On "Amateur" Atheism

This week, the Christian Century published an article by the Catholic theologian John Haught, titled “Amateur atheists: Why the new atheism isn’t serious“.

Before I say anything more, I want to acknowledge that John Haught is not the real enemy. He testified for the side of the plaintiffs in the Kitzmiller v. Dover intelligent design trial, for instance, arguing that religious faith is compatible with scientific inquiry and that ID is pseudoscience. I’m appreciative of his service on this issue. That said, the rest of this post will show no mercy.

First of all, as the title implies, Haught presumes for himself the right to judge which atheists are or are not sufficiently “serious”:

For many years I taught an introductory theology course for undergraduates titled “The Problem of God.” My fellow instructors and I were convinced that our students should be exposed to the most erudite of the unbelievers… The recent books by Richard Dawkins, Samuel Harris and Christopher Hitchens would never have made the required-reading list. Their tirades would simply reinforce students’ ignorance not only of religion but also of atheism.

Although Haught makes noises about wanting his students to be exposed to the best arguments for nonbelief, when it comes time for practical application of that policy, he swiftly pivots and says, in effect: “I’m going to decide which arguments for atheism are most convincing, and take it from me, these guys aren’t saying anything worthwhile! It’s not necessary for you to read what they’re writing. Trust me.” Despite his pretense of allegiance to open inquiry, it seems clear that his wish is to act as a censor, deciding which are the best (i.e., the safest) arguments for nonbelief, and sheltering his students from all the rest. If these extremely successful, influential modern atheist authors are not worthy of mention as far as Haught is concerned, then he’s doing his students a serious disservice by failing to acquaint them with what real atheists are actually saying today.

Who are the atheists that Haught wants his students to learn about? The next excerpt provides a revealing answer:

The classical atheists, by contrast, demanded a much more radical transformation of human culture and consciousness. This is most evident when we consider works by Nietzsche, Camus and Sartre. To them atheism not only should make all the difference in the world; it would take a superhuman effort to embrace it.

Haught is infatuated with those few atheists who proposed a sweeping, dramatic reinvention of humanity from the ground up. This is no surprise. Clearly, his aim is to make atheism seem as radical and disturbing a proposition as possible, the better to frighten his students away from embracing it.

By contrast, the modern atheists he sneeringly dismisses aren’t proposing any radical social transformation. They’re simply pointing out that enormous potential for good already exists in the human mind. We don’t need to make ourselves into totally different creatures; we just need to unleash the potential that’s already there. And one of the largest obstacles to that enlightenment is religion, which teaches that non-evidence-based faith and unquestioning obedience to authority are positive character traits. They are not, and people who erroneously believe so have caused terrible violence and other tragedies. It’s these unmistakably deleterious effects of faith that the modern atheists are calling attention to.

No attack on atheism would be complete without the obligatory slander that atheism can provide no basis for morality. Haught doesn’t disappoint:

Has Harris really thought about what would happen if people adopted the hard-core atheist’s belief that there is no transcendent basis for our moral valuations? What if people have the sense to ask whether Darwinian naturalism can provide a solid and enduring foundation for our truth claims and value judgments?

As an expert witness at a creationism trial, Haught should be well aware that no prominent atheist claims either of those things. In fact, Sam Harris (whom he derides) states in his books that he believes morality is objective, while Richard Dawkins (whom he derides) has argued that “we, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.” Either Haught is grossly ignorant of the actual views of the atheists he’s attacking, or else he’s lying about their positions for rhetorical advantage. I invite my readers to decide which is more likely to be the case.

Haught does say that “logical rigor” leads atheists to the conclusion of moral nihilism, implying that atheists who think otherwise just haven’t thought it through clearly enough. But, for obvious reasons, a Catholic believer has no authority to decide what atheism “really” implies. I’ve said it many times before, but it can never be said often enough: atheism is compatible with an objective morality, one that’s based on reason fused with compassion and conscience. We do not blindly mimic nature, but instead apply our rational natures to determine what would be best for us, independent of what does or does not happen in the natural world. The existence of God offers no surefire path to absolute morality, due to the Euthyphro dilemma: either God is simply communicating a preexisting standard which we could have discovered ourselves, or else his commands are wholly arbitrary and provide no objective basis.

I’ll close with these words from Haught:

In fact, a distinguishing mark of the new atheism is that it leaves no room for a sense of moral ambiguity in anything that smacks of faith. There is no allowance that religion might have at least one or two redeeming features. No such waffling is permitted. Their hatred of religious faith is so palpable that the pages of their books fairly quiver in our hands.

Even if we accept this insulting falsehood of a characterization, one thing Haught has notably failed to do is show any instance where these atheists are wrong. He doesn’t even attempt it. Instead, he just asserts that these atheists are nasty and mean (oh yes, and also “amateurs” and “unserious”), and so believers can safely ignore them, with no need to consider their argument on the merits. He may call us amateurs, but I’d like to return the compliment: If this shallowly fallacious reasoning is all he has to offer, then he’s the intellectual amateur, not the atheists who’ve examined religious belief more dispassionately and incisively than he ever has or will.

I note one final point: whatever they wrote or said, Camus, Sartre and the rest made little effort to actually establish atheism as an organized and vital force in society. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the other modern atheists are doing exactly that. I view it as entirely possible that Haught’s entire essay is an elaborate exercise in concern trolling. In effect, he’s saying, we should stop making all these practical criticisms, stop pointing out the evils that religion has wrought, and stop trying to found a social and political movement that advances the interests of atheists. All that is unserious and “amateur”. Instead, you should be nihilists, and you should recognize that atheists have no morality and that they want to turn human society inside out and change everything. In return, I’ll teach about you in my introductory theology course!

If that’s the bargain Haught is offering, then I hope he’ll understand that real atheists neither want nor need his approval, and that we are likely to be utterly uninterested in taking him up on it.

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.

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com The Ridger

    It’s fairly typical of organized religion: he’s going to tell his students what to believe, and expose them only to dissenting voices that will not convince them of anything, all the while telling them he’s teaching them to think while actually limiting their thoughts and even their ability to think.

  • http://www.bellatorus.com Petrucio

    The recent books by Richard Dawkins, Samuel Harris and Christopher Hitchens would never have made the required-reading list.

    “Oh, crap, they cought me with me pants down! What will I do now? Sure, dodge my proposition entirely and cry to momma that the atheists have no morals and are insulting us! Never fails.”

  • http://kdegraaf.net/blog/ Kevin DeGraaf

    Either Haught is grossly ignorant of the actual views of the atheists he’s attacking, or else he’s lying about their positions for rhetorical advantage. I invite my readers to decide which is more likely to be the case.

    Can’t it be both? Theists aren’t exactly known for their commitment to truth, fairness, and integrity — anything goes, as long as it supports Jeebus (TM).

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Yup.

    I’m not sure I would call it “censorship,” exactly. If you teach a class, you have to pick which books to teach from and which ones not to. He’s not censoring Dawkins, Dennet, et. al., any more than he’d be censoring Camus and Sartre if he chose to teach Dawkins and Dennet instead. His students are still free to go buy Dawkins and Dennet etc. at the local bookstore.

    That being said, I completely agree with the heart of your argument.

    And what I find interesting is that the atheists he considers “serious” don’t just demand radical transformation of society. They’re also depressing as hell. One of the hallmarks of the so-called “new atheism” is that it’s generally very life-affirming: passionate about life, optimistic, even upbeat.

    No wonder he doesn’t want to teach it. It not only doesn’t fit with his assumption that a) atheism must be morally nihilistic, b) the “new atheists” aren’t morally nihilistic, therefore c) the “new atheists” aren’t serious and haven’t thought through the implications of their atheism. It also doesn’t fit with his assumption that a) atheism must be depressing and meaningless, b) the “new atheists” aren’t depressed and lacking in meaning, therefore c) the “new atheists” aren’t serious and haven’t thought through the implications of their atheism.

    I am so over this. I mean, I don’t go around saying, “the obvious implications of theism are depressing and lacking in moral responsibility, therefore any theist who isn’t depressed and who accepts moral responsibility isn’t serious.” I look at the reality in front of me — which is that some theists are depressed and/or morally irresponsible, but most aren’t. I wish they’d return the favor.

  • konrad_arflane

    From the article:

    Go all the way and think the business of atheism through to the bitter end. This means that before you get too comfortable with the godless world you long for, you will be required by the logic of any consistent skepticism to pass through the disorienting wilderness of nihilism. Do you have the courage to do that? You will have to adopt the tragic heroism of a Sisyphus, or realize that true freedom in the absence of God means that you are the creator of the values you live by. Don’t you realize that this will be an intolerable burden from which most people will seek an escape? Are you ready to allow simple logic to lead you to the real truth about the death of God? Before settling into a truly atheistic worldview you will have to experience the Nietzschean madman’s sensation of straying through “infinite nothingness.” You will be required to summon up an unprecedented degree of courage if you plan to wipe away the whole horizon of transcendence. Are you willing to risk madness? If not, then you are not really an atheist.

