The Rise of Atheism
Over the past three days, atheists from around the world have been meeting in Melbourne, Australia for the 2010 Global Atheist Convention. Richard Dawkins, Peter Singer, and PZ Myers were just a few of the atheist luminaries on hand to bolster the atheist community and inspire them to increasing confidence and boldness in a world (supposedly) dominated by religion.
I have been tracking the blog of this event hosted by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Religion Section with interest over the last few days. As far as I have been able to tell, the event has, predictably, contained a bit of the juvenile “let’s make fun of how stupid religious people are” mentality but also some thoughtful and reflective voices wondering about what role atheism might play in public life in the twenty-first century. The whole blog is worth checking out as there are a number of very interesting posts by theists and atheists alike.
I was particularly intrigued by one of today’s closing posts containing an interview with one of the conference attendees because it highlights the simple truth that atheists and theists alike are motivated by some of the same things. In response to the question of why he came to the 2010 Global Atheist Convention, an atheist named James had this to say:
I guess one of the biggest reasons is the quest for community. We’re all very similar genetically and there is a need for people of no faith to have the same level of community that people of faith have. In the secular world we haven’t created a good alternative to the communities that people of faith have.
I think that one of the things I find is that the secular world is not as good at talking about emotional stuff. There’s definitely a need for that sense that you can open up to people and talk about things that trouble you. My view of the church and religious organisations is that they create the environment where people can walk in off the street and talk about what is going on in their life. In the secular world it can be very lonely if you don’t have the right kinds of friends.
I think the next thing the secular community needs to address, which is far more important than taking on religion, is looking after our emotional needs and creating that support base.
A quick scan of the blogosphere will quite quickly provide numerous examples of how not to talk about differences of belief. The rhetoric from and about the new atheism can be (and often is) divisive, polarizing, and just plain nasty. But this interview seems to be one small example of a better way. It makes me cautiously optimistic that in a world divided over religion and the role it plays, we can still sit down as human beings who have common hopes and longings and discuss our differences civilly and respectfully.
Read the rest of the interview here.
I went to the Blog… and read some of the content in the forum.
The mocking is sad; it reminds me of a section of the church, who mock unbelievers in the same way. It’s all sad. None of it heals or helps. Neither side is impressive in their thinking or delivery of their message.
Attacking people because they don’t believe is childish and attacking people because they do, is just as backward.
I’m left with questions; what does this movement want? What do they want? A world where everyone is rid of their faith? Do they want us all to embrace non-belief? And how will the movement accomplish that?
I am not a believer because someone convinced me I should be one. It wasn’t the fear of hell that compelled me to say “Yes” to Christ. It wasn’t passed down to me as a tradition I felt obligated to adopt. I don’t believe because the Bible told me I should. I wasn’t ‘taught’ to be a Christian. I cannot be taught not to be one.
Weather a critical fundamentalist Christian, or sarcastic Atheist, the fact is no one can control the inner man. I wish they’d all sit down and let the life they live prove their integrity; talks cheap.
end rant 🙂
I have the same questions as Deborah.
I suspect the answers vary among the participants. In my experience, when a person says they believe in God, or says they do not believe in God, it is very hard to tell what either statement means.
In one of the polls taken in the United States, a significant percentage of people who described themselves as atheists also said they believe in God! I wonder if that is my strange category.
At the Christian seminary I attended, a large percentage of the students and faculty rejected theism as a form of patriarchy. The Bible was regarded as fiction. Only with strict qualifications as to meaning of the word “God” would many students say they believe in God. They believed fervently in radical politics and morality. They had strong and determined belief that radical politics and morality would transform the world in a millennial way. If that is belief in God, they were fanatical about their belief.
In myself, there is more atheism than faith. There is a great deal of something like pantheism, or religious naturalism, in me, I think, along with paradoxical proportions of enlightenment values and romanticism. At the same time, I remain Christian and have Christian hopes. It is like Deborah wrote, “no one can control the inner man.” Not even the inner man.
I think you’re right, Ken. It can be very difficult to figure out what people mean when they say they don’t “believe in God.” The first question, obviously, is “Which God do you not believe in?” Is it purely the idea of a supernatural being? Is it a specific conception of the Christian God? The Muslim God? Questions certainly abound—and this is even leaving aside the whole question about whether “belief” in God is best construed in purely cognitional and rational terms.
Deborah, I share your sadness at the childish tone of some of these conversations. It accomplishes very little, except for fomenting further division and hostility on both sides.
Re: what does this movement want? Well, I think they really are looking for a world free of faith. There is no less of a proselytizing impulse in the new atheism than in the forms of religion they critique. History is conceived of as a one-way track toward atheism. One of their main purposes in life is to drag their unenlightened fellow human beings up to their level of understanding. This can be construed either in benevolent terms (i.e., we want to liberate our religious neighbours from the dogmatic shackles that bind and blind them) or in the language of self-preservation (if we don’t stop the religious folks, they’ll destroy the planet). This is part of what accounts for the evangelical zeal the movement is often characterized by.
Speaking of “evangelical zeal,” many have noted how the new atheism, at least in its tone, can sound very similar to evangelical fundamentalism. It was interesting to think about this as I was reading this passage from an excellent post about evangelical spirituality (or lack thereof) over at The Internet Monk this morning. Referring to some of the evangelical traditions that have shaped him, the author says this:
Thank you Ryan, I went to visit The Internet Monk and as I read, I could feel my shoulders relax lol! The article addressed a lot of my own conserns and echoed some of my experiances with religion, yet without adding unnecessary… angst 🙂
How do you believe you came to be a Christian? One of the more interesting facts about religion is that it is purely coincidental which religion we are born into. You were originally born an atheist, and had to have been taught, either by yourself or by others in your life, to become a Christian. You would have been atheist had you not been indoctrinated at some point.
