The Basis for an Atheist's Morality

Yesterday, the Washington Post published an editorial titled What Atheists Can’t Answer. The author, Michael Gerson, is an influential evangelical Christian and was formerly George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter.

Compared to most attacks on atheism, including a few I’ve rebutted recently, Gerson’s essay is fair and honest. He rightfully steers clear of the slanderous and unfounded insults so common in apologetic literature, conceding that human beings can be good without God. However, while he agrees that atheists can be moral, he expresses a time-worn worry:

Human nature, in other circumstances, is also clearly constructed for cruel exploitation, uncontrollable rage, icy selfishness and a range of other less desirable traits.

So the dilemma is this: How do we choose between good and bad instincts? …Atheists can be good people; they just have no objective way to judge the conduct of those who are not.

This is a serious argument and deserves detailed consideration. Following is the text of a reply I sent to Gerson and to the Post.

Dear Mr. Gerson:

This is a response to your July 14 column, “What Atheists Can’t Answer”.

You wrote that, in the dilemma of choosing between good and evil, theism gives us reason to “cultivate the better angels of our nature.” However, any honest assessment of history would conclude that religion makes people bad at least as often as it makes them good. Religion has inspired great acts of charity and selflessness, beautiful music, art and architecture, and countless examples of human kindness and compassion. It has also inspired horrific, bloody wars, brutal inquisitions, tyrannical theocracies, fanatical campaigns of terror, and countless incidents of discrimination, prejudice, and bigotry.

Far from being a force that pulls ceaselessly toward the moral apex of the universe, religion is more like a megaphone, amplifying both the good and the bad of human nature in equal measure. This is not surprising to an atheist, because there is no objectively verifiable evidence of any god who wants people to behave in any particular way. As a result, people can without fear of contradiction invent a god who speaks for them, who confirms all their opinions and prejudices – and this is exactly what all religious people do, the liberal as well as the conservative.

You worried that atheists have no compelling answer to a person who says, “I’m going to do whatever I please.” But religion does not solve that problem. If anything, the problem is far worse when the malcontent is a theist who claims that his desires are not just some idiosyncratic expression of individual preference, but the very will of God. An atheist, at least, has no warrant to claim holy sanction or divine infallibility for his opinions, and in theory can be persuaded by reason. On the other hand, a person who sincerely believes that they are acting in accordance with the will of the creator is immune to evidence, diplomacy, and compromise – as the many religious wars still smoldering after millennia should make abundantly clear.

In your column, you said that morality cannot be anchored without reference to a higher power: that if God had not commanded us to be good, we would have no reason to be good, and no justification for condemning those who were not. This claim betrays its own incoherence, for we can then ask, why does God command us to be moral? Does he have reasons for that edict? If so, then we too can make use of those reasons, for if they are good ones, they will stand on their own without reference to who is giving them. On the other hand, if God has no reasons for his commands, then religious morality is cut loose from any anchor. God commanded us to be merciful and kind, but that was just an arbitrary choice with no deeper significance. He could just as easily have commanded us to be vicious and cruel, and those traits would then be the definition of goodness which we were all bound to follow. Can any rational person accept such a nonsensical conclusion?

You asked what reason an atheist can give to be moral, so allow me to offer an answer. You correctly pointed out that neither our instincts nor our self-interest can completely suffice, but there is another possibility you’ve overlooked. Call it what you will – empathy, compassion, conscience, lovingkindness – but the deepest and truest expression of that state is the one that wishes everyone else to share in it. A happiness that is predicated on the unhappiness of others – a mentality of “I win, you lose” – is a mean and petty form of happiness, one hardly worthy of the name at all. On the contrary, the highest, purest and most lasting form of happiness is the one which we can only bring about in ourselves by cultivating it in others. The recognition of this truth gives us a fulcrum upon which we can build a consistent, objective theory of human morality. Acts that contribute to the sum total of human happiness in this way are right, while those that have the opposite effect are wrong. A wealth of moral guidelines can be derived from this basic, rational principle.

You said that in an atheist’s world, the desire for meaning and purpose are “a cruel joke of nature.” Nothing could be further from the truth. I am an atheist, and my life is full to bursting with meaning and purpose. I rejoice to be alive in this beautiful, complex, awe-inspiring world. I am grateful for the interactions with my fellow human beings who illuminate my mind with their brilliance, inspire me with their dedication, and offer me the chance to enter into the deep communion of love. The knowledge that our lives are finite does not make them less precious, but infinitely more so, as we know that we must seize this one opportunity while we possess it and drink deeply from the rich spring of all that life has to offer.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • OMGF

    Your link didn’t work for me.

    Oh and here is the link to Hitchens’ response.

  • OMGF

    Your link didn’t work for me.

    Oh and here is the link to Hitchens’ response.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Link fixed.

  • http://www.blacksunjournal.com BlackSun

    Ebonmuse, you continue to impress me with your ability to diplomatically debate theists on their own terms. Congratulations on a great letter, I hope they publish it.

  • Jeff T.

    The thing that I find amazing is that since there is no god, obviously morality does not depend on god. Theists can offer all the words in the world, and that fact remains. There is no god therefore morality comes from man. Good and evil comes from man. Wars come from man. Kindness comes from man. Evil comes from man.

    I encourage theists to open their eyes and see this truth. Who kills? Who steals? Who is sent to prison? Is it a god? or is it man?

    Another thing to consider is why would a god who created all that is in the multi-verse need someone like Mr. Gerson to speak on his behalf? Perhaps a theist can answer this? Perhaps a theist can explain why thoughts and opinions come from men and not from ‘god’ himself…. Why can people not see this simple evidence staring them in the face? This should be proof enough for atheism, yet religious belief defies logic and reason.

  • Nancy Benstead

    I have just recently started using Google to help me find more info on
    non-religious thinking – I have been an atheist for years. Thank you for the good quality, helpful writings. Nancyben

  • dhagrow

    Another excellent piece of writing as always, Adam.

    The only thing I would have added is a distinction between what we call empathy, compassion, etc…, and God. That is an argument I’ve heard from apologists before, most notably Denys Turner, who gave (perhaps somewhat paraphrastically), by far the most convincing argument for a god I’ve ever heard in “The Atheism Tapes” by Jonathan Miller, and I don’t think Miller gave quite as good a rebuttal as he could have.

    As a long time reader and seldom commenter, I’m glad there is someone like you who is able to write the things I believe so eloquently (more often than the skeptic in me is often willing to accept).

  • standr

    All the atheists I’ve met abound with ethical theories, but they never seem to show even a hint of the skepticism they are supposed to be famous for. Once again we are offered a tidy, seemingly rational, theory that “Acts that contribute to the sum total of human happiness in this way are right, while those that have the opposite effect are wrong.” But the problem was never about coming up with nice moral sounding platitudes. Anyone can do that.

    The problem is that they are just that, moral sounding platitudes. They carry no actual prescriptive authority from which to apply them to the guy who finds happiness target practicing on his neighbors. In a godless universe, there is no authority by which to impose unhappiness on such a fellow as a consequence for his actions. The atheist might try to describe in fine detail what could happen to him, but descriptions are simply not prescriptions of what should or shouldn’t happen. I have yet to see how atheists have any access to such prescription. In that paradigm, there are simply reactions in space time. None of which are better or worse than any other. Right and wrong are categories with no material referent.

    So whether atheists can make up “words to live by” is not the issue. But since that is all they appear to be doing, I find it a bit puzzling that they have any problem with others doing so too. For example, they seem to want to argue that the Christian God is made up, but this’s the only game in town for the atheist, isn’t it? Whatever the rationalistic window dressing, every moral theory of the atheist is still a human fabrication from top to bottom.

    At least the Christians actually believe their moral foundations are revealed, and not just a human concoction, and that there will eventually be some justice dispensed for the guy target practicing on his neighbors, even if he gets away with it in this life. The atheistic humanistic theories never address such imbalances. Justice doesn’t need personal satisfaction when the entire concept was a pragmatic fabrication in the first place.

    Finally, the author of this post makes veiled reference to the false dilemma of Euthyphro. The only options presented are that God recognizes a preexisting moral standard outside of Himself, rendering Him superfluous, or else God is like a man making up moral rules arbitrarily. This is a famous category mistake, because the Christian God is not regarded as just a bigger version of one of us. As Creator, everything is contingent upon Him and His judgment for its very existence. In other words, even the sense that atheists have that it would be wrong for God to be capricious is a feature of the way that God has structured His creation in the first place. So God is not swimming around in the universe like a creature, trying to figure out morality–the whole project is His from start to finish.

  • Marc Forrester

    Standr, your essential point is correct, and I think highlights the fundamental philosophical difference between theistic and atheistic minds. As an atheist, I find the idea of absolute moral truth and authority null and meaningless. They are things that exist within our minds, and all that exists outside of mind is arbitrary and amoral. This is not a flaw of the universe. I am quite comfortable with this idea, it is one of the things that makes life, and especially human life, so very precious and valuable. (Yes, valuable only to itself. So… ?)

    Our answer when we cannot reach moral agreement with others is simple. We fight, and the winner imposes their will. There is nothing false about Euthyphro’s dilemma, if there exists a God at the ultimate level of reality, then she is in the exact same position as a human atheist; morality exists only inside her mind, takes whatever form it takes, and it is meaningless to judge it right or wrong, good or bad. It just is.

  • Marc Forrester

    Standr, your essential point is correct, and I think highlights the fundamental philosophical difference between theistic and atheistic minds. As an atheist, I find the idea of absolute moral truth and authority null and meaningless. They are things that exist within our minds, and all that exists outside of mind is arbitrary and amoral. This is not a flaw of the universe. I am quite comfortable with this idea, it is one of the things that makes life, and especially human life, so very precious and valuable. (Yes, valuable only to itself. So… ?)

    Our answer when we cannot reach moral agreement with others is simple. We fight, and the winner imposes their will. There is nothing false about Euthyphro’s dilemma, if there exists a God at the ultimate level of reality, then she is in the exact same position as a human atheist; morality exists only inside her mind, takes whatever form it takes, and it is meaningless to judge it right or wrong, good or bad. It just is.

  • RevJim

    Adam, you would make such a GREAT Christian! I’m so glad you’re not….

  • RevJim

    Adam, you would make such a GREAT Christian! I’m so glad you’re not….

  • marty

    Atheists can be good people; they just have no objective way to judge the conduct of those who are not.

    I agree 100%. I have no way to judge the conduct of those who are not atheists.

  • Athanatos

    Marc Forrester your thought is provocative. Very well put.

  • Simple Aureole

    Kindness is a survival trait. Hostility towards others diminishes our possibility of survival. Kindness to others make them happier, and reduces the probability of them attacking us. This is such a simple mechanism that it can be seen in many simple animals: birds, rats, even fish.

  • http://suttsteve.com Steve Sutton

    Well said.

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    Superbly written, Ebonmuse. Echoing Blacksun, it will be a travesty if they don’t publish it.

  • Oz

    Standr, all you’ve really done is to reword the second horn of the dilemma. If morality is the result of “God’s judgment,” how is that any different from being an arbitrary choice? Let’s say that God chooses to maintain constant morality for the duration of the universe. The rules he set up at the beginning are still the result of either a translation of outside knowledge (option one) or the result of his arbitrary (or even carefully thought-out) decision (option two). Actually, even the decision to keep the rules constant is the same sort of choice.

    What is the source of God’s alleged authority? In an ethics class, a good friend of mine once offered that “Ultimate might makes ultimate right.” (He’s now an atheist, by the way.) Are you really asserting that God draws his authority from his power?

