A review of Rick Warren's “The Purpose Driven Life”

The Purpose Driven Life book cover
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While browsing Amazon, Rick Warrens new book “The Purpose Driven Life” caught my attention. The name interested me because I believe that a sense of purpose is vitally important for human beings. Without a sense of purpose and the identification of values to act towards and achieve, life would indeed be useless and meaningless. With my interest thus piqued, I opened the first (virtual) page to investigate what purpose the book suggested. The book begins with the quote from Bertrand Russell, who said “Unless you assume a God, the question of life’s purpose is meaningless.” Here is the first paragraph from the book:

It’s not about you.
The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness. It’s far greater than your family, your career, or even your wildest dreams and ambitions. If you want to know why you were placed on this planet, you must begin with God. You were born by his purpose and for his purpose.

The rest of the book expands on this answer. I want to analyze the alternative presented by the author above, but before I do that, I will consider the question he attempts to answer. Is the question of purpose of one’s life important at all? Does man even need a purpose to life?

We can begin the analysis by asking, “Why does the question of purpose arise for human beings?” The question does not apply to all entities. A stone does not have a purpose. It is created by some process, exists for some time, and then is destroyed by some other process. At no point does the question “What am I here for?” arise for the rock, since rocks are inorganic entities lacking a consciousness. Some would argue that it is applicable to man-made objects, such as a table, but in such cases, the purpose exists only because a conscious being such as a man created it to achieve some value. Man might also decide to use a rock, a tree, or a field for some end, but these things only have a purpose insofar as they provide a value to a conscious being, and not one inherent in themselves.

Animals and plants do act to achieve particular values by particular means. Their actions are aimed at specific ends – namely, their survival and reproduction. But the question of purpose does not arise for them either because their actions are automatic, determined by instinct. They cannot choose, as men do, to live by one means or another, to be carnivores or herbivores, to live or die. Unlike non-living entities, they have various values, such as food, reproduction, and shelter, but they have no way to consciously choose which values to achieve or which course of action to take to achieve them beyond their immediate environment.

Human beings are unique in being a living being without an automatic guide to actions and values. We alone must choose which values we want to achieve, and the means we take to achieve them. Like animals, our survival is still conditional — we must take a particular course of action to stay alive, but the means to achieve the values necessary for our survival are not automatically given to us by instinct. We have some basic urges – to eat, or to reproduce, but no means to achieve them without conscious action. In place of instinct, nature has equipped man with the facility of reason – the use of his senses and his rational faculty to gain knowledge of reality and then act on it. If an animal’s instinct fails to provide the values it needs in a given environment, it will die – but a man has the capacity to adapt to almost any environment he finds, as the proliferation of humanity on every corner of the earth demonstrates. The basic question every man faces as a living being  is “to live or not to live,” and since reason is his only means of survival, his basic choice is “to think or not to think.” Every value we enjoy in our civilized, comfortable, existence is the product of the application of man’s mind to reality. The food we eat, the cars we drive, the entertainment we enjoy are all products of some man’s mind. The difference between our comfortable lives and the short, dangerous, and miserable existence that our ancestors eked out in trees, caves, huts, and caverns not so long ago was created – and is continually made possible by application of the reason to the problem of man’s survival.

What does the cynical atheist Bertrand Russell and the Christian pastor Rick Warren, the author of the “The Purpose Driven Life” say is the purpose of man’s life?

The Christian perspective is that the issue of man’s survival is irrelevant to the question of what the purpose.  As pastor Warren stresses repeatedly, our earthly values – whether in our career, family, friends, or any other are in themselves meaningless. The very things that make life on earth possible and pleasurable are irrelevant to him. Instead, our actions should be focused on a higher, unearthly realm, which contains the answers of our existence. “Unless you assume the existence of God, the purpose of life is meaningless,” he says, thereby voiding our selfish happiness as a worthwhile purpose to existence. Instead, he argues that “We were planned for God’s pleasure, so your first purpose is to offer real worship.” According to Christianity, man’s purpose on earth is to be a sacrificial offering (sacrificial, because we are to sacrifice earthly values) to some invisible, unknowable entity. This entity deserves devotion not because it offers a proof for its existence or material reward for service, but because man has not yet uncovered all the secrets of the universe, and no one has stoop up to say that just because man is not omnipotent does not mean that he can’t be certain of what he does not.  The main reason that religion still receives the devotion or lip service of billions is not on the strength of its argument, but because the secular opposition has rejected man’s primary means of knowing himself or his world.