    It seems to me that this entire passage, which seems to contain the core of Haught’s argument, fails to recognize that the “infinite nothingness”, the “wilderness of nihilism”, lies conceptually between the idea that morality is God-given, and the idea that there exists an objective morality that we can discover for ourselves.

    In other words, if Haught himself were to become an atheist, he would have to pass through this dark night of the soul before reaching sunnier mental climes. But if one starts out on this side of the divide, there’s no need to cross it in the first place.

  • OMGF

    So, atheists have to be nihilists, hate life, etc. but theists who are only here to be tested by god so they can go to heaven, which is a much better place where you can eat chocolate all day and not gain weight, where all your desires are met, etc. love life, etc, even though the longer they live the longer until they get to paradise? Am I the only one that is confused by this?

  • bipolar2

    ** On reading atheism **

    1. You’re absolutely right — current polemical works are the best possible hooks to get students interested in the topic. I suggest that to the list you cite that you add Atheist Manifesto by Michel Onfray.

    2. If kids back in the ’60s could read Camus’ The Stranger, which is after all a novel, today’s students can as well. They can also read Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” Satre’s “No Exit” — both plays. Add Kafka short stories, Freud “The Future of an Illusion”.

    3. There’s no question that all the authors in 2. were influenced by Nietzsche. It’s mistaken I think to see N as someone who requires anything so radical that it can not be accomplished here and now. Religions die one person a time. God won’t be truly dead until the last Jew, Christian, and Moslem cease to exist. And, N says that will take a long time — measured in hundreds of years. But, you can join in the process of healing culture by healing your own religion-damaged psyche.

    Anyone can read with a teacher’s guidance paragraphs 108-127 of the Gay Science, the passages on how value is created in On the Genealogy of Morals, and the entire Antichrist, a Curse on Christianity. Of course, xianity is a proxy word for the entire western culture which is permeated by xian valuations. These must be overturned and replaced by values from healthier (more psychologically true) sources. This process is what N called “the revaluation of all values.”

    Add also the translations of N by Walter Kaufmann and his own Critique of Religion and Philosophy.

    bipolar2

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    And what I find interesting is that the atheists he considers “serious” don’t just demand radical transformation of society. They’re also depressing as hell. One of the hallmarks of the so-called “new atheism” is that it’s generally very life-affirming: passionate about life, optimistic, even upbeat.

    No wonder he doesn’t want to teach it.

    Excellent point, Greta. There definitely was a pessimistic and cynical strain of philosophy that thrived in Europe for a while, especially during and between the two world wars. Given what they’d been through, it’s not hard to understand why so many people would be depressed. But it’s clear that this historical circumstance fits together neatly with Haught’s ideas about what atheists “should” act like, so it’s no wonder he’s so infatuated with them.

  • lpetrich

    Great essay. John Haught has also oversimplified the possible range of atheist opinion in other ways.

    For example, one can be an atheist while believing that some form of religion is good for people to believe in, a position that Daniel Dennett has called “belief in belief”. A less flattering way of stating that position would be to call it the royal-lie theory of religion, the theory that the religion business is desirable as the opium of the people. That viewpoint had been common in centuries past, with the likes of Polybius, Strabo, and Machiavelli also expressing it.

    Also, the position of Nietzsche, Camus, and Sartre is the classical French existentialist position, which I once saw described as being mad at God for not existing. “How dare you refuse to exist and leave me all alone like that!”

    And for a Catholic theologian, John Haught is rather odd in refusing to address rational arguments against the existence of God and other theological propositions, like Richard Dawkins’s Ultimate 747 argument. This is odd because his church’s official philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, had made some very famous such arguments, and because in the First Vatican Council of 1869-70 had decreed that the existence of God is knowable by the unaided reason.

  • lpetrich

    Plato had implicitly proposed the royal-lie theory of religion in his dialogue Republic. He proposed that his Republic have an official religion which he considered false, but which he considered desirable for that city’s citizens to believe in. He also believed that the city’s leaders ought to practice eugenics on its population, as domestic-animal breeders do, and lie about it, claiming that they are matching people by lot.

    John Haught has expressed such viewpoints earlier in this Salon interview; he said much of what Ebonmuse has blogged about here, and he also said additional things which are just plain daffy, to say the least. He claimed that Jesus Christ’s resurrection was too great an event to be photographable by a camera, that a camera aimed at where he would be resurrected would record nothing. And he claimed that even conservative Catholic theologians say that.

  • http://unorthodoxatheism.blogspot.com Reed Braden

    Bipolar2:

    Religions die one person a time. God won’t be truly dead until the last Jew, Christian, and Moslem cease to exist. And, N says that will take a long time — measured in hundreds of years.

    I must disagree. Religions can be decimated within a single generation if the right people gain power of all nations and the right steps are taken to educate every child about the horrors and lies of religion while shielding them from their parents’ beliefs.

    However, your way has fewer bloody riots and assassination attempts.

  • http://dailyatheist.blogspot.com/ Strappado

    Well-written piece! Haught seems to understand as little of Atheism as Atheists are accused of understanding religion.

  • SteveC

    Suppose for the sake of argument that atheism did invariably lead to nihilism. Hell, let’s suppose it also invariably led to smoking, cancer, bad breath, an inordinate fondness for eating beetles, and eh, let’s say punctuality and a good sense of rhythm too.

    What bearing would any of that have on whether or not any gods exist?

    None.

    The whole “atheism leads to nihilism” line of thinking is nothing but an appeal to consequences, which is a logical fallacy.

    It doesn’t matter whether or not it leads to nihilism, as that is irrelevant to the question of whether or not any gods exist.

  • yoyo

    And what I find interesting is that the atheists he considers “serious” don’t just demand radical transformation of society. They’re also depressing as hell. One of the hallmarks of the so-called “new atheism” is that it’s generally very life-affirming: passionate about life, optimistic, even upbeat.

    Absolutely, and they are also completely out of context for most young student experience of society. It’s like telling young people that they are not alowed to do music appreciation without playing all their music through a wind up record player.

  • Ceri

    This means that before you get too comfortable with the godless world you long for, you will be required by the logic of any consistent skepticism to pass through the disorienting wilderness of nihilism. Do you have the courage to do that?

    John Haught is saying here that the nihilism is a developmental phase that one passes through. Rather than:

    Haught does say that “logical rigor” leads atheists to the conclusion of moral nihilism

    Which implies that nihilism is the final terminus of one’s values. If we consider our moral values to be a set of axioms in a system, then in any interesting system (cf. Godel’s incompleteness theory) it’s not possible to “prove” those axioms within that system, except by stating it as an axiomatic truth. So, really, what he means, if you’re actually genuinely skeptical, in the Pyrrhonian sense, then your system will collapse as you remove those axioms from the system. Hence, you will end up with a system which contains no derived truths, and hence, nihilism.

    Now, the solution to this, as implied by Godel’s theorem, is that you should be able to derive those axioms from a larger system. However, in that case, you’ll have the same issue, you’ll need yet another larger system to derive those axioms from.

    So, because the above comments really tend to poo-poo the idea of nihilism (by and large, I’ll admit) and reject the idea of nihilism, it really rather implies that people haven’t deconstructed their own value systems to discover their origin, and to verify the truths that they claim to purport. Take compassion as an example–Okay, so you might think that’s a quick win. Compassion being tritely reducible down to “being nice to people”, which leads to trust, building relationships, the modern formation of social groupings, etc. But why is it necessarily a good thing to be nice to people?

    For example, would a culture based on strict top down heretical authoritarianism not be just as good? That is, in every sphere of your life, you would live by precepts as set down by your superior, without being able to question, or comment? You’d still be able to build civilizations, and given enough complexity, a culture of sorts. Now, I’m sure that those of you who are hardy enough to still be reading this will likely be wanting to call me a draconian for suggesting this, or some other form of categorization.

    But the question is–why would that be a bad thing? Bear in mind that if you were born into this system, then you’d be conditioned to believe that it was correct, and that only an insane person would think otherwise, just as we, today, are conditioned by the examples of our society (at least in the UK) to believe that say secular humanism (or whatever you want to label it) is the right way of structuring a society. In fact, there’s not really a name for it over here–it’s just “the dun thing”.

    Very few people have the balls to actually go and excavate their moral genealogy. Or at least, I certainly know I don’t–and even the more transgressive people I know only differ in behaviors such as sexual habits, or opinions. They still have a job, go down the pub for a beer, are pleasant to their co-workers and buisiness assoiciates, etc, etc.

    However, to return to the diversion into mathematics, you end up with an endless recursion of systems, each justifying the contained system until you get bored, die, or claim you had a vision of Kurt Godel himself. Fundamentally, if you’re doing things properly, like I say, you need something outside of all systems–a type-less system to sort this mess out. You can just say Stop, but you’ll have an incomplete analysis. Whether or not that’ll satisfy you is up to you–Frankly, I don’t really care about your personal excavation–that’s your job.

