Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Atheist hissy fits

I sort of saw this coming, as I imagine most people did:

An atheist organisation has filed a lawsuit to prevent the World Trade Center cross from going on display at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City.

American Atheists filed the lawsuit this week in the state court of New York and posted a copy on its website. [...]

Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, said: 'The WTC cross has become a Christian icon. It has been blessed by so-called holy men and presented as a reminder that their god, who couldn't be bothered to stop the Muslim terrorists or prevent 3,000 people from being killed in his name, cared only enough to bestow upon us some rubble that resembles a cross. It's a truly ridiculous assertion.'

Two things: I am surprised American Atheists isn't suing the builder of the Twin Towers for using perpendicular lines in their construction such that this sort of cross shape was more or less inevitable; and does it occur to anyone else that the subtitle of every New Atheist rant ought to be: God is not fair?

Here's more:

The cross, which was moved on Saturday to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, underwent a ceremonial blessing in a service led by Father Brian Jordan, a Franciscan monk who ministered to workers involved in the 9/11 clean-up.

Joe Daniels, 9/11 Memorial president, said the cross is 'an important part of our commitment to bring back the authentic physical reminders that tell the history of 9/11 in a way nothing else could'.

Mr. Daniels is right. The cross, whether seen as a religious symbol or not, whether ceremonially blessed or not, is a piece of the WTC wreckage and thus a piece of history. That Christians were inevitably going to see this particular shape and identify it with one of the (if not the) most recognizable symbols of our faith does not change the history of that particular bit of wreckage, and the way it became an iconic symbol of 9/11 and the days following when people clung for hours to the hope that somehow their missing loved ones had survived, when people clutched each other and prayed and wept without caring about sectarian issues, when blurry photos and reports of last phone messages filled our news media with somber reflection and our listening ears and hearts with sadness and pain.

But the New Atheists are all about freedom from religion; they seem to think that if random chance happened to choose such an unfortunate configuration as a cross-shaped set of girders around which people might--and did--rally and pray, it is up to them to lead a crusade to rewrite that particular bit of history by banning that particular shape from any government-funded museum, because otherwise people who hate God might feel oppressed by its presence there.

It is, of course, not that surprising that today's atheists prefer to throw loud hissy fits whenever religion is mentioned; they tend to be rather zealous and fundamentalist in their desperate need to wipe all mention of God from the public square, so much so that some of them seem to have nothing better to do than to criticize a Catholic blogging mom who used to be an atheist herself, and knows what that is like. But thankfully, the blogger in question is Jen Fulwiler, who takes such things in stride:

On Monday, professor PZ Myers wrote a nuanced treatise titled “Jennifer Fulwiler: vacant-eyed, mindless cluelessness personified.” Oh, man, he doesn’t even know the half of it. I’m no genius on my best days, but I’m so sleep deprived right now that I’m shuffling around vacant-eyed and mindless, acting like the poster child for cluelessness. I’m drooling on myself as I type this.

After the accurate title, however, the piece kind of goes off the rails. I don’t recommend that you read it due to offensive content, so I’ll summarize it: Professor Myers was flustered about my post called 5 Catholic Teachings that Make Sense to Atheists, and in response to most of the points he basically said “BUT WE DON’T BELIEVE IN GOD!” He missed the point, but that may have been my fault: I evidently did not make it clear enough that all of my examples were meant only to illustrate the intellectual consistency within Catholicism, and therefore assumed that you would be in a discussion with an atheist who would stipulate belief in God for the sake of argument. E.g. In the case of Purgatory, when I was an atheist I would have said, “All belief in the supernatural is crazy. But if you must believe in all that God and heaven mumbo jumbo, then, yeah, you need Purgatory in order not to contradict your own bizarre little belief system.”

What follows are almost 180 comments in which the atheists, to prove their superior reasoning capacity and love of strictly empirical evidence in rational debate, say things like "Nah, nah, nanny-nanny sky god sky daddy easter bunny fairy stories superstitious mumbo-jumbo phbtbtphbtbtphbt..." And, to be honest, I'm probably bumping up the level of discourse a bit.

I wrote a comment to be posted over there; in the unlikely event any actual atheist reads this post and would like to respond, here's what I would have posted:
This is an interesting discussion (assuming that my existence is real and not the result of an extremely detailed hallucination, that other people are real and are not products of that hallucination or a separate hallucination, that technology is not an illusion that is either part of that hallucination or a separate hallucination, and that the various comments appearing as if by magic on this website are being generated by actual real people sitting in front of actual real computers and not an additional aspect of any one or several of the hallucinations I've already mentioned, none of which can be empirically proved or disproved, of course).

My questions for atheists (all assumptions above still operative) are as follows:

1. Is it accurate to describe human beings as "self-aware organic pain collectors headed swiftly toward oblivion?" Why or why not?

2. If the description in (1) is accurate, is it also accurate to say that human existence is an exercise in futility and that the vast majority of human beings will be completely forgotten within 50-100 years of their deaths (the famous and infamous are, naturally, the outliers)?

3. If (1) and (2) are both accurate, ought not selfishness, excessive consumption, and the pursuit of extreme hedonistic pleasures be the highest and best human goals? Is it not, in fact, an absolutely worthless waste of one's extremely short time to spend years in study, to work hard, to be a parent, or to do anything else that is not ultimately ordered toward obtaining for one's own self a life of comfortable ease?

3.(a) In fact, isn't the act of bringing a new human being into the world to exist for perhaps 80 meaningless and futile years full of suffering only to cease to be altogether at the end the least rational and most unkind thing a person can do?

