Saturday, December 19, 2009

Atheism: Autopsy of a Failed Faith





As part of my “
Debate With Atheists About…Well…Just About Everything,” I wrote…

Just for the record, I DO think an atheist can be an advocate for the “good”, but it’s very, very hard, and even when it CAN be done, it’s still unnecessarily vulnerable to folks who want to say “Homey don’t play that.” Exhibit A: Islamic fundamentalists.

Needless to say, this statement – just like everything I wrote – would be vigorously opposed by most atheists. They insist that faith in God is NOT necessary for “the good.” A belief in Darwinism, materialism, atheism, etc. is sufficient for a healthy moral order.

And what IS a “healthy moral order?” That depends. There is some disagreement within the atheist community. However, I’ll tentatively divide those guys into 3 categories: The Nihilists (“all morality is an illusion;” think Nietzsche); the Objectivists (“morality DOES exist and is universal;” think Ayn Rand) and the Sentimentalists (“morality sort of exists, but is always relative;” think Richard Rorty).

I just made up the term “Sentimentalist Atheist.” And I would argue that they make up the vast majority of atheists (probably about 80%). What makes them “sentimental?” Even though they vocally loathe religion, they behave morally (for the most part) and have no interest in shedding their morality (think of Richard Dawkins or E.O. Wilson). In fact, if you studied them on a purely behavioral level – and knew nothing of their personal beliefs – you might find no difference between them and most Christians (except for praying and going to church, obviously). They marry and have children. They hold the door open for the person walking behind them. They say “Sorry” when they bump into strangers accidentally. They pay their taxes. They abstain from crime. And they even donate to charity (except to religious charities, of course).

How do we account for this behavior? Is it “logical” for an atheist to behave this way? And would a society completely composed of atheists behave this way? Let’s find out.



For starters, let's look at a brief dialogue between me and “Grant,” which arose from the comment section of one of my previous essays.

Todd: Personally, when I was an atheist, I was just as “moral” as I am today as a theist, but it was a “folk morality.” I knew – on an intellectual level – that morality was an illusion, but I “liked” being moral, and why? Probably because I had spent 15 years absorbed in a Christian culture, and still had the residue of faith on my soul. Being “bad” morally made me feel “bad” emotionally

I think the morality of atheists is a consequence of being born and raised in a religious culture for a long, long time before they even begin to question their faith. As religious culture fades away (partly because of the efforts of atheists, btw) morality (among atheists and theists, too) is likely to wither away…

In today’s age, an atheist almost certainly has to be a materialist, and a materialist almost certainly has to be a Reductionist. And how do Reductionists see human beings? According to them, we're just mindless meat puppets manipulated by our selfish genes to survive and reproduce. Does that seem like a positive attitude toward humanity? Is that an ideology that can sustain human dignity? I think not. And once we absorb that attitude toward our fellow man, is there anything beyond fear of the law that can motivate a person to respect the lives of others? No. Once you start peeling the onion a little bit, you see that atheism is intellectually defenseless against the subjection and destruction of humanity. One caveat, though: It is not so much the disbelief in God that is lethal; it is the reductionist materialism that is the foundation of atheism…

Grant: While it's fascinating to hear you explain to me what I almost certainly must be I think I'll fall back on the fact that I have known hundreds of atheists and never met a single one who thinks people are "mindless meat puppets."

Todd: Ah, now we’re coming to the nub of the matter. I’ll try to incorporate your statement into a new observation: While atheists DO think people are “mindless meat puppets” in a scientific sense (sorry, but that is exactly how atheism is articulated by people like Dawkins and Dennett), the atheists DON’T ACT like people are “mindless meat puppets.” They still act like people have inherent dignity. And that’s good! They are resisting the teachings of their leaders. They can’t overcome their desire to live in a teleological, moral order. And again, that’s good! So the question becomes…Why can’t atheists understand that? Why can’t they see the discrepancy between their philosophical atheism and their daily behavior? If they COULD see it, they might question their atheism, and start groping toward a new spirituality.

Grant is a “sentimental atheist.” He is an all-too-common child of modern civilization. He assumes he’s the pinnacle of civilization because he’s smart, tolerant, and liberal. In truth, he’s the red-headed stepchild of civilization. The rest of the family doesn’t accept him. And why should they? They realize what the atheist does not: The atheist is a luxury of civilization, not a creator of it. I’m almost tempted to call atheists “free riders” on the Western moral tradition. A harsher person might call them “parasites” (drawing nutrition from their hosts, while weakening them), but I’ll refrain from using such a pejorative term.

“NO!!” shout the atheists. “You have us all wrong!!!” For Christ’s sake, how many times do we have to tell you: You don’t need God to be ‘good!’”



Larry Anhart is one of those atheists. He is a professor at Northern Illinois University, author of the book, Darwinian Conservatism, and the main contributor of a blog by the same name. I haven’t read Prof. Arnhart’s book, but I did read one of his most recent blog entries: Do Human Rights Require Religious Beliefs?


Prof. Arnhart realizes that most people would automatically answer: “Yes, it does.” He opens…

What difference would it make if we accepted what Bernard Williams has called "Nietzsche's thought"--"there is, not only no God, but no metaphysical order of any kind"?

One consequence, Nietzsche suggested, is that we could no longer believe that human beings were created by God in His Image and thus endowed with equal dignity. In
Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche wrote: "The masses blink and say: 'We are all equal.--Man is but man, before God--we are all equal.' Before God! But now this God has died." The modern morality of human equality is secularized Christian morality that cannot be continued after the death of God.

Does this mean, then, that we could no longer hold it to be self-evident that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights?...

