A Dialogue with Quixote, Part VII

Hello Quixote,

Considering your last letter to me was some time ago, I apologize for the lateness of my reply. To tell the truth, this was the hardest one for me to write. It’s not that I couldn’t think of anything to say. Much the opposite: If I had said everything I wanted to say, this post would have been too long! Cutting it down to a reasonable length was more of a struggle than writing it. I’ve endeavored to edit in a way that does justice to your points and to mine.

I also want to say at the outset that this will be my last reply. I’ve enjoyed our conversation these past few months; I think we’ve both had ample opportunity to speak our minds and I’m glad for that. If you’d like to offer some final thoughts in reply to this letter, you’re welcome to do so.

While you good folk may connect these observances, and they are real world observances, with logical arguments or rationale for unbelief, most do not. In ministry, we engage believers and unbelievers continuously, and it’s a rare bird that cites any of the philosophic staples in my first paragraph, or others like them. The ones who do generally do not exhibit even a serviceable grasp of the attendant issues. This is my overwhelming and consistent experience firsthand.

That may be one of those points where we’ll have to differ. In my experience, most atheists, even if they aren’t experts in theology, come to atheism because they’ve decided that something about religious belief doesn’t rationally add up. This may, of course, be self-selection bias – it’s likely that most of the people who visit Daylight Atheism come here because they like to give thought to these issues.

However, I maintain that since there isn’t (yet!) a thriving, real-world atheist community in the same way that there are religious communities, very few people are going to become atheists just because it’s the default option in their peer group. Most people who become atheists do so as the result of a conscious decision on their part and an intentional effort to seek out the advocates of that philosophy. Granted, if we’re as successful as I’d hope, that may change in a few generations. Greta Christina wrote a very thoughtful post about this (link), about how every social movement needs must start with the most independently-minded, committed people, and how that inevitably diminishes as its goals are accomplished and it becomes a more widely accepted position.

An insulating factor actively laboring against this realization is immersion. I define immersion as a progressive group dynamic which isolates and subsequently reinforces cognitive structures, mores, and peculiar linguistics — and a host of other things — among individuals sharing (un)beliefs and community. We’re all guilty of it, and I can’t speak for y’all, but one thing accomplished by this dialogue is the weakening of this exclusive immersive web by the coupling of new strands to existing ones.

I couldn’t agree more! Why do you think I wanted to do this in the first place?

Lastly, I might also ask you a related question: to what degree is your atheism dependent upon your birth in a western culture steeped in secularism? Would that influence your estimation of the reasonableness of your atheism? I’d also like to hear to what degree you believe your birth into a Judeo-Christian culture has imported tenets from those religions into your atheism, whether consciously or subconsciously.

I don’t accept that Western culture, particularly American culture, is steeped in secularism. On the contrary, I’d say that being an atheist where I live requires swimming upstream against an overwhelming tide of public opinion: opinion treating belief in God not just as the expected, but the only moral position. Look at the money in your wallet if you don’t think that’s true. There may be some places where your remark about our secularism-steeped culture has a degree of truth. But in vast swathes of this country, nonbelief in public life, or even in private life, is all but impossible unless carefully concealed.

I’ll grant that living in this culture does make atheism possible – in the sense that, as god-saturated as our society is, we’ve still managed to carve out some breathing room between religion and government, creating a small space where nonbelief can exist. In many cultures of the past and the present, even that wouldn’t have existed, and outspoken atheism would not be an option at all. In those cultures I’d have been imprisoned or worse for saying the kind of things I say nearly every day on this blog.

As for importing Judeo-Christian tenets into my atheism – I don’t know, which tenets do you have in mind? There are many moral principles, like the Golden Rule, that find expression in every culture. In our culture, which is heavily influenced by Christian thinking, these universals naturally find expression in a Christian context. In that sense, I’ll concede that my worldview has been influenced by these beliefs; it would be virtually impossible for anyone who grew up in 20th-century America to say otherwise. On the other hand, the Bible and historic Christianity have promoted many principles that are antithetical to my worldview, and many social reform movements to whose ideals I subscribe – separation of church and state, women’s equality, secular public schools, birth control, GLBT rights – were and often still are viciously attacked for being anti-Christian.

