Secular Religion: An atheist reading The Purpose-Driven Life

by phil on Sunday Jan 4, 2009 9:00 AM
secular religion

All of the recent news about Rick Warren has encouraged me to investigate the nature of his success. In particular, I always wondered what about The Purpose-Driven Life has made it one of the best selling works of non-fiction (30 million copies sold).

The book has 40 sections, designed to be read once-a-day, and designed to help you find your purpose in life. And so, a few weeks ago, I decided to try to work through the book, as if I were truly taking the workbook seriously.

This is an interesting experiment given my personal religious history. My parents didn't pre-set a religion for me. My mom was raised Catholic, and my dad was raised Hindu, and initially they argued about what religion I should have. They eventually settled on letting me choose for my own as I got older. However, my mom managed to get me and my brother into church, and even into catechism school. At the age of twelve, I somehow got the notion that I wanted to be serious about religion, and I decided to get myself baptized. In the ensuing three years, I carried a cross with me at all times. I prayed every night and every morning. And I made sure our family regularly attended church on Sunday. Then somewhere in High School, I became disenchanted with religion, and kind of stuck with the agnostic label. In college, I felt I needed to define myself more firmly, since discussions about identity were so prevalent in the dorms. After thinking about it some more, I stuck with the atheist label. The compressed version of my argument for atheism is simply, "I believe in God as much as I believe in the tooth fairy."

I'm still an atheist, but I don't have a negative attitude toward religion. Now, I'm not saying I shouldn't have a negative attitude toward religion. I'm just describing what I happen to be, and maybe in the course of working through this topic, I decide I want to be more antagonistic. As it stands now, my friends and the circles I dabble in are mostly secular liberal. But among them, I tend to be the one apologizing for religion. This may or may not be a good thing, but I'm just describing, from a 3rd-person perspective, what my attitude toward religion is ahead of time.

Having said that, in going through The Purpose-Driven Life, I'm striving to take it seriously. When I read the word God, I want to really feel/think/believe that I'm referring to the same muscular, gray-bearded God in Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel. When I sub-vocalize the phrase, "God will take care of me," I want to really feel what the devout feel. Of course, I'll never be able to fully appreciate what believers feel, but you'd be surprised how much you can approximate the religious experience. I'm only two days into the book, but so far, I'm liking what I've read. Rick Warren is a fantastic writer, and his work seems largely directed at someone like me, who, in his viewpoint, is a lapsed Christian and a secular liberal.

I, of course don't believe that I'm "lapsed," but rather "enlightened," but somewhere in the back of my mind is an adventurous voice saying, "What if this changes you? Wouldn't that be crazy?" And I don't think I'm alone in that feeling. I know two, smart, young ladies who last year both independently intimated similar fears/desires. One of them was hitting a rock bottom in the management of her neuroses, and pondered a few times, "What if my solution is to I end up finding God?" And another friend, who was hitting rock bottom in the management of her social life, echoed with half-seriousness, what her mother told her, "Maybe this is just God's way of teaching me something."

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