please everyone. Good thing we have Rick Warren to tell us these things. Now that we all know, I’m sure all of us who have had to deal with these various issues will be able to let it go and move on.
- Warren spends the rest of the chapter extolling the benefits of living a purpose-driven life, rather than a life driven by one of those five factors. Since he loves to group things in fives — and who doesn’t, really? — he lists five benefits of the purpose-driven life:
- Knowing your purpose gives meaning to your life. No God, no purpose. No purpose, no meaning. No meaning, no hope. No hope, life is shit. Got it?
- Knowing your purpose simplifies your life. How? Because once you know your purpose, all you have to do is ask yourself “Does this activity help me fulfill one of God’s purposes for my life?” before you do something, and if the answer is no, you don’t do that thing. A rich, fulfilling life has never been simpler!
- Knowing your purpose focuses your life. And a focused life is a life that has impact! Warren says,
“Do less. Prune away even good activities and do only that which matters most.” (pp. 32-33)
A rigorously maintained life where literally everything you do centers around a narrow set of pre-determined purposes — isn’t that what everyone wants?
- Knowing your purpose motivates your life. And meaningless work saps our motivation. In support of this, Warren quotes George Bernard Shaw, an atheist:
“This is the true joy of life: the being used up for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clot of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.” —George Bernard Shaw (unattributed, quoted on p. 33)
Very nice. I don’t see how it has anything to do with God, but very nice. Warren doesn’t cite the source of that Shaw quote, but it comes from a letter printed in the published version of Shaw’s play Man and Superman, in case you care about stuff like where quotations come from.
- Knowing your purpose prepares you for eternity. Our legacies in life will fade in time, but God can give us an eternal legacy. Warren shares an anecdote about James Dobson wanting to be a tennis champion in college, and then receiving one of his old trophies in the mail years later, sent to him by someone who had found it in the trash. I love this anecdote. If I found an old trophy of James Dobson’s, I would mail it to him, too, along with a note that read “Hi, Jim. I found this in the trash.” And then I would giggle myself silly imagining his face when he saw it and be so, so happy.
- Warren says that two questions are of utmost importance regarding eternity: What did you do with Jesus? and What did you do with what God gave you? The answer to the first will determine where you spend eternity (there’s your implicit threat of eternal damnation — what evangelical message would be complete without it?), and the second will determine what you do in eternity, because our jobs in Heaven aren’t a part of God’s eternal plan, they’re still sort of up in the air . . . I guess?
DAY 4: MADE TO LAST FOREVER
- Warren asserts that this life is just a dress rehearsal, that your real life will take place in eternity. As evidence for this Warren quotes the Bible, and also cites our innate human desire to live forever:
“You have an inborn instinct that longs for immortality. This is because God designed you, in his image, to live for eternity. . . . The reason we feel we should live forever is that God wired our brains with that desire!” (pp. 36-37)
- Do we have any thoughts of our own, or has God determined everything about us? Because if that’s the case, I fail to see how it’s much different from naturalistic determinism, which Warren finds such a horrifying prospect.
- Also, maybe the reason we feel we should live forever is because we’re scared of dying. I’m not expert on the human psyche, but then again neither is fucking Rick Warren.
- You either love Jesus or you spend forever in Hell. That’s the deal, so you might as well get used to it and make the smart choice.
- Besides, without an eternal fate determined by our choices made in life, we’d have no reason to act morally, right?
“If your time on earth were all there is to your life, I would suggest you start living it up immediately. You could forget being good and ethical, and you wouldn’t have to worry about any consequences of your actions. You could indulge yourself in total self-centeredness because your actions would have no long-term repercussions.” (p. 38)
- Yes, without an eternal afterlife all of our moral and ethical duties disappear. Our responsibilities to our fellow creatures, to our planet, to ourselves — all gone. The only reason to do what is right rather than amorally indulging our every impulse is the existence of consequences for our actions. In other words, the only reason to share your sandwich with the girl who forgot her lunch money is because the principal will give you a dollar, and the only reason not to lure the girl into the bathroom and rape and kill her is because the principal will give you detention. I mean, if the principal wasn’t there? Why would you want to share your sandwich with someone else who was hungry? Why wouldn’t you want to rape and murder them? We’re all on the same page with this, right?
