Posted by: Average Joe | May 13, 2011

Do Atheists Live with Purpose?

I like surveys. As a student of human nature, I find people’s answers to significant questions fascinating.

In 2008 The Barna Group asked 1,003 adults what they want most in life (see Survey Reveals the Life Christians Desire). Those participating identified themselves (with some overlap) as either evangelicals, non-evangelical born agains, notional Christians, self-identified Christians, Catholics, Protestants, mainline Protestants, non-mainline Protestants, agnostics, and atheists.

Though the entire poll (respondents were asked 19 personal desirability outcomes) was intriguing, for purposes of a brief post here are some highlights:

• Nine out of ten evangelicals named good health, a clear purpose for living, and high integrity as highly desirable personal goals.
• Notional Christians (some might know this group as nominal Christians) ranked high integrity at 81%, a clear purpose for living 72%, and one marriage partner for life 75%.
• Mainline Protestants were less likely than other Protestants to be active in a church, to desire a personal relationship with God, and to be deeply committed to the Christian faith.
• Protestants were twice as likely as Catholics to list working in a high-paying job as something they consider highly desirable.
• Protestants were significantly more likely than Catholics to say it would be very desirable to be personally active in a church (60% vs. 41%, respectively).

Fine. No big surprises, you might say.

It’s the people outside the Christian faith that I found most interesting. According to the survey, atheists and agnostics represent approximately 10% of the adult population.

They stood out as the faith segment least likely to find living near family and relatives to be highly desirable (43%, compared to 63% national average). The religious skeptics were also much less likely to be driven to have a clear sense of purpose in life (55%, compared to 77% of all adults) or to want just one marriage partner for life (58% versus an 80% U.S. average). They were also less interested in making a difference in the world (45%, versus 56% nationally) and in having close friendships.

Assuming the measuring instrument is reasonably accurate, these detectable contrasts between the skeptical responses and the national average probably indicate worldview differences. I’m no sociologist but it seems that in building strong, long-lasting societies you wouldn’t want atheism of this type to gain a foothold.

George Barna, founder of The Barna Group, summarized:

The data provide a distinct image of each faith group. Evangelicals are intensely driven by their faith: their life is substantially influenced by their beliefs and their lifestyle choices and aspirations reflect the centrality of their spirituality. Non-evangelical born again adults consider faith to be important but it is not the defining aspect of their existence; it is influential but not the determining factor. Notional Christians treat faith as just one of many dimensions of their life that serves a purpose, but it is not a driving force at all. Skeptics have replaced faith with a passion for healthy longevity and personal pleasure gained through world travel, sexual experiences, and obtaining knowledge. They are substantially less focused on relationships and legacy than are other groups. They tend to be less concerned about finding or pursuing a purpose in life because a majority of them believe life has no purpose beyond comfort and pleasure.

Obviously, altruistic atheists would reject the poll’s findings. But The Barna Group has been around for a while and reveals that their maximum sampling error is ±3.2 percentage points with a 95% confidence level.

Kenneth Samples discusses two worldview tests (pragmatic test, existential test) in his book, A World of Difference, that seem appropriate. Given the results above, I’m not sure this type of atheism passes the livability tests.

Your thoughts?



  1. “They tend to be less concerned about finding or pursuing a purpose in life because a majority of them believe life has no purpose beyond comfort and pleasure.”

    Why are comfort and pleasure not purposes?

    They might be purposes that some don’t agree with, but they’re still purposes. And they might not be entries 1 and 2 on my personal ‘purpose list’, but comfort and pleasure are definitely in my top ten.

    And it also begs the question, what causes pleasure? Helping others is quite pleasurable to me. And so is going to an R rated movie or having a sexual experience with someone I care about.

    I think I’d like to know the exact wording of the questions asked.

    Also, it’s really hard to group atheists together as a whole. While there are certainly many different denominations of Christianity, atheism is split even more than that. You’d be hard pressed to find two atheists who agree on everything, save that they don’t believe in a god.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Not a Scientist. I hope you stick around.

  3. I would need to see more of the data, but my hunch from reading the article is that the atheist’s purpose is characterized by more self-centeredness whereas the evangical’s purpose is charcterized by more other-centeredness. This is not to say that an atheist can’t care for others or that an evangical won’t do something for himself. If the works of each were to be weighed on a scale though, the atheist’s works would mostly benefit himself whereas an evangical’s works would most benefit others.

    In other words, both the evangelical and atheist have a purpose, the nature of that purpose is vastly different though due to their worldview.

    FYI: The Barna link did not work for me.

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