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.

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Atlas Shrugged: The Marketplace of Ideas
Atlas Shrugged: Kinder, Küche, Kirche
Atlas Shrugged: Rise of the Machines
About Adam Lee

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