Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Say "Hello" to my little friend!

(This was originally published elsewhere 30 June 2009.)

I just discovered that Rick Warren loves to quote Bertrand Russell.

According to Warren, Russell said, “Unless you assume a God, the question of life's purpose is meaningless.”

This sounds like something Russell might have said at one time. Russell said a lot of things. I'm pretty sure that the set of all statements made by Russell isn’t logically consistent, in which case at least one of those statements is false. That should tell you something.

Warren does not cite the source of this quotation in The Purpose Driven (R) Life. This is unfortunate, since we do not know what the context of the quotation is. I was unfortunately previously unfamiliar with the quotation, so I haven't identified the source. When you fail to cite your sources, questions come up, you know.

So why does Warren use it?

I’m pretty sure he is offering an argument.

“Unless” statements are most straightforwardly translated as “or” statements. We may translate Russell’s statement as, “Either we assume that God exists or the question of life’s purpose is meaningless.” Given what we know about Rick Warren, we may assume that he is arguing thus:
  1. Either we assume that God exists or the question of life’s purpose is meaningless.
  2. It is not the case that the question of life’s purpose is meaningless.
  3. Therefore, we assume that God exists.
Warren’s use of the quotation is amusingly diabolical because he is essentially appealing to the authority of Bertrand Russell, an atheist, to argue that God exists.

The argument I have attributed to Warren is deductively valid. Are the premises true?

Russell must deny the second premise. He has to do something, after all, since he rejects the conclusion. And the denial of the second premise seems consistent with what I know about his views at one point in his life.

But what reason do we have to assume that the first premise is true? Isn’t it possible that God does not exist and yet the question of life’s purpose is perfectly meaningful? I think so. Is it really plausible to think that all atheists find their own lives meaningless, or that their lives truly are all meaningless? I think not, on both counts. For example, it is possible to imagine an atheist who devotes her life to working for the poor, not because God requires it, but because she believes that she is morally required to do so. Because she does what she believes is morally required, she believes that her life is truly meaningful.

What reason does Warren give for thinking that the first premise is true? (I haven’t read The Purpose Driven (R) Life, so I can’t say.) Are we simply going to grant it, without argument? If Warren’s intended audience is the Christian community, then he probably won’t get many objections to the premise. But in that case, I think Christians themselves would do well to ask themselves what reasons they have to accept it.

It is more likely that this weaker claim is true: if we assume that God exists, then it is not the case that the question of life’s purpose is meaningless. This claim does not make God's existence a necessary condition for the meaningfulness of life. And it doesn't entail the rather absurd claim that the lives of Hindus, say, are meaningless.


  1. Russell also said "I think we ought always to entertain our opinions with some measure of doubt. I shouldn't wish people dogmatically to believe any philosophy, not even mine."

    Your example about the atheist working for the poor not because she believes God requires it but because she feels morally obligated to do so, inspires the question of where she believes her morals come from.

    If there is not a sentient God teaching us right from wrong, if we are simply a product of random evolution, then why would we have morals? If there is no reward for "good" and no consequence for "evil" then why does the atheist feel "morally" obligated to work for the poor? Why does she not instead take a .45 and blow the poor away? After all they are a burden on society and there is not really any "lasting" punishment for killing them.

    Russell also said "the only thing that will redeem Mankind is cooperation." Why? If there is no higher being and no life after this one, then what does it matter if we create relationships and do what we feel is "right" to help others?

  2. Let me begin by saying this: evolution is a fact. To deny evolution is to embrace a world view that ignores facts and reason.

    You appear to be arguing thus:

    1. If God does not exist, then there is no morality.
    2. Morality exists.
    3. Therefore, God exists.

    I believe that the second premise is true, in spite of the fact that I am an atheist---or, to be more precise, something like a secular humanist.

    What I take issue with is the first premise. I believe that morality can exist even if God does not. That is, I take it that some moral claims are true even though God does not exist. What makes them true is a complicated matter, but their truth does not require the existence of God.

    You also suggest that we could not come to know moral truths without having been taught those truths by God. The objections to this view are familiar. Christians themselves cannot agree on the meaning of "Thou shalt not kill," so God's pedagogical ability leaves much to be desired.

    Where you go most seriously wrong, however, is in your assertion that, without the threat of an eternity in hell, we would have no reason to be good. You ask what reason does the atheist have for helping the poor. The answer is quite simple and obvious: it is the right thing to do. You make the usual Christian assumption that human beings are loathesome, contemptible creatures. Surely, some of them are. But there are plenty of virtuous atheists out there, and plenty of evil Christians. The world is crawling with evil people who profess a belief in God. Furthermore, it seems to be a conceptual truth about morality that a self-interested reason to do something is not a moral reason. The Christian whose only reason for loving her neighbor is an eternity in heaven is not a virtuous person. We can demand more of ourselves.

    It may be that a Christian cannot fathom why someone who does not fear an eternity in hell would be highly motivated to lead a virtuous life. So much the worse for that Christian and Christianity in general. Kant himself thought that the only actions that have moral worth are those that are motivated solely by the moral law. I know for a fact that there are persons who are motivated solely by the moral law in at least some of their actions, and to deny that there are such persons is to have a radically distorted view of reality, which in fact many religions have.


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It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. ---W.K. Clifford

Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear. ---Thomas Jefferson