Book Review: Dan Barker’s “Life Driven Purpose”
Book Review by Chris Borecky
In 2002, mega-church pastor Rick Warren published “The Purpose Driven Life,” a Christian daily devotional book. It sold 30 million copies, and if you figure the author made about $1 commission on each book sold, you have a grasp of how successful this nonprofit pastor has been at finding a purpose for people.
Warren’s book claims that human life is without purpose unless we are pursuing God’s purpose. Specifically, God’s purpose for us is to do five things:
- join a church,
- become like Christ,
- serve God,
- and convert others to Christianity.
Dan Barker has written an interesting rebuttal from an atheistic perspective.
Barker says that Rick Warren got it all backward. We do not live a “purpose driven life;” we have “life driven purpose.” For Barker, life and purpose are the same things.
Barker argues that only living minds can assign a purpose to things. A hammer obtains its purpose from the human who uses it as a tool to drive nails. To say that God must assign purpose to us is to assume that we too are dead tools. “Are you a hammer?” Barker asks.
Thus, to ask “what is the purpose of life” is begging the question. It assumes a purpose-giver, so there’s something wrong with the question. As Barker puts it, asking “If there is no God, what is the meaning of my life?” is like saying “If there is no master, whose slave will I be?”
If human life is without purpose unless God assigns it to us, then who assigned a purpose to God? Does God sit in heaven asking “Why am I here”?
In contrast, Barker says we are responsible for defining our own purpose. Just as we assign purpose to the tools and objects around us, we can assign purpose to our own lives. What purpose? The purpose we choose. End of story.
After talking about purpose, Barker dives into another question related to what we should do – morality.
Barker criticizes religion for promoting what he calls “cultural colorblindness”. Religion promotes binary thinking in terms of purpose and morality. This black-and-white approach makes us unable to detect nuances or apply situational ethics. Thus we have religious edicts proclaiming there is only one valid purpose in life, one valid sexual orientation, and one valid set of laws that apply in all cases regardless of circumstance.
Barker’s theory of morality has three parts: instinct, reason, and law. Reason controls our instinct and inspires our laws. Reason also informs us when laws should be broken – such as how it is acceptable to lie in order to save someone’s life. Barker summarizes all this in a saying he calls “mere morality.” He says: “Using instinct, law, and reason as guides, try to act with the intention of minimizing harm.”
Barker’s claims about morality sound reasonable. However, there are a few problems with Barker’s description of purpose.
First, Barker strays dangerously close to committing the naturalistic fallacy in a section where he talks about how meaningful it is to him that his ancestors survived and produced him. The fact that nature and history occurred the way it did does not inform us in any way about how it should have occurred or what we should do now.
Second, Barker’s definition of purpose as being the same thing as life seems to mean that any life has purpose. He even employs a metaphor about an ant whose entire colony is drowned in a flood and asks if the ant should simply give up or continue doing ant behaviors.
This metaphor is supposed to poke holes in the question of purpose, and to point out the role of reason. However, the metaphor also reminds us that if we use Barker’s schema, we cannot say that any life is without purpose.
If life is purpose, even mosquitos, bacteria, fungi, and algae have purpose. This is unsettling, but it’s also a problem for Barker’s theory. If you can’t tell me what a thing is not, can you really tell me what it is?
Third, like practically any book in this genre, Barker spends far too much time criticizing religion. He even goes off on tangents to do so. Although this criticism is thought provoking and entertaining, too much is left unsaid about his own theory. I wish he had used the space to better explain a few things, such as his thoughts on free will versus determinism in our self-definitions of purpose.
Finally, Barker’s definition of purpose is probably not satisfying enough for people who are shopping in the marketplace of ideas. Anyone who asks “what is the purpose of my life” has already ruled out many possible answers because they did not fit their criteria or expectations for what a purpose should do.
A satisfactory purpose does things for us, psychologically, such as reducing existential anxiety, improving self-esteem, or motivating us toward goals and away from distractions. Barker’s definition of purpose probably won’t catch on because it is more focused on being consistent with reality than being inspirational.
Despite some serious unanswered questions, the book is a step forward for non-religious people who are exploring ideas about purpose in life. It’s also a fun book, full of body-slam takedowns of religious notions, and many amusing autobiographical stories. Dan Barker’s “Life Driven Purpose” is an enjoyable, accessible book that is also available in audiobook format.