    Adam, I get a little uncomfortable when people try and answer editorials like this one on the theist’s terms. What always needs to be said up front is that atheism doesn’t claim to answer anything at all. The second important point we need to continually press is that potentially negative consequences have no bearing on the truth of our proposition. When you take the argument to the theists on their own terms, you open yourself up to the sort of arguments you get from Standr, who is right in that even the most well thought-out secular morality suffers from a form of the argument from religious diversity. Two honest observers can look at the world and arrive at two opposing ethical systems. How do we choose, and on what authority? As near as I can tell, we all start with equal moral authority, which is to say that we have none over one another.

  • http://superhappyjen.blogspot.com superhappyjen

    Brilliant response. The fact is we live in a Godless universe, where atheist morals are just as valid as anyone else’s.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    A reply to standr:

    The problem is that they are just that, moral sounding platitudes. They carry no actual prescriptive authority from which to apply them to the guy who finds happiness target practicing on his neighbors.

    I’m struggling to understand what your point is here. In an atheist society, we could use the principles I have outlined to rationally debate what actions are right or wrong, come to a conclusion, and using that shared understanding, enact those decisions into law via the democratic process and create police organizations empowered to enforce them. That seems like all the prescriptive authority we should need. What do you suppose is missing?

    So whether atheists can make up “words to live by” is not the issue. But since that is all they appear to be doing, I find it a bit puzzling that they have any problem with others doing so too.

    Because we do not proclaim our conclusions to be anything other than what they are – products of the reasoning power of the human mind, guided by the evidence available to us. We object not to theists making moral judgments, but to theists making moral judgments based on specious hypotheses that do not correspond to anything in reality. Particularly, we object when those judgments harm and oppress real human beings in the name of pleasing an imaginary god.

    Whatever the rationalistic window dressing, every moral theory of the atheist is still a human fabrication from top to bottom.

    You seem to be under the incorrect assumption that morality being a human creation makes it arbitrary. On the contrary, it need be no more arbitrary than science. In both cases, there is an underlying truth (the way the universe really works, the way of living that produces the most happiness for everyone) that is not altered by human whim; the challenge is figuring out what it is, as difficult a task as that often is.

    At least the Christians actually believe their moral foundations are revealed, and not just a human concoction…

    And as I have said, that is not a good thing. Human concoctions, should they turn out to be wrong or misguided, can be debated and changed. But when a theist believes that his moral edicts are handed down from on high, that edict instantly becomes the infallible, perfect will of God, not subject to debate or compromise. People who sincerely believe this will ferociously resist changing a rule, even when it becomes clear that that rule is thoroughly immoral – such as slavery or oppression of women, both of which are amply defended by the Bible and other holy books. Without religion, it is far more difficult to justify these egregious evils.

    …and that there will eventually be some justice dispensed for the guy target practicing on his neighbors, even if he gets away with it in this life. The atheistic humanistic theories never address such imbalances.

    Are you saying a humanist moral theory can’t be correct if it doesn’t cater to our wish-fulfillment fantasies? It has to give us assurance that everything will turn out okay in the end or else it’s no good? That is the lament of a frightened child. In the real world, we live with uncertainty, and nothing is guaranteed. But the knowledge that it is all up to us, that there is no reciprocity written into the laws of the cosmos, is precisely why it is so important for an atheist to see that we uphold justice by our actions. If we don’t do it, no one is going to. On the other hand, the notion that justice will be done in the end, no matter what we do or don’t do, is an insidious belief that inevitably inspires complacency – or worse, cheering on the world’s evils in the assumption that anything that happens must be God’s righteous judgment.

    So God is not swimming around in the universe like a creature, trying to figure out morality–the whole project is His from start to finish.

    This obfuscatory rhetoric does not resolve Euthyphro’s dilemma. You can move it around as much as you like, but you cannot solve it. If the moral standard is “contingent upon God” for its existence, I can still ask, why that moral standard and not a different one? Did God have reasons for his choice or did he not? This dilemma exhausts all the available options and no number of analogies is going to avoid it.

  • Tom

    Standr: While well written, your comment echoes what I find most disturbing about theological morality. Your assertion that, “In a godless universe, there is no authority by which to impose unhappiness on such a fellow as a consequence for his actions”, is flawed. It is the role of a civilized society to determine what acts warrant punishment, not religion. This is man’s moral anchor; the ability to govern based on the will of the people, not on the will of one god or another.

  • Polly

    Great response, Ebon…both times.
    And I’d like standr to answer this question: If god is handing out moral edicts why is there so much variation in what his followers think is right and wrong? Shouldn’t he be clear? Instead he contradicts himself in his own word (if the Bible is your book of choice) Even which god you worship boils down to human choice since no deity is distinguishing himslef sufficiently to make the choice obvious.

    Strange how when it comes to morality theists act like a human system could never work on its own, but then take for granted all the other systems – politics, economy, technology – that humans build are not depnedent on a god. No one prays to JC that their PC will turn on (unless they’re still running Windows95). These other systems don’t have to be perfect, here and now, to be acceptable, so why is morality such a special case? Everything around us is built by humans and for humans. What’s wrong with “practical” morality? A set of rational guidelines that emphasizes concern and respect for others is certainly better than “because I said so.”

    Rule by god is just “might makes right” anyway. Even if one believes that god is appealing to some outside cosmic law, the only reason theistic morality is “prescriptive” is that god has the power to lord it over humanity.

  • Will

    Excellent response. Loved reading it.

  • OMGF

    standr,

    At least the Christians actually believe their moral foundations are revealed, and not just a human concoction, and that there will eventually be some justice dispensed for the guy target practicing on his neighbors, even if he gets away with it in this life.

    You mean, unless he repents, right? As long as he repents, most Christian sects tell us that he will still get to go to heaven. So, his deads will certainly go unpunished in the next life.

  • Mark

    standr,

    The others have responded to your post much better than I could, but I would like to mention something they didn’t, which is very important. While atheism does not require any sort of belief, if an atheist believes that evolution occurs (please look at the evidence and biologists’ thoughts), then morality is rather easily understood as something that aids populations.

    Regarding your claim that morality must come from authority, I ask you why this is so. Not only does it still fall victim to the Euthyphro dilemma, but one must also justify the authority of the person/god to dictate morality. Any answer you could come up with for this would fail, because those who would accept the morality are the ones who GIVES the one in command authority in the first place. With at least monotheistic religion, the authority seems to come from the “fact” that God created the universe. But how is our obedience related to that? It isn’t, so then our obedience is coerced by, guess what, POWER. Might makes right, indeed, in this scenario. While it is true that this happens in almost every avenue of social life, it is NOT justification for anything, in and of itself.

    In social situations, it can be observed that might makes right in many circumstances. But this is an observation, not a prescription. Just like with social Darwinism and nihilism, adopting an observation as one’s philosophical outlook is THE problem. One should be exceedingly careful not to confuse the two.

  • David Ellis

    When theist present the claim that without God there is no basis for morality I think the argument against this position should be presented simply and succinctly.

    My response to this often heard claim:


    Is love of intrinsic worth?

    If so then a moral life (one based on love and compassion) has a clear basis whether God exists or not.

    I find few christians are willing to claim that love is not an intrinsic good—which they MUST be willing to do to consistently claim there can be no basis for morality without God.

  • David Ellis

    One of the most important issues to bear in mind when discussing meta-ethics (and atheists seems almost as likely as theists not to realize it) is that:

    SUBJECTIVE AND ARBITRARY ARE NOT THE SAME THING.

  • http://www.dangerousintersection.org Erich Vieth

    To the claim that without God there is no basis for morality, I would answer “Which God?” There are so many choices out there and maybe none of them is (or ever has been) correct. Without a sure-fired way to determine who has the correct God, we can’t even get this claim (without God there is no basis for morality) off the ground.

    Because there is no way to convince more than a small fraction of the world that a particular God is the correct God, I’d stick with Plan B for determining how to live one’s life: “empathy, compassion, conscience, lovingkindness.”

  • Albert F. Maas

    As usual, a great reply. Religionists love to wallow in there own perceptions of reality and expect us to tag along like a pony on a rope. No thanks. I am the happiest that I have ever been in my life, since I became an atheist. It just keeps getting better and better!

  • standr

    Marc,

    I appreciate your candor, even though honesty has no objective value in your paradigm.

    You speak of something having value only to itself, but this is not anything that a real skeptic would find satisfactory. It’s solipsism. Assigning values to things which you hold have no inherent purpose or value is not precious, it is the stuff of self-delusion and cognitive dissonance.

    If atheists are willing to take the atheistic train down the tracks far enough to see the inherent amorality, as you seem to have done, then why is there tolerance for other atheists who still seem to be laboring in moral fantasy land? And further, why is there lack of tolerance for Christians who, at worst, are simply living in a different dream world fantasy? You allude that the problem is not in _what_ the Christians believe (you seem not to care), but perhaps the problem is that they hold it to _be_ true, rather than just a private delusion?

    I didn’t suggest that Euthyphro’s dilemma was false because no one can ever be in a position to judge over God. Rather it is a false dilemma because it is based on a category fallacy and does not present all the alternatives, including the one Christians actually hold.

    You would be correct if you were saying that it would be meaningless for one of us creatures to attempt to judge God’s actions as right or wrong, good or bad. There is simply no position of authority, or framework of meaning, upon which to stand to render such judgments over the Creator. I’m glad you realize this. However, our inability in this area doesn’t change God. Just because our attempts to judge God would be meaningless (since right and wrong are defined with respect to Him personally), it doesn’t follow that God Himself is then enclosed in some amoral, “just is”, category of isolation. God is who He is, but this is not a failing on His part (He calls Himself the “I Am”). It doesn’t follow that God is then reduced to an impersonal, purposeless force of nature, or some victim of circumstance.

    You claim that God is in the exact same position as a human atheist by saying that God’s morality must also be a private mental fabrication just like anyone else’s, but this is the category mistake related to the Euthyphro fallacy. Even leaving aside the eternal personal communion within the trinity, God’s thoughts are not locked away in some private mental corner, rather they are the very framework of creation itself such that light does not cease to be light because God calls it light–and righteousness doesn’t cease to be righteous because God calls it righteous. His thought and word is the basis for understanding our own relationship in existence. In other words God’s mind (and God Himself) is revealed when He speaks in and through His creation, so for us to speak of good and evil is to speak in terms of relationship to Him. Only a Creator can be in this position. Creatures can’t. And we haven’t even gotten to the fact that it is not just God’s mind that has been revealed, but His love as well, through sending His Son to redeem us.

  • http://www.blacksunjournal.com BlackSun

    As Creator, everything is contingent upon Him and His judgment for its very existence. In other words, even the sense that atheists have that it would be wrong for God to be capricious is a feature of the way that God has structured His creation in the first place. So God is not swimming around in the universe like a creature, trying to figure out morality–the whole project is His from start to finish.

    Ah, yes standr. Like every atrocious theological argument, you conclude with the presuppositional and circular assumption. ‘Everything is subject to god, even atheism.’

    Why? Of course it says so in the bible. Who wrote the bible? Circular argument alert…

    You still haven’t proved anything. You’re still relying on empty and unprovable assertions of ‘revelation’ instead of admitting that your scripture also is of clearly human origin. So what you are doing is stacking up old ignorant human morality arguments against new more enlightened ones. The old ones are based on translations of thousands-year-old texts which are never modified, and whose origins can’t be verified. The new morality is based on the ever-evolving and improving principles of science, genetics, game theory, and evolutionary psychology.

    the Christians actually believe their moral foundations are revealed, and not just a human concoction.

