Ethics Without Other People are Empty

I don’t understand ethical systems or teleology meant for humans that doesn’t talk about our relationships to other humans.

That, in a nutshell, is why I hated Steve Antinoff’s Spiritual Atheism. Antinoff tries to find a way for atheists to live without God. He writes

”Spiritual atheism begins with a triple realization: that our experience of ourselves and our world leaves us ultimately dissatisfied, that our dissatisfaction is intolerable and must be broken through, and that there is no God.”

Antinoff, in his quest to find a way to cope with this dissatisfaction, doesn’t find fulfillment in interaction with others. He’s a disciple of Zen Buddhism, and he finds attachment to other people a distraction from his search for truth and oneness with the universe. Antinoff’s quest for transcendence is usually focused through meditation.

“The most exquisite experiences of my life have been in meditation. While hiking up a mountain in Switzerland several years ago, the pain in my sinus area caused by exertion n high altitude gave way to an intense surge of pleasurable energy; since that day I often am able to approach the state achieved during sitting meditation while I’m walking…

“Nothing else I know so transforms the pain of loneliness into the glory of solitude”

Reading Spiritual Atheism, I never got a clear sense of why this kind of ‘pleasurable energy’ was enlightening and worth seeking while human entanglements and romantic love were labelled as a cowardly retreat from the stark truths of the world.

If other people aren’t intrinsically valuable, if they’re a mere distraction from the contemplation of the infinite, what marks Antinoff as worthwhile or worthy of transcendence? I do not understand how people can think of themselves as valuable without seeing others as valuable and trying to serve them.

Antinoff goes on to write:

“The saving power of God or of a deified Buddha, even if it existed, would be an unacceptable violation and forfeiture of human freedom.”

Human freedom is only valuable insofar as it is able to be directed to some good or virtue.  Freedom for the sake of freedom is mere licence.  When Antinoff praises atheistic freedom, I have no idea what end he thinks that freedom should be directed to.  Talking about ethics and how we should treat others is a way of talking about virtue and what we should sacrifice freedom and choice for.  When authors sidestep this question, I can’t understand their value system.

One further piece of evidence that, aside from our atheism, Antinoff and I agree on nothing:  He dismisses traditional ideas of heaven and an afterlife as disconnected from the concerns of modern life, saying:

“A heaven of virtue alone, without beauty, without splendor, would likely be hell”

Reading this, I grabbed the nearest person I could find, read them the relevant passage, and then exclaimed, “Why would you assume that virtue and beauty/splendor are a dichotomy!?!”

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05377685250633624137 Tristyn Bloom

    +10 points for the last two lines!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10845051786114528609 Julie Robison

    Julie points for the last two lines too! Great point, Leah.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05333871014217027441 red_horizon0127

    You are awesome. You grasp life on a much deeper and more meaningful level than I do. It just goes to show you that – if you don't mind my saying so; I'm sure at least a few of the atheists reading your blog will find this comment painfully annoying – an atheist can, in fact, be closer to Christ than a believer. God bless you.


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