These are the questions raised by Michael J. Perry in his book
Toward a Theory of Human Rights… Perry asks: "For one who believes that the universe is utterly bereft of transcendent meaning, why--in virtue of what--is it the case that every human being has inherent dignity?". If we have no answer to that question, Perry insists, then we have no answer to those human beings who assert that they have the right to exploit and abuse other human beings because what we call right is really just the rule of the stronger…

The failure to provide a cosmic standard of value is also why Perry rejects the positions of Martha Nussbaum and Richard Rorty, who say that human rights rest upon human sympathy and solidarity. Nussbaum and Rorty believe that the lives of human beings have value in so far as we care for them. The idea of human rights is promoted by extending our moral sentiments to embrace ever wider circles of humanity.

Perry objects to this sentimental morality that although normal human beings--those who are not psychopaths--do care for some other human beings, particularly those of their family or tribe, it is not true that normal human beings care for all other human beings equally and impartially…

William Schulz is the former Executive Director of Amnesty International USA. In his book
In Our Own Best Interest: How Defending Human Rights Benefits Us All, he dismisses appeals to God or Nature or Reason as insufficient to sustain the morality of human rights. Instead, he agrees with Richard Rorty in relying on David Hume's insight that morality depends on sympathy and the moral emotions that incline us to care for our fellow human beings…

He goes on to say:

"Robert Frost once observed that poems begin with a lump in the throat, and I think human rights do too. . . . far better than by appeals to God or Nature, is to point to the capacity to identify with others, the capacity for human empathy or solidarity"...

But notice the implications of this. This view of morality as rooted in the moral emotions of evolved human nature does not appeal to any metaphysical "beyond" for cosmic support. Those like Plato, Kant, Nietzsche, and Perry would say that without such a metaphysical foundation, morality is impossible. Those analytic philosophers today who look to pure logic to prove the principles of moral obligation as inherent in the logical order of things continue in this Platonic tradition...

There is a foundation for human dignity, but it's not a transcendent or transhuman foundation--God, Nature, or Reason--but the empirical foundation of evolved human nature as the source of sympathy and the moral sense.

I give Prof. Arnhart a lot of credit: This is probably the best defense of how morality can be justified by Darwinian atheism that we will ever see. The question is: Does it work?

As you would probably expect, I have to answer “No.”
Why? Well, because there’s a few contradictions. And they’re big ones. In the heart of his essay, Arnhart writes…

[Perry] hasn't made a good case for his claim that religious belief necessarily supports a morality of universal love or egalitarian humanitarianism. He admits that in practice, much of the history of religion is a history of brutality. But he would say that this comes from the failure of believers to live up to the true teaching of their religion.

Assuming Arnhart agrees with Perry’s criticism of religion (and I think that’s an excellent assumption), we have several unresolved questions that need to be addressed.

First, if humanity has experienced a “history of brutality” – whether in the name of religion, racism, class struggle, or whatever – it certainly puts a major cramp on the idea that humanity has an intuitive moral sense.



The idea that morality is “innate” has been pushed by Darwinists who account for morality as a product of evolution, but it is also very popular among certain Christians, who say it’s evidence of God’s existence and His benevolence.

Personally, I strongly disagree with the idea of an intuitive “moral law.” That’s one of the reasons I find C.S. Lewis – arguably the most famous Christian apologist – so useless.

Last year, I wrote…

According to Mr. Lewis, every human being is born with an “intuitive” understanding of “right and wrong.” This is just plain false. Every mother and father will confirm that NO child is born with an “intuitive” sense of “right and wrong.” Rather, those children must be TAUGHT to understand the difference – and the best way to understand THAT difference is through REASON (although, especially in the early years, social conformity and a few spankings might help).

Lewis’ further explanation that the Holocaust is proof of this “moral law” that is “commonly known to all human beings?” Oh really? I would beg to differ. The fact that SS guards laughed while shooting innocent women and children in the concentration camps and then mailed photos of their crimes to their families back home certainly negates any theory that “right and wrong” is “intuitive” in human beings. The fact that even today, in most Muslim cultures, teenage girls who are raped are then MURDERED by their own parents (to cleanse the “shame” on their family) shows that there are no universal, intuitive standards of “right and wrong.”

While both Christians and Darwinists are wrong to posit an intuitive “moral law,” it is the Darwinists who suffer most if such a law does not exist. Why? Because – as Arnhart’s essay shows – the idea of a “moral sense” is the only thing stitching together a coherent atheist defense of morality. If the “moral sense” goes, so does the idea of atheist morality.

However, an atheist might argue: Even if you’re right, how do you account for Arnhart’s observation that emotional appeals to compassion work on both atheists and believers (as demonstrated by the founder of Amnesty’s experience)?

Easy. See my discussion with “Grant” above. “Amnesty” is a product of modern Western Civilization. The people who finance “Amnesty” – which include Christians AND Atheists - are also products of that civilization. They were raised on the nourishment of that civilization, whose food is faith, and whose water is reason.

As I wrote on Sep. 22:

For thousands of years of human history, life all across the world life was - to quote Hobbes - "nasty, brutish, and short." Then, in one small region of the world in one brief window of time, a civilization emerged in which people (on average) lived for 75+ years in excellent health, enjoyed an economic quality of life unimaginable to their ancestors, experienced freedom from tyranny and violence, and entertained nearly limitless opportunities for creativity and self-expression.

This civilization (first blossoming in the US, Great Britain, France, and Holland in the 18th century, spreading to most of Western Europe by the late 19th century, and spreading even into remote corners like Latin America by late 20th century) was no accident. And it was not inevitable. It was a coming together of a religion and a philosophy.

As I wrote in January...

