Not fully human?

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There’s a fuss going on in places like RichardDawkins.net (excellent site for nonbelief-relevant news!) about this statement on BBC radio by Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, that “atheists are not fully human.”

I’m not sure I agree with the fuss. In the context of his religious beliefs, O’Connor’s statements are reasonable. Most theists, liberals as well as conservatives, think that there is something important lacking in people who do not believe. Most also think that atheists are closed to—even, sometimes, that they deliberately shut themselves off from—critically important transcendent depths toward which religious people orient themselves. And again, it’s hardly unusual if theists think this has moral consequences, not to mention that nonbelievers therefore are deficient in appreciating the purpose humans are made for. “Less than human” strikes me as merely an honest, even mild, way of expressing that conviction.

As long as such sentiments don’t have strong political consequences, such as handicapping nonbelievers in public life because they are not “fully human,” (and I see no reason to think the Cardinal meant this) I don’t see much of a reason to complain here. If some nonbelievers are tempted to get nicely outraged over these sorts of statements, well, perhaps that should also lead them to more sympathy toward Muslims who get worked up over insults to their way of life.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14138403518686972179 Don

    It’s just a really silly way to phrase his complaint. His point reduces to “I can’t relate to the position that atheists take”. It’d be just as silly for a non-believer to say that the religious are also lacking something because they do believe in the supernatural.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03034292023591747601 PersonalFailure

    I agree that it’s probably he meant to say something like “the nontranscendental life is really missing something I find important”, what he did say is that we are not human.

    The same thing Nazis said about Jews, and slave owners said about slaves. I am not exactly inclined to give that a pass.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    Sounds like a fairly typical comment from that side of the debate. It just shows how terribly narrow minded he is.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00203311711885538229 Daniel A. Wang

    Awkwardly worded, but it’s clear enough what he means. Human beings who leave out the transcendent are leaving out an important part of being human.

    I’m more offended by the notion that atheists necessarily leave out the transcendent. That’s just plain ignorance about atheism.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Daniel A. Wang said: “Awkwardly worded, but it’s clear enough what he means. Human beings who leave out the transcendent are leaving out an important part of being human.

    Yes, but a Christian and a Cardinal at that should do better than speak in a way that sounds like diminishing fellow human beings to bellow human status. That’s the very antithesis of Jesus’s point of embracing the whole of humanity. Having said that, I think this was just sloppy language at the very end of his spoken answer the meaning of which was quite clear, as was clear that there was no intention to insult atheists. Which does not really compare to some atheists’ making fun of the Muslims’ way of life or beliefs.

    Daniel A. Wang said: “I’m more offended by the notion that atheists necessarily leave out the transcendent. That’s just plain ignorance about atheism.

    I wonder: What does “the transcendent” mean within a naturalistic understanding of reality? Or, in other words: Those atheists who reach out for the transcendent, what is it in reality they believe they are reaching out to?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14485509846775012081 Hari Seldon

    Perhaps he meant something other than what he said. But he said it, and he should apologize.

    I don’t mind the “atheists are silly” or “atheists are irrational” or “atheists are blind” but “atheists are not fully human” just crosses the line.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09385357187717354374 Guy G

    Comments on what it means to be human from a 76 year old virgin. Well, I’m convinced…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00203311711885538229 Daniel A. Wang

    Mr. Georgoudis:

    Would you say that Buddhists, typically being atheists, lack a notion of transcendence?

    Atheists need not be naturalists. This is just another common strawman.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18244124114150926782 chase c hall

    Guy G said…
    “Comments on what it means to be human from a 76 year old virgin. Well, I’m convinced…”

    Well said, well said.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Daniel A. Wang said: “Would you say that Buddhists, typically being atheists, lack a notion of transcendence?

    I would say that Buddhist are not typically atheists. After all many/most Buddhists believe that there are realms of reality inhabited by gods, not to mention by “hungry ghosts”, so, obviously, these Buddhists are not atheists. Further all Buddhists believe in the reincarnation and in the Law of Karma, which are beliefs that certainly do not comport with a naturalistic understanding of reality.

