Atheism and the Divinity of Truth

There’s been some great discussion here about issues related to truth – thanks!

Still, I’m surprised that nobody has yet addressed the claims about atheism and reverence for truth.

The real issue for me is whether or not atheists tend to agree with my last paragraph:

Paul Tillich wrote that “whatever concerns a man ultimately becomes god for him, and conversely, . . . a man can be concerned ultimately only about that which is god for him” (1951: 211).  For many atheists, truth seems to be the ultimate concern.  On Tillich’s definition of god as ultimate concern, it looks like truth is the god of the atheists.  Of course, it would not be the Christian God, nor would it be any theistic deity.  Is this right?  Is truth the god of the atheists?  Do atheists worship the truth?  I doubt it.  Perhaps it’s more accurate to say this: atheists revere the truth, and, for atheists, truth is holy, truth is sacred, truth is divine.

References:

Tillich, P. (1951) Systematic Theology.  Vol. 1.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Belial

    “atheists revere the truth, and, for atheists, truth is holy, truth is sacred, truth is divine”

    um. no. again.

    I, one of many atheists, simply do not think the way you or Paul Tillich does. There isn’t anything divine (sloppy of you to commingle revere, holy, truth, and divine) about being right or not. I really don’t care about truth.

    I care about having time with my family, getting my work done on time and well, being healthy and helping more than I cause problems for anyone. Getting on with life >>>> being worried about abstract notions.

    FWIW, if you’re trying to understand atheists, I’d recommend reading the bloggers on this site. They are all really good writers and are individual people. I would suggest avoiding the theists views on atheists. We aren’t all the same and trying to pidgin hole “the atheist’s view on truth” is a fool’s errand.

  • danielrudolph

    You’d hope so. Watch a few YouTube atheists and you’ll find that for a significant number, feeling like they’re smarter than those religious rubes is what’s divine.

    • Cuttlefish

      …which is so very different from the significant number of religious YouTubers who are happy being smarter than those atheist fools.

  • Cuttlefish

    So… I am an atheist because I want the truth? Oddly enough, that’s what I thought I was after when I was a born-again Christian.

  • http://twitter.com/mikehypercube MikeHypercube

    I don’t think you can make claims on behalf of others, but for oneself one can say that one reveres the truth, or that one does not.

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      So, I’m asking the question: what do you think?

  • Brandon

    Speaking only for myself, as atheists are too diverse on such a thing to summarize, I don’t consider anything holy, divine, sacred, or worthy of worship. Least of all would I consider an abstract concept to be such. I place a lot of value on attempting to believe things that are true, but it doesn’t approach being a religious sort of thing. This is pure projection on the part of Tillich, in which not having something to worship is so far out of his ken that he invents objects of worship for others.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Knitterman raywhiting

    I’ve not actually thought about it. I do like to think my life is built on what I find o be true, but I’m not sure I would use the (capital-T) Truth. If you’ll pardon this quote from the Bible, it expresses where I aspire to direct my focus and invest my energies:

    Phil 4.8: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

    I imagine that what a theist considers true, pure, etc. may be different from what an atheist could consider to be true, or pure or whatever. But the atheists I know and regularly communicate with, I sense we all aim to use science and reason and evidence to ascertain what is true. As humanists we look for the good in people (“if there be any virtue”). And so on and so forth.

    That’s not a good passage because it’s in the Bible. It’s in the Bible because it’s a good concept, Christian or not (in my opinion).

    • Steve Schuler

      Yes, this is a very nice bit of scripture derived from the letters of Paul! I imagine that in his time and location Paul was a very, very progessive individual in many respects. While I think that the Bible makes a very poor handbook for life, there are some very good thoughts in it that still warrant consideration by a modern audience.

    • peterh

      But so many lack the emotional and intellectual rigor to separate wheat from chaff. In many cases it’s best to err on the side of caution & discount the whole collection of writings until one takes the time to cautiously research scripture rather than mindlessly regurgitate it.