I've never felt comfortable when politicians describe America as a "Judeo-Christian country" or reaffirm the need to preserve our "Judeo-Christian values"...It defines our country, our values, and our heritage through religion alone.

About a year ago, I coined the term "Christian-Enlightenment" because it combines the religion of the West (Christianity) with the ground-breaking Enlightenment ideas (freedom, reason, the Scientific Method, etc.) that enabled the West to dominate the world.

Ethiopia is a "Judeo-Christian" country, but it's one of the worst countries on Earth because it doesn't have the Enlightenment heritage of Europe and the United States.

The West is a product of the "Christian-Enlightenment." The "Christian Enlightenment" unlocked the "genius of man" - the genius of the rational man - unencumbered by religious superstition or political oppression. But how many people in the West realize that? Not many. And therein lies our problem. How can we preserve Western civilization when so few of us understand it?

The atheists obviously don’t understand it. If faith and reason are the vital ingredients of our civilization, to claim (as they do) that atheism and emotion can – by themselves – sustain our civilization is a pure fantasy, to put it mildly (For more on this topic, see my essay, “Will Western Civilization End in Your Lifetime? Yes, Probably”).

So Anhart’s theory is dead. There is no intuitive moral sense, and whatever morality we DO possess is TAUGHT to us by a civilization that requires faith, not atheism. The “Sentimental Atheists” – like Arnhart – are free to live their lives and advocate their ideas, but the rest of us have no obligation to take their ideas seriously.

So if the Sentimental Atheists can’t defend morality, and the nihilistic atheists obviously deny morality, can ANY form of atheism work in a moral sense? The only remaining candidate is “Objectivism” – the gospel of reason articulated by Ayn Rand and her followers.



I am sympathetic to Objectivism (without the atheism, of course), because I share the Objectivists’ belief that 2 axioms are the foundation of any moral order: 1) Reality exists, and 2) Reason is the best means to master Reality. From those 2 axioms, Rand developed a cohesive, self-confident moral philosophy, expressed in
Atlas Shrugged.

But does it work? Well, it used to. But not now.

As I wrote on Sep. 18...

I think--at one time, decades ago--it was possible for an atheist to be a full partner in the fight to preserve Western civilization. Ayn Rand comes to mind. So does Karl Popper. They loved freedom and America, and just as importantly, they loved mankind. They also lived in a more innocent time (1940s/50s)--a time before Richard Dawkins, E.O. Wilson, Daniel Dennett, and the rest of the Reductionist movement.

Today, atheism equals reductionism. Reductionism is the idea that we're all mindless meat puppets manipulated by our selfish genes to survive and reproduce. Even human reason (which was championed by Rand) is impotent in the reductionist/atheist worldview. As David Brooks says, "Reason is just the press secretary of the emotions."

As we've discussed before, a free republic has to believe that its citizens have the capacity for reason and morality (two things denied by the atheist/reductionist crowd). Otherwise, it is intellectually defenseless against Washington elites who want to lead their brethren around by the nose.

In conclusion, for me, it's not the principle of atheism ("no God") that is incompatible with Western civilization; it is the modern practice of atheism ("reductionism") which denies not only God's existence, but the existence of a truly rational, moral human being.

Ayn Rand belonged to a more innocent time. In her era, one could be a materialist/atheist, and still believe in reason/morality. But if the materialist insists that reason is an illusion, where does that leave rational moralists, like today’s Objectivists? The Objectivists are like dinosaurs who are still groping around the Earth after the asteroid destroyed their habitat. With Reductionism toxifying their intellectual landscape, they have no way to survive. Today, the only “fit” atheist is a Reductionist – whether of the nihilist kind or the sentimental kind.

Of course, as Reductionism gains more intellectual power, even the sentimental atheists will lose ground. After all, the Western Civilization that nurtures their sentimentalism is dying. And thus, in the coming decades, the nihilists will predominate in the atheist community. "Sentimental Atheists" like E.O Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Larry Arnhart, Dennis Mangan, and Luke Muehlhauser are all products of their time, and “the times, they are a changing.”

So to quote Casey Stengel: “Can ANYONE play this game?” Yes, one type of atheist. The atheist who acknowledges that atheism IS toxic – both to the individual and society – but is still an atheist because – with a heavy heart – they've concluded that atheism must be true. And how many atheists advance such a view? Very few. I certainly haven’t met any in my online discussions. And in the culture at large, I cant even think of anyone– although I’m tempted to put John Derbyshire on the list.



Derbyshire is a Darwinist, a Reductionist, and officially a “Myseterian” – which, in practice, is little different from atheism. So let’s call Derbyshire an atheist, shall we? Why does he have value? Because he’s honest enough to admit the problems with atheism, and thus – despite his atheism – he can show the advantages of faith. What kind of atheism is this? Let’s call it “Self-Loathing Atheism.”

At the start of this essay, I wrote…

I DO think an atheist can be an advocate for the “good”, but it’s very, very hard, and even when it CAN be done, it’s still unnecessarily vulnerable to folks who want to say “Homey don’t play that.” Exhibit A: Islamic fundamentalists.

I stand by all that. Atheism can’t advance the "good." Indeed, it directly opposes the "good." The modern synthesis of atheism with reductive materialism is a triumph of nihilism. In that sense, the most "logical" form of atheism is nihilism. That's why the power of nihilism will grow. And that's also why - from society's perspective - the only useful atheist is one who acknowledges the horror of atheism. In short, a “self-loathing atheist.”

And yet, I’m still supposed to believe that atheism is the wave of the future? If it is, it’s a very bleak future indeed.