    Let me first of all say “so what?” before correcting your claim: Christians profess to believe their moral foundations are revealed. They have to maintain this, otherwise they know that their claims are no different from any others someone could dream up. It’s the ultimate uncheckable fact–to keep it immune to disputes. From the sounds of it, that–plus the unsupported presuppositional assertion of creation–represents the entire argument. But who actually takes the story of the stone tablets seriously?? Who actually thinks the bible represents any consistent moral fount? Nobody who’s actually read it, that’s for sure.

    The most that can be said about the morality of the religious is that they believe in belief–without ever stopping to think about what that might mean.

  • David Ellis

    Standr, I have several questions that seem, to me, to show the problems with the claim that there is no reason to prefer love and compassion to cruelty and maliciousness if there is no God:

    is love of intrinsic worth? (if you say yes, then here we have a nontheistic basis for morality, if no….well that opinion pretty well speaks for itself and needs little refutation).

    and, related to that dilemma you call a category error:

    does God have a reason for rathering that we be filled with love than with hate?

    If so, what is it? (it seems to me obvious, because love, in and of itself, as what it is, a form of experience, is of intrinsic value) —-and why is that reason not equally applicable whether there exists a God or not?

    And, finally:

    imagine an alternate reality in which God has the usual qualities christians attribute to him (omnipotence, omniscience, being a spirit, being creator of the universe, being eternal, etc) except than instead of being benevolent he was cruel and malicious.

    Would cruelty and maliciousness then be “objectively” right?

    If not, why not?

    Is it better that God be as you imagine him to be: benevolent rather than malicious?

    If so, why?

    it seems to me that any reasonable and coherent answers that can be given to these questions show the true basis of morality to be the intrinsic qualities of love itself and not the authority or commands of any possible deity.

    but you seem to disagree so I await your response.

  • SteveC

    > Atheists can be good people; they just have no objective way
    > to judge the conduct of those who are not [good people].

    Neither do Christians (or any other theists). They may say they do, but saying so doesn’t make it so. The Bible? The Word of God? And by what objective means did they determine that these things were true? They decided all on their own? God injected this information into their brains? (and if the latter, they know that this is what happened, and that they are not being (self-)deceived how exactly?)

    Yeah… their tower of objectivity turns out to be situated entirely on a 100% subjective foundation.

    Hmmph.

  • http://ornerypest.diaryland.com/070716_22 OrneryPest

    I answered Michael Gerson yesterday in my Demented Diary: http://ornerypest.diaryland.com/070716_22.html

  • Mark

    standr,

    Please explain what authority is. I’ll respond further after you answer.

    (And I know you weren’t talking to me before. Maybe I should post under some other name, since we now have both a Marc and a Mark on here.)

  • OMGF

    Well Ebon, they didn’t print your letter, but they did print some.

    A letter that makes sense and another that has the old canard about atheism being a belief in itself.

  • mrs reaper

    wow heated debates all round!!!!, i am not a believer but i am also a good law abiding happy loving caring and compassionate person who has raised my 3 children with the same values i was raised by. if my children choose a religion thats there choice but i refuse to force one on to them and brain wash them into somethink. my biggest problem with religion is and always will be is… IT WAS WROTE AND CREATED BY MAN no proof any of it ever happened where as there is proof EVERYWHERE that evolution happened. i think if you belive thats fine but dont shove it down everyone elses throat and being a religious person DOES NOT make you a good person look at ALL the children who have suffered abuse in the name of GOD

  • http://jkjonesthinks.blogspot.com J. K. Jones

    Interesting post and discussion.

    As far as I know, the argument has never been that atheism always leads to evil. The idea is that atheism cannot account for the reality of evil. How, in an atheist universe, do we know the difference between good and evil?

    A good argument can be made that Christianity, in particular, has always held that all men are evil, whether they have religion or not. That’s the reasoning behind the emphasis on Christ’s death on the cross for our sins.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    How, in an atheist universe, do we know the difference between good and evil?

    The very post to which you’re replying is titled “The Basis for an Atheist’s Morality” and gives an answer to that question. Did you read it?

  • OMGF

    The idea is that atheism cannot account for the reality of evil.

    Whereas with god, we know where it came from…from god himself.

  • mrs reaper

    ok if you choose to believe you came from god im happy for you but as for how do we define evil? by being brought up with values and love no religion involved

  • MJJP

    The reality is that the bible , Christianity etc bring nothing new to the table in so far as morality is concerned. Hammurabis Code which existed long before the bible had much of the accepted morality of the future bible. However lets look at the bible itself and its example of love and morality. Can anyone show me where God displayed any love or morality in both his own actions and those he held sway over? More often than not God himself was overbearing and cruel and I have yet to have anyone show me of an example otherwise.Most have tried to show that God gave his son for our sins but again no one can show me how this makes sense. I mean when you say someone “paid the price” , to whom was it paid? Who demanded payment? I can’t find where Satan received the payment or demanded that Jesus be put to death. So in reality God had to kill himself to appease himself when all he had to do was make it right which should have been no big problem.
    I can’t think of any society or culture that endorses murder rape and theft regardless if Christianity is followed or not. In fact if you do the research the most atheistic countries have the least crime violence.

  • Damon

    There are few people who will be persuaded one way or the other simply by evidence if they have already chosen their path in life. This goes for both theists and atheists.

    For the theist: you can pummel them with logic, as much proof as you can muster, and they will typically stay true to their core beliefs.

    For the atheist: you can pummel them with logic, as much proof as you can muster, and they will typically stay true to their core beliefs.

    Interesting – I typed the same sentence for both.

    Here is my point again: very few people will be persuaded by logic alone. Most people find articles, books, experts, and documentaries (etc) that support their view. They point at these items and say “LOOK! SEE! If only you would open your eyes!”

    So it comes to this: persuade by example. Do you really want to ‘convert’ or ‘persuade’ or ‘convince’ another human being that your viewpoint is right simply through words? I’ve met people who are articulate (much more so than me!) and can present a sound argument for either cause. But the one person I’m most impressed by is the person who leads a good life by example. And by ‘good’, I mean the type of ‘good’ C.S. Lewis talks about in Mere Christianity. It’s hard to measure “good” (much less anything) without some absolute to measure it by – even scientists and atheists should agree with that.

    Personally – I believe in God. There was a time in my life where I wanted to put a Darwin bumper sticker on my car though. I mean I hated the simple-minded people who couldn’t get out of their own way (read: church goers). I thought I was quite the intellectual as well. I would try my hardest to appear objective and intelligent. But truthfully, I would find articles that would support my viewpoint without finding articles that *challenged* my viewpoint. If I were as intelligent as I thought I was at the time, I would have verified that my belief could withstand criticism, rather than jump on the bandwagon and start drinking the kool-aid. If I was going to base my ‘belief’ or ‘viewpoint’ simply on logic alone, then that logic must be stone cold solid, bulletproof, impenetrable. Turns out that my belief in atheism wasn’t a rational, well thought out direction. Deep down, it turned out to be a way for me to rationalize my actions at the time. I really didn’t “believe” in atheism, it was just a way of NOT believing in God. I didn’t want to believe in God for all sorts of reasons that I won’t put into words here. But it’s more important to believe in something for the right reasons, than to NOT believe in something for the wrong ones.

    I still don’t have a denomination I’ve chosen yet, but I’m getting close. I’m still struggling with the things that made me insanely mad when I didn’t believe in God: people blathering in tongues, false television/radio prophets and “Men of God”, scandals and perversion in the church, power hungry and money hungry people… but I can’t use those as excuses NOT to believe in God. We’re human. Some atheists are idiots too, but they’re human as well. I respect their viewpoint, and even understand it to some extent. I certainly believe that they are wrong, and that the consequences are grave. But we all have a choice, and I have made my choice to believe in God.

    Could I be wrong? Yes.

    Could you be wrong? Yes.

    Both of us can lead exemplary lives – providing a great service to the human race, or even making life better by helping a neighbor when they’re down. But at the end of our lives, is there anything an atheist has to look forward to more so than a believer does? No. And that is the hope of my Judeo-Christian belief.

    I believe – and not because it’s an emotional response to a sold out crowd under the control of some mega church egotistical pastor. I believe, mostly because I had enough evidence to convince me (notice I didn’t say ALL the evidence), combined with me facing my own reasons of NOT believing in God and finally it just clicked, and I KNEW. It made quite a bit of sense to me.

    And to MJJP in the last comment: You have a lot of questions. You have certainly made your viewpoint clear. Now if you TRULY want answers to those questions then go out and find articles that support the Christian view. I would suggest C.S. Lewis as a great start. He was an atheist turned Christian, so you can probably relate very well to his way of thinking; very logical and all that. However, if you’re asking questions as a way to ‘attack’ Christianity or theists as a whole, then answering your questions isn’t worth my time, because you’ve already made up your mind, right? So I leave it up to you to pursue the answers if you really want them.

    Best of luck to you all, I truly wish all of you the best life has to offer.

  • MJJP

    “Here is my point again: very few people will be persuaded by logic alone. Most people find articles, books, experts, and documentaries (etc) that support their view. They point at these items and say “LOOK! SEE! If only you would open your eyes!”
    Quote by Damon
    =========
    On the contrary Damon ,most atheists were once theists. Although it is natural to be born atheist most babies are brought up in some type or preconcieved religious dogma.You see in order to come to a conclusion that a god exists one has to have evidence and so far none has appeared. The fact that some questions and some mysteries have not been solved is not evidence of a creator much less a Christian one.So once theists began to question what they were told and found the evidence lacking and non existant it is this that did in fact change their mind. Any atheist that changed back to theism usually does so out of fear of the end, or has chosen to accept undocumented and unproven info of the bible or some other “holy’ work. To them, they believe not because of the evidence but in spite of it.

  • http://www.anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Damon, Lewis was not an atheist. He was just angry.

    I was once very religious but eventually it became obvious to me that the god of the Bible was no more real than Zeus or Apollo.

  • James Bradbury

    I was a Christian until I gained the courage to ask and seriously consider all those awkward questions that had been nagging me for years. Theists did give me some answers, but they were so deeply unsatisfactory that I became more incredulous and asked more questions.

    I don’t think any true belief can suffer from honest questioning, so keep asking!

  • mrs reaper

    i think my biggest question is why are people who believe so bothered about the fact that nonbelievers have no afterlife and that it is an awful fate???id like to think the day i close my eyes for the last time i will have lead a happy life and managed to touch a few people so i will live on through their memories, im quite happy with the idea that i will just become worm food and help to fertilise the ground. as long ive lived a good happy and fulfilling life ill die happy. i dont feel the need to go anywhere alses im quite happy with my lot

  • OMGF

    If I were as intelligent as I thought I was at the time, I would have verified that my belief could withstand criticism, rather than jump on the bandwagon and start drinking the kool-aid. If I was going to base my ‘belief’ or ‘viewpoint’ simply on logic alone, then that logic must be stone cold solid, bulletproof, impenetrable. Turns out that my belief in atheism wasn’t a rational, well thought out direction. Deep down, it turned out to be a way for me to rationalize my actions at the time. I really didn’t “believe” in atheism, it was just a way of NOT believing in God. I didn’t want to believe in God for all sorts of reasons that I won’t put into words here. But it’s more important to believe in something for the right reasons, than to NOT believe in something for the wrong ones.