    The point is, this system of systems can only be achieved by transcending the existing system, and boiling it down and taking a few choice deductions as axioms. And it’s this that he can be readily seen to mean when talking about the transcendent, in this case. Someone has to take that position, like Moses with the stone tablets. The result of this (whether it literally happened with a dude called Moses or not) would have been the foundation of a set of laws which cause a a formerly squabbling faction of nomads to evolve into a coherent tribe, which has a reasonable amount of internal trust, and discipline, which could then go out and make war on other tribes, grow, and become more powerful, which was about right for the time, considering that egypt had a flourishing culture by then, whereas the Hebrews seemed to spend a lot of time pissing about in the desert, previously being unable to grow as a group. It’s all about the cultural change caused, rather than the event itself.

    The point is secular humanism by and large really does just seem to be Judaeo-Christianity without Jesus, or Jehovah. The values that secular humanists seem to profess are pretty much hangovers from Christianity. I personally think Nietzsche was right on the button with the idea of Master / Slave Morality. The question is, what’s going to cause the next shift in culture and morality?

  • Doug

    The most influential atheist I’ve read, probably because he was my first, was Robert Green Ingersoll. His rendition of ethics is every day reasoning, natural law and human value. When in the eight grade I had an assignment to research slavery and the civil war and his writings overwhelmed my psyche as I had begun to question the faith of my family and through his mind and words I found a secure path. I knew at that age that religion/Christianity was a very poor ethical/moral guide as I had to read the bible, a book of evil horrors, and have not changed my mind in over fifty years.

  • OMGF

    Or Ceri, we can use our reason and come to the conclusion (quite separate from Xianity) that we might like for others to do unto us as we would do unto them. Gee, what a novel concept, which BTW pre-dates Jesus and Moses.

    The point is secular humanism by and large really does just seem to be Judaeo-Christianity without Jesus, or Jehovah.

    Except that it’s formed from reason, it’s not dependent on worshiping some sky deity, and it doesn’t have all that baggage about killing unbelievers and all that, nor does it have that baggage about trying to indoctrinate people to be “saved”, the idea that all humans are inherently wicked and evil, etc. All in all, it’s actually pretty much opposed to Judeo-Xianity, but don’t let that get in your way.

  • http://verwide.net/blog/ Moody834

    I think that academic theologians (a.k.a. serious fantasists) like Haught have a pressing need to attempt to steer their charges away from the “New Atheists” who attack religion on an everyman level. In the rarefied air of theology (otherwise known as the masturbatorium), one can play at silly a priori logic games all day that never once actually address what everyday life is like. Dawkins et al. attack religion as it is practiced, as it is known, as it is believed on an everyday practical level; why on earth should they (or any “New Atheist”) dally in the maze-like halls of the theologians’ boorishly sanctimonious puffery and speculative hoo-ha when even most believers don’t?

    Btw, it’s good that Haught was on the right side in the KvD ID trial, but I think he was being politically shrewd rather than just simply honest. Theologians are obsequious servants of a corrupt, human-all-too-human endeavor.

  • windy

    However, to return to the diversion into mathematics, you end up with an endless recursion of systems, each justifying the contained system until you get bored, die, or claim you had a vision of Kurt Godel himself. Fundamentally, if you’re doing things properly, like I say, you need something outside of all systems–a type-less system to sort this mess out. You can just say Stop, but you’ll have an incomplete analysis. Whether or not that’ll satisfy you is up to you–Frankly, I don’t really care about your personal excavation–that’s your job.

    To be consistent, we should demand this same “excavation” also of every person who wants to use math, not just of every person who claims to have some moral standards.

    The point is, this system of systems can only be achieved by transcending the existing system, and boiling it down and taking a few choice deductions as axioms. And it’s this that he can be readily seen to mean when talking about the transcendent, in this case. Someone has to take that position, like Moses with the stone tablets.

    So, all it takes to make atheism an EQUALLY CONSISTENT moral system (ie. not very), is Dawkins to put some of his ideas on stone tablets. (Since claiming that said axioms come from some supernatural source does not really solve the problem: Euthyphro, and so on.)

  • SteveC

    Ceri > Now, the solution to this, as implied by Godel’s theorem . . .

    Fail.

    You do not understand Godel’s theorem, if you’re trying to use it in this way. Read Hofstadter’s “I am a Strange Loop,” it is a good, easy to understand explanation of Godel’s theorem, and how the proof of it works, and what it means, and what it implies.

  • sabrina

    So, once I become a professional atheist, does that mean I can’t participate in the Atheist Olympics? I’m trying to hold on to my amateur status, at least for the next couple of years.

  • http://christiancadre.blogspot.com John

    It’s nice that you have an atheist choir to preach to, as evidenced from these other comments, but I found this reading of Haught to be very uncharitable and grossly inaccurate. I’ve posted a reply here:

    http://christiancadre.blogspot.com/2008/03/daylight-atheist-on-amateur-atheism.html

  • http://resurrectiondebate.blogspot.com/ Steven Carr

    Guess what?

    Haught gives no arguments why atheism is false or why theism is true.

    His only real claim is that it takes faith to believe that science is the best way to discover truth.

    Wow!. And here was I thinking that the best way to discover what is true and what is false is to read books where people claim that an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream and passed on a message to flee to Egypt.

    What is the best way to discover truth?

    Produce publically available evidence and invite everybody in the world to try to discredit your findings?

    Or read books where people tell you the content of somebody’s dream , and tell you that the dream was reality?

    Can you imagine how quickly Haught would flunk any of his students who actually took what he said seriously and started producing essays based on dreams, or tea-leaf readings , or what they saw in trances?

    But Haught claims that we can’t rule out any of these non-science based methods of finding truth.

    What a hypocrite. They guy spends his entire life denying the supernatural.

    When his car doesn’t start , he never dreams of thinking it has been possessed by demons. He takes it to a garage instead.

    All Christians spend their entire lives denying the prescence of these supernatural entities they claim are all around them.

    They live their entire lives, apart from Sundays, as though naturalism was true.

  • Stephen

    The point is secular humanism by and large really does just seem to be Judaeo-Christianity without Jesus, or Jehovah. The values that secular humanists seem to profess are pretty much hangovers from Christianity.

    It never ceases to surprise me how many apparently intelligent people trot out this particular canard.

    Broadly speaking, one can divide the moral values of the modern secular society into two groups. Firstly there are the values that are necessary for any sort of civilised society. Since civilisation predates the bible by thousands of years, such values are obviously not (Judeo-)Christian in origin: Christians simply took over what already existed.

    Then we have the values that separate modern society from the society of the bible: values such as democracy, abolition of slavery, equality of nationalities and races, equality of the sexes, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, universal education etc, etc. The first 1700 years of Christianity brought us precious little progress on this front. Progress only really started to be made with the slackening of the religious vice, particularly in the eighteenth century, and has since pretty much paralleled the retreat of religion. To claim that these values are “hangovers from Christianity” is utter nonsense.

    To the extent that secular humanism draws on ancient values at all, they are more Graeco-Roman values than Judeo-Christian.

  • Alex Weaver

    John, a few thoughts on reading your response:

    I believe Ebon made explicit that he was responding to the article he linked to, not the the entirety of the book in which it is found. Moving the goalposts like that is bad form.

    If “non-transcendent” is not to be equated with “non-objective” or “non-rational” then what weight does its absence even have as a criticism?

    I note that you absolutely fail to engage the essays he linked to in which he sets forth a viable and arguably superior nontheistic moral system, and that you don’t seem to have looked around enough to realize that there were more than one, and I find this both telling and ironic in light of you laying into him for not responding to the entire book the excerpted article was taken from.

  • lpetrich

    Steven Carr: Haught gives no arguments why atheism is false or why theism is true.

    Which is especially bizarre when one considers that his church’s official philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, had done exactly that with his famous Five Ways.

    Three of them are versions of the First Cause argument: there must be an unmoved mover, an uncaused cause, and an entity whose existence is not dependent on any other entity, because an infinite sequence of motions, causes or dependencies is supposedly impossible.

    The fourth is from standards of comparison; there must be some perfect one for comparison to be meaningful.

    The fifth one is the Argument from Design, the watches-need-watchmakers argument.

    The first three are easily refuted with the mathematics of infinite series, while the fourth one is refuted by the fact that one can compare numbers without there being a largest finite number (Richard Dawkins has a more colorful counterexample).

    What I call the dependency argument is my attempt to translate the argument from necessary and contingent existence into more easily-understandable language.

  • http://transsurvivalist.blogspot.com Mark Plus

    Long-dead European atheists who thought that atheism would throw humanity into some kind of moral abyss have basically internalized and restated, uncritically, the same claims made by christian theologians and apologists. Empirical evidence suggests otherwise, because the least religious societies also tend to have a higher quality of life and fewer social pathologies than more religious societies. Atheists form pluralities in much of the European Union, yet these countries have universal healthcare, explicitly stated and enforced human rights laws and no death penalty. American christians even take their families to these countries on vacation because they have good reputations. Nietzsche and his 20th Century existentialist followers might have predicted otherwise, but they hadn’t freed themselves from a christian outlook as much as they thought, nor did they have the social data to show how real people behave when societies spontaneously atheize.