I’ve never lived a moment without out it that I can recall. There’s definitely times when it’s stronger, though. After absorbing so much heat for this admission, I’m figuring I should just go ahead and claim it as an evidence for God — I’ve got nothing to lose! I’d enjoy hearing of your comparable experience…

Well, now you’ve asked me a hard question! Trying to do justice to experiences like this is like trying to describe the experience of listening to a symphony. But I’ll give it my best shot.

This kind of experience tends to come upon me suddenly at my happiest moments, though it sometimes wells up for no apparent reason. (Maybe it’s from a little trickle of current in my temporal lobes.) The most salient aspect is a sense of heightened awareness – a feeling that all the world has suddenly become much richer in detail, that everything has become immeasurably more significant. Always accompanying this is a sense of great affection, of love for all the beauty of the world and my fellow living things. And lastly, there’s a feeling I can only describe as oceanic: like the boundaries of my self dissolving, being opened up to all the unimaginable vastness of the world, and experiencing it as a source of bliss. In those few perfect moments, it feels as if the world is full of magic, and I’ve only briefly gained the ability to see it.

I won’t say that this state, this awareness, is present in my life every waking moment. But when it does emerge, it’s like the sun breaking through clouds, and I wonder how anyone ever does without it.

When I read your commentary and essays, I sense that you consider some things to be right, and others wrong, in a manner that equates them with objective moral values — in a manner that you would consider them right and wrong if you and every other human had never existed; simply put: more than only the natural functioning of a human cortex, a deliverance of human reason, or an emergent consciousness. I’m not convinced yet that your and your commentator’s actions match your beliefs. Where is my misstep here?

I do consider that some things are objectively right and others are objectively wrong. However, I do not consider that this is mutually exclusive with the natural functioning of the cortex. I think these explanations are complementary: the existence of conscious, reasoning beings brings right and wrong into the world, just as it brings in a whole host of other abstract concepts – democracy, for example, or money, or science, or music. It wouldn’t make sense to say that those things aren’t “real”, that they’re just tricks of the cerebral cortex. We make them real by participating in them.

How can you prove that the only reason God would permit evil to occur is to bring about some other end?

Truthfully, I think that’s the only defense a Christian could possibly offer, even as unsatisfactory as it is (a point you seem to agree with, if I read you correctly). For if God did not create evil as a means to some other end, there’s only one other logically possible option: that God created evil as an end in itself. In other words, he created evil for its own sake. That’s the definition of what an evil being is, and that creates an irreconcilable contradiction with the core tenet of Christianity that God is good.

If a genuine free will exists, not every possible world is feasible for God to create, and the one we know may just be the possible world feasible for God to create that contains the most good with the least amount of evil given the counterfactuals of creaturely free action. As I think I’m on the side of reason here, I’ll endure the Panglossian taunts happily.

I really doubt that very strongly. When you look out at this world, you can’t think of any way it could be improved? We wouldn’t stand to gain by making human beings more empathetic, less prone to resort to violence to settle their disagreements? We couldn’t gain by making free agents who are more inclined to take the long view, less inclined to value immediate short-term gain? By making people who are more courageous and morally steadfast, less willing to compromise their principles for material benefit?

These are all contingent parameters of human behavior that could hypothetically be altered; a creator could twiddle those knobs without depriving us of free will. If you really think this world is unimprovable, that’s your right. All I can say, though, is that if God turned things over to me, it wouldn’t take long to draw up a list of fixes.

Put yourself in my shoes for a moment: if you were convinced there existed an all-wise, all-good, all-powerful being, wouldn’t you trust in Him with regard to evil?

