The Purpose Driven Atheist: What Rick Warren & Richard Dawkins Have In Common

Rick Warren and Richard Dawkins make for strange bedfellows.

I’m not sure if they’ve ever met, but I have a difficult time imagining the two of them hitting it off.  I can’t see Rev. Warren in his short sleeve, button-up Hawaiian top palling around with the well-groomed, British scholar Richard Dawkins.

As such, I was surprised to read both of their names in the same chapter of Greg Epstein’s recent book Good Without God.  Epstein reprimands one and recommends another.  Can you guess which one received the glowing endorsement?

I’m not sure I would call it altogether positive, but Rick Warren takes up about three times as much space as the brief reference to Dawkins in the third chapter of the book.  Epstein reprimands Dawkins for having no hope to offer one of his followers who was contemplating suicide.  Dawkins pointed the student to find help in sharing his story on the Richard Dawkins Foundation blog or even to seek comfort from a campus chaplain.

Needless to say, Epstein felt that this was a poor counseling technique:

“Is that the best we can do? Rage, against the dying of the Enlightenment, then shoo our troubled youth right back to religion because we’re too distracted or cerebral or both to spend a few minutes of our deep thoughts on how to be more loving, more helpful? I admire Richard Dawkins and am thankful for the majority of the work he does.  But that essay of his stands as part of the public record, and it is troubling, because Dawkins has been cast as something of a world atheist spokesman in recent years and he can be emotionally tone-deaf on this crucial issue.”

In contrast, Epstein discusses the popularity of Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Life.  Epstein argues that humanity’s longing for meaning is not to be found in God, but in Humanism.  Interestingly, both Rick Warren’s book and the movie Facing the Giants are sited as sources of inspiration for Epstein.

While he admires the purpose and meaning found in Christianity, he completely rejects its truthfulness:

Next I asked myself why I was having so much trouble finding the right words to offer, and finding so much inspiration in this Christian message, when I was convinced that Christianity’s supernatural story of a resurrected God, born of a virgin, dying for our sins, was simply a human-created myth.  Thankfully I then finally realized what attentive readers most likely figured out many paragraphs ago.  That Rick Warren was right about the way I was approaching my work.  He wasn’t right about Jesus, or God, or heaven, or hell.  He was dead wrong on gay marriage, abortion, and about atheists being more arrogant than Christians.  But he was absolutely right in the sense that I’d fallen into the trap of thinking that my work, in this case writing this book, was all about me.

I think Epstein provides a winsome presentation for a rebranding of atheism.

In my humble opinion, Humanism is essentially a “PR” buzzword hoped to replace atheism. Webster defines Humanism as, “a philosophy that usually rejects supernaturalism and stresses an individual’s dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason.”

In comparing Humanism with Atheism I’m reminded of the line from the Herman’s Hermits’ song, “Second verse – same as the first.”  Its differences are more of style and attitude than of substance.  Perhaps we could call it “Atheism With a Smile” or “How to Have Your Best Atheism Now.”  Because I think a search for morality in a godless universe is an impossible quest I prefer the title “The Atheist Delusion.”

I think a more honest depiction can be found in the statement deduced from Dostoyevsky’s character Ivan Karamazov, if there is no God, everything is permitted.  In a similar way, Friedrich Nietzsche spoke through a character to declare, “God is dead.”  In both writings you get the sense that there is something of a moral abyss or a lack of moral restraint apart from the existence of God.

In the end I’m not sure Greg Epstein provides a compelling case.  I think you are either with Rick or you are with Richard. I’m not sure Greg offers a valid third option.  You either have a morality that can only be derived from a lawgiver, or you are left with nothing significant to say to a suicidal student.  As Francis Schaeffer has said, “Humanist have their feet firmly planted in mid-air.”  They have no basis for the system of values and purpose they embrace.

I think we should find a clue in the fact that a book with the title Good Without God sparks our curiosity.  We all perk up to hear how a naturalist might explain morality.  There is just something very unnatural about it.