Several years ago Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church published a book called, “The Purpose-Driven Life” which sold millions. Clearly the book struck a chord with many people and was the beginning of a whole “Purpose-Driven” empire of products. The “purpose” that Warren wrote about is pretty simple: We are all put here to glorify God by serving humanity. (It’s basically a re-packaging of the opening question from the Westminster Catechism of 1647–Q: What is the chief end of man? A: The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.)
This model of human purpose raises a few questions. Is it really possible that all 7-plus billion people on earth have the same fundamental purpose? And if that purpose is for all of us to spend our lives singing the praises of the Great Heavenly Leader–doesn’t that sound just a little totalitarian, like living in a large version of North Korea?
One of the critiques thrown at the freethought movement goes something like this: “But you’re taking away people’s sense of purpose! What is there to live for if you take God’s plan out the equation?”
What is there left to live for? Here are a few possibilities.
- Discovering what your passions and talents are, and pursuing those areas of life that bring you joy.
- Using one’s unique talents for the betterment of life for others.
- Learning more about how the world works. Science is the gift that keeps on giving, a never-ending source of wonder, awe and new insight.
- Relishing the joy of human fellowship, especially family and friends.
Honestly, do you really need any more “purpose” than that? I really don’t see why the myths of religion are necessary to convey virtues like love, forgiveness, humility and service. Isn’t it possible to affirm and celebrate the goodness and beauty of life without requiring people to believe implausible things?
I guess I even question why it’s necessary to believe in some large, over-arching purpose. Can’t our sense of purpose change with different life circumstances. For instance, as I’m writing this post, I am waiting on the delivery of a very yummy pizza. At the end of a long day, that pizza is all the purpose I’ll need for the rest of the evening.
One night in Japan year ago I was sharing a couple rounds of after-dinner sake, sitting on the tatami at the home an older friend. Out of the blue he said, “Mike-san, have I ever told you what I was doing when the war ended?” No, he hadn’t. I really knew nothing about his younger days. “I was in the Navy training to be a kamikaze pilot. But the war ended before I could fly my mission. It’s almost incomprehensible now, but at the time I could think of no higher honor. I wanted to die for the emperor. Then when the war ended and the emperor renounced his divinity, I felt utterly lost.”
In his latest book, The Social Conquest of the Earth, E.O. Wilson describes the power of myth to bind people together and inspire sacrificial behavior. All cultures have had creation myths and other narratives that have provided a sense of group cohesion and made the tribe stronger. Once upon in the ancestral past, it may have been impossible for a group to survive without such myths. The story of my Japanese friend is an example of how powerful those myths can be and how the yearning for an explanatory narrative must be deeply implanted in the human psyche. He was a not a dumb man. Quite the contrary. He was highly educated, a polyglot, and after the war ultimately went on to enjoy a successful career. Yet, somehow, in his younger days, a sense of tribal loyalty overrode his talent, his intelligence, and even his desire to live. Scary.
Creation myths and religious narratives may have been necessary in our tribal past, but the world has clearly become too small for them now. All over the planet people with competing mythical narratives threaten the survival of all of us. Iranian leaders have said they want to wipe out Israel. Muslims and Christians are killing each other in Nigeria. India and Pakistan, both armed with nuclear weapons, have an uneasy coexistence. And in the U.S. we have plenty of Christian fundamentalists who would like to hasten Armageddon.
The choice is pretty clear: cling to our myths and wreck humanity, or find a new narrative that helps us see all of humans as members of the same fragile tribe. The narrative of evolution would be a good place to start.