    Daniel A. Wang said: “Atheists need not be naturalists.

    Strictly speaking this is true. So we must distinguish between “naturalistic atheists” (which I think represents the vast majority of atheists at least in the West) and “supernaturalistic atheists”. When I speak of “atheists” I do not mean supernaturalistic atheists, and neither I am sure did Cardinal O’Connor.

    So let me clarify my question thus: Those naturalistic atheists who reach out for the transcendent, what is it in reality they believe they are reaching out to?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    I wonder if the Cardinal would ever claim that a baby in its mothers woman was not fully human because it did not have a sense of the transcendent, and never went to Mass.

    When do Muslims ever get called ‘not fully human’ by secularists?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00763792476799485687 J. J. Ramsey

    PersonalFailure: “The same thing Nazis said about Jews, and slave owners said about slaves.”

    Fallacy of ambiguity. The “not fully human” bit is used a couple different ways. One is to reinforce an us-versus-them distinction where “them” is regarded as sub-human and thus fair game for exploitation or destruction. Another is to use it as a way of saying that one hasn’t reached one’s full potential as a human being or isn’t fully “self-actualized.” This can inspire annoying pity, but it doesn’t have much in common with the outlook of Nazis and slaveholders.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    DO Muslims get worked up over insults to the largely Islamic practice of female circumcision?

    Do Muslims get worked up over insults to the not uncommon practice of school education being little more than rote learning of the Koran, usually in a language that the child hardly understands?

    Can atheists begin to understand Muslim outrage over these insults by examining their feelings when the Cardinal said atheists were not fully human?

    TANIS
    Most also think that atheists are closed to—even, sometimes, that they deliberately shut themselves off from critically important transcendent depths toward which religious people orient themselves.

    CARR
    So most religious people think atheists are closed minded?

    Most religious people are bigots? ( A word with a good religious background, it comes from people who always said ‘By God’, and so turned out to be bigots)

    I find it hard to believe that Tanis thinks ‘most’ religious people think atheists are not open to spiritual values.

    Haven’t religious people ever met atheists?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Steven Carr said: “I find it hard to believe that Tanis thinks ‘most’ religious people think atheists are not open to spiritual values. Haven’t religious people ever met atheists?

    So, in the case of atheists who are open to spiritual values, what is it in reality they believe they are open to?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    There is a Cartoon which explains that.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    I’d like to know what a so-called ‘spiritual’ value is…. and why they are seemingly viewed as important or superior to ‘non-spiritual’ values.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Steven Carr:

    one feels transported by an inexpressible joy which goes beyond the everyday, when the sense of self seems to dissolve in an ecstasy of awe” is a pretty good description of what one means by “experiencing the transcendent”. My question though is what such an experience is of. Of course, given their worldview theists can easily enough explain what such experiences are of. I wonder what the atheistic answer to the same question is. What is it in reality that such experiences are of, according to atheism?

    I suppose one possible atheistic answer is “nothing”. But experiences that are not experiences of something that exists outside of our heads are by definition delusions, and atheists are not the kind of people who search out delusions, or who feel insulted if somebody claims that they do not experience delusions and insist that they too experience them. So my question remains.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    CyberKitten said: “I’d like to know what a so-called ‘spiritual’ value is…. and why they are seemingly viewed as important or superior to ‘non-spiritual’ values.

    I’d say that “spiritual value” is any value that makes no sense within a mechanistic understanding of reality. Therefore naturalistic atheists believe that spiritual values do not in fact exist. The problem here is that naturalists cannot ground such common values as ethics and esthetics in their mechanistic understanding of reality in any objective sense, indeed arguably the very concept of “value” makes no sense within a mechanistic understanding of reality.

    At this juncture a naturalist may complain that they in fact do experience and do know about the value of beauty and moral goodness as well as any theist. Which is true but only evidences that the naturalistic understanding of reality cannot account for basic facets of the universal human condition, in which condition of course atheists partake as fully as anybody else.