  • OMGF

    And, lpetrich, the final one is ably disproven by science once again, when we realize that evolution allows for biological entities to arise quite independent of watchmakers.

  • http://christiancadre.blogspot.com John

    Alex,

    I did not move the goalposts around. The article itself makes clear (at the very bottom of the page, where such notices are usually found in print publications) that it is excerpted from a larger book. It’s always bad form to fail to contextualize the piece one is responding to, and it leads DA to make a claim which is wholly false, viz. that Haught has not attempted to respond to the new atheists’ actual arguments.

    I did read the other posts which DA links to in which he attempts to argue for an objective atheistic morality, and I made it clear that I had in my response (where I refer to the linkS, plural, that DA points to). The problem is there just wasn’t much of substance in them to respond. How do you criticize or evaluate a claim to ‘discover’ the ‘truth’ that the highest form of ‘happiness’ is one which others can share as well? All the terms put in brackets need to be explicated and set in the context of a more far-reaching argument. Until DA does that, I can’t really respond without knowing exactly what he expects his readers to assume and accept. When there is a little more meat on the bones of his argument, then I’ll respond. In the meantime, DA could learn from theistic attempts to build a rigorous foundation for morality such as that found in Robert Adams’ “Finite and Infinite Goods” or Nicholas Wolterstorff’s “Justice: Rights and Wrongs”.

  • http://wildphilosophy.blogspot.com Mathew Wilder

    John, you must have absolutely no knowledge the history of moral philosophy. None of the thousands of philosophers who have written defending consequentialist, deontological, or virtue-based views find it necessary to base their systems on some supposed deity. Are you really so arrogant as to claim that the vast majority of philosophers who deal with ethics, who have made it their lives’ work, don’t understand the basic foundations or inferences of their work while you do? Perhaps you ought to read some Kant, Parfit, Rawls, Scanlon, Nagel, Singer, Mill, Nussbaum, Timmons, etc. before you sweepingly dismiss all their attempts at elucidating morality as abject failures.

    Besides, you still haven’t addressed the Euthyphro problem that all theistic-based ethics faces.

    Just for the record, I am familiar with Catholic theology. I have a degree in it. I also have a degree in philosophy. It was studying theology,and not philosophy (both of which were taught to me by Catholic brothers and sisters), funnily enough, that convinced me that Catholicism and Christianity (and religion in general) were just so much mental noise.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    I’ve read J.D. Walters’ post from the comment left earlier in this thread. Since most of it is just reiterating Haught’s points without adding anything new, I won’t bother with most of it, but I have a few words to put in.

    First of all, I want to point out that J.D.’s post substantially confirms my main point, viz., that Haught is picking and choosing which atheists to dub “serious” based on to what extent their views line up with his prejudices about atheism. See:

    Haught is making an argument-an argument which can be disputed, but an argument nonetheless-about which atheist thinkers he believes were the most consistent in thinking through the logical consequences of basic atheist presuppositions. It might seem ‘convenient’ that these turn out to be the most nihilistic of the great atheist philosophers…

    Haught’s arrogant and self-serving attempt at concern trolling is what drew my ire. Since he treats atheists with a lack of civility and respect, he deserves a response in the same tone, and that’s what I sought to provide.

    Second: In response to the argument that I’m not responding to the fullness of Haught’s arguments against the new atheists, that’s because none of them were mentioned in this essay. Indeed, based on the assertions he’s made in this essay, it seems to me that he’s ruled out the possibility of his book containing any such thing. If he says things like this:

    The new atheists do little more than provide a fresh catalogue of the evils wrought by members of the theistic faiths.

    then he’s basically just asserted that the new atheists don’t present any actual arguments for nonbelief in God. If he then goes on to answer those arguments at length, then he’s not only given a misleading introduction to his own book, he’s flatly contradicted himself.

  • OMGF

    If Haught really is asserting that atheists don’t present arguments for disbelief, then’s he’s very ignorant of the breadth and depth of atheist thought.

  • Aspentroll

    “Religions die one person a time. God won’t be truly dead until the last Jew, Christian, and Moslem cease to exist. And, N says that will take a long time — measured in hundreds of years.”

    It doesn’t really matter if it takes hundreds of years for religion to die. If it never died, (and it probably won”t) it wouldn’t matter.
    What really matters is that “religion” be kept unto itself. Religions are really only
    a problem when they get out of control, ie. controlling government, persons’ jobs and
    a person’s status in the Public Place. Strong laws can prevent these things from happening. People with atheist or agnostic views should be strong enough to come out the closet and stand up to those who are trying to control us. That is not happening here in North America. There are probably millions of people in North America who are just too afraid to state an opinion. We should take notice of what the “gay movement” has been doing and follow suit. It seems to be working for them.

  • http://christiancadre.blogspot.com John

    Matthew Wilder,

    I find it very hard to believe you have a degree in anything, much less theology or philosophy when you use a phrase like “base their systems on some supposed deity”. I mean, come on! Is that how you learned to talk about philosophy in your education? What do you mean by ‘base’ and what by ‘system’? Philosophy is nothing if not an attempt to clarify statements as much as possible. And throwing big words around like ‘consequentialist’, ‘deontological’ or ‘virtue-based’ does nothing to establish either your or Ebonmuse’s arguments for a non-transcendent morality. By the way, perhaps the greatest virtue ethicist of our time, Alasdair MacIntyre, is a believer in God and roots his account of virtue ethics in that belief, representing a moral tradition in rivalry with other moral traditions which do not.

    You want to throw big names around? Let’s talk about the big names. Kant presents an account of morality in which obeying the categorical imperative would not make sense without a belief in God and immortality in order to vindicate our present moral strivings. Thomas Nagel in one of his most recent books (“The Last Word”) worries that his insistence on the objectivity of reason (including morality) brings him uncomfortably close to theism.

    By the way, where exactly did I dismiss all these philosophers’ efforts at elucidating morality as abject failures? I didn’t even mention those names either in my response to Ebonmuse or in any of the comments here!

    Ebonmuse,
    “Haught is picking and choosing which atheists to dub “serious” based on to what extent their views line up with his prejudices about atheism.”

    You still don’t get it, and it’s hard not to become infuriated with this consistent lack of intellectual maturity on your part. Haught’s ‘prejudices’ have been formed by reading very widely in the tradition of atheist literature. EVERY scholar comes to form prejudices about positions in a particular field of inquiry. Naturally after careful study he/she will come to the conclusion that certain positions are better argued than others, and thus more worthy to be considered representative of a particular view. What if I raised the accusation that Dawkins or Hitchens only pick and choose which theists to dub ‘serious’ (such as fundamentalists) based on the extent to which their views line up with their own prejudices about theism? Again I say what I said in my post, if you want to claim that Camus and Nietzsche should NOT be considered representative of intellectually sophisticated atheism, present good arguments for that claim. So far I haven’t seen any.

    “In response to the argument that I’m not responding to the fullness of Haught’s arguments against the new atheists, that’s because none of them were mentioned in this essay”

    That’s NOT what I took you to task for! I chided you for claiming that he doesn’t even ATTEMPT to demonstrate that the new atheists are wrong. You don’t have to respond to his actual arguments against them to set the article in its wider context, thus giving your response an essential qualifier which is sadly lacking in your post. And let’s take a closer look at this quote by Haught:

    “The new atheists do little more than provide a fresh catalogue of the evils wrought by members of the theistic faiths.”

    He does not say that the new atheists do NO more, but they do LITTLE more. In other words, though they do present arguments against theistic faiths, these do not amount to much when placed in the larger context of their polemic. Nowhere does he claim that there are no arguments for unbelief. Haught is not contradicting himself. It is you who are choosing to read him as uncharitably and superficially as possible because that confirms your own prejudices about what theists are like.

  • http://wildphilosophy.blogspot.com Mathew Wilder

    John,

    Kant most assuredly did not base his ethics on the existence of God! In fact, he was often decried as an atheist because his ethical system was specifically predicated on pure rationality. Tell me where in his work he ever even hints that God must exist for morality to exist? You won’t find such hints; that is because Kant thinks to be moral one must obey the Categorical Imperative simply because it is rational (not, for example, because it is a command from God).

    Your not understanding words like “consequentialist” or “deontological” is no reason for me to stop using them. They are standard words in ethical philosophy.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Actually, I found Haught’s article quite interesting. I’m sure he does believe that atheism ought to stop you from finding meaning in anything, because he goes on to chide Camus, Sartre and Nietzsche for not doing exactly that. Even they are too hopeful and meaningful for him, apparently. So I don’t think he’s just holding them up as convenient frightening examples. I’m sure he believes what he’s saying.

    Given that, I think I’d be less likely to impugn his motives and more likely to give him a serious response. For example, my response to his “Are you willing to risk madness?” is a simple “Yes, if need be,” followed by “and if I find myself pulling up short, that’s no reason to go running to theism to help me. Trying to construct a consistent worldview based on something I chose to believe for reasons of comfort would be a waste of time.”

    Haught makes some definite arguments in that article. All of them can be answered and most of them deserve an answer.