    • Steve Schuler

      Yes, in the hands of someone who believes the Bible to be “the inerrant word of God” and the “supreme authority”, I think that the combination of beleiver and Bible can be pretty dangerous.

      I have a friend from high school who attained a Phd. in philosophy from the University of Oregon who currently is a professor of philosophy at a seminary where they make fundamentalist vows each year as a condition of their employment. He truly believes that the Bible is both inerrant and the supreme authority.

      He was raised with very little religious influence and certainly no religious indoctrination. Some things defy easy explanation…

  • grung0r

    The real issue for me is whether or not atheists tend to agree with my last paragraph:

    I’m not sure how any of us could know what the hell you’re talking about. To wit, In our previous discussion, I referred natura naturans as ‘your god’. You responded thusly:

    Nobody, neither Wiccans nor the cited atheistic philosophers, thinks that natura naturans is a god.

    So, let me get this straight. Calling the immanent ultimate creative power of tautologies a ‘god’ is incorrect. No one would describe it that way. But it makes perfect sense to call ‘truth’ the atheist’s god? What exactly do you mean when you say ‘god’? How could one be right and other wrong? Is this just another case of your floating, ethereal definitions changing to suit your current needs? It sure looks that way.

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      I’m asking a question, not making a statement.

    • grung0r

      I’m asking a question, not making a statement.

      Are you? what about this:

      On Tillich’s definition of god as ultimate concern, it looks like truth is the god of the atheists.

      What’s that at the end of that sentence about what the atheists god looks like? It appears to be a period. How strange! I’ve never seen a question end like that before. Maybe just I don’t know enough about metaphysics to understand.

      In any case, Your Glenn Beckish “I’m just asking questions “defense doesn’t hold water. Given that you seem to agree that truth as god and natura naturans as god are equally valid or invalid(and in the case of the latter, you think it’s invalid), your only goal in asking a question that you believe to be invalid would be to sow confusion.

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      Do you or do you not regard truth as sacred, holy, or divine?

    • grung0r

      No, because I don’t experience the world in the squishy vocabulary of theology. I have heard “holy”, for instance, used to describe cattle, certain historical books, ALL books, beer, sub-atomic particles, planets, tapeworms, and various abstract concepts. It is clear that “holy” means nothing other then what emotions each particular person ascribes to it. I don’t ascribe anything to it, and thus would not attach it(or the other words on your list) to anything at all.

      Now, to finish our conversation(your reply was somewhat inexplicable, given that you addressed not a thing I said). I’m still wondering why you would use such a word like “god” for truth to atheists when you didn’t think it was appropriate for you Immanent ultimate creative power of tautologies. The easiest way to settle this would be for YOU to answer the very question I(and several others) just did. Turnabout, is after all, fair play.

  • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

    I’m asking a question here. My question is prompted by so many commenters who insisted that what matters to them above all is the TRUTH. Truth begins to look like the sacred atheist value, the sole rock upon which atheism stands, the divine power in which atheists firmly place their faith. Of course, I’m just abstracting this from a certain segment of commenters.

    • peterh

      Your question, then?

    • Steve Schuler

      While I was still quite young (about 10 years old) and being raised as a Christian at some point, although I don’t remember exactly when, I was exposed to the Gospel of John wherein, during the trial of Jesus by Pontius Pilate, in chapter 18 verses 37 and 38 this exchange occurs between Jesus and Pilate:

      37 Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end have I been born, and to this end am I come into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.

      38 Pilate saith unto him, What is truth? And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, I find no crime in him.

      What stuck in my wee little mind was this question, “What is truth?” and that Pilate also said, “I find no crime in him.” which left me with a pretty positive impression of Pilate, at least as portrayed in this particular exchange. I thought he must have been a pretty smart guy and a just man to question what “truth” was and determine that Jesus was innocent, as well.

      Now, some 45 years later, my wee little mind still ponders the question, “What is truth?”.

      While I value “truth” very highly, I have found that it is not so easily got at.

      I hope that this little anecdote helps you answer your question, although I am not sure that it will.