    Wait, you couldn’t rationalize being an atheist, so you turned to a completely irrational “answer”? That makes no sense and exhibits nothing more than a double standard. If you don’t find atheism to be rational, how can you turn to a belief system that is at least just as irrational?

    Both of us can lead exemplary lives – providing a great service to the human race, or even making life better by helping a neighbor when they’re down. But at the end of our lives, is there anything an atheist has to look forward to more so than a believer does? No. And that is the hope of my Judeo-Christian belief.

    So, it is true because it makes you feel good inside? Here’s a thought, perhaps this is not a good thing. Pining away for the afterlife instead of living the very real life that you have in front of you makes you more likely to regret those things that you did not accomplish when you get to the end of your life.

  • Damon

    Sorry this is short but I’m typing on an iPhone. Wonderful little gadgets but kind of small in my hands.

    Just real quick: to those who responded in kindly ways, thanks for keeping it an open discussion rather than an accusatory or defensive feel. I was explaining my history, not saying everybody should follow my course by any means! But my main point still does hold… But let me put a slightly different spin and see if you’ll agree with me here.

    Most people will not change their own beliefs simply through logic alone. Now the kicker: unless they have already begun to doubt their belief. So religion and atheism both are ‘faiths’ in that way. You don’t just see a key piece of evidence or logic and say “hey I believe!” unless you were already starting to convince yourself (or you’re being awefully insincere).

    Atheism is really a belief there is no God. But you DO have beliefs. If somebody challenges you on it, and you’re unable to respond, you have faith that another atheist will have the answer or that evidence will be found in the future to support that specific argument from your viewpoint. But notice how you automatically believe that and brush off any thoughts to the contrary? Thats because you have faith in atheism. And now we come back full circle. A religious person cant convince you to believe through logic alone, because if we (collectively as humans) were as objective and as scientific as we claim to be then we wouldnt disregard others views so quickly, but we do, don’t we? To believe in a view completely opposite of your own takes time. Providing a good example, again, of how you live your life is the best way to convince people, either way. Logic helps to clinch the deal after you have a pretty good idea of what you want, or dont want!

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    But notice how you automatically believe that and brush off any thoughts to the contrary? Thats because you have faith in atheism.

    Actually, I’d like to think that if I heard a particularly good argument for theism I’d leave it on the backburner in my mind and return to it occasionally, mulling it over. Certainly that has happened to me with other philosophical questions. If lots of evidence built up, I’d think about sensible ways of re-working my belief system.

    All we can do is try. Yeah? I mean, I honestly do make a serious effort to be both open and discerning; it takes work, but it’s worth it! Sure, we’re not perfect, and sometimes it can take something big to force even atheists to really think, but at least we’re trying. Religion, it seems to me, doesn’t try to think objectively at all. Quite the contrary — faith is encouraged!

    I’m willing to concede that atheists aren’t always that much more objective than theists. What I will not concede is that this means we shouldn’t attempt objectivity in the first place.

  • Damon

    Great thoughts and remarks Lynet. I suppose my statements aren’t absolutes, meaning that all atheists automatically reject other views. But in general, *most* people on *most* occasions will *usually* take that route :)

    I think your view on religion is spot on with certain denominations too. Some preachers seem to preach that faith is all that is needed. For some, maybe. For others, like me, faith comes as a result of evidence and reasonable thinking and pondering. I think in the past 30-40 years more churches (or at least individual authors) as breaking that mold and presenting evidence for both God and Christianity (I’m sure there are other books for other religions, I just haven’t searched for them). Lee Strobel has a number of good books that question experts in their fields about big life issues: death, suffering, history, etc. But my point is this, before I ramble on too long: faith by itself, based on nothing but emotions, is most likely going to crumble faster than if it is buttressed (sp?) with well thought out solutions to tough answers you are likely going to come across.

    Thanks again for your reply, very good points.

  • OMGF

    Atheism is really a belief there is no God.

    And not collecting stamps is a hobby I suppose?

    Considering the fact that the vast majority of atheists started out as theists because they were taught that religion is true, I’d be willing to bet that atheists are much more likely to have examined the arguments and come to their lack of belief through not just “faith” as you allege but through reasoning.

    Just real quick: to those who responded in kindly ways, thanks for keeping it an open discussion rather than an accusatory or defensive feel.

    No one here attacked you in any way.

  • http://www.operacast.com G Riggs

    Damon, you said –

    “I believe – and not because it’s an emotional response to a sold out crowd under the control of some mega church egotistical pastor. I believe, mostly because I had enough evidence to convince me (notice I didn’t say ALL the evidence), combined with me facing my own reasons of NOT believing in God and finally it just clicked, and I KNEW. It made quite a bit of sense to me.”

    Please, I’d be curious to know the nature of the evidence that finally swayed you away from a general skepticism. Not sure any of us have really addressed that, although we’ve addressed the general principle of continuing to look into any and all possible angles on this question (for instance, Lynet’s post).

    This may appear awfully inquisitive, but I’m really looking for a personal description of what you personally studied, evaluated, read, saw, heard — etc. — in your personal odyssey that led you to perceive that what you were gleaning from all these activities was indeed evidence that could buttress a theistic conclusion better than faith alone.

    Thank you,

    G Riggs

  • eye-of-horus

    *** Gerson, your moralized divinity is a public menace ***

    The only gods worth a damn operate “beyond good and evil” (to use Nietzsche’s sparkling phrase). That is, moral categories *do not* apply to them.

    The Powers act as they will. Their actions are subject to no constraint. The gods of Job and Oedipus for example must be acknowledged and worshiped whatever they do.

    Morality *does not* grow out of religions with such divine Immoralists. The truth of a wide separation of morality from religion receives a masterful summary by the eminent classicist, E. R. Dodds:

    “I need hardly say [sic!] that religion and morals were not initially interdependent, in Greece or elsewhere; they had their separate roots. I suppose that broadly speaking, religion grows out of man’s relationship to his total environment, morals out of his relation to his fellow men.” [The greeks and the irrational. UCal. 1951. 31]

    Ironically, Gerson, your good god arises from hatred. From the all-too-human psychologically protective act of projection. Just as the ‘other’ is evil and guilt incarnate, the “god with us” is spotless and acts for our good. Here originates the holy one of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, brothers all.

    Each defined by negating the Other, the sons of Darkness who dwell outside the Light. Each a metaphysical and ethical dualism. Each a morally rigoristic religion of wish fulfillment, self-deception and resentment. Secularism corrupts. Tolerance capitulates to evil. Only the pure ones prevail.

    Sophocles, Euripides and the author of Job among the Ancients and Darwin, Nietzsche and Freud among the Moderns understood that existence cares not one iota for humanity’s well-being or being comforted.

    The foundation of our well-being and right action is the Constitution — in which the word ‘God’ does not appear. “We the people” give rights and duties to each other, that is, to ourselves as the sovereign body.

    What’s God got to do with it? Nothing. To claim otherwise is to be at once intellectually dishonest and morally blind. George W. Bush’s tyranny begins here.

    eye-of-horus
    copyright asserted 2007

  • eye-of-horus

    *** Gerson, your moralized divinity is a public menace ***

    The only gods worth a damn operate “beyond good and evil” (to use Nietzsche’s sparkling phrase). That is, moral categories *do not* apply to them.

    The Powers act as they will. Their actions are subject to no constraint. The gods of Job and Oedipus for example must be acknowledged and worshiped whatever they do.

    Morality *does not* grow out of religions with such divine Immoralists. The truth of a wide separation of morality from religion receives a masterful summary by the eminent classicist, E. R. Dodds:

    “I need hardly say [sic!] that religion and morals were not initially interdependent, in Greece or elsewhere; they had their separate roots. I suppose that broadly speaking, religion grows out of man’s relationship to his total environment, morals out of his relation to his fellow men.” [The greeks and the irrational. UCal. 1951. 31]

    Ironically, Gerson, your good god arises from hatred. From the all-too-human psychologically protective act of projection. Just as the ‘other’ is evil and guilt incarnate, the “god with us” is spotless and acts for our good. Here originates the holy one of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, brothers all.

    Each defined by negating the Other, the sons of Darkness who dwell outside the Light. Each a metaphysical and ethical dualism. Each a morally rigoristic religion of wish fulfillment, self-deception and resentment. Secularism corrupts. Tolerance capitulates to evil. Only the pure ones prevail.

    Sophocles, Euripides and the author of Job among the Ancients and Darwin, Nietzsche and Freud among the Moderns understood that existence cares not one iota for humanity’s well-being or being comforted.

    The foundation of our well-being and right action is the Constitution — in which the word ‘God’ does not appear. “We the people” give rights and duties to each other, that is, to ourselves as the sovereign body.

    What’s God got to do with it? Nothing. To claim otherwise is to be at once intellectually dishonest and morally blind. George W. Bush’s tyranny begins here.

    eye-of-horus
    copyright asserted 2007

  • http://www.operacast.com G Riggs

    I sometimes think people tend to confound a founder with certain practitioners who _think_ they have adopted a founder’s creed. It’s awfully easy to condemn all Democrats because of the Monica scandal, or all Republicans because of the Watergate scandal or Abu Ghraib, or all Muslims because of Osama Bin Laden, or all Christians because of the Spanish Inquisition, or all atheists because of Stalin, or all Germans because of Hitler, and on and on and on. I try to concentrate on the origins of a philosophy or a creed or a culture instead.

    I too was once a skeptic. But I guess I’d call myself a “provisional theist” now, which will probably offend all camps! …………………

    By way of explanation, let me start by suggesting that humanity is a species that partly depends for its evolution upon socialization. Granted, there are individual drives related to each autonomous organism, but there are also group patterns of behavior that are selected for as well. Hence, socialization. Through the millennia, those group patterns have yielded such things as villages, then towns, then states, then nations, then international alliances, etc. Each of these structures are geared to interdependent living, ultimately. And as the structures grow in complexity, the portion of the human family being mutually cared for should theoretically grow simultaneously. If that doesn’t happen, growing resentment and social upheavals eventually topple a unit (whether a culture, a state, or whatever) into anarchy, and the evolution of the unit is stunted and eventually dies. If this process happens on a huge enough basis, the species itself is in jeopardy.

    Since, frankly, I view the urges for growing social cohesiveness as being fully as biological and as intrinsic to evolution as the urge to sleep, or have sex, or eat, that means that I find the ways in which those innovative and altruistic urges (leading to more and more successfully inclusive socialization) manifest themselves critical to understanding how the biological evolution of our species proceeds in the first place. This is why the dynamics of social reform and altruism seem essential in understanding the evolution of the human species as a whole, not just the survival of individual humans.

    It’s been easy to find a number of manifestations of those essentially heterodox urges (for their time and place) toward greater social inclusiveness, but those are often in tandem with equally heterodox understandings of deity (for their time and place) that have frequently aroused the dangerous ire of orthodox religious authorities — and some secular authorities as well. At the same time, such combined heterodox takes on both deity and social mores always seem to come from theists, however heterodox.

    Now, surely, there is nothing more heterodox than a path-breaking atheism or even agnosticism? How come, then, the pioneering atheists down through history (that is, pioneering for their time and place) do not show a similar pattern of concurrent heterodox notions of unprecedented (for their time and place) social inclusiveness? I started out a decade or so back fully expecting to find precisely such figures who would be heterodox in both respects, both nonbelief and social inclusiveness. Instead, it disappointed me (being a skeptic at the time) when I only found atheists who were either original and truly altruistic in their social ethics but never original in their atheism, applying a ready-made philosophy of atheism from some other contemporary thinker or from a thinker of a generation or so earlier; or they would be truly pathbreaking (for their time and place) in their atheism but not innovative, even when extremely ethical, in their social thinking. So they never displayed this symbiotic pattern of concurrently heterodox views in both areas typical of pioneering heterodox theists.