What alternative does the typical cynical, nihilistic, materialistic atheist, such as Bertrand Russell offer in response to the Christian mystic? He agrees with the mystics that without God, life is meaningless, but seeing that there is no evidence for a supernatural realm, he therefore rejects meaning. He agrees with the mystics that without God man has no free will, so he rejects free will and volition. He agrees with the mystics that without God, there can be no morality (“If God is dead, all is permitted” as that quote falsely attributed to Dostoevsky goes) so he rejects morality. In the crucial question of man’s existence, the skeptic and the mystic agree that man has no purpose, volition, or virtue outside of the authority of some external entity. Man’s life in itself therefore, is meaningless, the skeptics and the mystic agree, and only has value so far as man offers himself as a sacrifice to some greater entity or purpose.

The skeptic denies the supernatural and claims to be a materialist, but he usually proposes some other “higher” purpose for existence anyway.   He replaces subservience to the supernatural with subservience to an equally mystical or collectivist entity, such as service to society (socialism), the race or state (fascism), the environment, the ethnic group or tribe (multiculturalism)  innate emotionalism (Nietzschean nihilism and “intuition”.) The cynical atheist simply replaces the worship of one supernatural and unknowable entity with another. The mystics present man as a pathetic ghost, unworthy of life, in conflict with his physical (baser) nature, and existing only as a sacrificial offering for another realm, The skeptics present man as a Frankenstein – a walking bag of chemicals without freedom, meaning, or self-esteem, and existing as a sacrificial offering for the “common good.” The mystics demand that man sacrifice his worldly values for the supernatural, and the skeptics either argue that man should sacrifice his life to the collective, or that he should pursue whatever values he wants at the moment, while denying his basic means (his rational mind) of achieving them.

Are these the only possibilities man has – to choose which entity to sacrifice himself to? Is morality measured by the totality to which man abdicates his own, selfish interests to serve some “higher” and “greater” end? If denying one’s “selfish” interests means denying the things that make life on earth possible and pleasurable, then isn’t death the highest reward of following such a moral code? After all, the only way to be a consistent altruist, and consistently reject one’s “lower” urges, is to sacrifice everything one values, including the things that make life possible. (Luke 14:26-33, 18:18-22) The only way to practice the religious – or the collectivist morality and continue living, is to live a life of guilty contradiction, pursuing one’s values one moment, while denying them the other, using reason for “practical” matters, but denying it when it is truly important. Is it any wonder that faced with the alternative of being a ghost and a sacrificial offering or an unthinking bag of flesh, blindly following hormonal urges, so many men either live a life of guilty contradiction or reject morality and philosophy entirely – thus becoming even more helpless to whatever bromides they unthinkingly and uncritically accept.

The false alternative presented by the mystics and the skeptics is not the only kind of existence open to man. Recognizing man’s nature and the requirements of his life provides both the purpose of existence and the means to achieving it. Life – the choice to live or not to live, is the basic alternative that makes morality both possible and necessary. Life is the trait that makes morality possible for man, and reason is the unique characteristic that makes it necessary. Without the possibility of death, no moral values are necessary, and without the faculty of reason, no moral choice is possible. The primary moral value is each man’s own life, and the primary virtue – the means of maintaining it — is rationality. “Man has a single basic choice: to think or not, and that is the gauge of his virtue. Moral perfection is a unbreached rationality — not the degree of your intelligence, but the full and relentless use of your mind, not the extent of your knowledge, but the acceptance of reason as an absolute.” — Ayn Rand. Morality is not a means to a supernatural realm, a restrain on the enjoyment of earthly values, a supernatural revelation, a social consensus, an absolutist commandment, or a biological imperative, but a practical, selfish means of living a complete, happy, meaningful, moral earthly existence through the consistent application of reason as the answer to the question of one’s life.

This moral code represents the total opposite of the mystics and the skeptics morality. The Christians pervert morality by deeming man guilty for the actions of one man – and then claim that redemption comes from the actions of yet another. The skeptics pervert morality by enslaving man to live for the needs of everyone but himself, or by denying morality outright, and enslaving him to his emotions. As man’s reason has discovered more and more of the deepest secrets of the universe, he has improved his condition tremendously – even as the mystics and the skeptics systematically deny that man’s reason has any efficacy or significance to his existence. Both pervert morality by denying the very things that make life possible and meaningful – reason, egoism, self-esteem. Both oppose the virtues necessary for man to thrive – independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productivity, and pride by advocating self-sacrifice, collectivism, faith, mercy, dependence on the supernatural/collective, and humility in their place.