4. If you reject (3) and say that some noble ideals such as making the world a better place for future generations, or saving the planet from human excess, or some similar thing are indeed worthy pursuits--why is this not an irrational belief that should be given no more weight than any religion, given that it can never be empirically proved that future generations actually will benefit, one will not personally benefit from any improvements made, and one is further likely to be thwarted in the pursuit of pleasure during one's depressingly finite existence?

4. (a) And if you really believe that the world's worst problem is overpopulation and that saving the planet requires fewer people, would you be willing to kill yourself or enact a campaign of mass murder (scientifically, perhaps, through tainted medicines or weapons of war) in order to solve that problem? If not, why not? (And don't simply say "Because it's wrong to kill people," because that is not an argument based on reason.)

That will do to start with.
I have found, in my experience of debating atheists, that they don't much like these sorts of questions. Oh, sure, they'll be dismissive of them, and try the "sky-daddy spaghetti-monster" taunting a little longer, but few of them are actually willing, in my experience, to deal honestly with the philosophical ramifications of atheism. Once, in college, I did meet an honest, engaged sort of atheist. He expected me (as this was a Catholic school) to try to convert him in the hour or so we were conversing, but instead, I led him (gently, I swear!) through all of the implications of his atheistic, zero-population-growth, save the planet, environmental extremism. By the end of the conversation he fully admitted that if he were face to face with a timber wolf the only just thing he could do was use his hypothetical gun to shoot himself, not the wolf--and, by extension of that, given his admitted promiscuity, the failure rates of various forms of birth control, the fact that keeping any unintended offspring would be his paramour of the moment's decision rather than his, and the devastating environmental impact in a couple hundred years of one child's being born today the only truly moral course of action for him, given his belief system, was suicide before he could commit the crime and folly of reproduction, accidental or otherwise.

Luckily for me, at this point he also admitted to being a total hypocrite, such that he wished his own temporary existence to continue, and would rather snuff out the lives of worthless third world hyper-breeder-type families via contraception, abortion, and so forth. I say "luckily" because otherwise I might have ended up guilty of being an accessory to suicide via rational suggestion. But I saw him around the campus one or two more times that semester, enjoying tricking a certain sort of sensitive, sentimental girl (which he probably--ha!--had mistaken me for) into engaging in "sky-daddy" debates about which he could feel smugly superior; but he never made the mistake of asking me to discuss religion again, and I have a feeling he might have been just slightly unsettled by our conversation.

When atheists fly into hissy fits over crosses, or engage in juvenile taunting over a thoughtful person like Jen Fulwiler's serious, rational discussion about how she used to think when she was one of them, I have a feeling that what they'd like to avoid at all costs is a debate about whether they can really prove that atheism is the best, most rational response to questions that have nothing to do with empiricism, or why, indeed, any sort of morality or virtue--even the most weak, tepid civil kind--makes any sense at all. At least the Randian atheists are logically consistent: if this world is all there is, and there is no hope or possibility of doing anything that will bring lasting good, lasting peace, or lasting joy to this world (leaving aside the question of a future world), then why would anybody waste any sort of time at all in pursuits that are not completely self-centered and hedonistic?

42 comments:

JohnE said...

if this world is all there is, and there is no hope or possibility of doing anything that will bring lasting good, lasting peace, or lasting joy to this world (leaving aside the question of a future world), then why would anybody waste any sort of time at all in pursuits that are not completely self-centered and hedonistic?

Because doing so brings them pleasure - duh...

Red Cardigan said...

Nope, don't buy it.

Red Cardigan said...

I mean, where's the empirical evidence that people choose pursuits not self-centered or hedonistic because those pursuits bring them pleasure?

Siarlys Jenkins said...

It never ceases to amaze me that people who profess that there is no God would expend so much time and energy on something they believe doesn't exist.

So a bunch of deluded superstitious ritualists want to bless a piece of metal in the shape of a cross? So what? It has no significance whatsoever, right?

I'll be up in arms as fast as anyone if a school authority tries to put the words of an official prayer in the mouths of a classroom full of children -- it is not their business to tell anyone's children when, whether, how, or what to pray. If someone wants to deny entrance to the 9/11 memorial to any visitor who is unwilling to genuflect in front of this cross, I will donate to their legal fees when they sue. I support the decision that Allegheny County may not have a creche display put together by the Knights of Columbus in the front stairwell of the government building.

There is a fairly simple way to blunt any legal attack on a cross-shaped piece of metal at the memorial site. Make sure that somewhere in the near vicinity there is a star of David, a crescent, and one or two totally secular symbols (unfortunately a Christmas Tree and Santa Claus and his reindeer wouldn't fit in). As long as the Truth of a given religious faith is not being endorsed, merely its presence in our national culture and among the inspirations of those who died and those who saved those who could be rescued... there is no legal obstacle.

JohnE said...

Nope, don't buy it.

Okay, no skin off my nose...

Jill said...

I mean, where's the empirical evidence that people choose pursuits not self-centered or hedonistic because those pursuits bring them pleasure?

Can you name any such pursuits that aren't linked at all to bringing out personal satisfaction? I can't, though I'll admit my imagination isn't what it could be. To me most actions or decisions seem to benefit the person making them, from more palpable, immediate pleasure to even just a reduction of their stress or anxiety.

Jeremy said...

Good deeds do bring pleasure, and perhaps that is why we do them, but that experience of pleasure does remotely suggest that we actually ought to do good deed. We also do all kinds of hurtful things to other because it brings us pleasure. What makes one deed wrong and the other right? On grounds of pleasure (even long-term pleasure) there can no moral imperative, it's only a matter of weighing the relative benefits to one's self of one action vs. another (or of simply following your instinct, which will indiscriminately lead you sometimes to altruism and sometimes to selfishness -- so it is no moral compass either).

Hector said...