Your lucky you were born Christian, for the majority of human history has been spent worshiping false Gods 😉
Re: You would have been atheist had you not been indoctrinated at some point.
No, faith does not come by indoctrination to a Christian, but by grace.
Re: “Your lucky you were born Christian”
Perhaps, but the emphasis is wrong. We are all lucky that Deborah is a Christian.
re: No, faith does not come by indoctrination to a Christian, but by grace.
I suppose that all those who have lived and died believing something other than Christian doctrine, without having any knowledge of Christianity, were graced as well? Poor people, missed their chance.
re: Perhaps, but the emphasis is wrong. We are all lucky that Deborah is a Christian.
Actually, we (I) are (am) lucky we (I) live in a society/time where we can actually disagree with each other about this and not be dispatched to whatever ridiculous place the religious of the time had conjured up to scare folks.
I’m so glad I don’t live in a truly biblical universe. What a boring, insulting, childish place! If God did indeed make me, it most definitely gave me the ability to reason and exercise free will to resist just the type of thing Christianity represents.
This includes atheism, I presume?
How do you know, Cody? I’m curious to discover the source of your impressive insight into the complex historical web of experiences, family and community dynamics, personal reflection, and academic study (among other things) that has contributed to Deborah’s self-identification as a Christian.
Or perhaps everyone who does not subscribe to atheism is just “indoctrinated” by definition. That would certainly have convenience and simplicity on its side as a theory… Although I imagine it would get tricky after a while, when faced with the large number of people who convert from atheism to some form of theistic belief (not to mention those who convert from one theistic faith to another or to Buddhism, etc), to decide who is “indoctrinated” and who isn’t, and when their indoctrination stopped and started, etc.
Maybe it would be easier if we just said that everyone was indoctrinated.
re: This includes atheism, I presume?
Atheism: not believing in any gods. If one has no concept of God, as we certainly do not upon birth, then by definition, we are all atheists at birth. That being said, of course people are indoctrinated into any/all world views if they did not previously believe them until told to. My point was only that we are all born without any knowledge of Christianity.
Re: The rest of the statements.
Surely you accept that we are are a product of what we have been exposed to, for you would have no knowledge of Christianity if you had not been told or exposed to it in some way. I’m certain you are correct in saying that it was likely a multitude of influences that led to Deborah choosing Christianity as a religion. No doubt it is the result of what she perceives as good reasons and facts that validate the Christian religion as the best choice for her. All I am suggesting is that it is indoctrination, even if it is not forced upon her in an obvious way. We are, as you said, all indoctrinated into a world view. Deborah would have likely been a Muslim if she was born in a predominantly Muslim state. Or perhaps she would have been giving offerings to one of a multitude of ancient gods had she been born before the advent of monotheism. Please don’t confuse this viewpoint with one of determinism, but I will make the statement that belief in God only exists if there are those that believe in him.
I am curious as to what you believe about this? How do you believe we come to adhere to a certain religion, if not by subtle indoctrination by other followers? What else would you have to base your choice on if you were not influenced by either people, or religious texts, etc?
I appreciate the clarification. Of course as I agree that we are born without specifically Christian knowledge. But we are born without all kinds of knowledge. I did not arrive from the womb with any cognitive awareness of the beauty and aesthetic power of art either. Do we say that the default state of human beings is to not appreciate art and that everything else is the result of artistic indoctrination? Human beings come into this world cognitively primed for all kinds of things, including religion.
Or an atheist, if she had been born into a predominantly atheist state, right?
Of course. Belief in the discoveries of science also only exists if there are those that believe in them as well. The same is true for any branch of human knowledge.
Aside from what I’ve said above, I would simply say that I’m curious as to why you seem to consider this a negative quality of human belief formation (or one that you are somehow immune from or untouched by?). How else would we come to know anything (science, philosophy, ethics, religion, etc) without a human community to transmit, clarify, and expand our ideas?
“Surely you accept that we are are a product of what we have been exposed to, for you would have no knowledge of Christianity if you had not been told or exposed to it in some way”
Where did the first Christian come from?
Thanks, I may be doing good, but it did take me almost 5 minutes to actually find your latest posting!
I suppose my statement was a little uncalled for. Obviously it wasn’t meant to create hostility, just debate. I only stated it as a postulation, from which I could argue that some effort is needed to make a Christian out of a person with no knowledge of Christianity. Do you believe we are all born as atheists?
Ha, well at least you found the posting I guess. This whole thread is getting a little difficult to navigate, to put it mildly!
Re: your question, I of course agree that some effort is needed to make a Christian out of a person with no prior knowledge of Christianity. But this certainly doesn’t entail the claim that we are all born atheists, in my opinion. As I said above, we are born without all kinds of knowledge. There are innumerable features of the world and of human experience that I came onto the scene without any cognitive awareness of, but we don’t usually feel the need to describe ourselves as a-ethicists or a-artists or a-political thinkers or a-scientists by default. Again, I think that all of come into this world cognitively primed for all kinds of things, including religion.
So no, I don’t believe that we are born as atheists. I believe that God made us in his image and that as we grow and develop we learn more about what this means and how to respond to the hopes and longings and intuitions that he has created in us.
I guess our disagreement is only superficial. By born atheist, I only mean born ignorant of the existence of God.