Here is the undiluted evil of “The Purpose Driven Life,” from the third paragraph of the book:

“We ask self-centered questions like What do I want to be? What should I do with my life? What are my goals, my ambitions, my dreams, and my future? But focusing on ourselves will never reveal our life’s purpose. The Bible says, “It is God who directs the lives on his creatures; everyone’s life is in his power.” [emphasis author’s]

Christianity requires us to reject our goals, ambitions, dreams, and our very lives as moral values, and demands that we sacrifice them to a supernatural realm. Rick Warren recognizes man’s vital need for a sense of purpose, moral worth, and then denounces all the things that make them possible. He claims to offer a “purpose driven life” but instead gives us a death-driven sacrifice. We need not endure the unearthly torment of that anguish.

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19 responses to “A review of Rick Warren's “The Purpose Driven Life””

  1. John Andrew Rincon Avatar
    John Andrew Rincon

    Lucid, David. Who cares about “saving souls” man when you can inspire them the way you do mine!! I have been reading your site for aobut a year now and would just like to say thanks for spending what I am sure is valuable time in your life to update it.
    Your Friend,

    John Andrew Rincon

  2. Garrett Valdez Avatar

    I seem to remember similar things coming from the mouth of Ellsworth Toohey in The Fountainhead. It bothers me that people have to rely on “Intellectuals” and other people such as Clerics or Priests to give their life purpose.

    By the way, I’m currently operating on a 1024×768 resolution screen and your comment box is extending behind your right module. Any suggestions?

  3. William A. Baurle Avatar
    William A. Baurle

    Wonderful essay, and well-written. Have you heard of the Christian Reconstructionists? Absolutely demented group, rooted mainly in Calvinism, who advocate a legal system based on Old Testament law. Some say the movement is dead, but considering the number of Calvinists I’ve encountered online, I tend to doubt it.

    Your voice is strong, rational, and sure. I’m glad to have stumbled across your blog. Best regards to you and yours,

    William A. Baurle

  4. J. Swenson Avatar
    J. Swenson

    I’m afraid you misunderstand Rick Warren’s point in his book. First, we are not sacrificing ourselves to an unkowable God, but to one who has made himself known to us in a variety of ways, one whom we can know very well. You are assuming that because you don’t know Him, He cannot be known. That is a logical stretch for one who advocates reason as the hightest virtue. Second, if God created us for a purpose, we find our utmost fulfillment, pleasure, if you will, in fulfilling that purpose. The fulfillment comes with the free and unselfish giving of ourselves to God and others.

    After a period of atheism and hedonism in my life as I tried to pursue the path of reason, I find the Christian alternative to be most refreshing indeed.

  5. […] the advantages of living in a civilized liberal society, but of the alternative – and the ideas behind it.

    Posted by David in General | […]

  6. Edward T. Babinski Avatar

    That reminds me, Robert M. Price my long time friend, but not a Randian, is coming out with a book soon titled, The Reason-Driven Life.

    I agree that various Christian teachers (the most devout chaste Catholic monks and nuns; as well as the most dour Calvinists) have downplayed life on earth, it’s joys and pleasures, including human reason and its benefits, in favor of trying to make everything fit their particular religious jello mold. Even in mainstream 20th century Evangelicalism you can see the way such otherwordly focus functions: Rock and Roll must be Christianized. We must sing about our love of Jesus, not our girlfriends. Just switch the lyrics in most Christian love songs to Jesus and you get a wordly love ballad. We must help people because “Jesus would have wanted us to.” We must shun blasphemy and doubters, and homosexuals, even in our own family because that’s “what the Bible teaches,” etc.

    According to the book of Revelation, Heaven is an eternal praise service; a service of compliment or flattery. God sits on his throne, attended by twenty-four harp-playing elders (Rev. 5:8) and some other dignitaries pertaining to his court, and looks out over his miles and miles of tempestuous worshippers, and smiles, and purrs, and nods his satisfaction northward, eastward, southwards; as quaint and naive a spectacle as has yet been imagined in this universe, I take it. It is easy to see that the inventor of this image of heaven did not originate the idea, but copied it from the show-ceremonies of some sorry little sovereign state up in the back settlements of the Middle East somewhere.