    The main place where Haught goes really wrong, though, and the thing which I think provoked this response, is that he simply ignores the desire for truth that underlies so much secular humanism. I’d say that’s the major reason why he fails to respect it as he ought. And yes, failing to take account of reality is a convenient theistic trick — one in which theists reinforce each other. Having made their excuses among themselves, I think sometimes they just stop realising that a worldview based on a desire for truth would be something you could value.

  • http://wildphilosophy.blogspot.com Mathew Wilder

    Another thought: do you really think God is necessary to come to the realization that we should treat others as we want to be treated? How do explain that Confucius said this long before Jesus said it?

    Also, if God is necessary for morality, how do you explain the existence of moral philosophy before Christianity? How did Plato, Aristotle, or the Stoics philosophize about ethics, if they did not believe in God? (Yes, they did have supernatural beliefs, but they were certainly not monotheists, nor did they really believe that the gods had any relation to human morality.)

    Is John the only one here who does not know what “base” and “system” mean? I thought so.

  • http://wildphilosophy.blogspot.com Mathew Wilder

    Haught really doesn’t understand Nietzsche or Camus.

    Nietzsche’s philosophy was an attempt to overcome nihilism. See Bernard Reginster’s excellent treatment of this in his book The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism

    Camus also was not a nihilist. In his “Letter to a German Friend” he wrote, “I still believe that this world has no transcendent meaning. But I know that something in it has a meaning and that is man, because he is the only being who demands one. This world at least has human truth, and our task is to give man his justification in the face of destiny itself. And there are none but human justifications; it is man that we must save if we want to salvage the conception of life to which we cling.” Nor did Camus think we needed a “radical transformation of human culture and consciousness.” In fact, it was this belief of Sartre’s that caused Camus to become Sartre’s bitter rival after the war. Sartre, coupling his Existentialism to his Marxism, did believe something like this, but Camus vehemently disagreed with Sartre because of the terrible costs such a transformation would necessitate. Sartre, because of his views, apologized for Stalinism and Algerian terrorism, and Camus decried this.

    For more on Camus’ views one should, of course, read his The Rebel. Fred Willhoite’s Beyond Nihilism: Albert Camus’s Contribution to Political Thought is also quite excellent. One can also read the excellent article on Camus in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

  • OMGF

    And throwing big words around like ‘consequentialist’, ‘deontological’ or ‘virtue-based’ does nothing to establish either your or Ebonmuse’s arguments for a non-transcendent morality.

    Like it or not, morality exists. Did that morality come from god? Well, I think it is you that has to prove that a transcendent morality exists, not that a non-transcendent morality exists or is viable. The fact that we can see moral behavior in animals and trace it’s evolution to modern man and also trace the evolution of morality through history speaks volumes. For instance, we can see how “transcendent” thoughts did nothing to alleviate the plight of slaves or women, who were put in those situations mostly by religious thought. It was reason and free-thought that fought the hardest and gained the most for women and slaves (read Susan Jacoby’s book “Freethought” for more on this). Theists are committing a logical fallacy of begging the question whenever they simply assume god’s existence and then assume transcendental morality. Prove to me that any morality is transcendental, else I’m reasonable and quite rational to say that your fairy tale morality is of and from humans and therefore your claims to god-given morality are all hot air and there’s no reason why men can’t come up with a moral system quite independently of god.

    By the way, perhaps the greatest virtue ethicist of our time, Alasdair MacIntyre, is a believer in God and roots his account of virtue ethics in that belief, representing a moral tradition in rivalry with other moral traditions which do not.

    Good for him. Does he prove that god exists and gave him these morals? Does he answer Euthyphro’s dilemma, which you continue to evade?

    Naturally after careful study he/she will come to the conclusion that certain positions are better argued than others, and thus more worthy to be considered representative of a particular view.

    And it’s funny how he comes to the conclusion that makes the least sense, as pointed out by numerous people above.

    Again I say what I said in my post, if you want to claim that Camus and Nietzsche should NOT be considered representative of intellectually sophisticated atheism, present good arguments for that claim. So far I haven’t seen any.

    Then, again, perhaps you should actually read the comments of the post you are criticizing. Also, I have a sneaking suspicion that you would not be satisfied with any description of a moral system based on reason. And, yet, you still can’t answer Euthyphro’s dilemma.

    He does not say that the new atheists do NO more, but they do LITTLE more.

    Do you split hairs often? The point of him saying that is to impugn their efforts and make them sound like little more than complainers, when the reality is quite a bit different.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    Haught’s ‘prejudices’ have been formed by reading very widely in the tradition of atheist literature. EVERY scholar comes to form prejudices about positions in a particular field of inquiry. Naturally after careful study he/she will come to the conclusion that certain positions are better argued than others, and thus more worthy to be considered representative of a particular view.

    That’s precisely the point – Haught has no right to decide for himself which atheists are “most representative” of atheism, any more than I have the right to decide what is or is not Catholic dogma. The most representative atheists, like it or not, are the ones whose views are most widely held and most influential among atheists in general. That being the case, I think we can say that there’s no contest. Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens (and others, of course) are enormously influential among the mass of atheists today. Nietzsche, Camus and Sartre are, in my experience, negligible.

    As I’ve said, it’s just ridiculous to pretend that Haught has settled on these atheists’ views after a detailed and objective analysis of who has better reasons for their philosophy, and hey, it just so happened to be the nihilists. Please don’t insult our intelligence by asking us to believe that. No, Haught arrived at that conclusion because he himself, as a Catholic, has a prior belief that an atheist’s life must be nihilistic, that an atheist’s philosophy must be radical and frightening. Naturally, he chose the atheists who reassured him in that prejudice.

    What if I raised the accusation that Dawkins or Hitchens only pick and choose which theists to dub ‘serious’ (such as fundamentalists) based on the extent to which their views line up with their own prejudices about theism?

    That accusation would simply be false, because Dawkins and Hitchens don’t do this. Unlike Haught, we do not claim that theologians are “unserious” about their beliefs. What we do say is that those theologians’ views, first, are not backed by evidence; and second, have little or nothing to do with the way religion is practiced and understood by the vast majority of believers.

    Haught’s theological views, as I mention in my newest post, include that God does not miraculously answer prayers and that, if a video camera had been present when the resurrected Jesus appeared to the disciples, it would have recorded nothing. Apparently he thinks the very occurrence of the event was purely a matter of faith and not a matter of history. How many typical Christians in the pews do you think would agree with this view? And if you agree with me that the answer is going to be some extremely small percentage, then why do you think we should bother to address those obscure views, rather than raising arguments that speak to religious faith as the large majority actually believes it?

  • Brit-nontheist

    All quotes from John to Mathew and Ebonmuse:

    By the way, perhaps the greatest virtue ethicist of our time, Alasdair MacIntyre, is a believer in God and roots his account of virtue ethics in that belief, representing a moral tradition in rivalry with other moral traditions which do not.

    Actually, this just isn’t true – Alasdair takes very much of this ethical theory from Aristotle, who was obviously not a believer in a singular, Abrahamic god and did not root his account in theism (the Greek gods not being big ones on outlining moral commandments) but in the ideas of excellence, phronesis and the like.

    Nagel in one of his most recent books (“The Last Word”) worries that [Kant's] insistence on the objectivity of reason (including morality) brings him uncomfortably close to theism.

    We can’t win then – we are derided for not having objective morals and when someone comes up with them he is branded ‘close to thesim’ by theists themselves. This seems rather like a use of a “no true atheist” fallacy.

    after careful study he/she will come to the conclusion that certain positions are better argued than others, and thus more worthy to be considered representative of a particular view.

    Of course it must just be a happy coincidence for him that modern intellectuals all fail in this regard by his criteria? Theists claim we shouldn’t take fundamentalists as being representative of their faiths, though they can as easily base their beliefs on the texts as the moderates – yet they want to have the monopoly on deciding which atheists are representative! Hypocritcal.

  • http://wildphilosophy.blogspot.com Mathew Wilder

    The idea that atheism implies nihilism is a result of lack of imagination on theists’ parts. They imagine what would happen if they stopped believing in god. They can’t imagine anything besides god giving a reason to life, and so they claim there is nothing that can make life worth living besides god. But they are just generalizing their own feelings, and projecting them onto all atheists.

  • OMGF

    I’m still stumped as to how god gives meaning to life anyway, except as some long, drawn-out test to see if we can live up to god’s standards (we can’t apparently), which is silly in itself considering an omniscient being shouldn’t have to test us. The end result is that the theist should do what god commands (making her an automaton in effect) which seems like a meaning that most people would not deem desireable.

  • http://wildphilosophy.blogspot.com Mathew Wilder

    Yes, I meant to include that, OMGF. What is it about believing in God that makes life worth living? Never mind the Euthyphro problem regarding morality; what is it about God’s plan that makes life worth living? Why should we even care about God’s plan? How can that be meaningful to me? If I accept God’s plan, then it is my acceptance of that plan that gives my life meaning, not the plan itself. I have to decide whether or not to accept the meaning God wants to give my life. I can just as easily decide to create my own meaning, which is just as meaningful to me as God’s meaning would be. It is the “mineness” that is important.