“How do you believe you came to be a Christian?”
Your question seems a bit of a trap. Are you actually asking me to tell you what happened? I will if you like, but you’ll be disappointed.
It’s full of impossibilities.
Sure, I’d love to hear your story! I will not be disappointed. While I may seem like a militant atheist, I’m really not. I simply have not personally found a need for God, and nothing negative is meant regarding those that do believe in God. I would never pretend to know the answers, but I do believe that we as humans should be asking more questions about how and why we come to believe in whatever we believe in, and stop simply taking it on trust.
I did not say that concepts and ideas cannot transcend the human life span, growing, changing, and eventually becoming what we see today in Christianity, or any other religious belief set (all human knowledge is stored this way). The first Christian wasn’t really “the first”. Christianity literally evolved through time, and has changed continually even to this day. Of course, this question should be addressed more carefully, for there had to have been an original religious thought, even if it had nothing to do with Christianity, but predates it significantly.
*Christian fundamentalists should not read on, we simply disagree on how old the earth and human species are*.
This is all theory of course, since nobody can travel back in time to witness the birth of religion. But, human intuition tells us that the first religious thought probably explained some powerful natural event, and was then transmitted through people, morphing, evolving (the literal sense of the word), to become the major world religions today. History tells us that there are striking similarities between Christianity and religions that predate Christianity by thousands of years. I won’t go into details, but it is fairly obvious that the modern world religions are basically a combination of those preexisting beliefs.
Before I get arguments thrown at me from all sides regarding this statement (which is based on history, not my opinion) I will say that I see no reason why this subtracts from the potential validity of Christianity. In fact, it seems like it should reinforce the likelihood that perhaps people not only need religion, but we have been given a subtle metaphorical story that predates the bible significantly, that has been with us for a very, very long time. We see traces of a story similar to that of Jesus, long before Jesus is thought to have existed. It is very interesting, and humans seem to have held on to it (or something similar) through the ages. Product of our biology? Product of a divine spark? The simple power of a religious meme? Who knows.
–verb (used with object),-nat·ed, -nat·ing.
1.to instruct in a doctrine, principle, ideology, etc., esp. to imbue with a specific partisan or biased belief or point of view.
2.to teach or inculcate.
3.to imbue with learning.
I was born into Humanism, trained in it, by life and instruction; quite a surprise to find myself in the face of a God I was taught not to believe in.
What evidence supported the Christian God so well that you converted? Who discussed God with you, that planted the seed of Christianity into your mind? I’m not arguing your conversion, I’m just trying to get at the real cause. It was likely someone close to you, a friend, that introduced you to God. If it wasn’t, and you reached it by your own accord, surely your researched the religion before accepting it. Maybe you just read the bible, etc. Please, do tell.
The reason why I choose not to follow a religion, is that I don’t see how they explain anything. To say God created the universe is insulting to human reason, for who created God? Philosophers have been grappling with that for thousands of years. I take the easy stance and say “I don’t know” how it came to be. To claim a specific God or religious explanation seems to me more difficult to justify than to keep an open mind in the first place. We simply don’t know, nobody does, and to claim to should be considered a crime against human intellect.
Re: “I’m just trying to get at the real cause.”
Unless you are trying to trap Deborah, as she and others here have no doubt sensed in spite of your assurances to the contrary, I think you should let go of this attempt.
When we seek a material explanation, I think it is best to turn to Darwin, rather than to a Christian.
From a Christian perspective, faith comes as a gift. So many people have attested to this experience or feeling that it only reduces to something else through the skepticism we all know in the West, a skepticism we all know whether we say we believe in God or not.
In a chain below this one, Tyler, an atheist, asked James, a Christian, something like, “what does one say to someone who has not experienced the presence of God.” James so wisely answered that this is a delicate question, one best answered one on one. It involves such a tender place in the human heart.
I can say this: The presence is felt in many ways, even by those like me who are inclined to reduce it to something other than the presence. For a few, the presence is known in an unforgettable vision or dream. For most, it is known in other ways. It is known, for example, through the intimacy of a friends in a church, the majesty of the mass, music, reading the Bible, acts of charity, or hiking in wilderness (that’s me, especially.) Religious naturalists, who are atheists and materialists, call this “wonder” rather than the presence of God. Aldo Leopold called it “thinking like a mountain.”
Certainly, it is possible to reduce all of this to something else – even wonder can be reduced. It is a shame, I think, because even the intellect enjoys wonder.
Cody, there are a couple of interesting assumptions at work in your comments to Deborah (and others):
1. That there is a “real” reason for Deborah’s (or anyone else’s) Christian belief that, presumably, she is unaware of and that only rational atheists with reductive logic are suited to uncover for her. It seems like you are simply assuming that “real” = “purely material.” This is an assumption that you are taking on faith. It cannot be proven that there is nothing that is “real” beyond the purely material. What if the “real” reason for Deborah’s Christian faith (or among them) was that she had been confronted by and responded to the living God? Or that she had experienced the wonder Ken speaks of above?
2. That faith is primarily about explaining stuff (origins, ongoing function, etc). This is a common assumption, and it makes it easy to set up faith and scientific rationality as competitors for the same explanatory slot. Religion is thought to occupy the slot until science provides us with the real reason. I don’t dispute that there are those who conceive of faith in these terms, but not everyone does.