It just seems obvious to me that it's at least possible for an atheist to share, at least to some degree, the Christian moral code. More than a few atheist have been converted to Christianity because they saw, in Our Lord, a figure of perfect goodness. And that, in turn, implies that it's possible to have a standard of goodness independent of God. (Incidentally this was always true, some of the earliest Christian apologetics against the pagans stressed the idea that Christ was perfectly good, which in turn implies that the pagans were able in some sense to know what goodness was, otherwise the statement would have made no sense to them).

That's not to say that atheists are necessarily moral people, and that's not to say you can get all the way towards the Christian moral code without the light of revelation, but you can certainly get a good part of the way there.

I'd suspect that most atheists don't really care about Christianity, one way or another.

Kimberly Margosein said...

Socrates certainly worked out a morality outside the Judeo-Christian ethos. So did the Buddha. Confucius? Sort of, but he was more of a good-government Machiavelli.

Anonymous said...

Oh, but militant atheists do care about Christianity and that's why they care so much about this cross and about Jen's article: They care so much that they'll do what it takes to get Christianity gone. That's what they want. They want it all to go away and for them to live as they like, unencumbered with any opposition whatsoever.

They want Christians back in the catacombs, out of the public square, they do not want Christians to vote nor do they want them to reproduce or "indoctrinate" more Christians. I have not doubt they would outlaw homeschooling if they could and call it brainwashing.

Some comments claimed minority victimhood; it's hate speech to say the pledge around them, it's hate speech for them to even see a Catholic church, priest or believer because, you know, those people rape kids, cover up and follow those who do, are stupid, ignorant, delusional and don't deserve to speak, so? Christianity must be eliminated.

That's their goal.

c matt said...

The truth of the matter is that most atheists are afraid that God does exist because that means their actions have eternal consequences. Oh, I know, they always try to argue that religion is the crutch to help us poor saps deal with inevitable nothingness. But honestly, what is scarier - the belief that whatever you do, in the end, doesn't matter...or that it does?

c matt said...

Socrates certainly worked out a morality outside the Judeo-Christian ethos. So did the Buddha. Confucius? Sort of, but he was more of a good-government Machiavelli.

No one said you cannot work out a moral code outside of Christianity. Of course you can. What you cannot do is work out a moral code that is logically consistent without some concept/agreement/acceptance of an afterlife. Socrates believed in an afterlife. Buddha taught of one as well, to some extent (at least something beyond the immediate earth life we know-to the extent the B didn't, the code would be inconsistent with that position). Most pagan societies did as well.

The athiest says this is all hogwash. But even so, they can probably still work out a logically consistent (with their belief) "moral" code - it may not be a very good one, though. I suspect it would run somehting like this:

Do whatever you want, just don't get caught.

Beyond that, the code would run into logical inconsistencies. Not to say an atheist couldn't work out a moral code inconsistent with his non-belief. That happens all the time. But then it is not based upon reason (which in an atheist worldview may be fine, as it is all pointless anyway).

MightyMighty said...

I think that it is interesting that your average Christian, and especially Catholic, does not spend much time ruminating on what atheists are doing, but atheists are foaming at the mouth when our faith is visible in public. To be fair, we vastly outnumber atheists, so they do have to watch us in action quite a bit.

I think Jenn Fullweiler makes excellent points about setting a good example, and not being able to reason someone into the faith. The hissy fits are obnoxious, but I believe GK Chesterton recommended that we treat children who are wrong with the same courtesy we offer adults, and offer adults who are wrong the same cheeky reprimands we offer children. "Now don't be silly, go outside and play!"

Charlotte said...

Erin,
I love your list of questions! You should have those printed up to hand out. Or you should have a link on your blog to that list, as its own document. I swear that it would eventually get around and be discussed in many places.

Verl Humpherys said...

I do think you bring up an interesting list of questions though I think your underlying assumptions are false.

For example, number 1 states "self-aware organic pain collectors headed swiftly toward oblivion?" While I certainly cannot dispute this as being accurate it is lacking and is a very pessimistic description of human beings. There is far more to our existence then just pain. There is love and beauty.

Are we headed ultimately toward oblivion? The empirical evidence seems to say yes. The grey matter between your ears is where your personality and ambitions, your very essence exists. When people suffer brain damage, certain aspects of who they were are lost forever. And when the whole brain finally dies, all aspects are gone.

Since there is more to life then pain, there is joy and happiness, we should spend our time seeking that which gives us joy.

JohnE said...

Now Verl, you're messing with Red's straw man there...by golly, she's decided what atheists are really like, so don't go talking like that...

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Anonymous, you appear to assume that atheists are a monolithic bloc, taking orders from a central coordinating body, engaged in tightly coordinated groupthink. What atheists want comes in almost as many varieties as there are atheists. They have only one thing in common: a -theis (no god). What that means to them, what, if anything, that inspires them to do, is quite diverse.

It was not atheists who pushed Christians into the catacombs, but devout pagans who were convinced that if these blasphemers were not suppressed, the gods would wreak their wrath on the entire community. Some of them called Christians atheists, because they denied so many gods.

c matt, a moral code that is internally consistent CAN be worked out based on the Golden Rule alone. I am respectful and helpful to you because when I need it, I want you to be respectful and helpful to me. Anyone who has driven at rush hour knows how easily that breaks down, how quickly those who try to drive with mutual respect get run off the road, but it is internally consistent. Further, there are some loudly and arrogantly devout drivers perpetrating the aggression. Just count the fishes on their cars. Maybe they think God will reward them for their zeal.

MightMighty, obviously some Christians do foam at the mouth about atheists... otherwise we wouldn't be having this discussion. Erin doesn't foam at the mouth, but some do. I suspect that if we all ignored the little narcissists, they would crawl into a cave and throw a tantrum. Freedom From Religion Foundation gave up on filing suits in Wisconsin courts after losing one silly battle over a creche in a public park.

speciesdevblog said...