    I recognize that plenty of atheists have died horrible deaths, and many, many such figures have had their writings destroyed. So the historical record is probably not complete. But much of the first millennium B.C.E. displays a more tolerant spirit – not throughout, obviously, but still markedly more tolerant than most other eras – in which ultimately a higher frequency of skeptical thinking – even respected skeptical thinking – has survived than from any other era until our own day, which is finally as freewheeling as then, even though it hasn’t lasted as long. When I finished this atheists survey, the absence of any innovative atheists who were heterodox (for their time and place) – in both their take on deity and on social values – from even the more inquiring eras remained disappointing.

    Now, theists who are plainly heterodox in both their take on deity and their take on more inclusive social values are self-evidently risking the ire of their communities – and have garnered it all too frequently. So it’s not necessarily a courage gap that we’re dealing with here when we see the absence of such figures among genuinely ground-breaking atheists. Could something else be going on, tied more directly to a heterodox understanding – and visceral awareness – of deity that in turn emboldens the risking of life and limb for innovative/heterodox social reform as well?

    Anyway, that is what has occurred to me, and it’s what’s made me conclude that, given the apparent symbiosis between heterodox theist views (for their time and place) and heterodox ethical/social views (for their time and place), these recurring patterns on the ground may point to natural human evolution being inextricably tied to a visceral awareness of deity in an often heterodox context as well that is frequently countercultural — dangerously so for the pioneer in question.

    There is admittedly one essential assumption/presumption that I make here at the outset, and if that’s debunked, my whole argument founders: I assume/presume that humanity’s natural evolution is as much tied to a steady expansion of social mores as it is tied to individual drives for food, sex and sleep, etc. – an entirely natural process where whatever is symbiotically tied to expanding social mores is just as natural as the evolving mores themselves – making deity just as real in this equation as evolution itself. If I’m wrong in assuming that the growing expansion of generous social mores is as biologically intrinsic to our evolution as the drives for food, sex and sleep, then I’m wrong in assuming that anything symbiotically tied to that urge for generous mores — in this case, an uncannily recurring engagement with a heterodox take on deity — is also intrinsic to evolution.

    But the main reason why I term myself a “provisional theist” is because, even though I’ve studied the pioneering atheists down the millennia rather extensively, there is still an outside possibility that I may yet come across some pioneering atheist (pioneering for that atheist’s time and place) who atypically introduces, at the same time, some new ethical paradigm (new for that time and place) after all. I haven’t found that yet, which is why I’m now a theist. But if I do find it, I guess I’d become an agnostic – which is what I was before embarking on my layman’s study of the history of pioneering atheists.

    G Riggs

  • Jim Baerg

    Hi G.Riggs
    How can one be a heterodox atheist? Once one has said ‘I don’t believe in God’ there is not much room for further unorthodoxy on theological grounds, thought there is plenty of room for disagreement between atheists on other matters. So I don’t see that there can be very many ‘pioneering’ atheists for a study of their attitudes on other matters. However, the vast majority of atheists have lived in societies in which some sort of theism is the orthodoxy, so I think it could be a reasonable study to compare almost any atheists with unorthodox theists.

    So what fraction of atheists vs what fraction of heterodox theists have promoted reforms that you would consider progressive compared to the then existing social structure?

    That said, this phrase:
    “This is why the dynamics of social reform and altruism ”
    made me think of an atheist who was very heterodox in her ethical thinking.

    While I have my reservations about the philosophy of Ayn Rand, she has influenced my thinking enough that the assumption of ‘altruism=good’ grates. I think she makes a good case that an enlightened selfishness would be more benevolent than the attitude that one must live for others. I think one can dismiss ‘otherism’ (the literal meaning of altruism) as a basis for ethics with the question “If we are here to serve others what are the others here for?” ;-)

  • http://www.operacast.com G Riggs

    If heterodox atheist sounds tautological, what I mean is an atheist who espouses atheism in the absence of any prior precedent for atheism within that atheist’s specific culture. For instance, as someone who had a strong educational background, Bertrand Russell espoused atheism within an Anglo cultural context of Ingersoll, Shelley and many more, all prior figures whose thinking was already familiar to those immediately around Russell. OTOH, the ancient Greek atomist, Leukippos, introduced his atheism with no apparent cultural “support group” or cultural precedent for atheism in Greek culture whatsoever. I would term Leukippos a heterodox atheist, but I would term Russell — if anything heterodox at all — a heterodox humanitarian, perhaps.

    If the term “heterodox atheist” seems too awkward for some here, then I’m perfectly happy with some other term like “autonomous atheist” or “culturally autonomous atheist” instead. The term is not important, but what the term designates is central to this discussion. It’s an occupational hazard on Web boards to get hung up on terminology, but I hope we don’t fall into that trap here. The difference between Leukippos and Russell that I’ve described here is plain and clear, and “autonomous atheist” describes almost as well what I mean, even though it does not convey as well the connotations of something that can shock, disturb or outrage hidebound folk. “Heterodox” still does a better job in that respect, but I’m willing to let that go for the sake of not getting the discussion bogged down, so we can move on to the central point at issue.

    You also say:

    “So I don’t see that there can be very many ‘pioneering’ atheists for a study of their attitudes on other matters.”

    Brhaspati, Carvaka, Leukippos, Democritus, Critias, Knutzen, Meslier — these and a few others introduce the idea of atheism into their respective cultures with no precedent for them to follow. Just these six figures alone run the gamut from ancient India to Revolutionary France in the 1700s. They also run the gamut from strict “physicist” (in the ancient meaning of strict study of the physical world with no ethic/philosophy/creed attached — Leukippos) to genuine ethicist but no ethical innovation (Knutzen) to ruthless believer in might makes right (Brhaspati, Critias) to true humanitarian but open follower of another atheist’s “physics” rather than an atheist innovator (Democritus), and so on. This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are plenty more.

    Now just among these, we already have one ethically original figure who introduces a new social principle — being of use to the community — that transforms certain aspects of the culture in positive ways — Democritus. Unfortunately, his take on deity, atheism, is not original, since he owes it to Leukippos. So he’s not a fair comparison to a Socrates, say, who both introduces a new concept of deity (as a voice that warns) and also a new ethic, the unexamined life is not worth living. What makes Democritus and a number of other similar figures like him frustrating is that they all seem to be innovative in one respect (atheism) or in the other (social ethics), but never in both, a disconcerting pattern I was not expecting, since I was hoping to find a match for the dual innovators — or autonomous innovators — among theists.

    Now obviously, when it comes to atheism by itself, it’s hard to claim that there are “varieties” of atheism. But contextually, individual atheists have run the gamut from those inspired by certain philosophers before them to those who have introduced atheism strictly on their own with no cultural precedent for their time whatsoever, within a culture in which the introducer and everyone around the introducer have never encountered an atheist philosophy before. It’s this latter type of figure I’m interested in because I’m looking for figures who are as original in their atheism, for their time, as the groundbreaking theists who introduce new notions of their own are in their culture. Otherwise, the comparison has no point.

    Think of any natural phenomenon: How might one ascertain its cause on a scientific basis? Perhaps — for the sake of argument — one might want to set up a control environment in which one might try and strip away — to the best extent possible anyway — any external factors that are readily subtractable and that may distract from viewing the phenomenon in something as close to ideally isolated conditions as possible. The fewer variables involved, the less daunting the task of zeroing in on just what is causing the phenomenon.

    In attempting to see if there’s any recurring contextual pattern for basic ideas that have transformed civilizations, it occurs to me that I want to be sure I’m looking at an original source without additional cultural and/or doctrinal baggage. Second-generation insights may still be valid, sure, on a humanely instructive level. But they have no practical scientific value for assessments of this kind. I just want to deal instead with professions that are as “transparent” and “independent” as possible if I’m to reach any valid conclusions. Of course, even such conclusions end up with statements of probabilities instead of certainties. But that’s better than nothing.

    Since the twin ideas of heterodoxy re deity (although still theistic) and heterodoxy re social inclusiveness have uncannily come up together in many a new-minted concept of deity, then the same would have to be the case were one to show that deity has nothing to do with the “altruising” process at all. In other words, some new-minted engagement with both these concerns would have to be evident in some pioneering nonbeliever’s’ innovations as well. So far, that hasn’t happened, even though I’m the first to concede that it could still happen theoretically. If that were to happen, I’m happy to go back to agnosticism [shrug].

    BTW, I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss “otherism”. Just because one person may minister solely to others doesn’t mean that others won’t do the same back. Sometimes, others may, sometimes others may not. The implication of Rand’s objection is that if one ministers to others, then that “one” is a sucker, since everyone else will automatically minister only to themselves. This is flawed. The glue that has held society together from the beginning has been, essentially, “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”. And while there have been sociopathic cases in which certain individuals have not held to their part of the bargain, that doesn’t mean that mutual back-scratching is unheard of in the human comedy. The very invention of barter and currency is eloquent testimony to mutual backscratching taking hold. So is the invention of villages, towns, states, etc. A “cooperative” may be a dirty word/term for some, but towns, states, nations, etc., are ultimately cooperatives writ large. Civilization would founder without them.

    I appreciate that you’re saying

    “If we are here to serve others what are the others here for?”

    as a joke, but the answer to that is very plain:

    “The others are here to serve still others including the original server.”

    Cheers,

    G Riggs

  • Jim Baerg

    “Brhaspati, Carvaka, Leukippos, Democritus, Critias, Knutzen, Meslier”

    I’m not familiar with many of those so I can’t really comment on the observation that aside being atheist they were not innovative ethically.

    “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”.

    That IS enlightened selfishness, not altruism.

    “The others are here to serve still others including the original server.”

    In the absence of enough time for a detailed critique I’ll just note that it has an air of ‘turtles all the way down’ to it.

    I rather like Rand’s idea that ethics would be relevant even to a Robinson Crusoe before Friday shows up.

  • Jim Baerg

    “Brhaspati, Carvaka, Leukippos, Democritus, Critias, Knutzen, Meslier”

    I’m not familiar with many of those so I can’t really comment on the observation that aside being atheist they were not innovative ethically.

    “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”.

    That IS enlightened selfishness, not altruism.

    “The others are here to serve still others including the original server.”

    In the absence of enough time for a detailed critique I’ll just note that it has an air of ‘turtles all the way down’ to it.

    I rather like Rand’s idea that ethics would be relevant even to a Robinson Crusoe before Friday shows up.

  • http://www.operacast.com G Riggs

    Everybody is looking out for — and serving — everyone else. That’s the idea.

    G Riggs

  • bassmanpete

    G Riggs, because all of the writers you’ve mentioned haven’t been original/innovative in their atheism or social thinking, why does that turn you from being a sceptic to a provisional theist? Or have I missed something? Answer in 100 words or less please :)

  • OMGF

    Can I second that request for 100 words or less? I would really like to have the time back that it took me to read through all that carp. I mean, c’mon. Your basic complaint is that atheists live in and are influenced by their cultures, so therefore atheism isn’t true. Also, you’ve mislaid the burden of proof. If you can’t find an atheist that meets some obscure specification that you’ve pulled out of your rear end, then some form of deity must exist? What? That’s like the Creationists who say things like, “If evolution were true, then we’d have a super army of intelligent insects with 50 arms. Since we don’t have that, goddidit.”