In addition, it’s obvious from your comments that you’ve had some negative experiences with young earth creationists or with Christians who have used theological rationale to justify an irresponsible approach to creation, etc. I don’t want to minimize the negative effects that these views (among others) can have on promoting healthy dialogue between atheists and believers, but I think it is also important to point out that nobody on this forum has advocated the approaches to Christianity that you are reacting against. It’s difficult enough to track the conversation on long threads like this one without having to chase down every theologically suspect rabbit trail that happens to have annoyed someone along the way. I’m sure that there are many expressions of atheism that you would prefer not to be associated with; the same is true for Christians.
re: “Unless you are trying to trap Deborah…”
I’m fully aware of the material explanations. I just wanted to hear her story if she was willing to share it. Apologies.
What is your story Ken? Had you not been specific in your beliefs, I would have assumed you were predominantly religious.
I have gotten lost in this blog! I have never actually used a blog before so I apologize if this doesn’t show up in the right spot!
I couldn’t agree more that there is not “proof” of there being nothing more. I believe Deborah’s experience actually happened to her, and I respect her interpretation of those experiences. All I wanted was to read what she had to say. I think we need to stop being so confrontational here, I’m really not out to disprove or discredit, or anything else you would like to say about my previous posts. I simply wanted to discuss our mutual interpretations. Is that uncalled for in this blog? I seem to have found myself several moderators from both Atheist and Christian points of view!
I’m certainly not trying to moderate anyone or to be unnecessarily confrontational, Cody. I’m actually enjoying the dialogue. Discussing mutual interpretations is what I would like to think this blog is all about! But I think you will agree that when one of your first statements on a forum is this:
… that you will encounter a bit of push back and possibly even some defensiveness. Describing someone’s position as the result of indoctrination is not usually the best way to promote a dialogue of equals. Having said that, I think you are perfectly entitled to ask someone to share their experience and you have done so in a very respectful manner.
(For someone who’s never used a blog before, you’re doing pretty good! I still get lost on these threads sometimes and it’s my blog!)
The short version; I went to Heaven and saw Jesus myself.
That was the proof I needed. I was like Thomas who said, “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”
But my story is not proof for anyone else and I don’t expect it to be. I was and in many ways still move through life as a skeptic. I don’t believe things simply because I’m told I should ‘just believe’. To say that I was delusional and conjured up a desired vision would be a great argument, if my life hadn’t been completely changed in every conceivable way.
Many of my Christian friends don’t believe my story any more than my Atheist friends do. If I had been born a little earlier, I would have joined The Maid of Orléans and burned at the stake for making such claims. Fortunately, the only punishment I’ve ever had to endure after telling my story is awkward silences, a few laughs maybe, or simply the rolling of eyes by greater minds; A small price to pay for entering an adventure where my heart and mind is open to possibility and not just religion.
Thanks for asking.
Ken- “Certainly, it is possible to reduce all of this to something else – even wonder can be reduced. It is a shame, I think, because even the intellect enjoys wonder.”
Possibility, wonder, curiosity… This life is full and rich.
Re: “Many of my Christian friends don’t believe my story any more than my Atheist friends do.”
Many mystics throughout the centuries testify to the same thing. The incredulousness of Christian friends is odd when one considers that all of the hopes and promises in the Bible are grounded in such experiences, beginning with visions of Abraham and continuing through the visions of John.
re: “The incredulousness of Christian friends is odd when one considers that all of the hopes and promises in the Bible are grounded in such experiences…”
It is that very characteristic of the Abrahamic religions that prevents them from from changing very quickly, is it not? A built in religious skepticism to prevent change.
Thanks for your story Deborah, it is most definitely not what I expected. I have never had the chance to actually speak with someone who has had that experience!
Atheists don’t necessarily want a world free of faith – but a little less religious oppression and fewer religiously-based falsehoods would be nice.
When so many people in the world (40% of Americans) believe the earth is less than 10,000 years old (when it is 4.5 billion years old), when women wear burkas because to reveal your femininity (for example both of your eyes) causes men to sin, when civil rights are denied because of the ideas in a holy book, when promoting religion is officially tax-exempt charitable work, when institutionalised protection of pedophilia is not prosecuted because churches are effectively outside the law, it is time to push back against religion.
This is why there was an atheist conference.
I do thank you for your thoughts, but I find that I have to take exception to your middle paragraph — not with the content, but with this as an explanation of an atheistic perspective (at least my supposition, given that I am not an atheist).
The points you raise are all valid. Much has been done wrongly in this world in the name of “insert religious name here” religion. However, what you describe are limitations or failings of humans, not the failings of God. God’s word is like pure water; we as humans tend to soil the water. That is not the water’s fault, nor is it a reason to believe that the water doesn’t exist.
The push back began with the enlightenment and has been continuous. It has delivered many positive results measured on the vital scales of freedom and equality. Unfortunately, even something as good as the enlightenment has a dark side. Religion is the same. Hopefully those at the atheist conference, and those on the other side, will be sensitive to such things when they push back.
In an article linked from Religion News Service, an atheist, Rebecca Newberger, discusses her novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God.” (Her novel deals with what is wrong with the arguments.) In the last line of the interview she is quoted saying, “The mental gymnastics done to justify the existence of suffering to make it compatible with the God described by those religions is too great, too torturous, and doesn’t do justice to the sufferers.” (Those religions are Christianity, Judaism and Islam.)
I think she wins on that point. She frames it well. No anger. So simple. Mental gymnastics: any of us who has ever attempted theodicy knows what she means. (Suffering is more easy to understand if we start with Darwin and the origin of species through natural selection.)
I don’t think her sentence means there is no God. It does suggest that theodicy is for fools and sadists: who else would justify suffering?