Hello. I am an atheist, and would like to answer your questions, assuming that they are honest expressions of interest and not rhetorical, leading questions designed to slander those who disagree with your beliefs.

1. 1. Is it accurate to describe human beings as "self-aware organic pain collectors headed swiftly toward oblivion?" Why or why not?

Yes it is, in the same way that it is "accurate" to describe a mind as the "a bunch of neurons firing within several kilograms of gray matter", or to describe a computer as "lots of electrical signals flashing on and off". It is an accurate description, but it does not describe everything a human being is, and does not even touch upon what a human being does.

2. If the description in (1) is accurate, is it also accurate to say that human existence is an exercise in futility and that the vast majority of human beings will be completely forgotten within 50-100 years of their deaths (the famous and infamous are, naturally, the outliers)?

Forgotton, perhaps. But even the most subtle effects of our life will have enormous ramifications on the world 50-100 years from now. Every atom we bump into is pushed left when it could have gone right, up when it could have gone down. Over time, the causal effects of these changes add up, building on themselves. Without you, or without me, life might never make it into space, colonising the universe and moving out into the stars! Or it might do so at a different time, or in a different way. "For want of a nail..." indeed. Every one of us is that nail.

Not an exercise in futility: an exercise in contributing, however small our contribution may be, to the future of an entire planet and all it's children.

3. If (1) and (2) are both accurate, ought not selfishness, excessive consumption, and the pursuit of extreme hedonistic pleasures be the highest and best human goals? Is it not, in fact, an absolutely worthless waste of one's extremely short time to spend years in study, to work hard, to be a parent, or to do anything else that is not ultimately ordered toward obtaining for one's own self a life of comfortable ease?

No. Absolutely not. For one thing, study and hard work provide one with the means to live a life of comfortable ease, and being a parent and raising new life is the means of many to make themselves feel happy and fulfilled. In addition, in the long run selfishness, overconsumption and many forms of hedonism will merely ensure that you find yourself lonely, obese and broke sometime down the track.

None of this follows logically from 1 and 2's technical accuracy.

speciesdevblog said...

(continued from previous. Note: My username is Quasar, but google/wordpress is being silly again)

3.(a) In fact, isn't the act of bringing a new human being into the world to exist for perhaps 80 meaningless and futile years full of suffering only to cease to be altogether at the end the least rational and most unkind thing a person can do?

Well, if your experience of life is that it is "meaningless and futile ... full of suffering" then I truly pity you. If, however, you project that attitude onto us merely because you cannot comprehend meaning and hjappiness without your diety... well, okay, I again find myself pitying you.

Life is the best, most valuable thing I own, the thing I treasure more than all else. Giving it to someone else, either by bringing a child into the world or merely by improving the lives of those I live, work and play with, makes me happy, thanks to a wonderful little emotion called empathy (you should try it sometime). I'm GLaD to be alive, through the good times and the bad. When life gives you lemons, and all that.

4. If you reject (3) and say that some noble ideals such as making the world a better place for future generations, [snip] are indeed worthy pursuits--why is this not an irrational belief that should be given no more weight than any religion, given that it can never be empirically proved that future generations actually will benefit, one will not personally benefit from any improvements made, and one is further likely to be thwarted in the pursuit of pleasure during one's depressingly finite existence?

I'm sorry your existance is depressingly finite. Mine is full of possibilities!

As to the other, is not being able to prove that something will be better really any reason not to try to make it better? I can't prove that my pillow will be comfier when it's fluffed until I fluff it and find out how much comfier it is!

speciesdevblog said...

4. (a) And if you really believe that the world's worst problem is overpopulation and that saving the planet requires fewer people, would you be willing to kill yourself or enact a campaign of mass murder (scientifically, perhaps, through tainted medicines or weapons of war) in order to solve that problem? If not, why not? (And don't simply say "Because it's wrong to kill people," because that is not an argument based on reason.)

Of course! I've already unleashed the nano-virus. They'll all be sterile within the week, dead within a month, and roaming the streets as undead, flesh-eating monsters shortly after that.

...

No wait, that's the wrong answer. Sorry, I'm writing a work e-mail at the same time and I copied it into the wrong box. What I meant to say was: really? You can't think of any better ways to deal with over-population than mass-murder? And over-population is hardly an atheist-specific concern... I don't quite understand where that question comes from. It's kind of a non-sequitor.

Look, my opinion on population control is complicated, but I remember a University lecture I attended a few years back. I'll summarise it for you: hopefully it'll help you understand the question better.

Man-made ways to stabilise the population-to-land ratio (things we could do)

Mass murder (as so kindly mentioned)
Sterilisation
Enforced birth control (ala China)
Safe Sex Education, Contraceptives
Expansion (except at this stage, we're pretty much out of places to go)

Natural ways to stabilise the population-to-land ratio (things that will inevitably happen if we don't act first)

Famine (starvation unto death)
Pestilence and pollution
Violence (we turn on each other in an attempt to take enough land to solve our individual crises)

There were others in the lists, of course, but that's enough to make the point. The thing is, we can choose from the first list how we want to reduce the population. We could teach people about safe sex and contraceptives, for example. Or if we were really naive, we could try and expand: establish population centres on luna and mars. If we don't make that decision, then reality will make it for us, and it'll pick things from the second list.

speciesdevblog said...

Thanks for asking the questions, they were interesting! Now that you understand that people like me don't actually resemble what you described here, I trust you'll not make those silly assumptions about us again in the future. It's not nice to tell other people what they think, especially when you don't actually know what they think!

