20030331 - Atheist thing
My good friend pete sent this email to a group of friends:
So I woke up this morning and flipped on the tube for some
sunday morning programming. I got sucked into a "infomercial/spread
the word" thingy by a guy who has been visiting college campuses
for the last 25 years. He was pretty good, dropping alot of names
like Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell that those college kids eat
up. Anyway, one of his main points was as follows: its fine if
you are Atheist, but if you are, you must accept three things.
First, life is utterly meaningless. Second, morality is relative.
Third, the only thing waiting for you after death is rotting.
This, he concluded through a various number of points and examples,
could only lead to a life of despair.
So, I had to respond.
Go to this Environmental
Working Group site about PFC's and tell me that you shouldn't
despair. (OK, that's cheating; I just wanted to post that URL.)
Take a look at that last sentence. The presenter, in a one-sided
argument with himself, he was able to prove that the atheist view
can be depressing. Perhaps even more than just 'depressing', [define
despair] but without hope.
[what is hope, hope for what?]
So, what am I to do? Take the red pill? "Well, depression
runs in my family, so I'll start believing, as well as exercising
and eating right! Jesus will now be an important part of my daily
That seems a lot like Pascal's
Wager--basically, weighing the cost/benefit of belief--something
that makes the believer feel good, but can't really sway anyone.
Or perhaps I see if I still have that article clipping from the
Cedar Rapids Gazette, circa 1989, that I had on my door in the dorms:
"Depressed folks wiser says top shrink".
Great, Ignorance is Bliss....but ignoring something and then getting
smacked in the face with it later really sucks, whether that's never
questioning one's government, partner's screwing around on you,
tax professional cutting corners, underling at work is never doing
any of their work, or third-party kiosk construction firm always
saying "don't worry, we'll handle it".
To try to jump back on track, though...
Ok, three things to accept:
NUMBER 1) life is utterly meaningless.
I don't necessarily accept this, but we've got to examine this a
bit, first. We're basically saying "Human Life and/or My Personal
Life has no meaning that exists outside of myself." I hardly
think we're talking that if I dedicate my life to something that
it doesn't have meaning FOR ME, we're talking about objective meaning.
Meaning itself probably needs some defining here, though. m-w.com
Date: 14th century
1 a : the thing one intends to convey especially by language : PURPORT
b : the thing that is conveyed especially by language : IMPORT
2 : something meant or intended : AIM <a mischievous meaning
3 : significant quality; especially : implication of a hidden or
special significance <a glance full of meaning>
4 a : the logical connotation of a word or phrase b : the logical
denotation or extension of a word or phrase
- meaning adjective
- mean·ing·ly /-ni[ng]-lE/ adverb
#2 fits here somewhat. Life having a purpose, aim, or goal, that
goal decided for us from the outside, such as "god's plan".
Having a "task" to do without a clear goal or aim is generally
called exploration or play.
"The play's the thing." --William Shakespeare
So, we are on the earth without a externally directed goal. Sounds
like what all the poor animals (and humans who were once considered
animals and treated as such) have. Nothing but pure biological imperatives.
Oh shit. There are externally defined goals? Survival, reproduction,
avoidance of negative stimulus, gravitation to positive stimulus.
Protection of like, defense from unlike.
(Aren't half the problems in our culture because too many people
have had their biological imperatives taken care of? But hasn't
that always been the case with the 'ruling caste' in any culture?
In many ways most in the US is part of that ruling caste....even
a lot of people in tough times are better off than much of the planet.)
So, these may not be deep, intellectually very satisfying goals,
but that's not really the task of the discussion. Toss in that goal-less
way of dealing with things which is such an important part of mammalian
life: play. The base of my existential thinking has been "How
boring it would be to have all the answers. Life is about finding
out what the hell the questions are, I'll never know most of the
No one ever said ANY "faith" was easy. Even 'self-gratification'
regimens like hedonism, pure selfishness, take what you can, etc.
has the occasional problem with other people getting mad, not giving
you what you want, telling you you are an a-hole, not playing with
you anymore, fighting against you, etc.