  • OMGF

    Can I second that request for 100 words or less? I would really like to have the time back that it took me to read through all that carp. I mean, c’mon. Your basic complaint is that atheists live in and are influenced by their cultures, so therefore atheism isn’t true. Also, you’ve mislaid the burden of proof. If you can’t find an atheist that meets some obscure specification that you’ve pulled out of your rear end, then some form of deity must exist? What? That’s like the Creationists who say things like, “If evolution were true, then we’d have a super army of intelligent insects with 50 arms. Since we don’t have that, goddidit.”

  • http://www.operacast.com G Riggs

    There’s a misunderstanding here concerning “which end of the telescope” I was and am looking through. (Now I never claimed to be the world’s clearest writer, but I’ll wager that what I first said is clear enough to be paraphrased by a few here who have not yet chimed in but who did participate in this discussion back in mid-July.)

    I didn’t set out to ascertain where, if anywhere, in the history of ideas, the notion of deity was “nested”. That couldn’t have interested me less, since I was an agnostic at the time. Instead, as strictly a layman admittedly, I set out to ascertain — first of all — where, if anywhere, in the history of ideas, the notion of _social_ _altruism_ might be — recurrently — “nested”. Heterodox varieties of theism were the last thing I would have expected or researched in answering that altruism question. However, study of the altruism question ended up with the overwhelmingly heterodox varieties of countercultural theism hitting me with a figurative two-by-four! So I didn’t set out to research different brands of theism and arbitrarily foist notions of innovative altruism on that. Instead, I set out to research the origins of philosophical altruism and was rather chagrined to discover, against my expectations, that brands of heterodox theism were apparently huge variables in altruism’s history.

    I am using the historical context of heterodox ideas on social inclusiveness as indices of the reality of the supernatural. Were the recurring historical contexts of such socially advanced notions to involve repeatedly novel and pathbreaking cooking recipes(!) instead of repeatedly heterodox takes on deity, I might conclude that there are ethically healthy altruism triggers innate in the human animal when/if one is engaged in designing an evening meal, with deity having nothing to do with the case!

    Cheers,

    G Riggs

  • bassmanpete

    Your basic complaint is that atheists live in and are influenced by their cultures, so therefore atheism isn’t true.

    Thanks for your short & to-the-point interpretation, OMGF. Could you please do the same for G Riggs’ reply? :)

  • belka

    I would point readers to William James’ book “Varieties of Religious Experience.” It deals with many of the points of dsicussion on this board, irregardless of which side of the discussion one might find themselves. The author was a psychologist and philosopher teaching at Harvard at the turn of the 19th century. The book, which is a series of 26 lectures, explores observable behaviors in people, and how they relate to religious experiences. It does so in a well documented, profusely footnoted and clinical fashion, offering fact over conjecture, empirical evidence over supposition, and dialog over diatribe. The result is something I would expect out of a writer akin to Camille Paglia. I read the book during many long flights during a ’round the world business trip. The time passed amiably with this good read.

  • Polly

    Thanks for your short & to-the-point interpretation, OMGF. Could you please do the same for G Riggs’ reply? :)

    I’ll take a stab at it.
    It sounds like Riggs is saying that there’s a strong correlation between counter-cultural notions of god(what he’s like/what he wants) and innovative altruism(as measured by expanded inclusiveness). Whereas, no such relationship exists with the countercultural notion that there is NO god.

    I am not agreeing or disagreeing. I’m just trying to understand his contention. Hopefully, I got that right, G Riggs?

  • Polly

    Thanks for your short & to-the-point interpretation, OMGF. Could you please do the same for G Riggs’ reply? :)

    I’ll take a stab at it.
    It sounds like Riggs is saying that there’s a strong correlation between counter-cultural notions of god(what he’s like/what he wants) and innovative altruism(as measured by expanded inclusiveness). Whereas, no such relationship exists with the countercultural notion that there is NO god.

    I am not agreeing or disagreeing. I’m just trying to understand his contention. Hopefully, I got that right, G Riggs?

  • http://www.operacast.com G Riggs

    Bingo, Polly — and you’re a faaaaaaaaaaaar better writer than I am too!

    Cheers,

    G Riggs

  • http://www.operacast.com G Riggs

    Bingo, Polly — and you’re a faaaaaaaaaaaar better writer than I am too!

    Cheers,

    G Riggs

  • OMGF

    G Riggs,
    I sugest that you take a look at the altruistic behavior inherent in other animals and then try to defend the position that religion begets altruistic behavior in people.

    Further, group behavior is much different from out of group behavior. Altruism within a religious group doesn’t necessarily mean that that group is altruistic towards all.

    Finally, you lament that there aren’t atheists that are humanitarian enough for you, or the ones who are humanitarian enough aren’t original enough in their atheism – which BTW, I still say you pulled out of your rear end because it doesn’t prove a darn thing. Yet, I doubt that you can actually point to theistic figures that fit your criteria, except in-so-far as you are judging subjectively. IOW, you are finding what you want to find. How convenient. Whether atheism is true or not is a completely separate issue from what is humanitarian/altruistic/etc. That you have linked the two means that you have commited a logical fallacy. So, you are wasting everyone’s time.

  • bassmanpete

    Thanks Polly, but (and you can call me thick if you wish) I still don’t see why that would be a reason to stop being a sceptic and to become a provisional theist.

  • Polly

    @Bassmanpete:

    I don’t think G Riggs has provided the logical-link between his findings and provisional theism, yet (or maybe I missed it) nor, indeed, what a “provisional theist” is?

  • OMGF

    I agree that G Riggs hasn’t provided any logical-link. It’s pseudo-intellectual babble. The post-modern generator could write G Riggs’s posts and it would probably make as much sense.

  • http://www.operacast.com G Riggs

    All right. I’m not wedded to countercultural theism being the only thing that holds these figures together. I would welcome anyone here trying to make a simliar study of (in chronological order) Krishna, Mesalim, Moses, Hesiod, Zarathustra, Lao-tzu, Buddha, Confucius, Socrates, Christ, Mohammed, Bahá’u’lláh, or any others you care to add to the mix, recent or ancient, and see if you can detect any other variable than countercultural theism that uniformly applies to each of these or more individuals.

    Yes, their attempt to draw wider the web of social acceptance at the time is their uniform goal in addition to all else. But is there another uniformly applicable variable here as well? Is that variable countercultural theism? Or is it cooking recipes? Is it sleeveless gowns? Is it a rejection of the wheel?! What?! I’M ALL EARS!

    All I’ve done is report the patterns I’ve seen SO FAR and the — provisional or probational or temporary or whatever-the-fuck-you-want — conclusions that I’ve drawn — FOR THE TIME BEING. Suppose you try the same thing?

    THERE! — IS THAT CLEAR ENOUGH ENGLISH FOR YOU?

    G Riggs

  • Polly

    @G Riggs:
    I hope you didn’t take any offense to my wondering why your findings (which I am NOT qualified to evaluate) drove you personally to become a theist of any kind. None was intended. I was just curious. For me, even if atheism is not innovative, it wouldn’t change my mind about theism. Though it might make me see it as more of a positive force than I see it now.

  • http://www.operacast.com G Riggs

    No, Polly, I was annoyed with another poster, and I probably shouldn’t be [shrug]. I do express myself badly fairly often, and sentences tend to run away from me……… I can understand your puzzlement at atheism’s lack of innovation somehow changing my mind about theism. I just haven’t made the connection clear here, and maybe even if I do make it clear this time, it’s still a boneheaded conclusion anyway(?).

    It may be clearer if I present it partly autobiographically this time, even though it gets into politics to a degree if I do that, but ………. During the ’90s, crises like Bosnia, Rwanda, et al, and the international community’s dithering over them, got me profoundly discouraged, probably because I had allowed myself to be sold on a general euphoria at the time (in some quarters) that had been generated by the end of the Cold War, of the Soviet Union and of the Berlin Wall, etc. The hope that we might really be looking at a future in which war would really be no longer in nations’ interests got me fired up. I became a happy man, I decided to get married, make a life, stop being caught up in every Presidential election cycle, and so on. I have never regretted getting married, and I do not regret the happy life I have today.

    At the same time, the endless addiction, on my part, to staying abreast of continual crises on the evening news gradually started returning by the mid-’90s.

    I couldn’t help wondering if our very species might be in jeopardy. Where was the promised consensus that society would finally acknowledge the equal worth of every human being, that we’d only thrive if we all pull together rather than separately? How could we expect nations outside the nuclear club to stay that way if those with the bomb didn’t set an example by doing at least some downsizing themselves? Where were the promised freed-up resources to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, etc., now that mega-spending on deterrence for the Cold War no longer seemed necessary? Yes, these and similar principles had already been codified in documents like the United Nations Charter, the Geneva Conventions, and so on. But it seemed that the end of the Cold War brought us right back to 1946 instead, where international norms were as irrelevant as if the U.N., and similar institutions, had never been established at all.

    I thought, “surely there are certain benchmarks that humanity has previously laid down on occasion that have brought sectors of the human family back from the brink of social free fall” — and social free fall, for me, is when a society’s left-out grow to such critical mass that anarchy, feuled by resentment, ultimately threatens lives and property on a huge scale, such as happened, for instance, in the French Revolution. (It was this concern that apparently spurred FDR and his advisors to bring on the so-called New Deal in the 1930s, with its concept of the social safety net.)

    “Somehow” (I thought) “benchmarks like the principles of Pericles, or Jesus’s serving others, or the inalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence, or the Emancipation Proclamation and the Tsar’s freeing of the serfs, or the pacifism of Gandhi, or FDR’s four freedoms, or the Geneva Conventions, or the U.N. charter, had each apparently had teeth — for their time — in nudging humanity one small step forward and away from a social free fall. But somehow, examples like Rwanda or Bosnia, and the even more distressing listlessness of the other nations in responding, seem to call the longlasting effects of the great benchmarks of the past into question. What initially gave these benchmarks their teeth and why do they only get scorn and ridicule today? Somehow humanity managed to emerge out of the jungle intact via villages, towns, states, etc., each of which tacitly adopt the notion of community, and without which none of us would probably be here today at all. What was there in each of the successive nudges to humanity’s sense of responsibility for its fellow creatures that clicked successfully in the past?”

    It was at this stage that I rather haphazardly started to dig into whatever common denominator(s) the key ethical/social pioneers of the past might have. I was looking for some pattern, yes, but I truly had no notion as to what that pattern might be.

    I did, though, start out with one basic premise: evolution is most certainly intrinsic to the development of each and every species — Darwin & Wallace have that dead right — and each and every species has basic needs that are either met through evolution or are not met at all, resulting in extinction. Humanity’s evolution has seemed to thrive in social patterns, and if those patterns snap apart through galloping selfishness and neglect, cultures perish. Unfortunately, today, even though we still can point to a few individual cultures here and there, there is one overarching global culture that is more ubiquitous today than any similar would-be global culture has ever been before. The reason why that’s terrifying is because that means that if the global culture of today implodes, the resulting cataclysm would be more catastrophic than any cultural implosion in the past. Add the apparent disintegration of the ecology to that mix and you really have the makings for human extinction.