Stick to telling other people what you think. :)

Love,
Quasar

Red Cardigan said...

Verl and Quasar, thanks for your comments! I appreciate seeing what you think, even though I still find it rather irrational.

I'm working on a new post by which I hope to explain better what I mean by that, but for now I'll stick to a simple follow-up question or two to pose to each of you:

Verl: you say that life contains not only pain but also joy and happiness. I suppose if we were to quantify the experiences, pain would probably come out on top for most people, though--in that more of life, more physical, mental, and emotional experiences, are painful than are joyful or happy for most people. But in order to do the thing properly, we'd have to have a controlled, double-blind study tracking individuals through their lives and registering pain on the one hand, and joy/happiness on the other, which brings me to my question: how do we empirically prove that either joy or happiness exist? I know that we can map the pain and pleasure centers of the brain, but is there (and I honestly have not researched this) a center for joy? Can we quantify it as we can pain (e.g., the joy of one's wedding day vs. the joy of a nice sunset)? If we can't prove that joy exists, than aren't we still saying "We'll put up with the quantifiably provable pain of existence in exchange for the illusion of joy--which is as illogical as religious belief, but still acceptable?"

My questions to Quasar will be below.

Red Cardigan said...

Quasar: Taking your answer to #2, is it a logical or an illogical thing to do to sacrifice one's own pleasures in one's definitively finite lifespan for the hypothetical chance of improving the lives of hypothetical future people, realizing that a) the future people might never exist, and b) one could just as easily make their lives much worse regardless of one's altruistic intentions, and c) one will not personally ever know, from one's state of permanent oblivion, whether one has helped bring peace and prosperity to the future or been responsible for a technology that causes hideous suffering and excruciating pain to the future?

Next question: you say that life is the most valuable thing you own. Why? I mean that in all seriousness: why is your life, which is a random period of the meaningless (in a cosmic sense) consciousness of a lump of animated carbon which will be swiftly followed by a permanent oblivion, a good thing? Is it not, instead, an absurdity, of no more meaning than the life of a lizard or a lily or a lemur?

limey said...

I am fairly sure that I am not the only atheist who rolls their eyes at actions like that of the American Atheists over two bits of steel.

In fact I read a blog post by an atheist only this morning, where the author lamented this action as stupid and pathetic. Okay those weren't the exact words used, but I that was the opinion.

So I know I am not the only atheist who feels like that. Any group has its wackos and judging the whole on the actions of the extreme is a classic straw-man fallacy.

I have read your questions and am very puzzled by your motives behinds them. To me it reads like they are intentionally worded to show atheists as being little more than self centered and selfish. I wonder if there is an evolution bashing motive hidden in there too.

Dav said...

Hi, RC! I'm agnostic, so I don't know if you're interested in my responses, but I'm not quite sure what you're driving at. Are you wondering where nonbelievers find meaning? How we make decisions? Whether we fear death or lack purpose? That's kind of the sense I'm getting, but the questions aren't quite focused enough to get there directly (for me). And I'm not sure that many of them couldn't be turned around; what's the good in bringing a new person into life if you think there's a chance they might burn for all eternity?

To address what (I think) is the root of your questions: it's different for different people. For me, personally, I am not afraid of being forgotten. I am not afraid that there's no divine plan for my life. I don't think of my life primarily in terms of how much pain I've experienced or am experiencing, except when it's inordinant amounts, and I'm lucky enough that that's relatively rare. I don't think of my life as futile, even though I probably won't be remembered. I don't want to die, but I would sacrifice my life for a number of different things.

I'm a little confused about your definitions of "rational" vs. "irrational". Is this something you value yourself, or something you think all atheists value? (I'm just not sure what you're driving at, and the things you've fingered as "irrational", like having children, seem very odd to me.)

Red Cardigan said...

Limey, I have no hidden agenda in asking these questions, except this very not-hidden one: I truly do not understand the philosophy behind most atheist thinkers. I hope to delve into that in a new post later today.

Dav, again, hoping to post more later today, but a brief reply: this is not so much a question of "Do individual atheists/agnostics find meaning and purpose in their lives," but "On what philosophical grounds do atheists/agnostics find meaning in their lives?" with the understanding that I'm mostly talking about atheists, as I see agnostics as engaging in a kind of cosmic bet-hedging that can indeed allow for a philosophical basis for meaning and purpose, even if it is merely a "first step" from the point of view of most religious people.

Here's what confuses me: most atheists I know claim that they reject religion because it is not empirically proven or empirically provable. However, most philosophical ideas held by atheists (e.g., that life is worth living, that it is a gift (with no Giver, apparently) to be enjoyed, that selfishness is not moral, that bringing children into this finite, pain-ridden existence just to condemn them to eternal oblivion is somehow a *good* thing, etc.) are *also* not empirically provable, and are contradictory to reason if reason is our only "tool" so to speak.

In other words, there is no good *reason* not to live a selfish and hedonistic life if one's maximum time of existence will be, for most people, 100 years minus N (and N could be ten, twenty, thirty, etc.; it's different and unpredictable for each person). If this existence is all there is, really and truly, it might be comforting to cling to some notions like the idea that altruism is more pleasant than selfishness, that sacrifice for work or family is more pleasing than instant gratification of pleasures, that working for future generations is a noble thing, or that bringing children into the world is not abhorrently cruel--but none of those things really make much sense given that tiny lifespan, ticking clock, and date with oblivion that is the end (according to atheism) of all human existence.

c matt said...

Not an exercise in futility: an exercise in contributing, however small our contribution may be, to the future of an entire planet and all it's children.

Why should I care if I contribuite or not - what is the rational basis for caring, if after I die nothing matters? Why is it not rational for me to take whatever I can get while the getting is good?