    Or else a naturalist may claim that a naturalistic understanding of reality is capable of explaining how it came about that people *behave* ethically. But that’s not the point, see the so-called naturalistic fallacy.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    DG said: I’d say that “spiritual value” is any value that makes no sense within a mechanistic understanding of reality. Therefore naturalistic atheists believe that spiritual values do not in fact exist.

    Yup. I agree with that.

    DG said: The problem here is that naturalists cannot ground such common values as ethics and esthetics in their mechanistic understanding of reality in any objective sense

    I have no problem with that as I for one do not believe in ‘objective’ ethics or aesthetics.

    DG said: Which is true but only evidences that the naturalistic understanding of reality cannot account for basic facets of the universal human condition, in which condition of course atheists partake as fully as anybody else.

    I think that we have a fairly good understanding of the ‘human condition’ without recourse to supernaturalism, transcendence or spirituality. Naturalism certainly works for me. I see no reason to add anything else to the mix.

    DG said: Or else a naturalist may claim that a naturalistic understanding of reality is capable of explaining how it came about that people *behave* ethically.

    I don’t see a requirement for a super-naturalistic explanation of ethical behaviour. At least I have yet to hear of a good argument in favour of one.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    DG said: “The problem here is that naturalists cannot ground such common values as ethics and esthetics in their mechanistic understanding of reality in any objective sense

    CK said: “I have no problem with that as I for one do not believe in ‘objective’ ethics or aesthetics.

    Well, some moral truths are so obviously objective, i.e. not contingent on personal opinion, social convention, or the way our brain has evolved, that to manage to hold the stance you assume is really quite difficult.

    But that’s not the really icky problem of naturalism in relation to ethics. The really icky problem is that the only way to make sense of a concept is by ultimately grounding it on objective reality (the only kind there is), and naturalism is apparently unable to thus make sense of what “ethics” means in the first place. But if naturalism is unable to make sense of the concept of ethics then any naturalistic proposition about the properties of ethics (such as there aren’t any objective moral truths) is not even wrong but just gibberish.

    CK said: “I think that we have a fairly good understanding of the ‘human condition’ without recourse to supernaturalism, transcendence or spirituality. Naturalism certainly works for me. I see no reason to add anything else to the mix.

    The single greatest fact about the human condition is that we are conscious beings. So how would you say does a naturalistic reality produce consciousness? I am asking this because there is nothing in the physical sciences that even gives an inkling about how consciousness might have come about, or indeed about what consciousness actually is. Noted naturalist philosopher J. A. Fodor put it quite plainly: “Nobody has the slightest idea how anything material could be conscious. Nobody even knows what it would be like to have the slightest idea about how anything material could be conscious.” I am afraid it’s simply a myth that naturalists have even started to understand the human condition on naturalistic terms (never mind “have a fairly good understanding” of it).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    DG said: Well, some moral truths are so obviously objective…

    Such as?

    DG said: The really icky problem is that the only way to make sense of a concept is by ultimately grounding it on objective reality (the only kind there is)…

    Really? What exactly *is* ‘objective reality’ and why does ethics need to be ‘grounded’ in it?

    DG said: But if naturalism is unable to make sense of the concept of ethics then any naturalistic proposition about the properties of ethics (such as there aren’t any objective moral truths) is not even wrong but just gibberish.

    So… You’re saying that ethics are… *supernatural* in origin? [laughs] What a very strange idea.

    DG said: So how would you say does a naturalistic reality produce consciousness?

    So… You’re saying that consciousness is… *supernatural* in origin? [laughs] What a *very* strange idea. Just because we don’t have all the answers about how we’re conscious self-aware being doesn’t mean we have to add the supernatural to explain it! Maybe we’re just asking the wrong questions. Maybe if we look at it from a slightly different angle it will become obvious.

    DG said: I am afraid it’s simply a myth that naturalists have even started to understand the human condition on naturalistic terms (never mind “have a fairly good understanding” of it).