And even should my understanding of the Theist schtick be True,
you're still being handed a bunch of problematical and often paradoxical
goals. Then you're drawn into a lot of mucking about with "do
we follow the original source" (and what happens when the Canon
is conflicted by new sources (Dead Sea Scrolls)) or "do we
get to modify it over time" (if not, can we translate it from
it's original language and context?, if so, how can we be sure that
the goal is TRUE and comprehensible?). And there's just some pretty
barbaric stuff in many of the old sources. But these have to be
accepted when they are from the almighty. But I can pretty easily
(and somewhat rationally) decide to forgo my reproductive imperative,
and weigh the risk/benefits of heroin.
Heck, the 'drive to pleasure' is pretty weak and easily modified,
as many derive pleasures from self-denial, self-denigration, etc.
whether as ascetic monks or shamen on vision quests, or being whipped
and forced to write good checks.
Throw in what we know happens to people when their brain chemicals
change just a tiny bit....
So, yes. Life has not been given meaning from an outside source
(with questionable motives and working methods). Heck, Science&Technology
may already be autonomous, at least somewhat independent of human
goals, wishes, wants and desires, so it may not be too hard for
a 'system' to come into existence without the Watchmaker's intent.
(Isn't the idea of The Watchmaker, common to philosophy classes
everywhere, a pretty "modernist" sort of idea. The metaphor
of a watch, a specific, carefully constructed object with one sole
purpose which is carefully crafted by a knowledgeable expert with
great care and precision. There is no question of intent, goal,
purpose. No questioning of the concept of the time that it is measuring,
diving, organizing, rationalizing. Take that watch and subvert it
a little, into the glowing LED time indicator inserted into the
stretched earlobe of a modern primitive. Now it's no longer a useful
device for the wearer as a time-telling instrument in the ordinary
fashion, we've cyber-punked it into a bit of fashion (not because
it's 'high tech' but because we've taken the modernist concept and
let the street find it's own gritty but bourgeois use for it). And
what if that watch is a cheap-assed plastic affair found in a Happy
Meal with a copyrighted Disney character on it that was mass-produced
in a third-world contracted-out sweatshop by illiterates in any
language and will cease functioning in under a month, designed by
someone cutting and pasting a bunch of pre-made and not well-understood
generic plans together before being modified several times by committee.
Last cosmological discovery that I heard of points strongly to the
universe being ever-expanding, so it appears at least that the watchmaker
didn't include planned obsolescence (on the cosmological scale).)
So there's not a rule book for life, a scorecard, a final exam,
or even a comprehensible goal. Boo hoo. Most world religions don't
really give a concrete definite goal, either. You're supposed to
'do the good Lord's work'. Sure, there's a list of general do's
and don't's but many of these can be derived from the precepts of
the Church of the Not Getting My Ass Kicked While Not Being Taken
I'm much more able to choose to take or not take Prozac, which
will solve my utter despair, though it won't give my life meaning.
There's no externally non-biological/intellectually pleasing goal
or point to life? So, I'll play, explore, define, re-define, and
refine my own. Problem of meaningless solved in all but a "meaning
must come from the outside (and be imposed upon you)" sort
of manner, and in many ways that external imposition is already
taken care of...my family, friends, geographical, ethnic, temporal
(thank god I'm not reincarnated...think of all the short, brutal
lives I will have had to endure throughout the past...only one person
can be Cleopatra, (just you, Shirley MacLaine) the rest of us were
slaves making the monuments or more likely a child of one who died
before age five.), socio-economic, governmental, and other things
give me a much narrower field of possible lives. (I am in despair,
for I will never be able to be the greatest French-speaking, black,
lute player in all of Japan in the 19th century, no matter what
I believe in.)
NUMBER 2: morality is relative.
Well, if it isn't, it's certainly not very easy to understand,
otherwise we'd not have conflicting messages from the history of
the Christian Church.
Is it OK for a state to kill a member of the state for murder?