    Mark Twain, Letters from the Earth

    Is it possible that an infinite God created this world simply to be the dwelling place of slaves and serfs? Simply for the purpose of raising orthodox Christians? That he did a few miracles to astonish a few of them? That all the evils of life are simply his punishments, and that he is finally going to turn heaven into a kind of religious museum filled with Baptist barnacles, petrified Presbyterians and Methodist mummies?

    Robert Ingersoll

    My friend Dorothy and I spent a weekend at Heritage USA, the born-again Christian resort and amusement park created by television evangelists Jim and Tammy Bakker. Dorothy and I came to scoff–but went away converted.

    Unfortunately, we were converted to Satanism. Now we’re up half the night going to witch’s sabbaths and have to spend our free time reciting the Lord’s Prayer backward and scouring the neighborhood for black dogs to sacrifice. Frankly, it’s a nuisance, but if it keeps us from going to the Heritage USA part of heaven, it will be worth it.

    P.J. O’Rourke, Holidays in Hell

    Have you ever been awakened early in the morning by a Jehovah’s Witness? Maybe you’ve been accosted by a crazy street preacher with a megaphone? You turn on your TV, and there’s Tammy Bakker, Jerry Falwell, that Reverend Scott guy who never sleeps. Has it ever dawned on you that heaven might be a very annoying place?

    My brother Mike has always been–and still is–the most annoying religious person I’ve ever known. He thinks homosexuality is a sickness. He believes that all Jews will burn in hell. He thinks women belong in the home. Mike’s one of those people who has to talk to God, because nobody else can stand him.

    One Thanksgiving Mike told me, “You know, Ricky, I’m really worried about you! I’m beginning to think that you might not go to heaven!” I leaned toward him very calmly and said, “Mike, I don’t want to go to heaven. You know why? You’re gonna be there!”

    Rick Reynolds, Only the Truth is Funny

    Remember the movie The Last Temptation of Christ? There were people outside with signs that said, “This movie’s not real.” Come here, Sparky. No movie’s real. And they had other signs that said, “You will not get into the Kingdom of Heaven.” I looked at these people and said, “Are you going to be there? If so, then I’m not going.”

    Robin Williams

    The experts on Heaven disagree about which conglomeration of religious believers will qualify, but they always seem to think that they personally belong to that elite group.An eternity with people that conceited seems intolerable to me.

    Robert Anton Wilson, “Cheerful Reflections on Death and Dying,” Gnoware, February 1999


    Reporter: What will we do in heaven for eternity? Won’t we get bored?

    Rev. Spurgeon: Nonsense. We will joyously sing and meditate on the sufferings of Christ that made the miracle of our salvation possible. As for myself, I could sing and meditate on the wounds round Jesus’s head for a billion years. Then focus on the wounds on his scourged back for the next billion. Then the wound in his right hand for a billion more, the wound in his left hand for a billion, the wound in his side for a billion. Then the wounds in his feet, each foot for a billion years.

    Reporter: So, you’re saying there’s nothing worthy of a Christian’s time and devotion, nothing worth looking at, or singing about, for all eternity, except Jesus and his wounds?

    Rev. Spurgeon: That’s exactly what I’m saying.

    Reporter: So, ah…What’s hell going to be like?

    E.T.B. (based on actual replies of Rev. Spurgeon)

    When Robert Ingersoll heard how Rev. Spurgeon planned to spend billions of years in heaven just staring at Jesus’s wounds, Ingersoll said, “I bet he even takes great delight in reading the genealogies of the Old Testament.”

    The Best of Robert Ingersoll, Robert E. Greeley, Ed.

  7. Mike Winfield Avatar
    Mike Winfield

    Have any of you ever converted the bible into a truth table? For example:

    IF God created the heavens and the earth AND IF God chose to make many nations out of Abram AND IF God chose to reveal himself to Israel AND IF God set forth a law for the Hebrews AND IF God revealed the Messiah through the prophets AND IF God provided his only Son as the fulfillment of both the law and the prophets and to lay the plan of salvation for all the people of the world, past, present and future (that whosoever believed in Him would not perish but have everlasting life) AND IF Jesus was really who He (and the prophets and the law) said he was THEN your belief decides not your life on earth (Purpose-driven or otherwise rationalized) but your actual relationship with God for all eternity ELSE all of the above is a load of crap.

    The problem with this truth table is that you can’t really prove whether it’s true or not. You can say for that reason you choose not to believe, but that doesn’t make the truth table vanish. It’s still there, with all its suppositions and all its consequences.

