I bent the binding of The Good Atheist, Living a Purpose-Filled Life Without God, by Dan Barker, in hopes that I would either come out of it in some way affirmed or finally have a resource for a person struggling with the decision to let go of their faith. When I closed the book, I felt like a sore eared member of the choir. The majority of Barker’s book is an appeal to authority and celebrity, a mishap of astonishing proportion when speaking about, to, or for, a community that prides itself on its rational thought.
The Good Atheist is an attempt to address and refute the assertion of bestselling book The Purpose Driven Life by Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren that God gives people their purpose. In earnest, Barker only gives himself twenty-five pages to make his argument about the dangers of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life and to examine how atheists can live good, purposeful lives. The rest of The Good Atheist is a series of topically or categorically collected quotes from atheists, agnostics, or free thinking famous people.
Barker does make an interesting and insightful point about the consequences of a life given to us preplanned by God, as Christians contend. He contends that if our lives come to us with a chosen outcome and path, we are not in control of ourselves. If we were created to worship God and spend our days serving him, we have no autonomy. The Christian contention that we must live within the parameters of the plan set out by God to worship and praise him is not a contention of freedom. It makes us slaves.
A new atheist, or a person who is going through the de-theist-ing process, may find his slavery argument a precious bit of emotional nourishment that facilitates their metamorphosis for a short while. It may be especially true for the people who are leaving a more fundamental version of their faith. If the book was only twenty five pages long, this one nugget may be enough to make it worth reading, but it followed by one hundred sixty two pages and is prefaced with ten more.
I slogged through the first few pages of tedious semantic arguments about the difference between having a “purpose driven life” and a “purpose-filled life”. I understood Barkers argument, and even though it was reasonably well argued, it was without resonance or a meaning beyond flipping off Warren. Instead of outlaying a convincing argument of how, or why atheists can and do live lives with meaning, Barker spent his pages pushing back against a theistic world view.
After his ho-hum shoving of Warren, Barker then starts his “Profiles in Disbelief” section of the book, which is nearly ten times as long. I believe he hopes that if someone realizes they like an atheist, they may like atheists in general more. The quotes are interesting but are nothing more than a published celebrity endorsement of the idea of atheism.
There is little literary embellishment in The Good Atheist. It is a pretty easy read, appropriate for an airport or on a beach. I am not ashamed that it is on my bookshelf, but I probably will not be pulling it out again. It offers little to me emotionally, literally, intellectually, or theologically.
Disclosure: I have been closely acquainted with Dan Barker’s brother for many years.