If I was convinced of the exact statement you gave, yes, I’d pretty much have to. However, that’s because your conclusion is contained in your premise: if there existed an all-wise, all-good, all-powerful being, it follows as a matter of logic that there can be no unnecessary evil in the world. But that’s putting the cart before the horse. I see no rational way to draw such an inference, given the fact that unnecessary evil manifestly does exist. How anyone could look at this world and infer that supreme moral goodness intended it all to be this way, that’s a conclusion I simply can’t see any way to justify.

As I’ve said before, to infer moral goodness, one has to have at least some understanding of the actor’s motives. But you say we should treat God’s plan as a mystery, that we can’t know he doesn’t have good reasons of his own and therefore should trust him. Again, this is putting the cart before the horse. If God’s motives are unknown to us, to be consistent, you’d have to say that his moral status, good or bad, is also an unknown quantity. Believing that God is absolutely good and that he has a motive for all the evil he causes is an argument that goes straight from premise to conclusion without any intervening steps.

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://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Greta Christina wrote a very thoughtful post about this ()
    I assume you forgot a link. Either that or you’re terrible at emoticons.

  • Scotlyn

    If God’s motives are unknown to us, to be consistent, you’d have to say that his moral status, good or bad, is also an unknown quantity. Believing that God is absolutely good and that he has a motive for all the evil he causes is an argument that goes straight from premise to conclusion without any intervening steps.

    Straight to the heart of the matter, Ebon – well, done.

    Quixote

    objective moral values — in a manner that you would consider them right and wrong if you and every other human had never existed; simply put: more than only the natural functioning of a human cortex, a deliverance of human reason, or an emergent consciousness.

    How could there be moral values if there were no humans? That doesn’t even compute. Our moral values are human-shaped and human-sized. We don’t much care if a pair of penguins at the zoo are homosexual (although it raises eyebrows if the zookeepers give them a chick of their own to raise). We don’t much care if the local fox kills local rabbits or if the otter in the river kills fish. We don’t accuse the aphids of enviously coveting their neighbour’s roses. We don’t even feel particularly morally outraged if a bunch of chimps gang up on another chimp and kill him. Apart from those interactions with other animals that directly affect us (fox kills my chickens, or otter takes salmon out of a cage, should we/should we not eat meat), we do not apply moral language even to the other species with which we share the planet. Why should we think that our morality is any bigger or wider in application than our relations with one another as humans. Our moral values are an emergent complexity, naturally arising from our social/selfish dual nature, and they find their measure in our appreciation of one another’s human ability to feel pleasure and pain, and to affect the pleasure and pain of others.

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Ebon Look at the money in your wallet if you don’t think that’s true.
    I don’t know what weird foreign country you’re from, but here in whereveritisthatIam our money has animals on it. I know what you’re saying, “That’s awesome!”, and you’re right. It is awesome.

    In those few perfect moments, it feels as if the world is full of magic, and I’ve only briefly gained the ability to see it.
    Apparently trepanation has much the same effect, with that transcendant something where life’s filters fall away.
    It only has two disadvantages: it wears off after a few days and you have to drill a hole in your head to get it.

    “These are all contingent parameters of human behavior that could hypothetically be altered; a creator could twiddle those knobs without depriving us of free will.”
    You’re forgetting that He’s omnipotent, but He’s not omnipotent. He can do anything, except for all the things He can’t do (which is a lot, if you consider all the apologia devoted to “Why do bad things happen to good people?”*). He’s also omniscient in the sense that He doesn’t know everything. The O’s aren’t what they used to be.

    Quixote “Lastly, I might also ask you a related question: to what degree is your atheism dependent upon your birth in a western culture steeped in secularism? Would that influence your estimation of the reasonableness of your atheism? I’d also like to hear to what degree you believe your birth into a Judeo-Christian culture has imported tenets from those religions into your atheism, whether consciously or subconsciously.”
    I believe that that sword cuts both ways.