**UPDATE, DEC. 20, 2009**


Part of this essay
- along with some new commentary - has been cross-posted at Larry Auster's website.

Larry wrote...

Did you coin the category, "sentimental atheists"? It is brilliant. That's exactly what they are. Having no solid, rational basis for moral truth, they are sentimental and emotional about moral truth. There are these things such as morality or conservatism that they WANT to believe in, though they have no solid grounds for them. This makes them sentimentalists.

I also wrote:

Not to sound like Hegel or anything, but I believe that--over time--major philosophical contradictions are unsustainable. They will inevitably resolve themselves. We see that, for instance, in modern America: Our decades-long mix of socialism with freedom has brought us to a crossroads: Will we have socialism? Or will we have freedom? Because we are rapidly reaching a point where it will be impossible to have both. In the same vein, "sentimental atheism" is a strange mix of something good (love of morality), and something awful (atheism), but the awful part is becoming so big that a choice will have to be made: Morality or Atheism? And if you can't make a choice, you will become irrelevant.

Dennis Mangan picked up on Auster's entry and responded here.


Dennis wrote (in part)...

We know that many atheists, perhaps the great majority, behave morally, e.g., they care for their children, are not common criminals, and so on. Therefore moral behavior does not require religious belief.

I responded...

I think the relevant question isn’t so much “can an individual be moral without religious belief?” Yes, I think he can. And the evidence you cite above is sufficient. That is the behavior of a “sentimental atheist.” The better question is, “can atheism – by itself – be a motivator for moral behavior?” As I said in my essay (which I encourage you to read), I think the answer is "no."

In your entire blog post today, you never articulate what is the motivation for an atheist to be moral. That’s because there is none. What looks like motivation is merely the product of being born and raised in a Christian-Enlightenment culture, and developing an understandable attachment to such a great culture. It’s not the behavior of atheists that’s at issue; it’s their lack of appreciation for how religion itself – specifically, Christianity – has built the entire artifice that surrounds you. A purely atheist culture (or even a mostly atheist culture) would descend into barbarism very quickly, as I explained in my essay.

An atheist who understood this essential point might have different policy priorities, including ensuring that religion continues to be an active part of U.S. society (in contrast to say, Europe). As you point out, an atheist wouldn’t necessarily become an advocate of open borders (to use your example). But he might, say, be comfortable with allowing criticism of Darwinism to be taught in public schools. That’s just one example.

**UPDATE, JAN. 4, 2010**

To see the best of Mangan's comment thread, Sentimental Theists, click here.


23 comments:

Michael M said...

Todd

Did I read this too quickly? Did I miss your definition of "the good"? ... or the standard against which you measure it and "the bad"? The only approximation I spotted was "does it work?

But if "the good" = "it works", your just a run of the mill pragmatist as well as a subjectivist for whom truth is transient, as in, "it used to. But not now."

If so, you need to edit out "I am sympathetic to Objectivism" (assuming it's still a sin to tell a lie).

Simon said...

"The atheist who acknowledges that atheism IS toxic – both to the individual and society – but is still an atheist because – with a heavy heart – they've concluded that atheism must be true."

That pretty much describes me - I don't believe in the literal existence of any deities, so I must be an atheist. But I don't think that lack of religious faith provides any kind of basis for a moral order.

I guess I'm a 'sentimental' atheist in that I'm happy to follow my sentiments, programmed in by evolution and environment, that it's good for me and mine to survive and prosper. I adhere to conventional Christian morality, I have a monthly direct debit to the Salvation Army. I try to be Good.

One thing, I don't think that without religion, people become monsters. Most people are not monsters by sentiment - by inclination. But religious societies thrive; non-religious societies decline.

leadpb said...

Thanks for a very informative essay. I learned a lot.

The Deuce said...

Hi, Todd,
The idea that morality is “innate” has been pushed by Darwinists who account for morality as a product of evolution, but it is also very popular among certain Christians, who say it’s evidence of God’s existence and His benevolence.

Personally, I strongly disagree with the idea of an intuitive “moral law.” That’s one of the reasons I find C.S. Lewis – arguably the most famous Christian apologist – so useless.

I think there's a third way. Our moral sense is roughly equivalent to our mathematical sense. We have an innate, intuitive sense of the universe of mathematical truth (otherwise we couldn't do math at all), but we must engage in mathematical reasoning to find specific truths (we aren't just born knowing that 534+432=966, for instance). In the same way, we have a sense of the moral universe, but don't just automatically know that murder is wrong. We have to engage in moral reasoning, or be taught, in order to know specific moral truths.

I give Prof. Arnhart a lot of credit: This is probably the best defense of how morality can be justified by Darwinian atheism that we will ever see.

I think Arnhart's position is nothing more than abject sophistry, myself. His argument boils down to "We have feelings of human dignity, therefore humans have dignity". But that's entirely fallacious. The very question at hand is whether our feelings of human dignity are anything more than feelings.

I feel like chocolate is the best flavor of ice cream. People used to almost universally feel like the earth was flat. Obviously it doesn't follow from the very existence of the feelings that either corresponds to objective reality.

Arnhart doesn't give, and can't give, any reason why a person who doesn't have feelings of human dignity is wrong and people who do are right. Or, let's imagine, there is a race of aliens from Alpha Centauri who don't feel that humans have dignity. Why are they wrong and we right?

Let me repeat: abject sophistry. But you're right that he stated that bit of sophistry about as well as it can be stated.

Todd White said...

MM: Did I read this too quickly? Did I miss your definition of "the good"? ... or the standard against which you measure it and "the bad"?