      Steve

    • abb3w

      The “what is truth” exchange is also somewhat interesting in a literary sense, as it’s the one time I can think of in the Gospels where Jesus doesn’t present a clever answer to a riddle.

  • http://unreasonablefaith.com Vorjack

    I’ve heard Robert M. Price play with Tillich in just this way. It’s very frustrating for someone who reveres truth to see people slap the label of “truth” on something just because they were raised to believe it, or because they have some emotional attachment to the idea. So it falls on the lover of truth to become an iconoclast and smash the idols of false truth whenever possible.

    I’ve played with the idea a bit myself, but I think most atheists are uncomfortable with making a stand for some kind of higher truth. We do tend to accept the pragmatic understanding of truth, and that means that truth could always be different tomorrow.

  • NewEnglandBob

    There is nothing sacred about truth for me, an atheist. The truth is simple, unlike apologetics, which is lying to get ones own way. There is no need for excuses or remembering which thing you told to whom. Truth is liberating. It lets one get on with important things in life, like family and friends and making a purpose for oneself. Religious ‘truth’ is just the opposite, it is trying to live one’s life according to arbitrary, unnatural rules and lies.

    Observe, analyze and describe – that is all truth is; plain and simple.

  • http://pharyngula.wikia.com/wiki/User_talk:Markovbaines love moderately ॐ

    Gods have mental abilities. Some say they must have supernatural mental abilities — their mental abilities must not ultimately have a physical basis — but I’m not sure that’s right.

    If the truth does not have any mental abilities, then it cannot be a god.

    (Sophia might.)

  • http://qpr.ca/blogs/ Alan Cooper

    Perhaps you are trolling, but this really is pretty childish stuff.

    The sincerity of your protestation that “I’m asking a question, not making a statement” is belied by your use of the definite article in statements like the following:
    “Truth begins to look like the sacred atheist value, the sole rock upon which atheism stands, the divine power in which atheists firmly place their faith.”

    But it doesn’t take an atheist to answer either your statement or your questions. Anyone who understands the English language and its roots knows that the word “atheist” can refer to anyone who has no god. And you shouldn’t have needed the first commenter above to demonstrate by example that there is no implication from lack of god to any particular respect for truth. Many (though not all) atheists may suspect that there is an implication in the other direction, but that is not what you were asking.

    And really, your wish to understand atheists as if they were all the same with regard to some characteristic other than that which defines them is as silly (though perhaps not quite so offensive) as taking the same attitude to, say, black people.

    If you really were just an earnest sixteen year old I would be less harsh, but I gather that you are actually a professor of philosophy. Maybe you are just being Socratic, and if so please take this as a warning that, despite its merits, such an approach, if not seen as naive, runs the risk on the other hand of being resented as condescending.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Enough commenters dismiss his posts with condescending tones, knee jerk anti-metaphysical generalizations, and assumptions he does not know what he’s talking about that I assume he figures the only response to that arrogance is to Socratically interrogate it. If non-philosophers can read one thing he writes and make such dismissive remarks as he’s been getting as “I expect more from an associate professor of philosophy” and “What’s this doing on Freethoughtblogs!”, they set themselves up as the ignorant know it all know-nothing interlocutors that Socrates figured it was just best to dialectically lead through “trolling”–i.e., questioning that forces the dogmatic to take positions and face the cognitive dissonance of seeing them come to contradictions.

      If you look back at how uncharitably simple things he said in his early posts have been read to imply the dumbest interpretation of what he’s saying out of reflexive hostility to doing perfectly legitimate philosophical things like thinking through metaphysical categories or a religion’s implications, it is not surprising he has taken this route. If he cannot simply explore the logic or metaphysical implications of a religion without being accused of secretly proselytizing or being attacked viciously like a heretic to almighty Empiricism, how is he supposed to assume he’s dealing with people he should treat respectfully as serious, educated, and philosophically skilled readers, rather than as arrogant know-it-all philosophical know-nothings who need a remedial philosophical education if any progress is to be made?