    Maybe it’s too big of a leap to (and others would have to judge this) assume that whatever ingredients go into humanity’s incremental nudges toward greater caring and social evolution must be as real as any other ingredient in evolution. But I make that assumption. Procreation is symbiotically tied to the drive for sex, nourishment is symbiotically tied to the drive for food, sufficient energy is symbiotically tied to the drive for sleep. In each case, something eminently practical is tied symbiotically to a specific desire for something comforting, whether good sex, good food or a decent night’s sleep.

    I happen to view the eminent practicality of a sensitized responsibility/conscience toward all of society’s members in the same light, frankly. I view it in the same way as I do procreation, nourishment and sufficient energy. Now, if the comfort element in procreation is delightful sex, what is the comfort element in caring for all our fellow creatures? That’s the question I’d like answered.

    Going by the historical record, the key evolutionary nudges toward wider caring throughout history SEEM tied to countercultural theism? But maybe that’s a red herring. Can any of you guys detect another “comfort” thread instead that also runs through the history of pioneering altruists? PLEEEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAAASE?! If you can, it should be bottled, because I honestly believe that we are staring down the barrel of imminent human extinction today!

    I can just hear the cynics on this board saying “All that is horseshit: treatment of the less well off can’t influence the future of humanity one fucking bit; we’re all still here; so stop being a pain in the ass”, and bla bla bla bla bla. Well, I don’t choose to complacently accept the extinction of humanity because of your fucking stupidity, arrogance, shortsightednes, stunted attention span, selfishness, greed and violence (not you, Polly).

    Sincerely,

    G Riggs

  • http://www.operacast.com G Riggs

    I did a quick search on this page, and I see I’m the only one here to have resorted to the F word. My regrets for that to one and all. It won’t happen again.

    With apologies,

    G Riggs

  • OMGF

    All right. I’m not wedded to countercultural theism being the only thing that holds these figures together. I would welcome anyone here trying to make a simliar study of (in chronological order) Krishna, Mesalim, Moses, Hesiod, Zarathustra, Lao-tzu, Buddha, Confucius, Socrates, Christ, Mohammed, Bahá’u’lláh, or any others you care to add to the mix, recent or ancient, and see if you can detect any other variable than countercultural theism that uniformly applies to each of these or more individuals.

    I’m most familiar with Jesus, so let’s start there. How can you possibly think that Jesus was counter-cultural theistically? He stressed returning to the “divine law.” He was ultra-conservative in terms of following the law. Also, let’s look at the second part of your anal theory, that the person is also humanitarian. Jesus whips people, slaughters pigs, tells us to leave our families, will send people to hell, etc. How is that humanitarian? Sure, he preached love for his fellow Jews, but outsiders be damned.

    I did a quick search on this page, and I see I’m the only one here to have resorted to the F word. My regrets for that to one and all. It won’t happen again.

    It doesn’t bother me. As long as Ebon doesn’t mind, I see no reason for apologies.

  • OMGF

    Going by the historical record, the key evolutionary nudges toward wider caring throughout history SEEM tied to countercultural theism? But maybe that’s a red herring.

    I would say that the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man were both secular documents springing from the secular Enlightenment movement that have done just this. Your problem is that most of the people before that time were theists, so when these jumps were made, they were inevitably by theists. So it’s not a red herring, but it’s a case that correlation does not equal causation.

    I can just hear the cynics on this board saying “All that is horseshit: treatment of the less well off can’t influence the future of humanity one fucking bit; we’re all still here; so stop being a pain in the ass”, and bla bla bla bla bla. Well, I don’t choose to complacently accept the extinction of humanity because of your fucking stupidity, arrogance, shortsightednes, stunted attention span, selfishness, greed and violence (not you, Polly).

    That sentiment would be more in line on a theist’s blog IMO. Theism separates people into us vs. them, and who cares what happens to us all, since this life is only preparation for the next. In fact, some want this destruction to happen since they think it will be armageddon. Here, we happen to understand the value of our lives and of the lives of others. So, if you want to bitch about bad attitudes, you’re in the wrong place and accusing the wrong people.

  • http://www.operacast.com G Riggs

    I’m most familiar with Jesus, so let’s start there. How can you possibly think that Jesus was counter-cultural theistically? He stressed returning to the “divine law.” He was ultra-conservative in terms of following the law. Also, let’s look at the second part of your anal theory,

    Is someone hiring you to toss in these references?

    that the person is also humanitarian. Jesus whips people,

    Actually, he whips tables [ducking].

    slaughters pigs, tells us to leave our families, will send people to hell, etc.

    I only go by what each pioneer introduces, and the notion of hell was first mooted many thousands of years before Jesus in other ancient belief systems. Look, I’ve never claimed that any of these pioneers is impeccable (look at Jefferson and his slave-holding); it’s what they newly introduce that makes them evolutionarily useful to humanity. Jesus introduced the notion that serving the humblest people of all was the way to serve God most directly. That was new, and that made him evolutionary.

    How is that humanitarian? Sure, he preached love for his fellow Jews, but outsiders be damned.

    Hmmm ………. you’d have a hard time making that last claim stick …….. good Samaritan anyone? ……………..

    I did a quick search on this page, and I see I’m the only one here to have resorted to the F word. My regrets for that to one and all. It won’t happen again.

    It doesn’t bother me. As long as Ebon doesn’t mind, I see no reason for apologies.

    I still do — and why am I not surprised at its not bothering you? ………….

    I would say that the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man were both secular documents springing from the secular Enlightenment movement that have done just this. Your problem is that most of the people before that time were theists, so when these jumps were made, they were inevitably by theists. So it’s not a red herring, but it’s a case that correlation does not equal causation.

    The Declaration of Independence was written by a Deist and the Declaration of the Rights of Man by a Mason. Also, virulent atheist-haters have tried to spread the idea that the bloodthirsty Robespierre was an atheist in the same pernicious way that they’ve tried the same thing with Hitler. In fact, both were believers, and Robespierre even turned his take-no-prisoners cruelties directly on atheists by claiming that they were reflective of too elitist an attitude to deserve mercy in his oh-so-fine republic. So Robespierre — and in fact a number of other leaders in the French Revolution as well — were actually believers, an untidy fact that people still try to ignore today.

    You also write as if theists are the only ones I’ve read. Don’t forget that once I detected this countercultural theist pattern among pioneering altruists, I spent the better part of a decade researching all the historical pioneering atheists I could to see if my tentative conclusions could be debunked. Ultimately, it was not just the preponderance of countercultural theists among pioneering altruists that I found disconcerting; it was, above all, the concurrent lack of pioneering altruism among pioneering atheists that frustrated me most of all — and I’d wager that I probably ended up reading more pioneering atheists throughout history than altruists once I was done.

    I can just hear the cynics on this board saying “All that is horseshit: treatment of the less well off can’t influence the future of humanity one fucking bit; we’re all still here; so stop being a pain in the ass”, and bla bla bla bla bla. Well, I don’t choose to complacently accept the extinction of humanity because of your fucking stupidity, arrogance, shortsightednes, stunted attention span, selfishness, greed and violence (not you, Polly).

    That sentiment would be more in line on a theist’s blog IMO. Theism separates people into us vs. them, and who cares what happens to us all, since this life is only preparation for the next. In fact, some want this destruction to happen since they think it will be armageddon. Here, we happen to understand the value of our lives and of the lives of others. So, if you want to bitch about bad attitudes, you’re in the wrong place and accusing the wrong people.

    With Rand having been approvingly invoked earlier in this very discussion, I find it rich that someone should now blithely assert that only theists need be challenged on their attitudes to the left-out of society. UGLY SCORN OF THE LEFT-OUT AND THE HELPLESS HAS MANIFESTED ITSELF AMONG ADHERENTS OF EVERY BELIEF SYSTEM SINCE TIME BEGAN — REALITY CHECK!!!!!!!!!!!

    G Riggs

  • OMGF

    Actually, he whips tables [ducking].

    And people he doesn’t like being in his temple.

    I only go by what each pioneer introduces, and the notion of hell was first mooted many thousands of years before Jesus in other ancient belief systems.

    You mean that you only focus on the positive things that a theist produces? Again, you are rigging the outcome to find what you want to find.

    Jesus introduced the notion that serving the humblest people of all was the way to serve God most directly. That was new, and that made him evolutionary.

    Even if that were true, which we don’t know if it is or not – we don’t even know if Jesus existed or not which would blow your theory out of the water – it only fulfills one arm of your two pronged theory. Thus, by your own theory you have to throw Jesus out.

    Hmmm ………. you’d have a hard time making that last claim stick …….. good Samaritan anyone? ……………..

    The references to “neighbor” means fellow Jews. Also, I wonder which “good Samaritan” you are referring to. Chapter and verse please? If it’s the story I think it is, it’s not Jesus doing anything but preaching to them (bringing in converts which is no different from what the Sunday morning preachers try to do every week.)

    I still do — and why am I not surprised at its not bothering you? ………….

    Because it was just a word. It was not aimed at anyone, as in “You f—” or “You are a f—.” It was just there. Who cares? The only person who might care is Ebon, since it’s his blog and he might be concerned about the words that show up on it, depending on his target audience, etc.

    Also, virulent atheist-haters have tried to spread the idea that the bloodthirsty Robespierre was an atheist in the same pernicious way that they’ve tried the same thing with Hitler.

    And theist roundly criticized both documents as being atheist, so what? Jefferson’s beliefs are debatable. In some of his writings, it seems as though he wasn’t even a deist. Of course, this was before Darwin. Oh, and we should add to the list the US Constitution, Thomas Paine, and Karl Marx. True, Marx’s writings on Communism were much reviled and still are, but he came up with the idea of socialism which was revolutionary in that for the first time the gov. had an obligation to help the poor. He also came up with the idea that religion was an opiate, which was also revolutionary in that religion wasn’t just false, but was also a tool used to keep the masses down. A way to control others.

    You also write as if theists are the only ones I’ve read.

    Whether you read them or not, it’s your biases that I’m questioning. Going back to your list, you include Lao Tse and Buddha, which are both inappropriate because they don’t meet the revolutionary theist idea prong of your theory. Also, they dealt with how one should conduct oneself, not how one should treat others. Your list is getting smaller and smaller.

    Ultimately, it was not just the preponderance of countercultural theists among pioneering altruists that I found disconcerting; it was, above all, the concurrent lack of pioneering altruism among pioneering atheists that frustrated me most of all — and I’d wager that I probably ended up reading more pioneering atheists throughout history than altruists once I was done.

    And I’ve given some reasons for this. Here’s another since you seem to want to ignore all the other reasons: theism has been such a monkey on our backs for as long as we’ve recorded that atheist revolutionaries have had enough to deal with just fighting against pernicious theist ideas.
    Further, I see more evidence of bias in your thought that you’ve read more atheists than altruists.

    With Rand having been approvingly invoked earlier in this very discussion, I find it rich that someone should now blithely assert that only theists need be challenged on their attitudes to the left-out of society. UGLY SCORN OF THE LEFT-OUT AND THE HELPLESS HAS MANIFESTED ITSELF AMONG ADHERENTS OF EVERY BELIEF SYSTEM SINCE TIME BEGAN — REALITY CHECK!!!!!!!!!!!

    I see that you agree with me, since atheism is not a belief system. The fact is, however that I brought up some reasons why which you blithely ignored. Deal with the arguments instead of making sweeping statements. This is why your arguments belong in the trash. Not only have you not supported why your arguments are worth anything or where they came from and how they fit with the truth or falsity of theistic belief, but you can not tell us why they are important, beyond making accusations that atheists don’t care about people, which is patently false.