  • Ceri

    The idea that atheism implies nihilism is a result of lack of imagination on theists’ parts

    Yes, but that’s not what he said! Please let me refer to you my specific comment above where I quote what he says about nihilism. It’s sad, but it helps no-one unless you respond to the specific points made in the text, rather than just what you think he said.

    To be consistent, we should demand this same “excavation” also of every person who wants to use math, not just of every person who claims to have some moral standards.

    Yes–but every mathematician worth his salt should be able to do this. Admittedly, it’d be foolish to expect people to re-invent already performed work. Within any decent mathematical training, you’d be taught how the proofs of various theorems work, and be able to test their validity (ie: apply the axioms yourself). For example, if you discovered that say, an academic mathematician couldn’t prove some elementary result, I’d fully expect that they’d probably loose their position.

    The thing is, that if you want to follow a set of established moral codes without understanding where they come from, then great–go for it. The vast majority of the population does this without any apparent loss. and really, that was my point. However, if you want to engage in the thorny issue of teasing out, firstly, the values you act on, and then, their origins, how they got from there to you now, you’d best have a damned good understanding. The fact is, you might well end up at the same point, but I don’t really see anyone talking about how say, Nietzsche’s values compare to what modern atheists’ profess. Which frankly, I would find facinating.

    My comment was designed to raise a few hackles–after all, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of friendly adversity to keep you one your toes! And, to be honest–given that we live in a culture which is predominantly Judaeo Christian in origin (Certainly in the UK), given that there was an official church, and it was compulsory, for a time, to attend church, we can safely say that most of our values have been filtered through the Judaeo Christian worldview. So, that’s certainly a weaker position than the one originally implied. But still, I’m sure you can see my point.

    So, all it takes to make atheism an EQUALLY CONSISTENT moral system (ie. not very), is Dawkins to put some of his ideas on stone tablets.

    If you truly think that’s what I meant, then you’ve misunderstood my intent. The surrounding text around the section quoted aims to clearly explain exactly what I mean by “transcendent”. For example, one of the values posited by a lot of modern advocates of science as a method for obtaining truth posit falsifiability as being vital for a theory to be “scentific”. However, how does one falsify falsifiability? Would it not being falsifiable mean that it’s “unscientific”? This is really an example of what I’d call a transcendent principle–one that cannot be proven or arrived at from within the system it claims to be axiomatic for.

    For most people, this transcendent principle would be ideas like, you know, killing members of your own tribe is bad. Maybe it’s “obvious”, but hear me out. If one makes the assumption that the continuance of one’s own tribe, then that’s a transcendent principle at work; in that I’m not sure it’s possible to prove, or disprove this as being “true”, a-priori. it all depends what your assumptions of “goodness” are. Merely that you know, it generally seems like a good idea. Certainly, based on our experience.

    I mentioned the tablets only as an example of some deciding to “put their foot down”, and deciding to impose a set of axioms, or values to an existing system.

  • http://wildphilosophy.blogspot.com Mathew Wilder

    For example, one of the values posited by a lot of modern advocates of science as a method for obtaining truth posit falsifiability as being vital for a theory to be “scentific”. However, how does one falsify falsifiability? Would it not being falsifiable mean that it’s “unscientific”? This is really an example of what I’d call a transcendent principle–one that cannot be proven or arrived at from within the system it claims to be axiomatic for.

    Yes, this is what ended Positivism. No one is a Positivist any more, though. Are you familiar with Pragmatism and the metaphor of Neurath’s Boat? This is not a new problem, and there is much sophisticated philosophical work on it and related issues.

  • Alex Weaver

    I did read the other posts which DA links to in which he attempts to argue for an objective atheistic morality, and I made it clear that I had in my response (where I refer to the linkS, plural, that DA points to). The problem is there just wasn’t much of substance in them to respond. How do you criticize or evaluate a claim to ‘discover’ the ‘truth’ that the highest form of ‘happiness’ is one which others can share as well? All the terms put in brackets need to be explicated and set in the context of a more far-reaching argument. Until DA does that, I can’t really respond without knowing exactly what he expects his readers to assume and accept. When there is a little more meat on the bones of his argument, then I’ll respond. In the meantime, DA could learn from theistic attempts to build a rigorous foundation for morality such as that found in Robert Adams’ “Finite and Infinite Goods” or Nicholas Wolterstorff’s “Justice: Rights and Wrongs”.

    In other words, you have absolutely no substantial rebuttals to offer, but you’re convinced he’s wrong, but you’re too proud to admit it, so you’re just posturing about the arguments’ failure to conform to some ridiculous standard of verbosity…or something. What exactly is your complaint here?

    I find it very hard to believe you have a degree in anything, much less theology or philosophy when you use a phrase like “base their systems on some supposed deity”. I mean, come on! Is that how you learned to talk about philosophy in your education? What do you mean by ‘base’ and what by ‘system’?

    What do you mean by “I,” “mean,” “on,” and “come,” and what is the point of a masturbatory exercise that does not have that last as a result?

    More in a bit.

  • Kittenchasesyarn

    “It’s nice that you have an atheist choir to preach to, as evidenced from these other comments….”

    As this is Ebonmuse’s blog, the comments would tend to be supportive, yes? Just as at your blog, comments would tend to be supportive of yours.

    However, a conversation is always much more interesting with an antagonist; thank you for filling that role for us. I have learned a lot today.

  • http://wildphilosophy.blogspot.com Mathew Wilder

    There’s one thing John got wrong – there is no “atheist choir.” He should know that atheists don’t sing! We’re all too depressed and nihilistic to find meaning in any such ridiculous community activity as singing in a choir.

  • Samuel Skinner

    Atheists get along as well as leftists- unforunately even worse (you get all ends of the political spectrum). You get a bunch of people talking to each other that have almost nothing in common except the lack of belief (many are rationalists and materialists, but there are a large number of exceptions). For example I think the Arizona Atheist is nuts on the issue of anarchism (he is an anarchist).

    I cheer E Muse on because it saves me from writing out the reply myself- I can’t carry the world on my back. That is why it is so nice to have other people who will take up the burden.

  • Christopher

    OMFG,

    “So, atheists have to be nihilists, hate life, etc.”

    *Sigh* Apparently the stereotype of the Nihilist is strong here as well: just because we don’t acknowledge any intrinsic value doesn’t mean that we “hate life.”

    Ipetrich,

    “Also, the position of Nietzsche, Camus, and Sartre is the classical French existentialist position, which I once saw described as being mad at God for not existing. ‘How dare you refuse to exist and leave me all alone like that!’”

    I interpret their position quite differently: since “god” is dead, man is left alone to create and destroy values as he sees fit – that’s the message I get from Existentialism. But then again, this is a philosophy that’s very open to interpretation so I can’t say that you’re mistaken either…

  • http://wildphilosophy.blogspot.com Mathew Wilder

    I’d just like to say Nietzsche is not a “classic French existentialist.” He was German, and he wasn’t an Existentialist. Camus was also not an Existentialist.

  • Christopher

    Mathew Wilder,

    “I’d just like to say Nietzsche is not a “classic French existentialist.” He was German, and he wasn’t an Existentialist.”

    You got the French part correct, but as to whether he was an Existentialist or not is debatable (as his works did break the ground for more contemporary brands of Existentialism). To me, I see him as a person who defied the notion of philosophical structure – and yet who’s works are usefull in making one’s own structure for personal use.

  • http://wildphilosophy.blogspot.com Mathew Wilder

    See Prof. Leiter’s work on Nietzsche. Nietzsche was a naturalist. The Existentialists most definitely were not. Sartre, the “classic French existentialist” expounded a Kantian-influenced metaphysics (see Being and Nothingness). Nietzsche was a ferocious critic of Kant. (He also would probably have laughed at Sartre’s attempt to combine Marxism and Existentialsm. I do to – one is a deterministic doctrine and the other claims absolute freedom. They are completely incompatible with each other.)

    Existentialism is best summarized by the statement “Existence precedes essence.” Nietzsche would not have accepted this proposition. (Neither did Camus.)

  • http://wildphilosophy.blogspot.com Mathew Wilder

    Sorry. Can’t trackback. Posted my own short response to the two “atheists aren’t serious enough” Johns.

  • http://onlinephilosophyclub.com/forums/ Scott Hughes

    I am an atheist and I am a moral nihilist. Philosophically speaking, I do not believe in morality. I would say that atheism does include a rejection of the religious ideas regarding morality because immorality was traditionally considering to be the same thing as sinfulness. Many atheists and secularists have redefined morality, but I prefer to just drop the whole idea.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    No doubt, Scott, John Haught would cheer you on and find you to be very professional and “serious”.

  • Christopher

    Scott Hughes,

    “I am an atheist and I am a moral nihilist. Philosophically speaking, I do not believe in morality. I would say that atheism does include a rejection of the religious ideas regarding morality because immorality was traditionally considering to be the same thing as sinfulness. Many atheists and secularists have redefined morality, but I prefer to just drop the whole idea.”