    • SAWells

      I would refer to Eric’s “Nine theses…” post as evidence that your characterisation of his actions here is far too charitable. He’s explicitly pushing a political view- that atheism should make nice with Wicca and develop a religious naturalism- and he’s refusing to acknowledge or properly respond to criticism.

      I’m also highly amused by the idea that forthright criticism of his ideas makes me non-serious or uneducated and in need of remedial philosophical education. Very Courtier’s Reply. You must properly appreciate the finer points of haberdashery before you are worthy to point out the emperor’s lack of clothes.

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      @SAWells – Of course, I can’t tell if you are from the United States or not. My intent, which I have clearly indicated from the very start, is to try to understand the developments in the religious landscape of the United States.

      I have given evidence (in earlier posts) for my nine theses. For instance, atheists (both individually and as groups) are advocating celebration of the winter solstice and other pagan traditional holidays. If you think my nine theses are incorrect, you should cite evidence from what is happening to religion and to atheism in the USA.

    • SAWells

      Burden of proof’s on you, mate, and here are my objections again in order. You’ll note that “Some atheists observe solstices and equinoxes” doesn’t help you at all for most of them.

      “The first thesis is that as Christianity declines in America, two communities will be growing: an atheistic community and a neo-pagan community.”

      Criticisms: two communities and only two? No. Under any circumstances multiple communities will be growing and others will be declining. We’d hope that many of those communities will be atheistic, but the growth of “an atheistic community”, singular, is not to be expected. Similarly we might expect multiple neopagan communities. But if the driver for the decline of Christianity is an increased public interest in rationality and science, you may not get growth of neopagan communities at all.

      “The second thesis: Since Wicca is the largest and most coherent neo-pagan community, the neo-paganism will mainly be Wiccan.”

      Unfounded assumption: that Wicca is a coherent community.

      “The third thesis: As the atheistic community grows larger, social and practical pressures will compel it to begin to develop rituals and ceremonies.”

      Continuation of earlier error: you shouldn’t expect one atheistic community. Also, there are already lots of important ceremonies (weddings, funerals, birthdays, Christmas/New Year midwinter celebrations) which are available in fully secular forms. So, there’s very little need for atheists to invent an entirely new way to have parties, dinners and meetings.

      “The fourth thesis: The rituals and ceremonies collectively practiced by atheists will become socially recognized as an atheistic religion.”

      Holy fuck. No. Performing plays by Shakespeare will become socially recognised as an amateur-dramatic religion? I don’t think so.

      “The fifth thesis: As the Wiccan community grows larger, cognitive pressures will compel it to get rid of the woo and to seek greater scientific legitimacy.”

      As is so obvious in the case of fundamentalist Christianity in the US, which is constantly seeking to get rid of their woo about gods and angels and to seek scientific legitimacy… oh, wait, no.

      “The sixth thesis: Underneath all the woo, which is indeed offensive to reason, there are core structures in Wicca which are highly rational.”

      I’m sure once you get rid of all the actual Wicca, you’re left with a bunch of people who are minimally rational enough not to try to walk through brick walls. Big whoop.

      “The seventh thesis: Wicca is neither Christian nor Abrahamic. Wicca is immune to the strategies atheists have developed for attacking Abrahamic religions.”

      Bullshit, because a major and increasingly successful strategy is skeptical enquiry, which is applicable any time anyone makes a knowledge claim. Case in point: if Wiccans are pointing to some creative force as their non-theistic deity, we immediately need to ask (i) is there any such “force” as described and (ii) if there is, is there any good reason to call it a deity?

      “The eighth thesis: As the result of all the pressures, the two main post-Christian communities, that is, the atheists and the Wiccans, are going to be increasingly blended together. This blending will be messy.”

      Continuation of error about the number of communities and their coherence. The claim that atheists and Wiccans will be increasingly blended together is not based on evidence. They’re already as blended as they’re going to get in that you can find both on college campuses.

      “The ninth thesis: The common meeting ground of these two communities will be a kind of religious naturalism.”