Maybe "rational" or "logically consistent" are not the proper terms. Perhaps it is more accurate to say there is no principled reason for an atheist to prefer acting on the golden rule rather than me first. Or at least I cannot see a principled reason - you employ the golden rule in the hopes that it will be reciprocated, not because of a principle that requires it. You could just as legitimately apply the "anything goes just don't get caught rule" with the same hope of success (if not empirically demonstrated higher probability of success).

Dav said...

I'm hearing you say that you either believe something finite is worthless, or you think atheists should believe something finite is worthless.

There are many grounds where nonbelievers find meaning. (Really. Lots and lots.) Theories for why people act in certain ways range across the ages; I find socialization, the social contract, and empathetic self-interest to be persuasive philosophies myself, but it's not something we can really break down that easily. I'm never going to be able to say that the reason I work is 9% biochemistry, 15% social pressure, 5% calculated risk, etc. It's likely that those factors, if they can even be broken down like that, are different for each person, the same way people value different ideals. But even on a pure basis of self-interest, people do better when they help each other. In almost every situation, we're not good at surviving alone, much less thriving alone. Like many primates, we do better in groups.

(I'm not sure if you believe in evolution, but there's also a sense where we're probably "wired" for species survival, which is not *quite* the same as individual survival.)

That's setting aside near-universal experiences of empathy, love, etc. that make most of us unwilling to hurt others too much for our own purposes.

I think there are lots of different reasons people end up in various faiths. Some people are deeply committed to rationality, some aren't. Humans don't, as a rule, tend to be very *good* at rationality. I happen to think my religious position is the most rational one, but many of my atheist and Christian friends feel the same way. Most importantly, I didn't choose to be an agnostic based solely on logic. I did put a great deal of study and thought into my beliefs, but agnosticism was also a label for what felt true emotionally as well. If I begin to feel the presence of a higher power, for lack of a better term, then I'll probably examine that further, despite its irrationality. (I'll probably investigate other causes, too, to be fair.)

I look forward to your next post.

Jeremy said...

Dav,

You said "There are many grounds where nonbelievers find meaning," but the paragraph that followed proceeded to discuss societal and evolutionary causes of the phenomenon of morality in society -- not the rational ground on which a non-believer can base his belief in actual right and wrong. There is an important distinction here that many atheists and agnostics seem to find very hard to grasp. There may be all kinds of reasons why human beings have this idea of morality, but why should I as a rational person buy into that idea? It may be expedient for me to behave in a "moral" way, but it still isn't really wrong if I don't because morality is just something we've been conditioned to accept, it isn't actually real (unless I accept on faith that it is).

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Trying to reduce a wide-ranging and complex argument to some degree of simplicity, it seems that some who believe in God assume that without God, nothing else makes sense. Therefore, if those who don't believe God make sense of anything in life, they are, ipso facto, being irrational.

My sense is that there is a God, who made all that is, seen and unseen. Yes, the physical universe has discernible, physical, reasons for operating in the way it does, but there are some statistically improbable coincidences, and the explanations for why and how the initial burst of electro-magnetic radiation occurred always end up with some sort of Prime Mover, whether self-conscious or not, and always conjectural. I have some personal reasons, from my own life experience, as well. In a cold indifferent universe, I should have been homeless for the last twelve years.

Even an atheist is, from a theistic viewpoint, a child of God, and inherently has some sense of principles and morals. What these are vary, as greatly as Erin varies from Torqemada. (Catholics hate being reminded of the Inquisition, but it is ONE PART of the history of the RC church, and ONE WAY that certain devout Christians showed their faith in God).

One does not have to BELIEVE in God to reflect values that are implicit in God's creation, or in the characteristics of human beings, the highest and most unique product of evolutionary biology. And if there is no God, then for human beings to have values and morals is no more mysterious than the existence of a God who imbues us with these qualities.

Dav said...

John, what makes a thing "really" wrong?

There are quite a few ways that people have proposed as measures of morality, systems which extend beyond an individual or group. This isn't a new problem. It's not even a new problem to Christians; plenty of Christian theologians have wrestled with the idea of a moral standard beyond God (or separate from God).

I'm not equipped to do a run-down of dozens of different philosophers.

My answer, in brief, is that I don't know whether moral systems are created or identified by people. It's not a distinction that matters one iota to me, although I understand it's important to others. Just because something is created by people does not mean it's not real, or valuable. Governments are real. Sexuality is real. Race is real. Power is real. There's no possible place in which we're not steeped in morality, so what does it matter whether Alpha Centaurii has the same views on shoplifting that we do?

Now, I think I can make a pretty good argument that a good moral system is flexible and extensible and is, in fact, what Aristotle might consider a form of Truth, one which we work toward rather than one we ever really achieve. But I don't think it's necessary.

Dav said...

Ack! Sorry! Jeremy, not John. Surrounded by too many J's today.

Quasar said...

Taking your answer to #2, is it a logical or an illogical thing to do to sacrifice one's own pleasures in one's definitively finite lifespan for the hypothetical chance of improving the lives of hypothetical future people, realizing that a) the future people might never exist, and b) one could just as easily make their lives much worse regardless of one's altruistic intentions, and c) one will not personally ever know, from one's state of permanent oblivion, whether one has helped bring peace and prosperity to the future or been responsible for a technology that causes hideous suffering and excruciating pain to the future?

Hrmm... well, it depends on where you're coming from. First of all, thanks to empathy, helping others is a pleasurable activity (unless you're a sociopath, of course). So, far from "sacrificing" personal pleasures, I'm adding to them! Yay empathy! Now, if you want to do a cost benefit analysis, that's fine too: I give to charity, but I don't give everything I own to charity.