TW: I didn’t define “the good” since the atheist community – as a whole – doesn’t have a definition. In my discussion with atheists, I’m constantly scolded that atheism isn’t a “system” and doesn’t have a set of “beliefs,” so if that’s true, how can there be an atheistic definition of “the good?”

However, despite all that pretense, I would wager that nearly all atheists – with the exception of the nihilists – would feel comfortable with Richard Rorty’s definition of “the good” as the “avoidance of cruelty,” or something to that effect. That’s what I was going for in my essay.

MM: If "the good" = "it works", your just a run of the mill pragmatist as well as a subjectivist for whom truth is transient, as in, "it used to. But not now." If so, you need to edit out "I am sympathetic to Objectivism."

TW: The Objectivists are not subjectivist or pragmatist. They are very vocal in their insistence that Reality is objective ( hence the term “Objectivist”), Reality is accessible to Reason, and Reason should be the foundation of a universal moral system.

However, while this might have been plausible during the early years of Objectivism (1950s/60s), it’s a lot less plausible today, for the reasons I explained.

Objectivism relies on materialism (it refuses to consider the possibility of any non-material entity). A system that used materialism AND reason could work half-a-century ago. But since materialism = reductionism today, it’s squeezed out the Objectivist confidence in reason. The Objectivists should either abandon materialism or abandon reason, but they refuse to do either. I would suggest they abandon materialism, but they haven’t taken too kindly to my suggestion so far.

The Deuce said...

So to quote Casey Stengel: “Can ANYONE play this game?” Yes, one type of atheist. The atheist who acknowledges that atheism IS toxic – both to the individual and society – but is still an atheist because – with a heavy heart – they've concluded that atheism must be true. And how many atheists advance such a view? Very few. I certainly haven’t met any in my online discussions. And in the culture at large, I cant even think of anyone– although I’m tempted to put John Derbyshire on the list.

Incidentally, the fact that nearly all atheists believe that more people agreeing with them would make the world a better place is in indication of the irrationality of most atheists.

Christians have a reason for supposing that the truth is a good thing. After all, in the Christian worldview, God is the author of all truth, so if follows that truth is always good (even if it isn't always pleasant), and that greater knowledge of the truth is always good. "You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free" and all that. Other religions have similar reasons for supposing that more truth is a good thing.

Under atheism, however, there is no such assurance. There's nobody out there looking out for us, no reason that learning certain truths should necessarily be beneficial. There's no a priori rationale, under atheism, for why more people being atheists should be good for society, rather than making it dysfunctional, even if atheism is true.

The fact that nearly all atheists are also proponents of atheism, therefore, is evidence that they are mostly attached to atheism for emotional reasons rather that purely rational ones. If they were really approaching the question rationally and objectively, you wouldn't get that kind of agreement.

Todd White said...

MM: Did I read this too quickly? Did I miss your definition of "the good"? ... or the standard against which you measure it and "the bad"?

TW: I didn’t define “the good” since the atheist community – as a whole – doesn’t have a definition. In my discussion with atheists, I’m constantly scolded that atheism isn’t a “system” and doesn’t have a set of “beliefs,” so if that’s true, how can there be an atheistic definition of “the good?”

However, despite all that pretense, I would wager that nearly all atheists – with the exception of the nihilists – would feel comfortable with Richard Rorty’s definition of “the good” as the “avoidance of cruelty,” or something to that effect. That’s what I was going for in my essay.

MM: If "the good" = "it works", your just a run of the mill pragmatist as well as a subjectivist for whom truth is transient, as in, "it used to. But not now." If so, you need to edit out "I am sympathetic to Objectivism."

TW: The Objectivists are not subjectivist or pragmatist. They are very vocal in their insistence that Reality is objective (and hence the term “Objectivist”), Reality is accessible to Reason, and Reason should be the foundation of a universal moral system. However, while this might have been plausible during the early years of Objectivism (1950s/60s), it’s a lot less plausible today, for the reasons I explained. Objectivism relies on materialism (it refuses to consider the possibility of any non-material entity). A system that used materialism AND reason could work half-a-century ago. But since materialism = reductionism today, it’s squeezed out the Objectivist confidence in reason. The Objectivists should either abandon materialism or abandon reason, but they refuse to do either. I would suggest they abandon materialism, but they haven’t taken too kindly to my suggestion so far.

Todd White said...

Simon: "The atheist who acknowledges that atheism IS toxic – both to the individual and society – but is still an atheist because – with a heavy heart – they've concluded that atheism must be true." That pretty much describes me - I don't believe in the literal existence of any deities, so I must be an atheist.

TW: I would wager that most atheists throughout history would fit that description. When I was an atheist, it certainly described me. Only in the post-modern era has there been a proud, vigorous atheism that sees itself as superior to religion, and seeks to actively convert religious people to atheism. That is truly unprecedented from an historical perspective. And needless to say, it’s still unheard of in many parts of the world today. I’d like to see Richard Dawkins try to give a speech on atheism in Mecca.


I’ve been a lot of things in my life: Atheist, Agnostic, Christian, VERY Christian, New Ager, and now Spiritual Rationalist (in no order). But even when I was an atheist/agnostic, I never would be one to actively convert people to my beliefs. This proud atheism – whether it’s of the “New Atheist” variety of Dawkins, or the kinder, gentler version found at Luke Muehlhauser’s website is all very foreign to me. I honestly can’t relate to it. If I was still an atheist today, I would treat it almost as if I was a diabetic: It would be a condition that I accept but don’t enjoy, and would certainly never wish on others.

Simon: I don't think that without religion, people become monsters. Most people are not monsters by sentiment.