    Why does the bible say, “Let those who have ears hear”? It’s like God knew some of the “Sower’s seed” would fall on atheists. Just because seed does not take root and grow does not make the sower vanish.

  8. Ananda Avatar

    The problem with pure reason is that it allows no escape from the Ouroboros of the thinking machine. Enter the Rational Mystic, perceiving the truth of suffering in birth, aging and death-rebirth seeks the cause of such,(craving, clinging),passion/lust/aversion/bewilderment. experiments with the fall of logic and reason…Alice meets Gotama in a land full of mango jam where time is no longer a matter of hands moving in a conceptual land…………….lol…The Jam of the promised land is not had in ideas nor in the image of nations I don’t imagine.

  9. Garrett Avatar

    How many more of these religious morons do we have to debunk??

  10. […] review of “The Purpose Driven Life” (The ethics of Christianity) Posted by HeroicLife […]

  11. DAVID Avatar

    The mere fact this site is here, helps quantify the Christian faith.

    After all, if the faith is bogus, a joke, unworthy of regard…

    …why waste your time even commenting on the silly thing?

    Thank you all for proving valid once again, as all skeptics have done through the years, faith in God and service to his cause as the only true purpose in life.


  12. D-san Avatar

    “After a period of atheism and hedonism in my life as I tried to pursue the path of reason, I find the Christian alternative to be most refreshing indeed.”
    – Is this an intended attempt to link atheism and hedonism?

  13. Daguerro Avatar

    David, I don’t waste my time commenting on something that isn’t there for the hell of it. I waste my time doing it because I care about human beings and wish to preserve them from the harm religion does to them. It should be outlawed, destroyed.

    I’m not commenting for myself. I’m commenting to help bring down the giant.

    1. Mike Boone Avatar

      Yes, I agree that it’s no waste of time to help the world become a more sane & reasonable place, by exposing to people the deep faults, and absence of logic, contained in nonsense such as Pastor Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life”.
      In that book Warren claims that not only does God create every human with a specific purpose, but endows each person with his or her natural talents. That means that God endowed Hitler with his natural talent for the kind of strong and convincing oratory which was able to lead countless Germans into accepting the evil of the Holocaust, and even help Hitler to bring it about.
      Obviously, the purpose that God designed for Hitler’s life was to achieve the suffering of millions of people, including small children. And according to Rick Warren’s sick thinking, every one of us humans was planned and created “FOR GOD’S PLEASURE”. Gee, I sure hope that old boy, God, got enough pleasure from Adolf Hitler, and Adolf’s achievements, to make “worthwhile” the suffering of millions of men , women, and children.
      It just stuns me, that here in 21st Century America, the most technologically advanced nation on earth, so many Americans are still so full of fear and superstition, that deceptive garbage, like “The Purpose Driven Life”, still appeals to tens of millions of Americans. But it does not appeal to America’s greatest thinkers, because our top scientists, the members of the National Academy of Sciences, were surveyed, and 93% of them said that their studies of the universe, from the smaller than microscopic level, to the most gigantic stars, leave them with the conclusion that the God of the bible, who’s supposed to be the creator and Master, of the universe, simply doesn’t exist.
      And, in my opinion, many of the 7% of America’s top scientists who did not reject a belief in God, probably only held back from doing so, because of not wanting to hurt, or offend, loving religious parents who raised them.

  14. Walker Avatar

    You, sir, are awfully black and white.

  15. Walker Avatar

    And by you I do mean the review’s writer.

  16. Darrick Avatar

    Why don’t we all just give the philosopher Ravi Zacharias a visit? Listen in to his messages and conclude for yourself whether YOU personally can reason out or believe that there is a God or not.

  17. […] removes the option of achieving future values, while lack of purpose destroys values as such. (See my essay for more.) All religions present man with a basic alternative: accept the supernatural as your source of […]

  18. Jon Avatar

    That bit just before the final quote, where you say that “mystics” are against

    independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productivity, and pride

    is just laughable. Those things can only possibly be true if you assume a priori that there is no god (which, ok, you can if you like, but people who do that will probably not be reading this book). Who can read a book like this without assuming that the God it’s talking about is the God of all these things – with the possible exception of pride, depending on what you mean by that word.

    I must confess I haven’t read the whole thing very deeply, but it seems to me to be the most wilful mis-reading of anything I’ve ever come across. So, er, well done with that.

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