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:
- Either we assume that God exists or the question of life’s purpose is meaningless.
- It is not the case that the question of life’s purpose is meaningless.
- Therefore, we assume 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.