  • http://www.operacast.com G Riggs

    First off, I want to congratulate OMGF on having chased away posters like Lynet, Damon, eye-of-horus, Jim Baerg, Bassmanpete, Belka and Polly, who were more interested in honestly grappling with the historic questions raised in this discussion than in flinging around ad hominem attacks ad nauseum and deliberately and consciously reversing/distorting every other thing I say. I’m going to address the distortions once and for all right now, and if that only results in more distortions and ad hominem attacks rather than serious arguments to show me where I’m wrong from the posters whom OMGF has effectively chased away, then I’ll ignore everything else OMGF has to say and just wait until a more cogent atheist WHO CAN READ comes along and addresses these points seriously. I’ve already suggested that anyone who wants to offer an alternate pattern on some of these altruists would obviously be doing something worthwhile. I’ve also itemized earlier in this discussion some of the altruists and also some of the pioneering atheists whom I surveyed and whom others are seriously invited to study for themselves.

    Now, it’s time to address OMGF’s distortions:

    1. I go by ALL the NEW things that a pioneer introduces, not just the positive things. Your claim to the contrary is flat-out wrong. In addition, how could I be rigging anything since I wasn’t even looking for theism or atheism when I started this altruism survey, particularly since I started this survey as a thoroughly uninterested agnostic? Also, I find plenty of positive things in early atheists like the highly ethical Democritus of ancient Greece and the similarly ethical Knutzen of 17th-century Germany. Finally, I’ve rejected plenty of theists as well, like, for instance, the highly ethical St. Francis of Asisi, since his beliefs were not original with him, although some of his ethics may have been.

    2. If you doubt Jesus’s historicity, I don’t mind discarding Jesus for now; there are plenty of others [shrug]. It was you who singled out Jesus among the ten or so names I cited, not me.

    3. The story of the Good Samaritan is in Luke 10:25-37. The story is about a man who was lying helpless in the street after being roughed up by robbers. Jesus’s story quite obviously twits people whom Israel audiences of the time would have viewed as “insiders”, by portraying both a priest and a Levite as unconcerned with the injured man and just passing him by. But Samaritans were viewed by the more insular members of Israel society as outsiders, not worth any respect or consideration. So Jesus’s story depicts the looked-down-on Samaritan as immediately taking care of the injured man the second he sees him and carrying him to a place of shelter. Just in case Jesus’s audience doesn’t get the point, Jesus caps the story by asking directly “Which of these three was a real neighbour?” Well, it’s obviously the Samaritan and a smart-alec who’s been (practically) heckling Jesus ultimately mumbles the answer that it’s the Samaritan. This story does not preach altruism towards insiders only. Clearly, the outsider is to be apreciated as well.

    4. Marx’s social ethics were brand new and quite considerate, but his atheism mirrored other Germans of his and earlier generations like Feuerbach and Knutzen.

    5. Both Lao-tzu and Buddha do introduce new takes on deity, Lao-tzu making deity more impersonal than Chinese theists of his day generally did, and Buddha questioning the notion that Brahma had a hand in the beginnings of the cosmos, suggesting that Brahma is supreme because he stands at an ethical pinnacle as the top moral norm, not because he knows everything about the cosmos, which Buddha suggests he really doesn’t. Moreover, in Buddha’s sermons, he says

    “And so you say, V¤seÂÂha, that the Bhikkhu is free from anger, and free from malice, pure in mind, and master of himself; and that Brahm¤ is free from anger, and free from malice, pure in mind, and master of himself. Then in sooth, V¤seÂÂha, that the Bhikkhu who is free from anger, free from malice, pure in mind, and master of himself should after death, when the body is dissolved, become united with Brahm¤, who is the same-such a condition of things is every way possible!” (D.N. 13)

    and

    “And what is right resolve? Aspiring to renunciation, to freedom from ill will, to harmlessness: This is called right resolve.
    “And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, & from idle chatter: This is called right speech.
    “And what is right action? Abstaining from taking life, from stealing, & from illicit sex. This is called right action.” (D.N. 22)

    Obviously, these quotes concern conduct towards others.

    6. I’ve seen no lack of enterprise or courage in pioneering atheists. The things some of them have articulated have often placed them in the gravest danger, or taxed their mental acuity to the utmost, or both. I don’t see that such resourcefulness and such courage could ever blanch at tackling both atheism and altruism together, had they a mind to. They don’t have a mind to; that’s the only answer I can give to this conundrum. Minds as independent as the ones I’ve read would hardly find the task of dealing with one wing or the other of this twin package of atheism and altruism heavy enough to discourage them from inquiring further into something additional to one or the other. As an example, I happily submit here the one clearest example of someone who did go countercultural in both his atheism and his philosophical code, an ancient Indian thinker of ca. 600 B.C.E., sometimes called Brhaspati in some sources and sometimes called Carvaka in others. However, his new code of ethics doesn’t seem altruistic enough to me, since it doesn’t cover how to treat others, only oneself. At the same time, there is little to take exception to as such, beyond my disappointment that it doesn’t address treatment of others. So I’m happy to present it here, if anyone’s interested in giving their own take on it. Let me know. It’s only a few paragraphs. Strikingly enough, Brhaspati/Carvaka is the earliest (extant) atheist whose philosophy has survived, so he is an eminently useful “original” in every respect.

    7. I made no claim that all atheists don’t care about people. I said that pioneering atheists don’t seem interested in fashioning countercultural spins on altruism. At the same time, this is already the second time that I’ve cited Democritus and Knutzen as two atheists — among many, including Marx — who clearly have a social conscience!

    Furthermore, atheism itself may or may not be a belief system the way you define it. But it is definitely a recognizable philosophy with a pedigree of a few thousand years. And among the adherents of that philosophy, there is the same mixture of opposed individuals who care-for/heap-scorn-on the left-out and the helpless as there is among adherents of every orthodox creed.

    G. Riggs

  • OMGF

    First off, I want to congratulate OMGF on having chased away posters like Lynet, Damon, eye-of-horus, Jim Baerg, Bassmanpete, Belka and Polly, who were more interested in honestly grappling with the historic questions raised in this discussion than in flinging around ad hominem attacks ad nauseum and deliberately and consciously reversing/distorting every other thing I say.

    Yeah, I’ll bet it’s my fault and not your pseudo-intellectual babble that you haven’t backed up yet? Oh, and where are those ad hominems. If you are going to accuse me of attacking you personally, then back up your claims.

    1. I go by ALL the NEW things that a pioneer introduces, not just the positive things…

    Yet you pooh poohed the things that I brought up about Jesus? Also, how is this a distortion? It’s an argument and I made claims about your argument and brought my own arguments to counter. You don’t seem to be able to answer those arguments.

    2. If you doubt Jesus’s historicity, I don’t mind discarding Jesus for now; there are plenty of others [shrug]. It was you who singled out Jesus among the ten or so names I cited, not me.

    You put his name on your list, am I not allowed to counter the names on your list? Also, no distortion here.

    3. The story of the Good Samaritan is in Luke 10:25-37. The story is about a man who was lying helpless in the street after being roughed up by robbers. Jesus’s story quite obviously twits people whom Israel audiences of the time would have viewed as “insiders”, by portraying both a priest and a Levite as unconcerned with the injured man and just passing him by…

    Good point, although I would counter that this was written when the Christians were outsiders themselves and were looking for converts – not written by Jesus, as none of the Bible contains Jesus’s words. It seems natural to point to the Samaritans. Either way, it’s not proof of Jesus’s theology or anything to do with Jesus, except that the words are attributed to him.

    4. Marx’s social ethics were brand new and quite considerate, but his atheism mirrored other Germans of his and earlier generations like Feuerbach and Knutzen.

    You mean the theists Martin Knutzen and Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach? Perhaps you meant other philosophers by those names in Germany around the time of Marx? If not, this is what happens when you try to BS your way through things over here.

    5. Both Lao-tzu and Buddha do introduce new takes on deity…Obviously, these quotes concern conduct towards others.

    But not new takes on deity, nor are they theological statements.

    6. I’ve seen no lack of enterprise or courage in pioneering atheists….

    Your personal opinion is painfully noted (with the pages and pages of stuff you’ve written to express it over and over) but I still have no clue why I should take it as authoritative or as a good argument for anything.

    7. I made no claim that all atheists don’t care about people….

    And I never claimed you did Mr. “I can read real gud.”

    And among the adherents of that philosophy, there is the same mixture of opposed individuals who care-for/heap-scorn-on the left-out and the helpless as there is among adherents of every orthodox creed.

    So, atheists are just as moral as theists; so what are you bitching about? And why are you throwing accusations at us?

    Let me make something crystal clear. You have done nothing to show how your position means anything other than that you have formed a personal opinion on something. You’ve not touched on the truth or falsity of atheism, nor have you even tied your opinion to it. You’ve not explained how it makes you a “provisional theist,” unless we are supposed to just assume that it’s horrible logic that leads you to theism (which it always is, since theism is illogical and irrational.) Pony up, or are you going to run away that the nasty old OMGF is bringing arguments against you that you can’t answer and doesn’t seem to want to just let his eyes glaze over at your over-abundance of words and your bravado about how knowledgable you are about everything to do with altruism and atheism/theism?

  • http://www.operacast.com G Riggs

    You’re a great poster boy for atheism…………..

  • OMGF

    And you for theism, since you can’t argue your points. You want us all to worship your self-referenced wealth of knowledge, but when challenged on it, you can’t back up your statements or your theories. Then, you cry, “Persecution.” Yeah, I’m twisting all your words, yet you can’t provide an actual example. Yeah, I’m using ad hominem, but again you can’t provide an actual example.

    Like I said, pseudo-intellectual babble. Your mental masturbation is only pleasing you.

  • http://www.operacast.com G Riggs

    Now, THIS you’re good at.

  • OMGF

    Pointing out the inadequacies of your position? Yes, yes I am.

    Considering that you can’t figure out who is a theist and who isn’t, that you can’t link your claims to anything, and that you can’t back up your claims, I would be retracting some claims right now if I were you and showing a modicum of decency and integrity. It’s ironic that on a thread about atheist morality, it is the theist that shows none of it by hurling accusations that (s)he can’t back up and then refusing to do anything but hurl out more one-liners; ones that exhibit the same quality that you were complaining about. Can you say, “Projection?” I should have known better than to read through all your carp though, because anyone who takes 1000+ words to say, “I think revolutionary theists make better strides toward altruism than revolutionary atheists” is full of carp. (Notice that I just summed up your whole entire position and lack of arguments for it in, what 12 words?)

  • http://www.operacast.com G Riggs

    I’m just giving you the reaction you wanted.

  • OMGF

    I don’t know why, but I feel compelled to pile on.

    We can take Socrates off your list.

    Socrates frequently says that his ideas are not his own, but his teachers’. He mentions several influences: Prodicus the rhetor and Anaxagoras the scientist. Perhaps surprisingly, Socrates claims to have been deeply influenced by two women besides his mother. He says that Diotima, a witch and priestess from Mantinea taught him all he knows about eros, or love, and that Aspasia, the mistress of Pericles, taught him the art of funeral orations. John Burnet argued that his principal teacher was the Anaxagorean Archelaus but that his ideas were as Plato described them; Eric A. Havelock, on the other hand, considered Socrates’ association with the Anaxagoreans to be evidence of Plato’s philosophical separation from Socrates.

    From wikipedia.

  • OMGF

    And BTW, the reaction I want is integrity. It would be nice to deal with someone who has some. Unfortunately, you do not.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Okay, this is getting too personal.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X