    “…and the one we know may just be the possible world feasible for God to create that contains the most good with the least amount of evil given the counterfactuals of creaturely free action.”
    Which doesn’t counter the Problem of Evil. Natural evil, like disease, tsunamis, and the like are not effected by your free will (and in a 3-O’d God’s universe, there is no “natural” evil, as it’s all under a moral agent).
    Also, it means that God values the rapist’s free will more than He values the victim’s everything. Unless, of course, He uses suffering to bring people closer to Him (which I have been told He does. That particular revelation made me sad), in which case He’s a monster.
    Anyway, Eden was supposed to have been perfect, right? And the human two characters from that tale had free will, right? And they were naked, right? Wait, I’ve lost my train of thought.

    “…if you were convinced there existed an all-wise, all-good, all-powerful being, wouldn’t you trust in Him with regard to evil?”
    You just used the “alls” in concert with “evil”. On a related note, I’m marketing a sugar-free gum that’s loaded with sugar.

    *If I understand correctly, some avoid that question altogether by stating that we’re all bad, which is a bit like an infinite and perfect craftsman blaming His tools.

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

    Either that or you’re terrible at emoticons.

    I am, actually, but that’s not what I was trying to do here. :) Link fixed.

  • http://avertyoureye.blogspot.com/ Teleprompter

    “Sin is the fault of humanity, but it had to be that way, and fortunately, we still have free will.

    How do I know this to be true?

    Well, for hundreds of millions of years, various animals and plants endured enormous levels of suffering before humanity existed. So it is difficult to claim that the direct actions of humanity are responsible for suffering in our world. However, one could say that suffering was predetermined for humanity. Essentially, it must then be our fault that the suffering of the world was predetermined for us. So everything’s our fault (even if it’s not), and we still have free will (even if we don’t). Christianity makes complete sense.” /sarcasm

    We can now determine that there was never a Paradise – that there was never an Eden – and that the “original sin” of humanity is merely our own existence in an indifferent universe. Sure, Christian tradition can try to pin the blame on a species which only arrived on Earth during the most recent instant of geologic time, but the growing evidence across nearly all disciplines of science can easily refute such a bold and unsupported assertion.

    How can I prove that the only reason a god would permit evil is to bring about some other end? How can I know that this is not the only possible world that it is feasible for a god to create? I most likely cannot fully prove either of these things to you; what I may be able to demonstrate adequately is the incoherence of Christian dogma when its doctrines are contrasted with the harsh, vivid realities of our existence.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    If a genuine free will exists, not every possible world is feasible for God to create, and the one we know may just be the possible world feasible for God to create that contains the most good with the least amount of evil given the counterfactuals of creaturely free action.

    Did he just imply that there is evil in Heaven?

  • eruonna

    I’ll grant that living in this culture does make atheism possible – in the sense that, as god-saturated as our society is, we’ve still managed to carve out some breathing room between religion and government, creating a small space where nonbelief can exist. In many cultures of the past and the present, even that wouldn’t have existed, and outspoken atheism would not be an option at all. In those cultures I’d have been imprisoned or worse for saying the kind of things I say nearly every day on this blog.

    I would disagree a little here. You seem to be saying that the main secular aspect of modern American culture, which distinguishes it from more religious cultures, is that one can express disbelief without fear of legal sanction (or, more generally, strong social sanction, at least, in many parts of the country.) But I think there are a few other ways our culture makes atheism possible.

    First, while you probably have to at least make a show of religious belief to be elected to high office in this country, you don’t to get get a job, get along with your neighbors, or deal with everyday government bureaucracy. (This is true in the parts of the country I have lived in. There are certainly places where vocal atheists have been and are persecuted for their lack of belief. I don’t know if, in those places, a show of piety is required to get along, or if you merely need not to call attention to your unbelief.) This is important not just because it leaves a space for atheists to exist, but because it allows people who are not (yet) atheists to spend time not thinking about god. Once you’ve escaped the total immersion in religion, it becomes much easier to consider its merits rationally. People who do that may or may not become atheists, but people who never have the chance will almost certainly remain in the religion.

