The Purpose-Devoid Life, Part 1
The Purpose-Driven Life has been quite the bestseller since it was published in 2002. I never read it, but recently my church (my parents took me when I was younger; I don’t go much anymore) gave me a booklet called “What on Earth Am I Here For?” that contains the first section of the larger book. As I flipped through the booklet, I immediately saw that it has one of the most disagreeable philosophies I have ever seen. I could probably rant about every single paragraph. Instead, I’ll write my first religious article about it. Let’s start on the first page.
“It’s not about you.” The first sentence sets the tone of how completely different the “Purpose-driven” philosophy is from Individual Valuism. These four short words form a perfect, concise summary of the book’s message, which is that you are incapable of judging goodness, what is desirable is not the same as what is desirable to you, and your life only has meaning if it matches the wishes of a supernatural being that is assumed to exist. The second paragraph says your purpose is “greater” than such things as your personal fulfillment, happiness, family, dreams, and ambitions. This is delivered as a message of hope, but think about what it really means. It says that the purpose of your life is not what makes reality good to you. Instead, someone else decides what you should do in your life, and you’re just along for the ride. It doesn’t even matter if it makes you happy or if it destroys you. You are just a pawn that should do what you’re told and it doesn’t matter what you think about it.
The rest of the second paragraph declares that you were made by and for God’s purpose. This is the first of many references to God. As with all religious topics, the existence of God, or whatever supernatural force, is the essential question behind everything. The author can write hundreds of pages about his idea of purpose and I can write hundreds of criticisms, but everything is trivial compared to whether or not God actually exists. If he does, then it is best to obey him and I am wrong. If he doesn’t, then he can’t be the source of purpose and the author is wrong. Considering the importance of the supernatural premise to religious topics, I would think the author would go to great lengths to explain why it is reasonable to believe that God exists before encouraging people to read forty days’ worth of lessons based on that premise. He doesn’t even mention it. His only hope is that we simply believe it.
In any case, the third paragraph goes on to say that for thousands of years, purpose “has puzzled people … because we typically begin at the wrong starting point—ourselves. We ask self-centered questions like, ‘What do I want to be? What should I do with my life?’ … But focusing on ourselves will never reveal life’s purpose.” (Why not? Is our purpose not even related to who we are?) “Contrary to what many popular books, movies, and seminars tell you, you won’t discover your life’s meaning by looking within yourself.” Now that’s just laughable. I am not aware of any other philosophy, much less any popular books or movies, which asserts that purpose is relative to individuals. Oh sure, there are many that promote some form of egoism, but they don’t say that rightness is what is good to a person; they say rightness is what has been defined to be good for a person. If “many popular books” tell you to value money, fame, whatever fancies that pop into your head, or anything else considered to be self-benefiting, you have not looked within yourself! That’s just another way of culture defining what is good, and when people remain unfulfilled, it is because they still don’t know what is actually good to them.
The author then makes some analogy that you can’t know an invention’s purpose without its inventor telling you. The position of Individual Valuism is clear: a tool is an object that is meant to improve the life of its owner. You are an autonomous being that can live for yourself. Your purpose is to do what makes reality best to you. You don’t need outside opinions for that, but you do need to know truth and causality. Next page of the booklet: “But being successful and fulfilling your life’s purpose are not at all the same issue! … Jesus Christ once said, ‘Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self.’” In other words, following your life’s purpose is not supposed to have any good impact on your life and the path to self-knowledge is to run around looking for ways to sacrifice yourself for others, who I assume also have the “purpose” of self-sacrifice rather than to actually live well. By now, everyone should have dropped this book and ran.
But for those still reading, the author goes on to say there are only two possible ways to attempt to discover our purpose. One is to speculate, or simply guess without reason. He quotes a survey of hundreds of philosophers that were asked the meaning of life. He was not impressed with the results, saying that most offered their best guess or admitted they did not know. (I won’t disagree with him there; most philosophers spend far more time analyzing grammar and concocting ridiculous scenarios than finding truth or wisdom.) The author says the only other option is to ask your creator for your purpose. “God has not left us in the dark to wonder and guess. He has clearly revealed his five purposes for our lives through the Bible. It is our Owner’s Manual, explaining why we are alive, how life works, what to avoid, and what to expect in the future.” If the Bible is such a clear and wonderful source of purpose, why did millions of Christians buy The Purpose-Driven Life and why are there dozens of other books for religious inspiration at every bookstore? Is the Bible inadequate? Whatever the rationalization may be, I know the real answer: religion is not capable of giving purpose. Oh sure, people can read books and go to church and temporarily get the feeling of purpose that comes from thinking they know what is right according to a supreme authority. It doesn’t last. They’ll soon be restless and unfulfilled again, and will need another retreat, revival, sermon, book, or study group to give them another boost. When it comes to knowing purpose, Individual Valuism presents a third option: purpose is doing what results in long-term positive consequences in reality to you as an individual.
The rest of the chapter again says that meaning exists only according to God and your thoughts on the subject really don’t matter. “He planned it before you existed, without your input!” There is also a “Point to Ponder: If there were no God, and everything was a result of random chance, there would be no purpose to your life. It all starts with God.” This is a common sentiment that shows a fundamental misunderstanding of purpose. Is purpose doing what is commanded or doing what is good? Are people incapable of evaluating goodness by themselves? Would someone say, “If God doesn’t exist, stabbing myself with a fork is equally good as curing cancer”? I would hope not. I would hope they would be able to figure out what is good to do given the facts of reality and then try to do it. Don’t tell me I need an external opinion or a promise of perpetual life to have a reason to do something!