    Really? …and Supernaturalists *do* have a good understanding I suppose?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    DG said: “Well, some moral truths are so obviously objective…

    CK said: “Such as?
    Such as that to torture a child for fun is wrong.

    DG said: “The really icky problem is that the only way to make sense of a concept is by ultimately grounding it on objective reality (the only kind there is)…

    CK said: “Really? What exactly *is* ‘objective reality’ and why does ethics need to be ‘grounded’ in it?

    Objective reality is reality proper, i.e. reality independently of our personal beliefs about it. Ethics needs to be grounded in objective reality because any concept that is not thus grounded is just a nonsense concept.

    DG said: “But if naturalism is unable to make sense of the concept of ethics then any naturalistic proposition about the properties of ethics (such as there aren’t any objective moral truths) is not even wrong but just gibberish.

    CK said: “So… You’re saying that ethics are… *supernatural* in origin? [laughs] What a very strange idea.

    Perhaps you think that “supernatural” refers to things like magic or ghosts. In fact “supernatural” refers to any concept which does not fit within a naturalistic understanding of reality, and is in this sense beyond the physical world which science studies. And if the idea that ethics cannot be made to fit within a naturalistic understanding of reality strikes you as strange then you probably have never heard of the “argument from morality” for the existence of God. Or even that ethical questions cannot be dealt with using the scientific method. Actually, from Heraclitus to Nietzsche some naturalists conclude that ethics is a nonsense concept and so bite the bullet and become nihilists.

    DG said: “So how would you say does a naturalistic reality produce consciousness?

    CK said: “So… You’re saying that consciousness is… *supernatural* in origin? [laughs] What a *very* strange idea. Just because we don’t have all the answers about how we’re conscious self-aware being doesn’t mean we have to add the supernatural to explain it! Maybe we’re just asking the wrong questions. Maybe if we look at it from a slightly different angle it will become obvious.

    I notice you don’t actually answer my question. So what happened to you original claim that “we [naturalists] have a fairly good understanding of the ‘human condition’ without recourse to supernaturalism, transcendence or spirituality”?

    As for consciousness being of supernatural origin, please see the “argument from consciousness” which is probably one of the strongest arguments for the existence of God.

    DG said: “I am afraid it’s simply a myth that naturalists have even started to understand the human condition on naturalistic terms (never mind “have a fairly good understanding” of it).

    CK said: “Really? …and Supernaturalists *do* have a good understanding I suppose?

    Yes. According to theism reality at bottom is not mechanical as naturalists believe but personal, and is indeed centered in the existence of a person with perfect attributes, God. So in theism it is very easy, indeed natural, to ground such concepts as consciousness and ethics. In other words while naturalism has the nice name, it’s actually theism that is natural to the human condition. Naturalism can make no sense whatsoever of the nature of our experience of life, and after a while of listening to an ever more frequent “we don’t yet have all the answers” it starts to become clear to any freethinker that naturalism does not work.

    In this context I recommend you read the recent “Naturalism in Question”(edited by by Mario De Caro and David Macarthur), which is a collection of self-critical papers written by naturalistic philosophers, including some of the better known ones. The realization that scientific naturalism is plagued with many grave conceptual problems has not yet filtered down to the atheistic community at large caught as it is in the orbit of such intellectually inane books as “The God Delusion”. On the other hand it should be quite clear by now to anybody who actually studies the issues that if some kind of naturalism is to survive at all then a strong movement *away* from scientific naturalism is needed. Well, what can I say, good luck with that.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    DG said: Such as that to torture a child for fun is wrong.

    Indeed. But that doesn't make it Objective.

    DG said: Objective reality is reality proper, i.e. reality independently of our personal beliefs about it.

    …and where exactly would we stand to see this 'objective' reality? Considering that everything we experience is filtered through our personal view of things…

    DG said: Perhaps you think that “supernatural” refers to things like magic or ghosts.

    Magic… Ghosts… God… It's all much the same thing really….

    DG said: if the idea that ethics cannot be made to fit within a naturalistic understanding of reality strikes you as strange then you probably have never heard of the “argument from morality” for the existence of God.