      Another round of holy fuck. No, the common meeting ground of completely different systems of beliefs is secularism, where everyone gets to believe their private woo but it’s impolite to shove it in other people’s faces.

  • http://anythingbuttheist.blogspot.com Bret

    Never been a fan of Aletheia, since she is so hard to know. I prefer Themis.

  • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

    My general question, to all who have evaded it so far: Do you or do you not regard truth as sacred, holy, or divine?

    • Nele

      No, because the concepts “sacred”, “divine”, and “holy” bear associations I do not subscribe to.

      In the context these words are normally used (and philosophical dialectics don’t change the pragmatic use of language in the linguistic sense) they imply a certain behaviour which has to be observed: divine, holy, and sacred things must not be questioned, they must be treated with devotion, they must be regarded with deference – ideally in the form of rites.

      As an atheist I do not do such things. For me, truth is an uncomplicated thing. It is, again in a linguistically pragmatic sense, an ideal which demands that a conviction must be aligned with tangible reality as well as with logic and which must be given up if it does not meet these demands. There is nothing metaphysical about this idea.

      Apart from that – why do you use the terms “holy”, “divine”, and “sacred”? Their connotation is obvious and your using them could lead to the suspicion that you have ulterior rhetoric goals…

    • Nele

      “…which demands that a conviction must be aligned with tangible reality as well as with logic and which must be given up if it does not meet these demands.”

      Perhaps I am unclear. Please read as: “…which demands that a conviction must be aligned with tangible reality as well as with logic; and that this conviction must be given up if it does not meet these demands.”

    • abb3w

      I can’t go higher than “an object of respect”, which may be close enough to “revere” for your purpose. I also fundamentally disagree with Paul Tillich’s definition of “god” as “a person’s ultimate concern” – it smacks too much of the sort of implicit equivocation “the uncaused cause” and other such sloppy apologetic arguments rely on. (I’ve also seen a variant used by Christians as a means of source derogation to stop thinking about the counterarguments – “So, you’ve made reason your God…”, therefore you are following some other religion, and should be ignored.)

      However, loaded language aside, the concept doesn’t seem to be entirely without sociological/anthropological validity. In Altemeyer and Hunsberger’s “Amazing Conversions” book, they concluded from their sample that one likely reason Amazing Apostates left the faiths of their parents was (paradoxically) the strength and success of the religious upbringing: the religion taught them to follow the truth, no matter the personal cost. And so, when their scrutiny turned to their religion, and the religion failed to meet the standard it had taught, they kept the standard and dropped the religion. The sense of “atheists” thus probably needs to have a qualifier attached, in this seems it would be more common among those who have more explicitly considered and rejected the existence of God, rather than those who are classed as atheist more “by default”.

      It would also seem “truth” (along with “the real world”) might make a plausible part of what (IIR) Dale Cannon’s “Six Ways of Being Religious” refers to in generic as the Ultimate Reality°, in so far as one wants to consider the extent that (scientific secular humanist) atheism behaves anthropologically as a religion, and how (ssh)atheism can be seen as expressing the Six Ways. (Outraged atheists may pause to note that NFL football may express them more clearly, putting limits on the sense that “atheism is just another religion”. American Civil Religion is probably a more useful example if you have to argue with a typical US Fundamentalist Christian on this topic, however; you can suggest they’re breaking the First Commandment about “no other gods before me”.)

    • http://qpr.ca/blogs/ Alan Cooper

      Now that’s a much better question with “Do you…” as opposed to “do atheists…”, and I have no wish to evade it (or rather them). But given the context I should preface my answer with the proviso that I haven’t declared myself to be an “atheist” so you may not be interested after all.

      Of course it isn’t one question (or at least, interpreted as one it is as unfair as “are you either married or a rapist?”). It is three. And the answers I give will depend on very personal and perhaps even idiosyncratic interpretations of the three words “sacred”,”holy”, and “divine”.

      For me, the last of the answers is definitely “no” as the word “divine” implies an entity of some kind and there is nothing (besides chocolate) to which I apply it with serious intent.