Secondly, yes, you could make peoples lives worse by trying to help them. That's life. But if we stopped trying to do things just because of the potential for failure, we'd never have olympians and astronaughts! The only way we can achieve something is to put the potential for failure aside and try our best to succeed.

And no, we may never know the effect we had. Personally, that 'unknown' is a part of the appeal! Maybe I'm responsible for us getting to space, or maybe I'm responcible for opening the portal to the Warp and unleashing the Old Ones on humanity. I'm cool with that: all I can do is try, and in the end, hope that I contributed more than I took. :)

Next question: you say that life is the most valuable thing you own. Why? I mean that in all seriousness: why is your life, which is a random period of the meaningless (in a cosmic sense) consciousness of a lump of animated carbon which will be swiftly followed by a permanent oblivion, a good thing? Is it not, instead, an absurdity, of no more meaning than the life of a lizard or a lily or a lemur?

No nonononono, you've jumped to a different perspective. I said it was "the most valuble thing I own", not "a good thing ... in a cosmic sense".

In a cosmic sense, there is no good or bad. See this? That's the remains of two stars and an unknown number of worlds, destroyed in a binary nova. In a "a cosmic sense", is that good or bad. That nebula will eventually collapse back into more stars and birth more worlds. Is that good or bad? We're trying to apply human concepts to things that those concepts aren't applicable to.

So in a "cosmic sense" I'm not much more than a miniscule lump of carbon. But in a personal sense, in a human sense, I am a person. I am life. I am the culminative product of billions of years of struggle and victory.

Atheism does not imply Nihilism, Red Cardigan. You're getting the two confused.

Jeremy said...

Quasar:
"Atheism does not imply Nihilism, Red Cardigan. You're getting the two confused."

No atheism isn't necessarily nihilism, but what she's arguing (and I agree) is that any atheist philosophy that isn't nihilistic is logically inconsistent and therefore irrational.

Look, you've shown that you value your life and the good things you accomplish, and also that you value the lives of others, even those who are not born yet. It sounds like you value humanity and our cumulative achievements as a whole.

That's great. So do I. But I believe that God made us, loves us, and even became one of us Himself. That's the Good News. That is what gives us value.

And that is the only reason I know of that can justify our common claim (which would otherwise be irrational) that you or I have value. We each value ourselves sure, and we also value others as our instincts lead us to do, but these are irrational impulses (however innate and unavoidable) and do not necessarily reflect any objective truth. How can you claim that we have objective value, or that our actions can be objectively right or wrong, without resorting to blind faith (in this case faith in the inherent value of human beings). You can make that claim if you want, but don't object if others call it irrational.

The only rational alternative for the atheist is nihilism.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Whether there is a God or no, I am. I think, therefore I consider myself to be important. I am a social animal, who would have a darn limited existence all by myself, so my community is important to me.

If there is no God, then the beauty I and my fellow creatures can create is about the most meaningful thing there could be in the cold indifferent universe, which renders it of almost infinite importance.

The argument that the only rational argument for the atheist is nihilism sounds to me very close to the error that we should have faith in God because the alternative is nihilism, rather than because it is TRUTH that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

If you have faith in that which is not empirically verifiable, then you do. There is no point in bolstering it with logic, or jousting logically with those who don't share your faith. Al ANYONE has to say is "I don't buy it."

Loki said...

Well I'm not an atheist, but what I am is, I'm guessing, incomprehensible to most, so I'll answer your questions.

1. Is it accurate to describe human beings as "self-aware organic pain collectors headed swiftly toward oblivion?" Why or why not?

Why no. We don't "collect" pain, at least no healthy person does. We experience pain, then we heal.

2. If the description in (1) is accurate,

It's not...

is it also accurate to say that human existence is an exercise in futility and that the vast majority of human beings will be completely forgotten within 50-100 years of their deaths (the famous and infamous are, naturally, the outliers)?

I'm sorry, but what kind of sad person judges the measure of their lives based on if someone 100 years after their death remembers them? Other than that, if you make the most out of your existence, it isn't futile.

3. If (1) and (2) are both accurate,

Neither are.

ought not selfishness, excessive consumption, and the pursuit of extreme hedonistic pleasures be the highest and best human goals?

Only if you follow Ayn Rand. For the rest of us pleasure is more complex. We are social animals, and most of us derive great pleasure and satisfaction from mutual social interactions and helping each other. Your entire line of reasoning in fact falls apart here. Selfishness leads to putting your needs first while exploiting others which in turn isolates you which in turn leads to loneliness. Thus defeating the whole purpose of this line of thought.

Is it not, in fact, an absolutely worthless waste of one's extremely short time to spend years in study,

Some people like studying.

to work hard,

Some people take pride in their work.

to be a parent,

Some people love their children.

or to do anything else that is not ultimately ordered toward obtaining for one's own self a life of comfortable ease?

Everything you just mentioned is part of obtaining one's own self a life of comfortable ease.

Loki said...

3.(a) In fact, isn't the act of bringing a new human being into the world to exist for perhaps 80 meaningless and futile years full of suffering only to cease to be altogether at the end the least rational and most unkind thing a person can do?

Why yes. If you believe the life of the child will be worse than not existing at all. Of course things have to be quite bad for that equation to kick in.

4. If you reject (3) and say that some noble ideals such as making the world a better place for future generations, or saving the planet from human excess, or some similar thing are indeed worthy pursuits--why is this not an irrational belief that should be given no more weight than any religion, given that it can never be empirically proved that future generations actually will benefit, one will not personally benefit from any improvements made, and one is further likely to be thwarted in the pursuit of pleasure during one's depressingly finite existence?

How, exactly, is it not empirically provable? If I pick up a piece of litter and recycle it, those molecules have ceased to be litter and are now being reused. That's as empirically proven as you can possibly get. If I work to pass a universal healthcare act, which is then signed into law, it is empirically provable that people will get healthcare. So I'm not sure what you are going on about...