I think religion need not make suffering compatible with God, need not insist on the goodness of God, need not do justice to suffering – except, that it seems it always has. But I don’t know, maybe it has not always done that. Maybe it has just been a way to cope with suffering, or with chaos and the terror of history as Eliade wrote. Maybe we carry on because understanding based on Darwin is not enough to cope with suffering.
Darwin once wrote that we ought to admire the instinctive maternal hatred of the queen bee for her fertile daughters, the hatred we impute to her killings of our daughters. That admiration takes a certain mental gymnastic not unlike theodicy.
I don’t know what is included in her 36 arguments for God and her refutations of them. I imagine God still stands, but maybe not, at least not the one we thought we knew. But I think theodicy falls. And I wonder what else.
There is a remainder, I imagine, something still standing: something like in Deborah’s recent posting at her blog, “Looking is the Thing.” There is joy.
Minor correction. It is Rebecca Goldstein(not Newberger) who writes ’36 arguments for the existence of God.’ I picked it up the other week after I read a review of the book in the Globe and Mail. I like it a lot so far but I am only 100 pages in at this point.
Just a minor point, building on: “I imagine God still stands, but maybe not, at least not the one we thought we knew.”
As Ken notes the existence or not of God is entirely independent of our arguments. These are valid, entertaining- or not- may drive some to atheism, others to religion- but God is or is not. If He is- then we will only know Him if He reveals Himself to us. The question is- do we want Him to? In my experience the answer to that question is the ultimate existential dilemma.
If God does not reveal Himself to those who actually seek Him- there is nothing to say.
If people don’t seek Him there is also not much to say- except “I think you should.”
Here’s a link to an article that prompted my post-
Yes, and more than minor point, this is wisdom, so softly spoken.
What do you say to those He doesn’t expose himself to?
That’s a delicate question, Tyler- but when I have permission I ask about their journey of seeking God. There are no end of surprises. It’s a journey I’m still on.
Atheism I understand (I have plenty in me.) The anger and hostility that some Western atheists feel towards Christians, I don’t understand. Unless a person has been personally abused by a Christian parent or other person of authority, the anger and hostility seem illegitimate to me, even while it is uncontestably true in my opinion that Christianity and Christians have a dark side that no one should ignore. In the United States, and I think in the rest of the West, the anger and hostility largely manifest themselves among atheists whose politics lean hard to the left. The anger and hostility are expressed in highly charged moralistic declarations. They represent to me the dark side, not of atheism, but of morality, and, perhaps, of liberalism. The mocking, hateful prose is found in so much of the writings of the enlightenment period and in its religious cousin, the reformation. They were both highly charged moralistic movements.
My Asian friends who are atheists, are just that, atheists, and not angry and hostile towards those who are not. They are also not moralistic in their approach to life. Our Western morality is often bewildering to them, as is our lack of respect, the Asian kind, for others.
My Western friends are mostly atheists who lean far to the left politically and culturally. I hear their criticisms often of Christianity and Christians. One man stands out in this regard because he does not criticize religious people. He is just uninterested. And, although Western, he has a kind of Asian respect for others.
What do you believe is the source of the anger and hostility towards Christians that occurs among atheists in the West?
re: What do you believe is the source of the anger and hostility towards Christians that occurs among atheists in the West?
Bad answer: It is simply a response to the rise of fundamentalism in the West. *Any balance metaphor will work if inserted here*. With Christian fundamentalists trying to get their creation story of choice taught right along side evolution in the public classroom, it’s not surprising at all to see such a reaction in people. That is just one example.
Alternative answer: Human knowledge has grown so much in the last few centuries, but our tribal nature remains intact. Perhaps we are witnessing the rise of a new religion form of science and reason, in the form of a new atheism. Atheism itself is bifurcating, just as religion has many times in the past. The reason there is so much hostility, is simply because there is so much disagreement between world views (treat atheism as a religion and it fits nicely into the pattern of human conflicts). We are witnessing first hand, the birth of a new religion, one founded completely on science and observable fact. I as an atheist, do fear the moral consequences of such a religion. Not because I believe Hitler or any other idiot actually followed atheism, but rather because it is fundamentally a scientific observance that there are truly no “morals” in nature, and that the survival of the fittest is the only “law” there is. We can hope that basic human morals remain intact, since they are also the product of our evolutionary history, and not our religions (although they are modified by religion).
As an aside, I want to say something about “survival of the fittest” and on the place of morality in atheism.
The primary metaphor Darwin used for the way of the origin of species was “natural selection.” While the expression “survival of the fittest” appeared one time (only one, I think) in a revised edition of Origin of the Species, Darwin never regarded evolution as following a “law” of nature. It was a kind of slang for natural selection. He also used another metaphor, which fits better, “the preservation principle,” which came, I think I remember right, from an earlier important figure in the history of the idea of evolution: Buffon. But ultimately, the metaphor “natural selection” derives its meaning by comparison and contrast with another metaphor that Darwin used, “human selection.” And it was a way of saying two things: evolution occurred naturally without God’s design or intervention and that nature selects (a metaphorical term in this context) for the benefit of each specie rather than for human benefits the way humans have selected tomato plants or dog breeds, for example.
As for morals in nature, I think the Darwinian position is that the human thing we call morality evolved because it enhanced our chance of reproducing or else it just happened because of chance and did not adversely affect our chance of reproducing.