    Welcome to the moral Nihilist club on this site: population of 2 – you an I. Just be warned – some of the posters on this site react very harshly when you touch their sacred cows…

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    Comments on anarchism have been split to a separate thread. Please continue that discussion there.

  • Alex Weaver

    Just be warned – some of the posters on this site react very harshly when you touch their sacred cows…

    That does tend to happen when one goes out of one’s way to leave the audience with the distinct impression that one’s primary reasons for being disinclined to murder their children and sell their organs on the black market are purely pragmatic ones. Can’t imagine why.

    (I, at least, have given up trying to explain to Christopher why, contrary to his and apparently Haught’s self-serving assumptions, at least one atheist conception of compassion and morality is rationally founded in a way that makes the “sacred cows” comparison inaccurate. If anyone else wants to take a shot, be my guest.)

  • http://wildphilosophy.blogspot.com Mathew Wilder

    Welcome to the moral Nihilist club on this site: population of 2 – you an I. Just be warned – some of the posters on this site react very harshly when you touch their sacred cows…

    Snide comments such as this usually come from people who feel they are superior to others. But how can moral nihilists be superior to anyone, since there are no values by which to judge them so? (Perhaps I am mistaken in your meaning or tone here?) But we have no reason not to be harsh, if we so feel, if there are really no values of any sort. If it hurts your feelings, why should we care (if there are no values, it doesn’t matter!)?

  • Christopher

    Mathew Wilder,

    “Snide comments such as this usually come from people who feel they are superior to others. But how can moral nihilists be superior to anyone, since there are no values by which to judge them so?”

    1. I never said there are no values – just that there are no values that exist independent of our own mind’s conceptions of them (thus rendering all values to subjective scrutiny as they aren’t wholly objective).

    2. Who said that anyone was superior to anyone? I was simply remarking that it’s ironic that people who claim to be a “freethinking people” would lash out so strongly against people who critique their values by another set of standards. After all, if you truly are “freethinkers” shouldn’t you welcome the criticism as a chance to test your values against another value set – you know the old saying “iron sharpening iron” and all…

  • Christopher

    Alex Weaver,

    “That does tend to happen when one goes out of one’s way to leave the audience with the distinct impression that one’s primary reasons for being disinclined to murder their children and sell their organs on the black market are purely pragmatic ones. Can’t imagine why.”

    I happen to be of the opinion that man is merely the product of his predispositions (genes, environment, experiences, ect…) and nothing more – as such, I hold that it’s possible to condition a person to accept anything as being “moral” if those predispositions were somehow altered.

    I think that – if I was given the time, incentive and proper means – I *could* alter your whole system of morality (making the aforementioned act of “killing children and selling their organs on the black market” a “moral” choice in your view). Do I put myself (or anyone else) past this type of activity? No: the human mind is but a machine – one that can be broken and reprogrammed by that which surrounds it; even the people generally considered to be “good” can be remade if circumstances warrent the change.

    I’m merely honest about the fact that we are nothing more or less than the sum of our parts – and it appears as though most people are too scared to admit that to themselves (or anyone else for that matter…) as this would would invalidate any system of absolute “morality” that was ever created. If that’s too honest of an evaluation of the human condition for you, then tough luck…

  • heliobates

    @Christopher

    as such, I hold that it’s possible to condition a person to accept anything as being “moral” if those predispositions were somehow altered.

    What’s your basis for this, and have you read Grossman’s On Killing?

  • Christopher

    helibates,

    I base my statements upon my knowledge of causality: the human mind is formed by the events that occur around it and the actions of the cells within it (determined by genetics), thus one can alter these things (remove or damage some brain cells, expose the individual to a different environmnet, etc…) and change the function of the machine that produces the though and any systems of “morality” affiliated with them – the brain.

    Throughout history many societies has reprogrammed people to accept behaviors that many would consider “immoral” – the Spartans took best stock of their children (the rest were killed) into camps with little resources and high demands (hardly any food, rigorous physical activities, promotion of such activities as theft and violence against other children, etc…) to mold them into better soldiers, assassins in various Middle Eastern cultures were rewarded with feasts and orgies for completed tasks (associating the death of their victims with pleasure in their minds) and even today various terror groups teach their followers that they will be rewarded in some heaven – as well as the favor of “god” – if they spill the blood of their enemies.

    With the proper conditioning, a human being can become capable of almost anything – even the reshaping of their own established codes of “morality” can be done with a little “fine tuning…”

  • heliobates

    @ Christopher

    I base my statements upon my knowledge of causality: the human mind is formed by the events that occur around it and the actions of the cells within it (determined by genetics), thus one can alter these things (remove or damage some brain cells, expose the individual to a different environmnet, etc…) and change the function of the machine that produces the though and any systems of “morality” affiliated with them – the brain.

    I’ll agree to this, with some reservations. I’d like to know how you came by this “knowledge of causality”. Do you refer to a specific body of research?

    With the proper conditioning, a human being can become capable of almost anything – even the reshaping of their own established codes of “morality” can be done with a little “fine tuning…”

    And this is where I’ll part company. One of the reasons why I suggested On Killing is that the author specifically examines what it takes to get people to do something against which they have a deeply-ingrained aversion. That plus some other research I’ll have to dig out, suggests strongly that people are not as malleable as you suggest. Studies, such as those by Premack & Premack suggest that a sense of fairness and empathy seem to develop very young.

    You may be able to condition someone into doing something, but they tend to suffer prolonged adverse consequences as a result.

  • OMGF

    Christopher,

    *Sigh* Apparently the stereotype of the Nihilist is strong here as well: just because we don’t acknowledge any intrinsic value doesn’t mean that we “hate life.”

    So, when I expound on the position of the theist, then I share that position by default or something? Next time try to read my comment for comprehension and not as some attack from some sacred cow or something, because your conception of what I am saying is way off the mark. And, just to be clear, I will explain to you that the comment refers to the theist’s stereotype of atheists being nihilistic, hating life, etc.

  • Samuel Skinner

    Only Bersrkers hate life. Them and goodlife. (If you read Fred Schavenger it makes sense)

  • Jim Baerg

    That’s Berserkers, & the author’s name is spelled Saberhagen.
    Now people can google those to find out what you’re talking about.

  • Christopher

    heliobates,

    “I’ll agree to this, with some reservations.”

    Which are?

    “I’d like to know how you came by this “knowledge of causality”. Do you refer to a specific body of research?”

    If you mean any one single study conducted by a group of researchers, then no. If you mean a cumulative body of knowedge based on my studies of the fields of anthropology, sociology, psychology and philosophy – then yes.

    “And this is where I’ll part company. One of the reasons why I suggested On Killing is that the author specifically examines what it takes to get people to do something against which they have a deeply-ingrained aversion.”

    But he never explains where this aversion to killing originates – I say that this aversion to killing comes from the existing social order: which, in Western culture, tries to raise docile sheep that won’t seriously oppose its will. In other cultures, this aversion to killing he mentions doesn’t exist.

    “That plus some other research I’ll have to dig out, suggests strongly that people are not as malleable as you suggest. Studies, such as those by Premack & Premack suggest that a sense of fairness and empathy seem to develop very young.”

    I haven’t read that particular study by Premack, although I am familiar with his principle of reinforcement: and through these methods, I see ample room for some entitiy to take a mind and mold it in any way he sees fit.

  • heliobates

    @ Christopher

    I think you’re a bit too confident that an individual’s moral identity can be over-written so easily (you refer to it as “fine tuning”). I cited Premak and Grossman because both works emphasize the extent to which a person’s character is determined by their early years. It requires considerable effort to reverse this early conditioning and the individuals affected often suffer significant long term adverse consequences.

    Your main point, if I understand it correctly, seems sound to me: “the human mind is formed by the events that occur around it and the actions of the cells within it (determined by genetics), thus one can alter these things (remove or damage some brain cells, expose the individual to a different environmnet, etc…) and change the function of the machine that produces the though and any systems of “morality” affiliated with them – the brain.” Nothing really controversial there.

    I’m just trying to understand your confidence when asserting that this change can be effected easily or quickly, since prevailing research seems to contraindicate this.

  • Christopher

    Heliobates,

    Perhaps you and I have different concepts of “easy” when it comes to shaping the human mind: to me it means that any sudden change from the status quo can innitiate the change – it could be just one traumatic moment (a good blow to the head, for example) that triggers the emergence of a brand new person; one that bears little (if any) resemblance to the one that existed prior to it.

    How are you defining “easy” in regards to this issue?

  • heliobates

    @ Christopher

    My apologies if I misunderstand you, but I was inferring that by “fine tuning” and by “easy” you meant some kind of externally-directed behavioural/cognitive modification intended to produce predictable results. I guess I should get you to explain what you mean by “change”.

    And this statement seems a little vague to me: “could be just one traumatic moment (a good blow to the head, for example) that triggers the emergence of a brand new person; one that bears little (if any) resemblance to the one that existed prior to it.”

    Certainly a blow to a person’s head can cause brain trauma and this trauma can have a significant and long lasting (permanent!) effect on that person’s behaviour. But short of physical damage caused by trauma or chemical damage, on what basis do you say that a new person “that bears little(if any) resemblance to the one that existed…”.