      The word “holy” on the other hand evokes in me a sense of awe and wonder which I may associate with certain places or experiences. But truth to me, though valuable, is something more mundane. So I would say “no” here too.

      “Sacred” though, is more challenging. Despite the etymology (or perhaps in line with it given that what we are called by the gods to sacrifice must be something we value greatly), I *am* tempted to call truth “sacred” because I see it as something of great value to be sought after and protected. But although I have no intention of giving it up (to the gods or anyone else) I can’t say that its value to me is necessarily above all others. It’s just very high and I have no wish to be tested to the point of having to make a choice.

      If you insist on the disjunction then I hope you will not use my tentative yes to infer any acceptance of the other two terms (I am married but not a rapist), and I thank you for finally having the respect to ask the question(s) of us as individuals about our own positions rather than expecting us to speak as or for some kind of a collective.

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      Alan, that’s a very careful and excellent comment! I also tend to worry about the ordinary connotations of “divine”, though philosophers tend to use it in a more general sense than any theistic sense. (I think that philosophers have so much exposure to pre-Christian Greek and Roman thought that we see these words differently than most people.) Yes, I think you have expressed something very valuable here.

  • satan augustine

    Eric,

    I would say that I can only speak for myself, but that would be a bit inaccurate since I have known many atheists over the course of the last 4 years and I’ve been reading atheist blogs for just as long. Given that, here’s my take:

    No, truth is not the god of atheists, nor is science. As atheists, we have no gods and don’t see the need for them. God is a useless concept in this context. Atheists do not attempt to replace a theistic belief in god by substituting anything else. We don’t worship truth either. Asking this question is a category mistake. I know of nothing worthy of worship. This includes the concept of truth. God, worship, holy, sacred, and divinity are all purely religious concepts and thus are meaningless outside the realm of religion. Atheists do not feel the need to replace religious ideas of the kind you mention because they are incoherent ideas in a secular world.

    I think most atheists highly value truth and think that it’s important and necessary to get as close to truth as we possibly can, often via science or the scientific method broadly defined in addition to other methods of inquiry, but none of this translates to seeing truth as god, divine, holy, or worthy of worship. We also don’t put our faith (another religious term) in truth because the methods that we rely on to establish truth are based on evidence. If one has evidence, faith is unnecessary for “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”(Hebrews 11:1) Atheists do not decide truth based on what we hope to be true, but rather what the evidence points to, even if the truth is an uncomfortable one.

    I’m repeating myself here, but I’d just like to say that the language of religion does not apply the atheist’s view of anything. (There may be exceptions in individual atheists. For instance, some atheists may say they consider marriage “sacred,” but to me that’s merely indicative of how saturated with religious language our culture is).

    By the way, the desire for truth is is to no small degree a desire for having knowledge that allows to lead the most fulfilling lives possible, not to mention simply to survive. Basing ones choices in life on falsehoods is a recipe for disaster, even death.

  • Ariel

    Eric’s posts received a lot of angry comments. As I understand, one of the reasons is that he uses rather freely categories like “sacred”, “holy”, “divine”, and mixes them with atheism. At this moment I don’t want to take any side in this discussion. My aim will be modest: I will try to rephrase his question in more secular terms, adding only that I find this (rephrased) question a bit vexing myself. I think also that it’s a good question to ask especially today, when we know about the death of Christopher Hitchens.

    For a start, consider a typical dialogue (A – atheist, B – believer)

    B: Why are you so proud and condescending? It’s cheap and easy to be like that as long as you are safe and healthy. Wait only, sooner or later something horrible happens, then you will turn to God!
    A: A very bad argument for the truth of your religion.
    B: But just try to imagine that you are terminally ill, or that someone very close to you dies. What then? Without God, you are left with no consolation, nothing! Even the atheists turn to God in such situations. Maybe it doesn’t show that religion is true, but it shows that all this atheist pride is just a worthless pile of rubbish!
    A: I don’t think I will turn to God. Truth is too important to me. Even in desperation I will find pride – and yes, some consolation – in the fact that I’m not one of those who cheat themselves, who comfort themselves with illusions, who escape from reality instead of facing it.