Natural selection, in Darwin’s analysis, is indifferent to love and hate, kindness and cruelty. If natural selection is the best metaphor for the way life evolved and is evolving and by extension the way the universe is emerging, then the future of our species and universe does not depend on love or hate, kindness and cruelty, or anything else we may associate with the word “morality.” The future depends, as it always, has on what Darwin and others have called “chance and necessity.” In that case, I see no basis in the long run for an atheist to favor morality, even if it is often a practical necessity of daily life in our time.
Personally, if we assume that emergence is the way things are in life and the universe, and not redemption as Christians believe, I think we can surmise that the earth will not sustain such a large human population (no matter how many solar panels and windmills we erect or how fast we erect them.) We will eventually become extinct because of our overpopulation. Darwin wrote about this as one of the causes for extinctions of species. In addition, I think it is likely that we will take out most of the rest of life with us. Perhaps a remnant will survive to someday burn up from the heat of the sun or die in the cold.
In such a world, it does not matter whether one is an atheist or Christian.
Ken: Well said.
I suppose that is precisely the reason I occasionally find myself somewhat hostile towards religion – the fact that it tells us we will be saved, and not to worry about how we treat the planet (imagine if instead of the first commandment we do have, “thou shalt treat they earth with the utmost respect, for it is on loan and i want it back eventually” took precedence over all others).
I for one believe that if I can choose not to have children for the simple fact that I do not wish to contribute to the problems facing our seemingly uncontrolled growth and resource requirements, then other people can too. It really is a question of whether our religions and other belief systems will adapt quickly enough (or at all) to, for lack of a better way of saying it, “save the planet” from ourselves.
It’s a very depressing thought to contemplate the destruction of the amazing thing that is life, for the simple reason that one dominating species thought it was going to enjoy eternity in the afterlife with no consequences, and rob all other species and potentially future humans, of a chance at existence.
Re: your last paragraph
It is depressing. But I don’t think we arrived in this situation by virtue of a belief in or hope for an afterlife of God. We have the same reproductive urge, the genetic tendency to overproduce offspring in our genes, that all other life has. Darwin called it “waste.” We are not unique in our tendency to overproduce offspring or in our cruelty to each other and to other species. The waste and cruelty are the reasons Darwin found the idea implausible that a good God would have ever made such a world.
For some reason we wish to preserve this bad world, one so bad that it is implausible that a good God would have made it or would sustain it. Reductively, it seems like the preservation principle, as Darwin called it, not goodness, nor religious belief, drives that wish.
And for some reason, we want to condemn humanity. Many Christians and many atheists appear to have this in common. It seems like we loath ourselves, whether we believe in God or not. Maybe the hatred of others reduces to a hatred of ourselves.
Ironically, when we reject the idea that goodness could be behind the world, we must at least doubt the goodness of our own effort to preserve it.
Very well said, Ken.
Re: “imagine if instead of the first commandment we do have, “thou shalt treat they earth with the utmost respect, for it is on loan and i want it back eventually” took precedence over all others.”
You don’t have to imagine that as the first commandment- that is THE definition on Biblical stewardship- a underlying principle of Biblical faith.
The fact that people don’t obey that commandment [except when it is convenient], or any of the others, is THE problem from a Biblical perspective. There is no shortage of great prescriptions [atheistic, theistic, pantheistic] etc for doing the right thing- the problem is the doing.
re: “Ironically, when we reject the idea that goodness could be behind the world, we must at least doubt the goodness of our own effort to preserve it.”
That was more than well said. I am going to be thinking about that for quite a while! I’m curious what you personally believe Ken. Do you think it is inevitable that we destroy ourselves and life on this planet, as you suggested earlier?
For the Christians I’ve known personally, that form of “biblical stewardship” has little or no meaning. Do you recycle? Or do you believe since Jesus is returning soon, why bother? That’s a serious question.
Serious question- serious answer. I take stewardship very seriously and it goes way beyond merely recycling. The fact that the earth is coming to an end [not a controversial statement, even for a naturalist] doesn’t trump stewardship. The caricature that the Bible justifies polluting the earth- is precisely that- it has no basis in fact.
Frankly if your atheism is based, as you said earlier on “the fact that it [Christianity] tells us we will be saved, and not to worry about how we treat the planet” you should be recanting 🙂
I know there is more to your atheism than that but I couldn’t resist the obvious come back 🙂
re: “I know there is more to your atheism than that but I couldn’t resist the obvious come back”
hah I don’t blame you!
The earth isn’t going to come to an end. All species live and die, but if there’s one striking feature of life, it’s that it is hard to get rid of, and we see that in the fossil record. Even in the midst of enormous extinction, live goes on. Before we even get close to exhausting the living resources of the earth, we will have reached a population density that is sufficient to cause plague and other disasters for our species, that will keep our numbers in check (no doubt prolonging our abuse of the planet). My point is that the world won’t come to an end, but our species will, but it needn’t! We can reach sustainability.
I guess the point is that it doesn’t matter. We had our chance and it’s not looking good.
re: “The earth isn’t going to come to an end.”
I guess I think in longer time scales than you do.
re: “I guess I think in longer time scales than you do.”
I suppose your referring to the eventual destruction of earth by the sun? What kind of time scale are you thinking in? I’m just saying that as far we are concerned as a species, the earth will be around long after we are gone, just as it was here for millions of years before us.
Yup. Sometimes though I think in terms of the 10,000 year ice age cycles though. I like Robert Frost’s take on it-
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
In any case the apocalyptic view of history isn’t merely Christian.
re: “Ironically, when we reject the idea that goodness could be behind the world, we must at least doubt the goodness of our own effort to preserve it.”