    Yes I have. It's nonsensical. We are moral beings. We cannot fully account for this. Therefore our Morality must come from God. Rather poor reasoning I feel.

    DG said: Or even that ethical questions cannot be dealt with using the scientific method.

    I think that you're making the fundamental mistake of thinking that explanations must either be theological or scientific. This is not the case. Ethics is a sub-set of Philosophy not Science.

    DG said: Actually, from Heraclitus to Nietzsche some naturalists conclude that ethics is a nonsense concept and so bite the bullet and become nihilists.

    By Naturalists do you mean Atheists? I don't know about Heraclitus but Nietzsche opposed the idea of Nihilism, though he saw it as pretty much inevitable for those who failed to grasp the opportunity presented by the death of God.

    DG said: I notice you don’t actually answer my question. So what happened to you original claim that “we [naturalists] have a fairly good understanding of the 'human condition' without recourse to supernaturalism, transcendence or spirituality”?

    Consciousness is not exactly my area of expertise. By training I'm a Social & Political Philospher so my knowledge of the CNS and the philosophy of mind is not what it could be. But I'm still pretty confident that we don't have to fall back on superstition to explain things like Ethics and the working of the human brain.

    DG said: As for consciousness being of supernatural origin, please see the “argument from consciousness” which is probably one of the strongest arguments for the existence of God.

    Now *that* made me laugh. If the “argument from consciousness” is one of the best arguments for God then it doesn't surprise me that Atheism is a growing phenomena throughout the West!

    DG said: it starts to become clear to any freethinker that naturalism does not work.

    Works for me, thanks. It seems like you are invoking the old 'God of the Gaps' idea. Simply replacing our ever shrinking ignorance of the universe with God has never seemed like a particularly viable approach to me.

    DG said: On the other hand it should be quite clear by now to anybody who actually studies the issues that if some kind of naturalism is to survive at all then a strong movement *away* from scientific naturalism is needed. Well, what can I say, good luck with that.

    Well, there are *many* words I could use to sum up that – but I'll restrict myself to one.

    NONSENSE.

    Actually what the world needs is to move away from ancient supersition and to start using our naturally evolved reasoning facilties a bit more!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02416447120267285575 hnrast

    Only those plagued by total spiritual ignorance can disagree with Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor’s statement referring atheists as not being fully human. Jesus Christ, the creator of mankind made the same statement over two thousand years ago. Jesus said in Matthew 13: 24 –30 & 13: 36 –43, that there are two kinds of peoples in the world, God’s offspring, and the devil’s offspring. The devil is a fallen angel therefore his offspring cannot be fully human, since God made only man in His image, and likeness from the dust of the ground, and by breathing into his nostrils the breath of life. Even though all humans have similar physical characteristics, atheists cannot be fully human because they lack the breath of life, the medium necessary they need to acknowledge, love, and communicate with the Almighty.

    Jesus reinforced that fact while speaking to the Jews in John 8: 42 – 47, Jesus said to them, "If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father's desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don't you believe me? He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18244124114150926782 chase c hall

    hnrast:

    1) You're doing a good job of making yourself seem utterly insane.

    2) Citing the bible doesn't help your argument at all, especially with atheists.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02416447120267285575 hnrast

    Actually, atheists are not my main concern, since unlike human beings they do not have the spirit of God in them, consequently they are not equipped to receive the good news of the gospel of salvation, and in due time they will be reunited with their father the devil, in hell. The scriptures are here to benefit the lost. How can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?

    In Luke 19:10 Jesus said, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost." Jesus offers the free gift of salvation to condemned human beings as result of an act of disobedience against God, in the Garden of Eden. Romans 5:12, “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.”

    1 Corinthians 15, The good news is that God has provided salvation to all man through the dead and resurrection of His beloved son, who died for our sins according to the Scriptures, he was buried according to the Scriptures, and God raised him from dead on the third day according to the Scriptures.

    John 3:16, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son.

    Hebrews 4: 12- 13, “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”

    God spoke through the prophet Isaiah, and said “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”


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