Why I’d Make a Good Atheist

As the title suggests, this is essentially a response to Marc Barnes’ post on his blog, Bad Catholic, titled: Why I’d Make a Bad Atheist.

His argument in brief is that he wants to be happy forever, life doesn’t guarantee happiness, and if his ‘want’ is to make any sense for him, it must be fulfillable: ergo heaven (God, angels, demons, pixies, unicorns, and flying spaghetti monsters are optional). Okay, I added the last part. And as atheists don’t go to heaven (I guess), he’d make a bad atheist. Marc states:

The desire for happiness is naturally oriented towards eternal happiness. When I am happy, I have no desire for that happiness to end. Such a thing would be inconceivable, directly contrary to the very nature of happiness.

I take it this something like the Ontological argument for God, only applied to happiness. You could make it for morality too: I want to be good, but always in my life I fail. If goodness is to be conceivable, it must be attainable outside of life: ergo heaven (God, angels….). It could be made for beauty as well: I percieve something as ‘beautiful’ but I can always find some flaw. For beauty to mean anything there must be a perfect beauty, which can only exist in…. you guessed it, heaven.

The author, as he would appear on South Park: coffee, beer, a book and a halo.

But Marc’s argument focuses more on our desire than the nature of happiness, and the fact that this world, this life, doesn’t fulfill our desires. He writes, “Our natural desire is not met within the universe we are a part of.”

Yep.

But how this becomes a case for theism requires some leaps in reason that I simply cannot take. One reason that I was first attracted to Buddhism was that it doesn’t require this particular leap. Instead of relying on some supernatural power to fulfill your desires, you are told that everything is impermanent and beyond our control. Our ignorance about this and resulting craving for control or permanence is what causes our suffering.

So, we’re told, first take a good look at yourself: what kinds of craving are causing you and others suffering? Cravings for constant experiences, toys, electronics, travels, etc that fuel environmental devestation and war. Aversions (the other side of the coin, so to speak; i.e. the craving for an absense of) to being too cold, to warm, in pain, alone, hungry, lost… And of course, in Buddhism 101 you learn that not all cravings are bad: wanting food every so often is essential to preserving life (which is very important), and wanting to reduce/eliminate suffering is central to the path.

So in a way, Buddhists can go along with Marc’s craving for eternal happiness. Defining happiness as the freedom from craving, this is what awakening (bodhi) is; it is the extinguishing (nirvana) of the fires of greed, aversion, and ignorance. (And it is true that for many Buddhists, the Buddha and/or Bodhisattvas do represent benevolent external powers that can be propitiated for favors.)

But what drew me to Buddhism more was the first step, taking a good look at myself, my own rather selfish and destructive desires and activities, including the desires to make certain moments of happiness last forever.

One of my friends and a fellow blogger, Amod Lele, has stepped away from Buddhism out of a doubt that such a state could be acheievd. But his attraction to Buddhism as philosophy is similar to my own. He wrote:

I began reading Western philosophy in high school, but my real philosophical awakening came on a trip to Thailand in 1997, coming to learn more and more about Buddhism. I found myself wishing for many things, getting them in turn, and still not being happy. I eventually realized it was all about the Second Noble Truth: suffering comes from craving. The problem wasn’t with whether or not I got what I wanted. The problem was with me. Philosophy was no longer just about abstractions or even social issues; it spoke directly to me.

Marc follows a similar rationale

Or take the idea of satisfaction. We constantly set up images of ourselves, saying, “If only I could be x, then I would be satisfied.” If only I could get that job. If only I could publish a book. If only I could move to California and join a yoga commune. Then we get those things and wake up, ready to start our new, satisfied life, and what do we find?

He goes on:

We think if only I could be successful, then I’d be happy. Then we’re successful, and who are we? The same “I”.

This is where Buddhist philosophy so clearly departs from Hindu and Christian thought: the “I”. For the Buddhist, there is the idea that the “I” is just a concept, a falsely-imagined stable thing in the ocean of change known as reality. The “I” is unhappy – or “I am unhappy” – or “unhappiness arises” – because new desires arise and even that very success we now have can become an object of clinging and unhappiness.

The self is not the same, but nor is it completely different. Marc continues:

We have a desire to be eternally satisfied, to be eternally happy, to be one with another, to be eternally loved and eternally love — these desires cannot be met. What then, are we to make of our desire for truth?

All of this worry about eternity! I just want my daily coffee and to get a little work done. In all seriousness though, I suppose this can be an issue for people. But I don’t think it is a universal affliction. And I don’t think one necessarily needs a Buddhist or Christian (or other theist) orientation to deal with such desires if they arise.

One of my favorite aspects of atheism is acceptance. The acceptance of our finitude is a pretty humbling process and can help turn us away from the cravings for eternal this or that; and what we can turn toward is working on ourselves and the problems around us in this world. And it’s just too easy to see how promises of eternal happiness can turn people into murderous or suicidal zealots, but that’s another issue all together. The point is just to not get too hung up on the ontological nature of our ideals, as Marc seems to with ‘truth’ here:

When we go about the work of science, we go under the assumption that the desire for truth can be met, for why would we have within ourselves a desire that has no correlation to reality? But if we claim that our desire for eternal happiness cannot be met, and that any thinking to the contrary is delusion, then we seriously call into question the idea that our desire for truth can be met, and that all satisfaction of that desire is any more than just delusion.

Truth, as an ideal, is something we can strive toward. In our humility, though, it is not something we should ever get hung up on thinking we have attained. Stephen Hawking smiled this week as he admitted he lost a $100 bet over the discovery of the Higgs field. The discovery helps complete a picture of reality that unites quantum mechanics and relativity theory, two areas of science that hitherto had failed to be reconciled. Is it a truth? I’m not so sure. I’m not so sure that truth is what is sought: it’s evidence for a theory that helps us understand reality as we experience it.