If it is ok, then we just added relative conditions to the act of
killing. State can kill one for killing. States can engage in war
to provide self-protection? Relativity. This may be a slippery-slope
argumentative fallacy, but it seems to me that any conditional you
start placing starts to get into relativity. States can sentence
to death/imprisonment members for other things besides murder? How
about due to ethnicity? Can I tell a white lie? Can I withhold evidence?
OK, OK, listing a bunch of exceptions to an absolute moral code
(even if accepted, and some of these may be weak, or at least wanting
the code to be a straightforward, clear, simple definition) doesn't
'prove' that there cannot be an absolute morality.
Definition time: (from m-w.com)
1 a : of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior
First of all, there must exist a right and a wrong. Generally defined,
in theist circles, as either something God creates whole, or something
that exists outside of God. (The first inviting the paradox that
God can declare rape of babies a Good act and that by definition
being a Good act (if 'God wouldn't do that' then you're saying the
rules exist outside of God), the second putting a limit on God's
power.) So, there's a wrong and a right, and we'll give you that
these are knowable. And these are not relative. m-w.com's relative
3 : not absolute or independent
So, the atheist must accept that there is no code of right and
wrong (ethics, morals) which is not independent (from God) or 'just
exists'. That's not really too hard. Though I might wish some sort
of Karma or eternal arbiter of justice who weighs the heart of the
recently departed on a scale to decide their fate (Egyptian) when
some asshole cuts me off in traffic, I personally think that it's
up to good people like you and me to give those people that Karmic
payback...the universe isn't going to unless you accept your role
as the tool of the universe.
I'm a little less studied up in my Ethics....I know there's quite
a few instances in the Old and New Testament that our (warped modern
Secular Humanist) ethics find to be problematical if not repugnant.
But showing that the basis of Christianity is rotten doesn't make
the Atheist case, either.
So just go to http://selectsmart.com/RELIGION/
and choose another religion....
I guess I'll just have to say that there's also enough commonality
in the world's 'morality guides' that makes me think that while
there may be no absolute dispenser of morality, there are a lot
of somewhat obvious conclusions from thoughtful reflection about
how to live one's life. I believe that these change over time (slavery,
treatment of animals, rights of non-landowners, women, children,
workers, gays, human rights in general).
Much of this rests on Number One....if life has the goal of pleasing
god, one must live according to that, if life has the goal of self-preservation
above all, one may find their ethics change in different situations.
The two are not always compatible (see any movie about WWII concentration
camps, or the Civil War P.O.W. Camp Andersonville). Of course even
simple mammals can have goals which go beyond simple self-preservation
-- we see creatures which eat their own young as pretty monstrous,
and see "humanity" in the actions of a mother sacrificing
herself for her offspring (Bambi).
Basically, my answer is: because there is no God, there is no external
goal for my life that I've been handed or have to deduce, and there
likewise is no moral plan which that God has handed me or us. What
if there is a God, but we've all been intentionally given separate
goals, like some monstrous computer algorithm fitness test?
Of course, just as some baby prey-animals seem to have a fear of
predator bird shapes above them hardwired into their brains, it
wouldn't be too hard for some of what we call 'morals' to be built-in
to some degree. There are taboos which (appear to) transcend all
sorts of cultures (to a degree). So maybe there is a low-level built-in
moral base, that's either evolutionarily advantageous or an evolutionary
spandrel (by-product or quality which was not primarily advantageous,
"blood is red", but that color-fact is not in itself a
positive survival characteristic for (most) red-blooded creatures).
But even that sort of 'built-in' type of morality isn't comforting...it
is no more 'moral' than a code imposed by any other outside force,
unless you're cheating and defining 'moral' as 'what god said'.
And can change through further evolution, so it's not absolute or
eternal. Just like the morality of the Christian God throughout
the Old and the New.
Atheists (may) have a harder time fooling themselves that there
is an absolute, eternal, comprehensible morality. OK. I can accept
Looking at the number of people around the globe, today, who are
actually trying very hard to live good lives, who may not be Christian,
the Christian side also has a very hard choice as to whether all
these other people who are living good lives by their cultural and
personal ethos (and even as judged by Christians if you remove those
'must believe in our system' rules) are doomed to some sort of punishment/eternity
without God's love. You've got a pretty brutal God on your hands
in that case...no, thank you.