Could it be wrong though. What if the world really is just a we see and measure it? If that was the case, there is no reason why we couldn’t achieve sustainability and equilibrium. I figure that’s why I’m in engineering in the first place. I believe through technology and knowledge, we can achieve a responsible existence.
We debate existence and argue about our destiny, and whether or not religion is the cause. I figure if I’m really just a product of my material, which I do believe, it doesn’t change the fact that life is a miracle, and the universe is full of wonder, and that we should do our best to preserve it as we found it, regardless of the goodness or badness of such an act.
“I figure if I’m really just a product of my material, which I do believe, it doesn’t change the fact that life is a miracle, and the universe is full of wonder, and that we should do our best to preserve it as we found it, regardless of the goodness or badness of such an act.”
But that’s the thing… why should we value life or wonder? It makes no sense to. We should only value our own life and even that’s a stretch. Yet, we do value life and wonder. We imagine a ‘better’ world full of vitality. We give meaning and value to many, many, MANY, things.
“I believe through technology and knowledge, we can achieve a responsible existence.”
Why does a responsible existence even matter? This statement implies that a certain existence is better than another, thus creating value. In a meaningless universe nothing inherently has more value than anything else. It is merely subjective. So why should I care about anybody else, especially future potential forms of human life?
Correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to be addressing the “absolute morality” issue, challenging how much weight we can put into the word “should”. And maybe it’s that word that is the problem. Because, if there is an ever re-defining (or fine-tuning) of what is good and evil, do we really know what exactly IS good and evil?
But as far as responsibility is concerned, I don’t think it matters whether we care it exists or not. We have no choice but to respond to how another acts towards us. [Forgive my simplistic scenario here, I’m having trouble phrasing it without sounding like I’m talking to a five year old, sorry 😦 ] And it is that person acting towards us (let’s say “Bob”) who has expectations (good or evil) about how we shouldn’t respond. What changes is when we get everyone who geographically encounters that person and ourselves to weigh in their expectations (good or evil) of the behaviors exchanged between Bob and I.
Skipping through political history to the democratic model as a context for a created consensus, but ever-changing to satisfy the growing minds in our society. My point here is that maybe instead of the word “should”, the word “can” maybe more helpful. In every society, there are rules made (fundamentally amoral) we have no choice but to respond to (unless we weigh in as well, then we have made a choice).
Is this process a subjective process? Yes. But less subjective than having only one person deciding what others can or cannot do.
This reminds me of the “Euthyphro dilemma”. But let’s first make it about humanity instead of “God”. So, here it is: “Is what is morally good commanded by [Humanity] because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by [Humanity]?”
I say we’re closer to the latter. And in my experience, believers generally choose the latter in the original case for “God” too.
“What changes is when we get everyone who geographically encounters that person and ourselves to weigh in their expectations (good or evil) of the behaviors exchanged between Bob and I.”
Might is right?
“Is this process a subjective process? Yes. But less subjective than having only one person deciding what others can or cannot do.”
Whether one person makes the decision, or a million, if it is subjective it is subjective. There cannot be some magic number for objectivity in the situation you described. If there cannot be a number for objectivity I don’t know how there can be a sliding scale or hierarchy of subjectivity. You can achieve this only if you create an illusion for yourself or limit dissension with the majorities view. But, skipping through political history shows us that humanity objects to this.
Could you please flush out your alteration of the Euthyphro dilemma? Forgive me, but I don’t know if I follow it in its altered state. As a human, I don’t believe myself to have complete sovereignty or anything close to it, even in my own subjective reality. I would go with the first statement to be honest. Especially,if I held a belief in God. For God, as I understand it, God is morally good. So God is commanding himself to humanity, asking humanity to be more God like.
More like ‘right is might’. And by ‘right’ I mean correct, not morally right. Using information gathered from a variety of numerous human experiences and perceptions (including expectations) to challenge the perceptions of two people in one encounter would most likely be a means of correcting whatever inconsistencies and incoherencies recognized, after all the information is studied.
And when this pursuit of human awareness includes information gathered through the use of the empirical method along with the rational arguments already being used, we are less likely to be relying on biases, but rather unbiased facts about the human mind and human behavioral patterns in a human society. So, the more challenging the tests, and the longer the falsifiable facts remain as ‘facts’ through time, the more reliable these facts are.
So, you’re right. No scale or hierarchy of subjectivity. When I used “subjective” I was thinking more of a solipsistic individual.
“Is what is morally good commanded by [Humanity] because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by [Humanity]?” I don’t understand why you would go with the first statement unless you believe there is, in fact, objective morality. What I gather from your previous comment (Mar.17th), is that you don’t see any reason to believe there is objective morality.
And what I meant when I said, “..we’re closer to the latter,” is that though we don’t have objective morality, we do have human made systems that are the closest to what we would call “morally good”. And we do call them that — which may be conflicting for some, and therefore, requires clarification.
You said, “For God, as I understand it, God is morally good. So God is commanding himself to humanity, asking humanity to be more God like.” Here, you sound like you prefer the latter statement within the unaltered ‘Euthyphro dilemma’. If you could provide further clarification about which statement, exactly, in the Euthyphro dilemma (unaltered and altered) you lean towards, that would be helpful.
Also, I think this is where theological perspectives become an issue – which are expected to be just as coherent as anything else. For example: is God morally good because God is sovereign? (Here is where “Might is [morally] Right” comes in.)
So, again, what IS “morally good”? The way some define it, others would not.