TW: Yes, I agree with you. However, I do think that atheism – as a belief system – can be very harmful to a person’s soul, and to the extent that atheism continues to grow in our society, I think it will be very destructive to our institutions. See my discussion with Grant, who’s an atheist, in the comment thread of another essay.

http://mustardseednovel.blogspot.com/2009/12/debate-with-atheists-aboutwelljust.html

And here's another essay: "The Despair of the Selfish Gene"

http://mustardseednovel.blogspot.com/2009/03/despair-of-selfish-gene.html

Todd White said...

Thanks, Leadpb. Glad it was useful.

Todd White said...

Deuce: I think there's a third way. Our moral sense is roughly equivalent to our mathematical sense. We have an innate, intuitive sense of the universe of mathematical truth…In the same way, we have a sense of the moral universe, but don't just automatically know that murder is wrong. We have to engage in moral reasoning, or be taught, in order to know specific moral truths.

TW: Thanks, Deuce. That’s interesting, and I’m inclined to agree with you. I don’t think we’re a moral blank slate (and if I gave that impression in my essay, I apologize). I just disagree – strenuously – with the assumption made by Arnhart and others - that morality is so easy and effortless it requires no instruction – no moral code such as those found in religion or philosophy.

Having said all that, I like your math analogy. I guess language would fall into that category, as well. However, I wouldn’t call your position a “third way.” I think it’s mostly consistent with the point I was making: Morality must be taught. It’s not “inherent.” It’s not the “default position.” It requires instruction in order to be useful. And to deny the need for instruction will lead to harmful consequences.

And regarding your critique of Arnhart…I agree with everything you said…In fact, you said it a lot better than me :)

Todd White said...

Deuce: The fact that nearly all atheists believe that more people agreeing with them would make the world a better place is in indication of the irrationality of most atheists.

TW: Ha! I like that :)

Deuce: Christians have a reason for supposing that the truth is a good thing…Under atheism, however, there is no such assurance. There's nobody out there looking out for us, no reason that learning certain truths should necessarily be beneficial. There's no a priori rationale, under atheism, for why more people being atheists should be good for society, rather than making it dysfunctional, even if atheism is true.

TW: That’s excellent.

Deuce: The fact that nearly all atheists are also proponents of atheism, therefore, is evidence that they are mostly attached to atheism for emotional reasons rather that purely rational ones.

TV: Yes, I think that’s a very important point. I’ve hinted at that in several of my essays. On Oct. 1, as part of my essay critiquing Darwinism, I included this quote from the atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel.


In his book, The Last Word, Nagel talks about the "Cosmic Authority Problem" and the "fear of religion" found among scientists....

"In speaking of the fear of religion, I don’t mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions...I am talking about something much deeper—namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and wellinformed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that."

The question then becomes WHY don’t the atheists want to believe in God. I think it’s mostly because they’re very uncomfortable with the idea of moral judgment. There’s a residue of guilt in their souls that would become too intolerable to bear if they became convinced of the existence of God. And I think a lot of times that guilt is of a sexual nature. But I’m just speculating here. I haven’t researched or analyzed the issue enough to reach a firm conclusion.

From the Darwin LOL Files

http://mustardseednovel.blogspot.com/2009/10/from-darwin-lol-files.html

The Blasphemy Challenge

http://mustardseednovel.blogspot.com/2009/06/blasphemy-challenge.html

Marx, Freud, and Darwin: Feel-Good Science


http://mustardseednovel.blogspot.com/2009/02/marx-freud-and-darwin-feel-good-science.html

Simon said...

Todd White:
"I do think that atheism – as a belief system – can be very harmful to a person’s soul"

I think most people need to revere *something* as sacred, or descend into nihilistic despair. In the absence of Christianity, new gods emerge - people worship Diversity and/or The Environment with the same fervour their ancestors worshipped Christ.

The need for religiousity does seem to vary by race - most of the east-Asians don't seem to have quite the same need for religion as do Caucasians, for instance. One's own ancestors can provide a functional object of reverence for some people; so can pagan gods - BTW one thing I have long wondered about is whether and to what extent neo-pagans actually believe in their deities? Modern people who choose to believe in the Earth Mother, in Thor or Athena - I find it hard to believe they really think those gods exist in any objective sense.

It seems that for Dawkins and co, Atheism can serve as a Faith, an object of religious devotion (at least as long as Christianity exists to rail against).

Atheism as a faith doesn't work for most people; they'll find something else to latch onto. So you get religious Environmentalism or Anti-Racism that can easily become self-hating, the belief that Humans or Whites need to die out or be exterminated for the good of the Planet/Humanity.

Personally, I remember being a young atheist and handing out a Humanist tract to a fellow youth unsure what to believe. Now I think that may be a bad idea - truth has use value, but Christianity ca 1850 already included all the truth-value we need - science was not repressed, indeed was advancing with incredible speed throughout the West. If anything, the post-Christian West seems to have less respect for truth, and more readiness to grasp at patent falsehoods like Climate Change or Substantive Equality, than did our Christian ancestors.

From what I can see, atheism has negative survival-value, at least for Western peoples. As the state religion, it is killing us. From a Darwinist perspective then, much better to do without it.

Intellectuals like me can continue to privately not-believe, but if we care (emotionally!) about our civilisation, our people, we should not be trying to make others do so. Indeed we should be promoting 'useful' religion, for the West that means traditionalist Christianity.

Simon said...

I think it's very bad for the US that apparently atheism is taught in the schools and Universities! As an atheist I feel I benefitted greatly from education in the Northern Ireland state school system, with daily hymn-singing and Christian Religious Education.

Grant said...

Oh good grief. I'm beginning to question the value of conversing with you, it seems like at each iteration of our exchange you just formulate more and more ridiculous views of what atheism is instead of listening to any explanation you are given.