4. (a) And if you really believe that the world's worst problem is overpopulation

No, our worst problem is the fact that we've artificially recreated the single worst extinction event in our planet's history, the Permian-Triassic event. It has little to do with overpopulation, and everything to do with over consumption which has consistently occurred mostly in areas that aren't over populated (only recently have nations like China and India began becoming players in over consumption).

and that saving the planet requires fewer people, would you be willing to kill yourself or enact a campaign of mass murder (scientifically, perhaps, through tainted medicines or weapons of war) in order to solve that problem? If not, why not? (And don't simply say "Because it's wrong to kill people," because that is not an argument based on reason.)

How is "it's wrong to kill people" not an argument based on reason? That's the most reasonable argument there is. Most logically consistent systems will produce that particular statement.

But more importantly, have you not heard of Europe and its falling birthrates? What about Japan and its aging population? It is well established geographic fact that as a civilization's population gets access to better and more consistent food and water supplies and better healthcare the life expectancy goes up while the birthrate stays the same. This results in a huge population boom as more infants live, people live longer, life is generally less dangerous. It's no coincidence the first nations to experience this boom (Great Britain, Spain, France, and the Netherlands) wound up being the vast colonial empires. But once the population adjusts to it's new life, birthrates plummet to under replacement levels (eventually they move back to slightly over replacement levels). Currently most of the third world has hit that boom period, it's just a matter of moving them more swiftly into the bust period.

Loki said...

No atheism isn't necessarily nihilism, but what she's arguing (and I agree) is that any atheist philosophy that isn't nihilistic is logically inconsistent and therefore irrational.

This is false, and silly.

And that is the only reason I know of that can justify our common claim (which would otherwise be irrational) that you or I have value.

Really? Really? Okay, here's a simple experiment to test this premise. How much is gold worth? Who decides that worth? Why does gold have worth? It isn't God, it's the inconsistent marketplace. Gold is a mineral in limited supply that can only be obtained with difficulty, that is useful for things ranging from microchips to jewelry. We decided gold was valuable because we decided we wanted it. We also decided we want our lives, therefore our lives have value. To claim that without God the notion that people have value is irrational is to claim, against all evidence, that gold is valueless.

We each value ourselves sure, and we also value others as our instincts lead us to do, but these are irrational impulses (however innate and unavoidable) and do not necessarily reflect any objective truth.

And how much "objective truth" is there that the economy exists? It's an empirically improvable thing. How much "objective truth" is there that paper money has worth? Certainly none. The only worth anything has, is the worth that we assign it. Oh, and please explain how valuing ourselves is an "irrational impulse." All of evolution is based upon this singular principal.

How can you claim that we have objective value, or that our actions can be objectively right or wrong, without resorting to blind faith (in this case faith in the inherent value of human beings).

Generally speaking, nothing has objective value. Unless you anthropomorphise the universe stuff just is. Value is that which we assign to things. Actions can, of course, be assigned objective right and wrong based upon measurable harm inflicted upon others. If you punch someone in the face, that's inflicted, measurable harm to that person, thus wrong.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Loki puts it very well, but I must note that the Achaean Greeks, whose lives were short, and often ended in violence, looking forward to a rather dismal eternity as sad wraiths on the other side of Charon's river, cared more about whether people would remember them in one hundred or one thousand years than about anything else, including life itself. They, however, were not atheists, but thought themselves the playthings of capricious and almost invulnerable anthropomorphic godlings.

limey said...

RC Said:

In other words, there is no good *reason* not to live a selfish and hedonistic life if one's maximum time of existence will be, for most people, 100 years minus N (and N could be ten, twenty, thirty, etc.; it's different and unpredictable for each person). If this existence is all there is, really and truly, it might be comforting to cling to some notions like the idea that altruism is more pleasant than selfishness, that sacrifice for work or family is more pleasing than instant gratification of pleasures, that working for future generations is a noble thing, or that bringing children into the world is not abhorrently cruel--but none of those things really make much sense given that tiny lifespan, ticking clock, and date with oblivion that is the end (according to atheism) of all human existence.


And yet, atheists and people of every other non-Christian creed live lives that are selfless and go against what you have said above.

True, not all of them are so inclined, but then neither is every Christian the picture of love and charity that one would expect if the indwelling of the Holy Spirit really does bring about a change of character and person who behaves more like Jesus.

You claim that there is no good reason not to live like that, yet many who do not subscribe to faith in a Christian God people do live like that.

I suggest the answer is that your claim of reason isn't true and that the basic character traits that humans prefer are evolutionary retained. An atheist's (or Christian's) actions and behaviour are not taken from an external philosophy but from an internal mechanism.

Kimberly Margosein said...

Limey, there is quite a bit of research pointing in that direction. Check the current "Economist"

Siarlys Jenkins said...

I read the Economist too Kimberly. But I have a quibble with almost all research about how this or that trait, including altruism, grants an evolutionary advantage. All of this sort of research begins with the premise "Every trait of every life form is solely and exclusively the result of an evolutionary advantage."

Many are of course. The reason female praying mantises are larger and stronger than males is that, mantises being cannibalistic, after mating, one partner is going to eat the other. If the male eats the female, neither of their genes will be passed on to another generation. If the female eats the male (AFTER mating) then both of their genes will be passed on. Ergo, selection for powerful females and weak males. But what if mantisses were not cannibalistic? That seems to be a fluke.

I've never finished reading Stephen Jay Gould, but he offered some cogent criticism of the notion that everything can be explained by evolutionary advantage. For an atheist, he also readily acknowledged that theists may, for all we know, be right.