    My impression is that it’s a very typical dialogue. I saw it many times, I guess you saw it too, or maybe even participated in it. Whenever I see it, I ask myself a question: is it just a ritual dance? Is the atheist’s last move a mere rhetoric device intended to force the believer to shut up? Or perhaps the atheist really means what he says? If the latter, why does the atheist make so much fuss about truth? Why does he think that choosing truth over personal comfort is somehow worthy and dignified (and by the same token comforting, even in the face of death)? Or maybe the whole point is about being brave, and not about truth at all? Finally: do you agree with the atheist’s last answer (I mean – do you agree with it in earnest, forget about the believers for a moment, they don’t have to be always important)?

    Well, this is the rephrased question. Eric, perhaps that’s more or less what you meant by saying that truth for the atheist is “sacred”? (If not, feel free to tell me to get lost – I’m not planning to hijack your topic). As for my own answer, at the moment I don’t have one.

    • Nele

      I’m not sure if I understand you correctly. Are you saying that inventing stories for the purpose of personal comfort is basically the same as the attempt to deal with reality as it is? And the the atheist’s choice of the latter makes the attempt somehow “sacred”?

    • Ariel

      I’m not sure if I understand you correctly.

      I’m sure you don’t :-)

      Are you saying that inventing stories for the purpose of personal comfort is basically the same as the attempt to deal with reality as it is?

      No such claim was intended. My intention was to ask the following questions:

      (a) are you inclined to take dialogues like the one I have given at face value? I.e. do you think that truth is really so central for the atheists engaging in popular dialogues of this sort as the dialogue suggests?
      (b) Do you personally find truth so central as to identify yourself with the atheist from my dialogue? Do you think that truth is indeed more important than personal comfort?
      (c) if “yes” to (b), what motivates such an answer? Do you have reasons for that? Or maybe your answer is “just so. End of the story”?
      (d) If you find dignity and value in preferring truth over personal comfort, is this dignity and value connected primarily with choosing truth, or with being brave? Which of the two factors really matters?
      (e) How effective (in the face of a disaster) in your opinion is the comfort brought by the thought “I may be unhappy, but I know the truth”?

      I repeat: the claim you formulated was not intended. The fact is that I’m very unsure about answers to the questions I have asked. OK, if you want: I’m very dubious about an answer to (a); I partially (but only partially) identify myself with an atheist from the dialogue; I’m at a loss about (c) and (d); I suspect I would give a “not very effective” answer to (e). All very tentative.

      And the the atheist’s choice of the latter makes the attempt somehow “sacred”?

      I think the choice of words like “sacred”, “holy”, “divine” was unfortunate. Forget them, that was my suggestion. My aim was to rephrase Eric’s question without these words. I don’t know whether I did a good job in this – maybe he had something different in mind (his opinion would be useful). As I see it, the “atheist choice of the latter” – if genuine – makes truth very central and basic to our value system. If by “sacred” Eric means no more than that, I’m fine with it (while still thinking that the choice of the word may be unfortunate, especially on ftb).

      Hope that it helps.

  • SAWells

    Fuck no. Have a look at those weasel words from Tillich: “…a man can be concerned ultimately only about that which is god for him”. Bullshit. A desperate attempt to make “god” mean something non-fictional.

    Truth is valuable and important to me. Happy now?

    By the way, Eric, you have a terrible habit of using the Argument from Big Names – as if you expect everyone to be more reverent of an idea if you attribute it to Leibniz or Neitzsche or Tillich. It’s not working.

    • Everett Attebury

      Truth is just a tool, a yardstick to measure claims against. It’s especially useful in a world full of people who try to extend their self-deceptions into other people.

    • abb3w

      This suggests a propensity to Social Dominance Orientation correlates to a sense of Authority as a moral dimension perhaps just as much as it does for Christians. Merely being an atheist does not inherently render someone immune to appeals to authority, nor any tendency to use them.

