How does an atheist respond to the question, “What is the purpose of life?”
Dan Barker’s The Good Atheist (Ulysses Press, 2011) is not another book about how to be good without God. Although most atheists are indeed good people, the word “Good” in the title does not refer to moral good, as in “you are a good boy.” It refers to practical good, as in “you did a good job.” The main purpose of the book is purpose itself.
The Good Atheist is Barker’s response to Pastor Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life, in which Warren claims that “Without God, life has no purpose, and without purpose, life has no meaning. Without meaning, life has no significance or hope.”
In his opening essay, “Life Driven Purpose,” Barker debunks that prejudicial and false statement, showing that it is in fact the other way around, that the point of biblical Christianity is to submit as a slave to a master who demands total obedience and worship. That is not purpose — it is a surrender of purpose.
To prove empirically that Warren is wrong, Part 2 of The Good Atheist, “Profiles in Nonbelief,” presents short bios and quotes of more than 300 contemporary and historical atheists and agnostics who indeed live(d) lives of immense purpose: actors, artists, authors, composers, feminists, human rights activists, journalists, performers, playwrights, philanthropists, philosophers, poets, political leaders, psychiatrists and psychologists, reformers, revolutionaries, scientists and songwriters.
“There is no purpose of life,” Barker writes, “but that does not mean there is no purpose in life.” Life does not need purpose — purpose needs life. “Purpose does not come from puffing up the glory of an imaginary praise-hungry slavemaster in a magical world,” Barker continues, “but from solving problems to make a better world of this, the only world we have.”
The Good Atheist is available at bookstores, online for $15 at ffrf.org/shop/books/ and by mail to FFRF, Attn: Sales Dept., Box 750, Madison, WI 53701.
Foreword for The Good Atheist
By Julia Sweeney
I wish I had had this book to read when I was going through my struggles with faith. Back then, I knew that the arguments for god were weak, but I wasn’t sure where to begin making sense of life without god. It took years of reading and thinking to spin my way out. I’m still spinning my way out, and just reading this book helped me organize my thoughts — things I already knew and understood seem clearer and more grounded. I appreciate that Dan has taken the time and done the research to write this book. I bet you’re going to love reading it.
Letting go of faith and accepting that I’m a free agent able to make choices, find purpose and take action based on my own personal desires, and my own personal volition was ultimately liberating. Years of religious instruction and indoctrination were hard to undo. Life was easier with prescribed choices and a premade list of what was right and wrong. On the other hand, living without god — or some divinely inspired purpose — can be scary as well. It’s hard to make complicated choices. And not all the choices we make lead to the outcomes we wish for. Sometimes what we wish for isn’t what we want anyway!
When you’re religious, there’s always an answer that blunts the edge off anything catastrophic. Or guides you along, lulling you into a state of babyish calm, when things are going well. But real life isn’t like that. There are real catastrophes. There are really unfortunate outcomes. There is also real success and real serendipitous joyful accidents — coincidences and hard work that pay off more than we ever expected. That’s life.
I love when Dan writes, “Life doesn’t need purpose, purpose needs life.” That is so true. I understand this to be the directed energy that a person — alive, cognizant and with purpose — can bring to affect himself or herself and the world.
Our consciousness is like having been given — by evolution — a kind of car. To me it’s like a Ferrari that can run really fast and is very powerful. However, the religious are taught that their mind is more like a train car that needs an engine to pull it along. Without the engine at the front of the train, the car is stranded, and off the tracks it can’t go anywhere.
But that’s not true. Our minds have tremendous power. We can behave with great insight and discipline and compassion. Dan’s book elaborates all those myths that the church and the religious keep on promoting, even when they’ve been shown to be wrong over and over again. The religious do this because they need believers in order to stay in power. Also, people gravitate toward this ideology because, in the short run, faith is comforting and easier. But in the long run, it’s very costly.
I feel I am a much better citizen of my community and world and family because I no longer believe in god. I make decisions on my own. It’s often difficult, and I am often not always in lock step with the thinking of others. But in general I do less harm, I am more compassionate, I use actions instead of intentions (or prayer), and I am generally tougher and more resilient without god in my life.
I still get sad, I still make mistakes, I still brood, and I still get depressed from time to time. But now I’m not grasping at supernatural concepts or fuzzily thought out New Agey woo-woo. I rely on evidence, and I have an understanding of what makes for good evidence.
This book will be shocking and powerful if you’re still making the transition out of religious belief, and it will be a great reminder of why you have confidence in your worldview if you’re already a nonbeliever.
I loved Dan’s first book, Losing Faith in Faith. With this book, Dan goes further and deeper. He has matured in his thinking, just as I am trying to do the same. He’s made it all much easier for me.
So . . . enjoy.