- Again, only religion could allow people to entertain such depraved thoughts, let alone convince people that such thoughts are within a million miles of moral and ethical.
- So what’s eternity with God like?
“Words have not been invented that could possibly convey the experience of eternity. . . . In heaven we will be reunited with loved ones who are believers, released from all pain and suffering, rewarded for our faithfulness on earth, and reassigned to do work that we will enjoy doing.” (pp. 38-39)
- In other words, a fantasy.
- “The only time most people think about eternity is at funerals, and then it’s often shallow, sentimental thinking, based on ignorance. You may feel it’s morbid to think about death, but actually it’s unhealthy to live in denial of death and not consider what is inevitable.” (p. 39)
DAY 5: SEEING LIFE FROM GOD’S VIEW
- Warren asks how we see life, since how we see life largely defines how we live our lives. He wonders, if we were to think of an image to symbolize our life, what that image would be.
“For instance, if you see life as a race, you will value speed and will probably be in a hurry much of the time. If you view life as a marathon, you will value endurance. If you see life as a battle or a game, winning will be very important to you.” (p. 42)
- This is the right book, isn’t it? The seller didn’t fuck up and send me The Purpose-Driven Life for Pre-Schoolers by mistake, did he? This was written by an adult who intended for other adults to read it. Just making sure.
- Warren says there are three metaphors found in the Bible to help us understand how God views life: life as a test, life as a trust, and life as a temporary assignment.
- The test metaphor recurs frequently in the Bible, in the stories of Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac, Jacob, and all the other times when God decided to fuck with the people who had devoted their whole lives to serving him.
- Warren reminds us that God is always testing us. He watches us every moment and judges us on how we respond to everything that happens to us. He tests us in ways we don’t know and in ways we can’t predict. He even likes to make us feel as though he isn’t with us (that must not be too hard) and watch how we react when we think he’s abandoned us. So God is like our worst nightmare of an obsessive, sociopathic girlfriend or boyfriend, except he gets to decide our eternal fate.
- But God never gives us a test we can’t handle — with his grace, of course. It’s as if we were fish in God’s cosmic fish tank, and every so often he reaches in and plucks us up out of the water, and watches us flop around gasping desperately for breath in the palm of his hand, but he always intends to put us back in the water before we die!
- On the idea of life being a Trust, Warren says that everything we have is a gift from God, from our intellect to our relationships to the planet itself. We are to be stewards of these things God has given us. We never actually own anything, we just borrow it from God. We’re God’s property managers. And that is a sacred trust.
- To illustrate this metaphor, Warren tells about a time when he and his wife stayed at a friend’s house in Hawaii. They enjoyed staying at the house and made themselves at home, but were always mindful that this wasn’t really their house, and so they took extra special care of the place while they were there. That’s the life we were born to lead — living every moment as though we’re in someone else’s house.
- Why would anyone want this to be true? What is remotely attractive about any of this?
- And like the test metaphor, the trust metaphor reminds us that God is constantly watching us and judging us on everything we do, and the consequences of even the most inconsequential decision will remain with us forever.
DAY SIX: LIFE IS A TEMPORARY ASSIGNMENT
- The Bible tells us over and over again that life is a fleeting thing. Warren tells us that we must always remember two things to make the most of life. First, life is brief, especially compared to eternity. Second, Earth is only our temporary home, so don’t get too attached.
- Life on Earth is like living in a foreign country. So we’re living in someone else’s house, in a foreign country? At least we have nice friends all around the world, I guess.
- Christians are citizens of heaven first and foremost. Heaven is their homeland and their true home. Living for today and holding the values of this life is dangerous. The Bible compares it to cheating on God.
- Sociopathic girlfriend? I’m telling you . . .
- Warren says the Bible tells Christians that they are Christ’s ambassadors, and likens it to being an ambassador to an enemy nation. So now we don’t just live in a foreign country — we live in North Korea? Which wouldn’t be much of a change for most Christians, really . . .
- God fills life on Earth with discontent so we won’t get too attached to it.
