Life on Purpose
The Good Atheist: Living a Purpose-Filled Life Without God
Surprised by Meaning: Science, Faith, and How We Make Sense of Things
reviewed by Logan Paul Gage
Following the New Atheist tomes of 2004–2007, a host of atheist B-teamers capitalized on the newfound enthusiasm—so many that most bookstores now house an “Atheist” subsection. These authors include physicist Victor Stenger, professional “skeptic” Michael Shermer, and former Evangelical Dan Barker.
Barker, who ministered in traditions as disparate as the Assemblies of God and the Friends Church, has not only turned his evangelistic fervor toward atheism but also put his Christian songwriting skills to use writing such ditties as “No Gods, No Masters” (a tribute to Margaret Sanger) and “The Stay-Away Pope Polka,” which, according to the Freedom from Religion Foundation, was “played by radio stations and sung by protest groups across the country when the pope visited America in 1987 and 1993.”
Barker’s latest work, The Good Atheist, unfolds in two stages. In the first stage, Barker plays the foil to Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life, arguing that Christianity is loathsome because “you have no say in your own purpose.” Being mere actors in God’s play rather than autonomous agents free to set their own purposes, Christians are—as the apostles themselves admit—slaves. Barker finds this “forced or mandated subjugation of ‘inferior people’ by a ‘superior person’” morally odious.
Yet in the opening verses of Romans, Titus, James, Jude, and 2 Peter, one sees willing slaves of Jesus Christ, not forced subjects. Having been slaves to sin, the apostles believed they had found true freedom in Christ. Barker forgets that Scripture speaks with equal ease of believers as a beloved wooed by God, as adopted children, and as co-heirs with God’s Son.
Problems with Purpose
Dismissing Rick Warren’s claim that life itself must “have a purpose,” Barker nevertheless argues that atheists need not eschew purpose altogether, for “your purpose is how you choose to live your own life.” Barker is unclear here, but let’s suppose he means to distinguish human-made purposes from transcendent purpose. He leaves readers wondering why we desire a transcendent purpose if there isn’t one. Having a human-made purpose—a way “you choose to live your own life”—does not seem to be enough. Thieves, murderers, and even trial lawyers have that.
Barker simply does not take the human longing for transcendent purpose seriously. If we want a purpose-filled life, he says, we should find a problem to solve, such as “inequality, oppression . . . sexism, cruelty to animals, pollution . . . exploitation—these are all worth fighting.” Yet we are given no justification for fighting these rather than their opposites.
Here Barker strikingly shows little awareness of the long-standing problems with naturalistic ethics. If John Smith sets as his purpose the promotion of animal cruelty, on what basis could Barker argue that John has a moral obligation to abandon that monstrous cause? In a theistic universe, goods can be known through the purposiveness of nature, and moral obligations can be rooted in authoritative divine commands. But (despite some valiant efforts) it is extremely difficult to see a basis for objective values and moral obligations in a Godless universe.
The second stage of The Good Atheist is a lengthy collection of paragraph-sized quotations from atheist actors, philosophers, and scientists (along with, inexplicably, some deists) that are designed to assuage the loss of purpose and community that many atheists feel. It seems poor salesmanship to include Marx, Nietzsche, and Woody Allen in this secular communion of saints, but let that pass. Several quotations portray religion as an enemy of science, an impetus for war, or a psychological crutch. Others proffer atheism qua “free thought” or intellectual independence—which seems quite fatuous when nearly all the sources of cultural influence are secular. In the end, none of the quotations resolve Barker’s problems vis-à-vis transcendent purpose and objective ethics.
A Focusing Lens
In Surprised by Meaning, Alister McGrath, a longtime Oxford theologian and biophysicist (now at Kings College, London), also tackles issues of purpose and transcendence. Beginning right where Barker stumbles, he pays close attention to human experience, especially our longing to make sense of life, to see ourselves as embedded in a larger story—a longing that manifests itself in human enterprises ranging from mystery novels to natural science. Unlike Barker, McGrath sincerely asks whether our longing for transcendent purpose has been “planted in our hearts, to lead us home.”
To some, the world appears to lack transcendent meaning. What they need, McGrath writes, “is a lens or a conceptual framework which brings things into focus.” Christianity, he claims, is that lens: “What was once a blurred and fuzzy image is suddenly seen clearly and distinctly.” He commends Christianity to readers primarily on the basis of its explanatory power. Avoiding the language of proof, he presents a modest, cumulative case argument. Not only human longing, but also a broad range of scientific phenomena—the Big Bang, the fine-tuning of the laws of physics, the “biofriendliness” of chemistry—are shown to be consonant with Christian theism.
Many of Barker’s atheists seem to think objective meaning or value is unreal because it cannot be proved in a test tube. McGrath is right to call such scientism to task, but his rejoinder disappoints. He concurs with the notion that “science cannot deal with questions of meaning or value,” though he asserts that that doesn’t mean they are unreal. Here McGrath displays modernism’s fact/value and science/religion dichotomies par excellence.
In truth, science can speak of purpose if nature is actually purposive. Consider McGrath’s example of a birthday cake. He claims that no amount of scientific analysis will tell us that the cake was baked for the purpose of celebrating a birthday. Admittedly, a chemical analysis of cake particles will not reveal the cake’s purpose, but chemistry is not the only science. Surely careful scientists could infer the cake’s purposiveness from their observation of the low-probability and highly specified pattern of frosting that spells out “Happy birthday, Alister!” Nature’s purposiveness reveals itself in patterns far more intricate than this.
Paths to Home
Barker and the New Atheists unquestionably have human-made purposes. Ironically, their construction of these purposes may itself be a participation in the (creative) divine life, careful attention to which might lead them home. McGrath—who thankfully ignores his own stated fact/value dichotomy—compellingly argues that both human longing and science “are but signs and pointers; and we must let them lead us to their source.”
Logan Paul Gage is a Ph.D. student in philosophy at Baylor University. He and his wife Elizabeth attend St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Waco, Texas. A version of this essay appears in the recently released book God and Evolution (Discovery Institute Press), edited by Jay W. Richards.
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“Life on Purpose” first appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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