First of all atheism is not a faith, it is a state. Just like not believing trolls live under bridges is not a faith, it is a state. Not believing Charlie Sheen is hiding in my closet right now waiting to jump out and yell "surprise!" is not a faith, it is a state.

The only reason atheism even has a title is because so much of society places such importance on the fact that they do belive a deity exists and so feels the need to make a big deal out of it when they encounter someone who doesn't... se we get a special name for people who don't belive a deity exists but we don't have anyone being called "atrollists" for their lack of belief bridge trolls exist.

Atheism has no leaders. It has no teachings. It is not a philosophy. It has no relevance to your constant moral theorizing any more than whether a person believes elves exist determines how capable of morality they are or how well supported their moral framework is. Your continued insistence on declaring that atheists can't justify morality because you personally depend on your beliefs in God to do it for you and refuse to believe anyone else can do it by themselves without mooching off of your own system is your own issue, not atheism's.

Empathy, compassion, enlightened self interest, desire for the good of the community to be advanced... none of these things depend on the existence of religion or a deity in any way, shape, or form. and they are all a perfectly functional basis for forming a moral framework that is in every way equal to, if not flat out superior to, anything any theology has ever produced.

Todd White said...

Simon: I think most people need to revere *something* as sacred, or descend into nihilistic despair. In the absence of Christianity, new gods emerge - people worship Diversity and/or The Environment with the same fervour their ancestors worshipped Christ.

TW: Yes, I agree with that.

Simon: The need for religiousity does seem to vary by race - most of the east-Asians don't seem to have quite the same need for religion as do Caucasians, for instance.

TW: I honestly don't know enough to have an opinion. It's certainly possible, though. Based on my understanding, Buddhism, Confusionism, and Shintoism are the dominant religions of East Asia. While all of them are theistic, they are also more philosophical/ethical than religious, per se, and they certainly don't elicit the same aggressive fervor that the Abrahamic faiths exude. Even if we acknolwedge all that, it's still not clear to me to what extent this situation is "racial" or just a cultural fluke. And then there's the possibility we're both flat-out wrong. It's certainly worthy of further study.

Simon: One thing I have long wondered about is whether and to what extent neo-pagans actually believe in their deities? Modern people who choose to believe in the Earth Mother, in Thor or Athena - I find it hard to believe they really think those gods exist in any objective sense.

TW: That's a good question, too. And unfortunately, once again, I have to plead ignorance. My educated guess, though, is that while modern pagans don't treat Gaia with the same awe and passionate belief as the ancient pagans, the modern pagans DO sincerely believe in Gaia. And their belief alone is sufficient for them; in other words, they seem much less interested in creating the ethical rules and rituals and dogmas that the ancient pagans possessed, and all religions demand. Then again, maybe that will change in the decades ahead.

Simon: It seems that for Dawkins and co, Atheism can serve as a Faith, an object of religious devotion (at least as long as Christianity exists to rail against).

TW: Yes, I think that's right.

Simon: Atheism as a faith doesn't work for most people; they'll find something else to latch onto. So you get religious Environmentalism or Anti-Racism that can easily become self-hating, the belief that Humans or Whites need to die out or be exterminated for the good of the Planet/Humanity.

TW: I think that's mostly right. Most atheists don't find atheism itself to be worth being passionate about; atheism fits into a larger cause, usually standing in opposition to Western Civilization. That would include extreme environmentalism, multiculturalism, sexual liberation, etc. Actually, that would probably make a good blog post. Thanks, Simon :)

Todd White said...

Simon: I think it's very bad for the US that apparently atheism is taught in the schools and Universities! As an atheist I feel I benefitted greatly from education in the Northern Ireland state school system, with daily hymn-singing and Christian Religious Education.

TW: That's interesting. I was raised in a secular school in America. Religion was never a topic. And so it was neither supported nor denigrated. Darwinism, however, was taught as an indisputable truth in our science classes. It was only until I decided to research Darwinism on my own in my mid-twenties did I see how flawed that theory really is.

Todd White said...

Grant: Atheism is not a faith, it is a state.

TW: I think it's a type of faith. In fairness, it's not on the same level of faith, as say, fundamentalist Christianity, but atheism is still a type of faith. It's a "faith" in the non-existence of God. It's a cosmology that explains our existence as a product of chance, not intent. And when some atheists try to convert others to their "truth," they show a passion for their "faith" just as strong as any Bible thumper.

Grant: The only reason atheism even has a title is because so much of society places such importance on the fact that they do belive a deity exists and so feels the need to make a big deal out of it when they encounter someone who doesn't... se we get a special name for people who don't belive a deity exists but we don't have anyone being called "atrollists" for their lack of belief bridge trolls exist.

TW: Society puts a lot of value on the debate over whether or not God exists; less so for trolls. And I don't think society is biased against atheists by labeling them as such. "Atheist" is a fair, accurate term. I mean, it's not like we call them "dummies" (in contrast to the way some atheists want to be called "brights").

Grant: Atheism has no leaders.

TW: Dawkins, Wilson, Dennett, Hitchens, Antony Flew (before he converted).

Grant: It has no teachings.

TW: It teaches the non-existence of God, right? Plus acceptance of materliasm and Darwinism which facilitate an atheist perspective.

Grant: It is not a philosophy. It has no relevance to your constant moral theorizing.

TW: It asserts that morality is NOT objective (and thus, either does not exist, or is relative, as I explain in my essay).

Grant: Your continued insistence on declaring that atheists can't justify morality because you personally depend on your beliefs in God to do it for you and refuse to believe anyone else can do it by themselves without mooching off of your own system is your own issue, not atheism's.