    Seems like more than a “short sharp shock” or “just one traumatic event” would be needed to effect this change.

  • misterkel

    I am a Buddhist and, consequently, an atheist (a proof I can provide on request). I’d like to weigh in on the absolute/transcendent morality versus moral nihilism debate. First, it seems wrong that these are the only two alternatives. The assumption, so far as I can tell, comes from the Law of the Excluded Middle. In Eastern thought, this axiom is incorrect and the Middle Way is far more prominent. To put this into context: Moral Nihilism seems to say that there can be no true moral code because humans can be manipulated into its opposite, and any morality that can be disregarded cannot be absolute. (feel free to correct me.) Transcendent morality says that an absolute moral code exists.
    So, the widely misunderstood doctrine of Karma is an obvious argument to stretch this debate. If you were to say that karma does not exist (the nihilist position) the Buddha would say you are correct, karma has no true existence. If you were to argue that you can do whatever you wish with no consequence, he would tell you you are wrong and that action and belief have significant ramifications and always. Why? The mind creates its own identity, by its beliefs and actions. If you murder, then do so again, eventually taking life becomes a habit and the mind attains an identity as a murderer. It is said to take lifetimes for the process to really complete. If your way is love, then love becomes your identity. Many, many factors, in fact every action we make, leads to an accumulated and complex self-image. This leads one into pre-disposed situations, for example, associating with atheists.
    The upshot is that you cannot call morality absolute (I am making this synonymous with transcendent, sorry) because there is no thing that it is. If it exists, then we cannot find it, so it makes no difference. We can only use what we have. But to claim moral nihilism is to deny consequence to action. And if action had no consequence, then we would continue to trust people no matter how many times they lied to us or stole from us.
    A moral relativism is not invalid, nor need it come from the conscious choice of each us. In fact, this approach, that our actions do shape our character and our identity, has an absolute spin in that everything we have put into our mindstream must be dealt with. Karma is inexorable, yet there is no thing of karma, per se. It is neither something nor nothing. It is beyond the extremes.

  • Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth[skeptic griggsy]

    Haught, Collins ,McGrath and Hedges are shallow thinkers who just cannot understand atheism and naturalism. WE ought to contemn their notions alright! They bray that they are such superior thinker that one wonders if they ever really think about atheirsm and naturalism.
    I understand that we ought to gang up on Ian Balbour also.
    The temerity of these twits!

  • http://www.ciphergoth.org/ Paul Crowley

    I am astonished that an article discussing who the serious atheists are can fail to mention Bertrand Russell.

  • lpetrich

    That’s because Bertrand Russell was much like the “New Atheists”, making him someone who does not fit into his stereotype of what an atheist ought to be like — someone who feels very let-down and glum upon concluding that god is pure fiction. So if you are happy with yourself and with your atheism, you are not consistent, I suppose.

  • active-agnostic

    Wow. I’m kind of disappointed in this attempt at a refutation. So yeah, Haught’s arguments aren’t great, but this hardly addresses his his points adequately.

    Can’t you do better than this? If the guy were here, he’d probably tear you to shreds…

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    a-a
    What would address the points in your opinion?

  • Reformed Agnostic

    That’s because Bertrand Russell was much like the “New Atheists”

    Exactly, he’s exciting at age 17 and sorrowfully inadequate at age 40 after you’ve studied Plato, Rousseau, Hume, Pascal, Kant and those three other big names thrown about here.

    And lived and thought and experienced enough to realize the severe limitations of reason and science and human nature.

    “The heart has its reason which reason does not know”

    we need more of that heart, the “shudder of Awe” Goethe spoke of.

    Any fellow atheists want to join me in celebrating the expansion of religion in our society!

  • http://thewarfareismental.typepad.com cl

    My sentiments ended up warranting a post of their own over at my blog. Although I don’t necessarily share all of Haught’s conclusions as expressed in the source material, I felt Ebonmuse’s responses appeared emotionally controlled and fraught with inconsistency.

    For example:

    …Haught presumes for himself the right to judge which atheists are or are not sufficiently “serious”

    Why should that be any sort of problem? After all, Ebonmuse certainly presumes which theists are sufficiently serious, for example, he says all that believe in demons are ignorant regardless of actual intelligence and should be unilaterally mocked. This makes Occam’s razor look more like a guillotine! As my heart goes out to the closet GLBT kid with a sternly homophobic and closed-minded dad, similar for the otherwise rational person who’s had experiences reasonably interpretable as psychic (‘psychic’ as in the Jungian sense of archetypal), spiritual or biblical in their ultimate nature. Such hasty generalization and harsh criticism in this regard can only effect cognitive dissonance, which is of little use in uncovering the truth.

    Or perhaps this self-defeating little gem:

    …for obvious reasons, a Catholic believer has no authority to decide what atheism “really” implies.

    Really? Are we even thinking this stuff through anymore? Because if that’s the case, Ebonmuse effectively undermines every shred of his own authority to speak on what theism implies. And as we all know he often does, now he is left with a major epistemological nightmare that calls the reliability of all his interpretations of theism into question.

    Anyway, lots more I can and did say, so check it out if you want.

  • http://absenceofgood.blogspot.com/ pboyfloyd

    Here’s my reply to your rant ‘cl’.

    (Ebonmuse ‘talking’)”…Haught presumes for himself the right to judge which atheists are or are not sufficiently “serious”

    You say, “Why should that be any sort of problem?”

    The context is that Haught’s students are to be exposed only to his idea of who a serious atheist is, and Ebonmuse is saying, “No.”

    So what if Ebonmuse says all that believe in demons are ignorant regardless of actual intelligence?

    Ebonmuse is ALLOWED to think that believers-in-demons are ignorant AND that Haught’s choice of atheist books are giving students an outmoded impression.

    The only inconsistency here is that you are comparing apples to oranges.

    ……………………………………….

    You say, “So when I saw the John Adams quote-mine among other things, I was left to wonder if maybe Dawkins was ignorant or biased, and my concerns were justified. So why can’t any or all of Haught’s concerns be justified?”

    Okay, since you brought it up, what is this alleged quote-mine from John Adams?

    Why are Haught’s concerns justified just because you no-likee Dawkins inconsistency?

    ………………………………………..

    You say, ” I would personally much rather read Nietzsche etc.”

    So what? Where’re the inconsistencies? This entire paragraph and the next one is all fluff.

    ………………………………………..

    “No attack on atheism would be complete without the obligatory slander that atheism can provide no basis for morality.” says Ebonmuse.

    You retort, “That’s untrue on two levels..”

    Haught goes on to do just that!
    Argument from morality is standard operating procedure for Christians of all stripes and it IS suggesting that atheists are not constrained to be moral because of it. Ergo, SLANDER!

    All I see is you saying that ‘not ALL Christians argue this way’. Well, can we say that most, if not ALL Christians believe that argument then?(First Commandment and all that?)

    Plus, where’s the inconsistency that is supposed to be ‘fraughting’ our eyeballs?

    (I don’t seem to be allowed to post comments on your site. My my.)

  • Anonymous Sea Anemone
    Welcome to the moral Nihilist club on this site: population of 2 – you an I. Just be warned – some of the posters on this site react very harshly when you touch their sacred cows…

    Snide comments such as this usually come from people who feel they are superior to others. But how can moral nihilists be superior to anyone, since there are no values by which to judge them so? (Perhaps I am mistaken in your meaning or tone here?) But we have no reason not to be harsh, if we so feel, if there are really no values of any sort. If it hurts your feelings, why should we care (if there are no values, it doesn’t matter!)?

    Comment #61 by: Mathew Wilder | March 6, 2008, 7:12 am

    It is not internally inconsistent for moral nihilists to like things (have value on a personal/subjective level). Shocking as some may find it, moral nihilists believe that statements like “throwing babies into wood chippers is wrong” are false statements. It is not wrong to throw babies into wood chippers. It’s not right either… but I ‘m bot going to go into that. However, a moral nihilist believes that statements such as “I do not desire to throw babies into wood chippers,” can be true (In my case, it is true; I do not desire that). Moral nihilists believe that morals exist as concepts inside the minds of sentient creatures only; in the case of people, that they exist as physical structures in the brain. I say “in the case of people” since in an AI, morals would exist as physical structure in something not a biological brain, or in an alien they might exist in something I would not call “a brain.” Part of the idea behind morality is that moral rules exist outside of concepts people just have in their heads. Moral nihilists believe that all moral statements are false in large part because moral rules, at least sometimes, are intended to apply universally (many people would believe that throwing babies into wood-chippers is wrong.). Statements containing words such as “I want” or “I desire” or “I like” or “I dislike” etc… can be true though, because they recognize that copies of those concept exist in one, or possibly more than one, person’s mind, but nowhere else.

    It’s perfectly possible for a moral nihilist to feel superior without internal contradiction. They like themselves more than they like another person. “liking” is valid because it claims that something is subjective, and in reality, it is subjective, so the claim matches reality. Morals, oughts, shoulds, goods and bads, etc… are invalid because they claim something subjective is objective. The claim does not match reality.


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