“You will not be in heaven two seconds before you cry out, ‘Why did I place so much importance on things that were so temporary? What was I thinking? Why did I waste so much time, energy, and concern on what wasn’t going to last?’” (p. 51)
- Sounds like you’ll need to let go of some of that anger and resentment when you get to Heaven, Rick.
- By the way, when people talk about what’s going to happen to you after you die with this degree of confidence and specificity, when in fact no one, no matter how devout their faith, can possibly know that, it’s not just silly and presumptuous — I think it’s kind of evil.
DAY 7: THE REASON FOR EVERYTHING
- God made everything, including us, for his glory. Otherwise, there would be nothing. Glory is the essence of God’s nature, it is who and what he is, and it is all around, in everything he created — in, Warren says, the smallest forms of life, in the Milky Way, in the stars, in the sunset, in the changing of the seasons — and, presumably, also in the smallpox virus and brain tumors.
- God’s glory is so great, we could never add anything to it. We can only recognize it, honor it, declare it, praise it, reflect it, and live for it. In fact, God orders us to do these things. And we should obey and be glad, because God deserves it, afterall!
- In all the universe, only two things fail to bring glory to God: fallen angels (because those are real, too) and people. Why? Because we sin, and sin fails to give glory to God.
“None of us have given God the full glory he deserves from our lives. This is the worst sin and the biggest mistake we can make.” (p. 55)
- So God created everything there is to celebrate himself, and we should all happily devote our entire lives exclusively to kissing his ass because he has commanded us to, and because failing to kiss his ass enough is the worst sin we can ever commit. I’m ready to be baptized, I don’t know about you . . .
- So how do we bring glory to God, if we decide that’s something we want to do, even though Rick Warren just told us that nothing we can ever do could possibly increase God’s glory, so the whole thing seems kind of like a pointless exercise to feed God’s already infinite ego, but whatever? Well, that’s where the five purposes discussed in the rest of the book come in. We bring glory to God by worshipping him, by loving other believers, by becoming like Christ, by serving others, and by proselytizing. Those are the five purposes we are supposed to live for.
- Warren asks, who are we going to live for — ourselves, or God? Again, I guess living for others, or living for some non-god-related greater good, aren’t available options for some reason.
- God is apparently inviting us to live for his glory. That’s awfully nice of him.
- “It’s really the only way to live. Everything else is just existing.” (p. 58)
- All the people on Earth, following all the other religious or philosophical traditions, are merely existing. They breathe, they eat, they shit, they fuck, they eat some more, maybe they fuck again depending on how late it is and how much they ate — but only Christians truly live. Don’t you love that Christ-like humility?
- If you haven’t committed yourself to Christ, you can do so through a quick and easy two-step process:
- Step 1: Believe. Believe God loves you and made you for a purpose. Believe you’re not an accident. Believe you were made to last forever. Believe God wants you to have a relationship with Christ. Believe that God wants to forgive you for whatever you’ve done (provided you satisfy the necessary technicalities, that is — what, you expect him to just forgive you?!). Why should you believe these things — in other words, what reasons do you have for thinking these things are true? . . . Um, it doesn’t say. He must have forgotten that part.
- Step 2: Receive. Hey — they rhyme! The two steps, they rhyme. That’s neat. Anyway, receive Jesus as your Lord and Savior. Pray to Jesus that you believe in him and accept him into your life. Go ahead.
- Warren actually writes that. “Go ahead.” Go ahead. Receive Jesus. Let him fill you with his spirit — hey, hey, don’t be nervous. I know it can be a little scary if you’ve never done this before, but relax. Don’t you feel Jesus’s gentle hand on your shoulder? And now he’s moving it slowly to the back of your neck. And now he’s pulling you toward him. Don’t be frightened. You should be happy. Jesus wants you. Jesus wants you badly. Just give Jesus what he wants.
And on that note, we’re done with the first section of The Purpose-Driven Life. And much like this life, the first section was just a rehearsal for the real show. So I’ll be back next time to examine the next section, the next seven days in this 40-day spiritual journey, titled “PURPOSE #1: You Were Planned for God’s Pleasure”. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
NEXT: PURPOSE #1: You Were Planned for God’s Pleasure