Correction in second paragraph:
And when this pursuit of human awareness includes information gathered through the use of the empirical method along with the rational arguments already being used, we rely less on biases and more on unbiased facts about the human mind and human behavioral patterns in a human society. So, the more challenging the tests, and the longer the falsifiable facts remain as ‘facts’ through time, the more reliable these facts are.
It seems to me, Jerry, that you are mixing up definitions here. The ‘Euthyphro dilemma’ assumes that God/gods are objectively right. It just doesn’t work to stick “humanity” into it since just as God/god are objectively moral by definition [unless you believe in Descarte’s evil god scenario], humanity by definition is subjective- even if everyone agrees. Majority does not get you any closer to objectivity.
It seems to me, Jerry, that for the atheist, by definition, the Euthyphro dilemma is irrelevant. Your falsifiable facts, might work in defining gravity but don’t get you anywhere when it comes to defining truth, beauty and love. Those are subjective, be definition, unless there is an objective source for them. Those who believe in God- believe He is that source.
I think that the question the atheist must wrestle with is Dostoyevsky’s dilemma “without God everything is lawful.” Seems to me that is also the Darwinian horror.
Back to Tyler 🙂
Thank you James, your comments on the ‘Euthyphro dilemma’ accurately describe my confusion.
“What I gather from your previous comment (Mar.17th), is that you don’t see any reason to believe there is objective morality.”
I am on the fence about objective morality. With that said, using logic and human experience, it is more reasonable to say there is some objective morality. Furthermore, using reason it can be sharpened and honed.
“And when this pursuit of human awareness includes information gathered through the use of the empirical method along with the rational arguments already being used, we rely less on biases and more on unbiased facts about the human mind and human behavioral patterns in a human society. So, the more challenging the tests, and the longer the falsifiable facts remain as ‘facts’ through time, the more reliable these facts are.”
Borrowing from Dostoyevsky’s (thanks James), “two and two is not four, it is the beginning of death.” When we believe we can be fit into a statistical category, our reality becomes that of what the external world tells us to be, we are no longer ontologically free. Moreover, we then reflect this external reality with our own intent towards the world and the external reality succeeds in defining our individual reality. “The pursuit of human awareness” then becomes one that is vain because it aims to only create a reality of beings that fail to be ontologically free because of their failure to intend a world in where they are. In short, the external environment begins to define the individual reality and in doing so limits free agency.
If we continue looking at subjectivity, it only makes sense that there is bias. What you call ‘morally correct’ is the same as ‘morally right’ because they are entirely subjective. ‘Correctness’ then again becomes that which is inline with the majority. Reason, rationality, inconsistencies and incoherencies all do not matter. All that matters is protecting my own subjective interests. I may agree with you on a property line, this does not make either of us correct. It may however makes us both ‘correct’ in pursuing our own interests as best as we can see fit. We can then say that Nazi Germany’s only had failure, or ‘incorrectness’ was that they failed to ‘correctly’ gauge their own strength or might and ultimately failed in pursuing what was best for them. If they were successful, then the slaughter of Jews was ‘correct.’ Or am I not following your argument correctly?
‘Correctness’ then again becomes that which is inline with the majority.
I should have added here: unless strength is enough to overcome any who can oppose your view.
If my mentioning of the Euthyphro Dilemma is too confusing, I’d rather just drop it and avoid having it distract from the major points being made. (Maybe it can be addressed later depending on where this discussion goes and what misunderstandings get cleared up.)
“Majority does not get you any closer to objectivity.” Thanks, James. But I think we cleared this one up already. I re-focused the discussion onto reliability.
“Your falsifiable facts, might work in defining gravity but don’t get you anywhere when it comes to defining truth, beauty and love. Those are subjective, be definition, unless there is an objective source for them.” [bold mine]
James, it sounds like you never explored (googled?) what science has been doing in this area of discovery. Here’s one of the first links I came upon after googling ‘science of love’: http://www.oxytocin.org/oxytoc/love-science.html. It’s not a peer-viewed research paper, but it might be a helpful introduction to the science of love, beauty, etc.
“I think that the question the atheist must wrestle with is Dostoyevsky’s dilemma “without God everything is lawful.”” [bold mine]
Yes, it’s possible that anything could be made lawful. But making everything lawful (simultaneously) is impossible.
If someone says, “The premise of my case is that 2 plus 2 equals 5” and then suggests we just “move on” because that has confused the situation, I would agree with the latter point. However, I don’t think that it is possible for you t0 “move on” without an admission of a primary error on logic. The rest of your argument seems to indicate that this error in logic is still built into your continuing argument.
“I am on the fence about objective morality. With that said, using logic and human experience, it is more reasonable to say there is some objective morality. Furthermore, using reason it can be sharpened and honed.”
If it’s more reasonable, then I want in. But I first need to understand how this is so. Could you point me into the right direction?
“When we believe we can be fit into a statistical category..”
I’m not sure how I’ve communicated this is my belief. I think there’s alot of room to play beyond people’s predictions of the future (if this is what you’re getting at).
“‘Correctness’ then again becomes that which is inline with the majority. Reason, rationality, inconsistencies and incoherencies all do not matter. All that matters is protecting my own subjective interests.”
I disagree (although, I don’t know exactly what connotations are attached when ‘correct’ becomes ‘correctness‘). Methods to test reliability may be biased creations, but if they are free to be critically challenged by anybody (minorities included), there is room for these methods to be improved.
Now, I understand that this would mean a new bias would be created, but it would also be a more inclusive bias – which is potentially more helpful for social cohesion.
We may be able to protect some of our own subjective interests, but to do so usually requires compromising our other subjective interests – interests that are more prone to conflicting with others’ interests.