      While there’s data to suggest that (W.E.I.R.D.) atheists disproportionately tend a significantly lower distribution on RWA measures, I know of no such data regarding any differences in SDO. Given the number of Randite and “we’re smarter” flavors of atheists, it wouldn’t even surprise me much if the distribution for atheists tended slightly higher than the general population on the SDO scale.

    • satan augustine

      @abb3w – What are (W.E.I.R.D.) atheists and what does RWA stand for? Also, any idea if the “yourmorals.org dataset” mentioned in the article you linked to are based solely on internet responses? If so then it’s obviously not a random or representative sample of either population. It’s a self-selected sample. I’m sure how seriously we should take these results.

      As you say:

      Merely being an atheist does not inherently render someone immune to appeals to authority, nor any tendency to use them.

      True. However, if one tries to apply the methods of scientific skepticism to all things (as much as one can possibly do so), then one knows to try avoid appeals to authority. Obviously all of us must appeal to authority to some extent since no one can be an expert on everything, but appealing to the authority of scientific consensus is quite different from appealing to the authority of alleged revelation, anecdotes, dogma, or a cult of personality (the Randites you mention would fall into the lattermost category in my opinion). If fact, I see Objectivism and Libertarianism as nontheistic religions, i.e., based on dogma, etc., not evidence.

    • abb3w

      WEIRD – “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic”. Recently pointed out fat-ass limitation on the degree of generalizability for an embarrassing amount of psychology/sociology research. See (doi:10.1038/466029a). In this context, I’m mainly noting this may not apply to (say) atheists of the former Soviet Union.

      RWA – “Right Wing Authoritarianism”, a metric developed by Dr. Bob Altemeyer. Note, it’s not quite “right wing” in the usual political sense of the word; in the former USSR, high-RWAs tended to be strong supporters of the Communist party, which (classicly) is politically left-wing. Altemeyer has a free PDF book that summarizes the results of his research, available via here; most of the primary technical papers it summarizes are in Google-Scholar indexed journals, which EDU institutional subscriptions may give access to. The main technical challenge to its validity in the literature seems to be how much it measures an underlying tendency versus measures expression of the tendency.

      Yes, yourmorals.org is a self-selective dataset; although some normalized weighing can help correct for the problem, it’s less useful for distributions of a trait within the population than random samples. That doesn’t mean it can’t be useful for suggesting correlations between traits that have distributions within a population — though a dedicated random sample study would be vastly superior. Despite self-selection, a dataset of 100000 participants isn’t necessarily to be instantly dismissed, especially when it seems moderately diverse (though not exactingly US standard) distribution on political, racial, age, religious, and gender lines. Note that I’m not using the dataset to support the claim that US atheists tend to lean (relative to the overall population) less low-SDO than the extent they lean low-RWA, much less outright lean high-SDO (which I admit is and purely subjective and even pessimistic assessment of anecdata). I’m using it to support the correlation of SDO and Authority-dimension sensitivity.

      Also note, I was noting it to support that a habit of Big Name invocation should remain slightly unsurprising, not that it was a habit a skeptical mindset would approve of. Most people don’t live up to their ideals.

      I’d largely agree with your characterization of Objectivist Libertarianism; I’d be less convinced about some of the less objectivist strains of Libertarianism. That said, any philosophical ought-ordering of is-choices requires at least one additional “dogma” – an axiom to indicate which constructively possible ought-ordering is involved in the sense of “good” in use. Saying “that will cause the moon to smash into the earth at 0.1c” is an is-statement; whether one choosing to cause the smash is something one “ought” or “oughtn’t” do depends on how you prioritize (order) humanity’s survival versus really big explosions. But that’s going a bit off the deep end of abstraction there….

  • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

    @abb3w — Very well said! Yes, there’s an old Nietzsche adaged that Christianity was dying from its cultivation of truth as it supreme value — Christianity made truth sacred, and the result was that Christianity refuted its own doctrine. This goes hand in hand with the idea that atheism (especially in the USA) is a type of extreme Protestantism (it is a “protest”).


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