    This also will have an effect on children. I think a large part of the reason that I am an atheist is because for a good part of my childhood, no one made a big deal about religion. My family went to church regularly, but that was just a boring hour on Sunday morning. God never really came up the rest of the time. I know that there are many ways our culture forces religion on us, but they are not all that visible to a kid. Especially to a kid who just assumes that everyone is Christian and doesn’t really think about it. It is one thing to have a class Christmas party, and quite another to start each day with an explicitly Christian prayer. I experienced the former, but never the latter. (Actually, we didn’t even have Christmas parties. They were “winter holiday” celebrations. But they were pretty clearly about Christmas, except for the few times Hanukkah was mentioned.) By the time I did start thinking about religion, I had acquired the tools needed to think rationally about it. And that lead eventually to my realization that I was an atheist.

    In addition to allowing the existence of religion-free spaces, modern secular culture is also heir to intellectual traditions which make atheism more available. Probably the most obvious is the scientific/skeptical worldview. This is not unique to our culture. Indeed, it is a basic part of the human mind, and has likely existed in some form in every human culture. However, our culture formalizes it into a process which can be consciously applied, rather than a habit of thought which someone may or may not have. We also afford it a certain amount of prestige. People who can think scientifically and skeptically are praised and rewarded. (Maybe not as much as we would like…) For this reason, we teach this process to our children, making it at least potentially a part of everyone’s cognitive toolkit.

    Now this is not to say that science necessarily leads to atheism or that atheists must be scientists, but it does make it easier. When skepticism is applied to religious claims, atheism becomes the null hypothesis. It is then necessary to consider atheism and accept or reject it on its merits. (I happen to think that when this is done, it will tend to lead to acceptance, rather than rejection, because I think atheism is correct. But even if not, it will still allow more atheists just by forcing people to think about it.) Additionally, scientific facts and theories may either contradict religious claims, offer counters to arguments in favor of religion, or simply make religion seem less likely or necessary. I believe Richard Dawkins says, in The Blind Watchmaker, that Darwin’s theory made it possible for the first time to be an intellectually satisfied atheist. There is some truth to this; the argument from design was a strong one until Darwin found a mechanism for the modern complexity of life to come into existence without a designer which was not only plausible but so well supported by the evidence that nothing else seems to make sense. Or consider how modern cosmology can make it seem much less likely that the creator of the universe is deeply and personally concerned with the goings on on our insignificant blue speck.

    In general, society and culture influence almost every belief or idea that anyone has ever held, and certainly those held by more than one person. This does not, on its own, constitute evidence either that the belief is untrue or that it is insincere. This would be a natural point to discuss why I think that some beliefs, religion in particular, are still susceptible to refutation by pointing out that they are culturally dependent. But this post is already pretty long, and that would be getting away from the point I started with, the ways that atheism is made available in American culture.

  • http://effingtheineffable.wordpress.com Peter Magellan

    <smug>Our money has Darwin on it. </smug>
    :-)

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    Our money has Darwin on it.

    I wonder whether the TOE would have had such a hard time in the U.S if Darwin had been American. How much of the resistance is “Not invented here”-ism?

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    Maybe people would claim he was born in Kenya or something?

  • Samuel Skinner

    Edmund Halley put it best.

    “Wherefore, if according to what we have already said it should return again about the year 1758, candid prosterity will not refuse to acknowledge that this was first discovered by an Englishman.”

    ” How much of the resistance is “Not invented here”-ism?”

    None. Even if he was an American he would be ignored- who do you think came up with the age of the universe measures?

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Samuel Skinner “Even if he was an American he would be ignored- who do you think came up with the age of the universe measures?”
    It was James Ussher. He was a Pentecostal Minister from North Carolina. Obviously.