That there was a Higgs field has been an object of scientific speculation for over 40 years: scientific because it’s not just something to be believed in or desired, but something that could, theoretically be detected. Marc seems to go even further astray in writing:

If our desires don’t necessarily have objects, than [sic] man is absurd [sic] creature, and his reasoning cannot be trusted. If his wants can be mere delusions and fantasies, then his attempt to fulfill those wants are suspect. All his work is suspect. His atheism is suspect, his theism, his books and his thoughts.

Yes! Many attempts to fulfill our wants are suspect! Welcome to reality. Not all though; it doesn’t all fall apart, as Marc suggests. He concludes:

If however, we look at these desires and believe that they do have objects, then our need to know can be satisfied, as can our need to be forever satisfied can be satisfied. This is the position I cannot help but take. If I have a desire that cannot be met by the natural universe, this seems to imply that there is something in me that yearns something outside of the natural universe. And I do believe these desires can be met “there” — the desire to be one with Another, to be satisfied with myself as precisely who I am, to love and eternally be loved, to be forever happy and to spend my days in perfect peace — for if I don’t, I simply make no sense. [sic]

If you have a desire that cannot be met by the natural universe, guess what: you’re human. I’m tempted to say, “grow up! Tone down your desires; think about someone else for a minute!” Go to India. There you’ll find people whose whole lives are filled with about as many desires as you or I will have before lunch today. See a therapist. Or go to a soup kitchen. Anything to get outside your head and the horrible trouble you seem to have with not getting eternal happiness in this life and not being satisfied with yourself.

That may sound harsh, but it’s good advice that I’ve received a number of times from therapists, Buddhists, teachers, philosophers, and a good Catholic or two.

On the other hand, if a heaven to satisfy your desires out there is what you need to make sense of the world and to hopefully do some good in it, then okay. But the route of accepting that some desires might not ever be met (and that many desires don’t have objects) is open, available, and pretty reasonable.

* Note: I’m not opposed to various forms of theism in general, but I do see the desire for eternal happiness and sasfaction as a generally poor rationale for them.

  • Steve Greene

    This is a fundamental distinction between the religious mindset and the atheist mindset. Religious belief is strongly based on the idea that reality and the nature of reality is determined in important ways by the subjective desires of human beings. (All you have to do is read just about any recent essay by any religious believer to see this premise in action.) Atheism is strongly based on the idea that the subjective desires of human beings are completely irrelevant to determining reality and the nature of reality.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Steve – I agreee. And it’s interesting how closely your description of atheism describes Kant, who was accused of atheism in his lifetime, but remained at least nominally a theist or deist.

  • Joe Cogan

    Learning that the universe is indifferent to our desires is one of the most important steps in becoming an adult. Would that we could come to that collective realization as a species.

  • http://loveofallwisdom.com Amod Lele

    Thanks for this, Justin. You might want to investigate Marc’s position a little bit more, because, well, it sounds a lot like Kant’s! Kant’s argument for the existence of God is often assumed to be a “moral argument” like C.S. Lewis’s (there is a moral law, such a law needs a creator, therefore there is a creator of the law) but it actually bears more resemblance to this one: intelligible action presumes the possibility of a summum bonum of perfect virtue and happiness, which isn’t possible unless we have an afterlife where it can happen and a god as its guarantor. He pursues this in the first and second Critiques (and strangely not in Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, which deals with something completely different).

    I like the way you frame this in terms of desire, but I think there’s still a strong problem in a Buddhist position as expressed here. One could express it as: we have a desire to be free, in effect, from suffering and the desires that cause it – but why should that desire have precedence over our other desires? I’m not sure if you saw my series of posts on value and reality last fall, but I think it’s quite relevant to the line of reasoning you take up here, especially this post.

    • Justin Whitaker

      You’re right, Amod. It does seem close to Kant. But doesn’t Kant turn this on its head, so to speak? It cannot be subjective desire for happiness that justifies a belief in heaven, but rather the objective ground of volition. Simply wishing for eternal happiness gains us nothing. But if we develop and follow our sense of duty, which ”proudly rejects all kinship with the inclinations” (CPrR p. 87, p. 89) and those inclinations represent “the dependence of the faculty of desire on sensations . . . which accordingly always indicates a need” (GMM p. 413, p. 24). Such a need leads to a reliance (heteronomy) – in this case on whoever seems to offer the best promise of eternal happiness. So I think Kant would roundly reject to Marc’s reasons for theism. “Happiness, taken by itself, is, for our reason, far from being the complete good. Reason does not approve happiness (however inclination may desire it) except insofar as it is united with worthiness to be happy, that is, with moral conduct. Morality, taken by itself, and with it, the mere worthiness to be happy, is also far from being the complete good” (CPR A 813/B 841).

      I think the question you raise here is similar to what Kant encountered in terms of making the objective moral law into a subjective ground for action; which he acknowledged as the “insoluble problem for the human reason” (CPrR p.72). His answer was that this simply is our nature. So I’m not sure if asking ‘why’ is appropriate… It’s like asking ‘why anatta’ or ‘why anicca’? These thing can be pointed at in reasoning or in experience, but I’m not sure there is any ‘why’ to them. I recall something along these lines discussed in Korsgaard’s book “Sources of Normativity” – the notion that no form of ethics can tell us ‘why be moral’ if we reject the fundamental presuppositions on which they are based. The theistic argument to be moral because God tells us to is no better than the atheistic one that it is our nature to be moral – though the philosophers you mention, Ayer and Moore, probably stop short of this precisely because it’s such a ‘metaphysical’ claim.


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