Shit could be just a little bit more fair, too. I identified as
an atheist in 5th or 6th grade (all I remember is that one of the
years I read JRR Tolkein's Lord of the Rings, the other one I became
an atheist), yet I seemed to find it much easier to live according
to the non-system-protecting commandments and rules than many of
my classmates who went through some sort of Catholic or Protestant
Is this a list of things that Atheists have to accept, or things
that Christians don't want to accept?
[Morality is pretty tricky to PROVE that it is some inherent thing
which exists in some religious moral code sort of fashion, without
being self-referential. "This is wrong because the Bible says
it is wrong and the Bible claims to know that that is what God wants,
because the people who follow the Bible claim that the Bible is
the word of God...]
With that, let's move on to
NUMBER 3: the only thing waiting for you after death is rotting
As we said in Junior High: No DUH.
Add to that "Thank God!"
I really wanted to just say "no duh" and leave it, but
Well, rotting is an especially visual image which doesn't help
matters much. And the reality is that in the culture I live in,
we're either burnt up and passed around as ashes along with several
other people's ashes and wood n stuff, or we're sealed in a concrete
thingy and just dry out. But let's stick with rot for the moment.
We're rotting either way, it's just a matter of whether that's all.
And the Christian view isn't the only alternative (nor is there
necessarily ONE single view, much of what a typical Christian of
today sees as the afterlife is extra-biblical). (see the Shirley
Maclaine/Cleopatra thing which I filched from Arthur C Clarke.)
So, I'm going to end when I die.
To me, that makes life far more precious, makes it count, more.
Not only is my life all I have, that's all anyone has. Makes it
a little harder to accept capital punishment (or wrongful imprisonment),
war (intentional and unintentional casualties) especially in not
literally self defense type situations, and things like that.
And really, this goes back to Number 1. Though the Christian enterprise
has created all these afterlife expectations (which aren't necessarily
part of the Canon), it really comes down to a matter of life having
"meaning". Much of the Christian spiel logically comes
down to losing your "you" anyway (and gets pretty close
to some eastern ideas of reincarnation and transcendence as well
as books like Jonathan
Livingston Seagull, Camilla,
Now, just because all of these things may be true, there is no
reason to become a nihilist, or to despair. I also believe that
quantum tunneling is possible, the universe is deterministic, and
that my eyesight is not perfect, but that does not mean I expect
'solid' object to pass through each other regularly, that I don't
sweat choices about whom to marry or whether to choose to put $3000
in a new Vanguard stock mutual fund or bond mutual fund, or that
There are certainly some things which are a lot harder to accept
than those 3.
While I could ramble some more and try to make some up, the one
than really struck me when I started rambling my response, and the
one that really struck me a long time ago when I first encountered
the idea, and still struggle with somewhat today:
Number 4: All Christians are crazy, as well as anyone else who
has had a "religious experience".
That's a summation. It's not that simple.
I found "Philosophy
of Religion" by David Elton Trueblood in the Iowa State
University Design Center building. He goes through a lot of your
typical Philosophy class "existence of god" (what the
heck is the name of that branch of philosophy?) arguments, even
some that I'd never encountered in classes ("Religion is a
ladder, each rung closer to the Truth") but each one was pretty
easy to shoot down ("so since Christianity is the rung above
Judaism (over polytheism, over animism), Islam must be the rung
above Christianity, right?"), except one. That argument still
doesn't sell Christianity, but it does erode either Atheism or faith
in humanity. Many people have what they believe are religious experiences.
If you look through recorded history, and the recorded religious
experiences, you find a great many of them, across culture, religion,
time, place, etc. Many of them may be easily shown to be non-authentic....but
it only takes one of those experiences to be an authentic contact
with something 'out there' for the atheist to be wrong. So, either
all religious-spiritual experiences are 'hallucinations', wish fulfillment,
bad chemistry, just plain craziness that is basically part and parcel
of humanity, or
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy,
--Hamlet, Act I, v, 166-7