TW: I explained my convictions in my essay. To some extent, you are right, though: They are MY opinions, and my opinions can be fallible. But I try to base my opinions on facts. And if you have problems with my facts, or my analysis of those facts, you're welcome to challenge me on them.

Grant: Empathy, compassion, enlightened self interest, desire for the good of the community to be advanced... none of these things depend on the existence of religion or a deity in any way, shape, or form. and they are all a perfectly functional basis for forming a moral framework that is in every way equal to, if not flat out superior to, anything any theology has ever produced.

TW: As I tried to explain in my essay, it's not just disbelief in God that's the problem; it's the materialist philosophy that atheists have used to justify their faith. In recent decades, materialism has turned on its master (just like Nietzsche predicted). It is materialism - and specially reductionism - that makes all your prized morals ("compassion," "desire for the good of the community," etc.) into illogical relics; the remnants of a "sentimentalist." As I said in my essay, from an atheist framework, only the "nihilist" is "fit." And that's why he will grow. At least among atheists.

Todd White said...

[continued]

Simon: The post-Christian West seems to have less respect for truth, and more readiness to grasp at patent falsehoods like Climate Change or Substantive Equality, than did our Christian ancestors.

TW: Yes, I agree with that too. I've written a few blog posts showing my affinity for the cultural climate of "The Age of Reason" (which, I guess, we can date from maybe, Locke to Kant, or thereabouts), and the superiority of the "Age of Reason" over today's culture. I would much rather be alive in 2009 than 1759 because of technology and medical innovation, etc; but I feel that the Americans and Europeans of the 1700s and 1800s had a healthier attitude toward faith and reason than any people before or since.

Simon: From what I can see, atheism has negative survival-value, at least for Western peoples. As the state religion, it is killing us. From a Darwinist perspective then, much better to do without it.

TW: Yes, I agree. And we're not alone in saying that. See this recent article in the Telegraph about Britain's Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, in which the Rabbi blames "neo-Darwinians" like Dawkins for Europe's secularism and population decline.

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/faith/article6904463.ece?print=yes&randnum=1262242712955

Simon: Intellectuals like me can continue to privately not-believe, but if we care (emotionally!) about our civilisation, our people, we should not be trying to make others do so.

TW: Very well said.

Simon: Indeed we should be promoting 'useful' religion, for the West that means traditionalist Christianity.

TW: Personally, I would prefer to see a reformed version of Christianity that showed more respect for Enlightenment values like reason, individualism, and sexual common sense. I don't support Christian fundamentalism, and could not in good conscious recommend it for any civilization.

http://mustardseednovel.blogspot.com/2009/05/few-humble-suggestions-to-improve.html

Todd White said...

New essay on this topic...

"The Best of 'Sentimental Theists"

http://mustardseednovel.blogspot.com/2009/12/best-of-sentimental-theists.html

Grant said...

"It's a "faith" in the non-existence of God."

No it is not, it is the lack of the possession of a belief God exists.

"It's a cosmology that explains our existence as a product of chance, not intent."

See above.

"And I don't think society is biased against atheists by labeling them as such."

Never said it was. I was simply pointing out a simple fact.

"Dawkins, Wilson, Dennett, Hitchens, Antony Flew (before he converted).

Who, exactly, are any of those people leading? Or are you perhaps confusing the terms "prominent" or "famous" with "leader"?

"It teaches the non-existence of God, right? "

It "teaches" the non existence of God in approximately the same way that my not believing Charlie Sheen is hiding in my closet "teaches" the non existence of Charlie Sheen in my closet.

"It asserts that morality is NOT objective"

No. It. Does. Not. I know plenty of atheists who are of the opinion morality is objective, I know plenty who don't. Their belief that this is or is not so has absolutely nothing to do with their state of being an atheist.

"It is materialism - and specially reductionism - that makes all your prized morals ("compassion," "desire for the good of the community," etc.) into illogical relics; "

First of all, Materialism =/= Atheism.

Second, even if it did your assertion is ridiculous. What exactly, for example, would be illogical about a desire for the good of the community( a community YOU LIVE IN and which benefits you if it is in good working order) in a materialist framework?

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say I think I'm that kind of Atheist. I do wish there was a God, but sadly if there is one he does not want me to have "knowledge" of him, and so he would hypothetically want me to be an atheist.
Sounds a little backwards, but maybe I'll explain it in detail some other time.
Just wanted to add my 2 cents.

Todd White said...

Thanks, Anonymous. I would encourage you to consider the possibility that what matters - at least from a practical standpoint - is not what "God wants," but what YOU want. It's likely that what YOU want - just like what most people want - is the conviction that you are competent and morally entitled to succeed on this Earth - in other words, that WHO you are and wHAT you do MATTERS. Since there is no question that faith is a powerful ingredient in that conviction, the truth of faith is worth exploring and living, even if you may believe (understandably) that (from many indications) God Himself is indifferent to your knowledge of Him. Does that make sense?

Anonymous said...

I'm an atheist. 90% of people I know are atheists. This includes members of my family, my friends, my co-workers and people who live in my building. I've spend nearly 2 weeks asking them where their morality came from. They all responded with mother (parents) first and foremost, TV second, teachers and other social leaders third. They, when asked if they thought morality was innate, replied "yes", "no", "maybe" and "I don't know". When asked who were the "Leaders of the Atheists", no answers were forthcoming. When the names Dawkins, Flew, etc. were presented to them, some recognized the name Dawkins, but none had read his works. None of the other names were recognized.
I don't know where you get your information about atheists from, but consider the 178 people I recently polled a good random sample and accept it as evidence that your premise is flawed. Respectfully.