Greta Christina put up a really thought-provoking post today at FreeThought Blogs (“Will Atheism Become Easier?“). Greta’s not talking about the boring question (will atheists be less stigmatized in the future — pretty clearly yes), she’s wondering whether it will be more comfortable, personally and socially, to subscribe to a godless philosophy. Here’s the conversation that got her thinking (I’m jumping around a little bit in my blockquoting, so do try and read the whole thing in context):
Tim was saying that he agreed with the original existentialists about how, from any external objective perspective, there’s no meaning to our lives, and meaning is something we create entirely for ourselves. And then he said something like, “The difference is that I don’t see why that’s a problem. Sure, I create my own meaning. So what? That’s fine with me. Sartre and Camus and that whole crowd thought this was a barely-tolerable psychological state that had to be struggled with on a daily basis… but I don’t see what the big deal is.”
I knew immediately what he meant. And I said something like, “I wonder if the difference is that they made up existentialism, it was totally new to them… but we grew up with it. The idea was already in the air. Even if you didn’t grow up in an intellectual household, the basic idea had already filtered down into the culture. So when we were figuring out the world and our place in it, existentialism just seemed normal.”
[The current generation of atheists] had to find a radically new way of looking at the world and our place in it, with radically new answers to the big questions of life and death. Without belief in God or a soul or an afterlife, we had to seriously re-think questions about morality and mortality, meaning and connection.
…If atheists continue to get our ideas into the world — not just our ideas about why religion is mistaken and atheism is right, but our ideas about how we live without a belief in God or a soul or an afterlife? …I’m wondering if this struggle will be easier for the people who come into atheism after us. Or even if it will be a struggle at all. I’m wondering if they’ll look at atheism the way my friend Tim and I look at existentialism. “Sure, there’s no God, and my consciousness is a biological product of my brain, and my sense of a cohesive identity and selfhood is a somewhat illusory mental construction, and when I die I’ll just be gone forever. So what? That’s fine with me. I don’t see what the big deal is.”
Greta’s hope for the future kind of gives me the heebie-jeebies. I just don’t think the atheism movement broadly and most of the people within it have actually landed on a philosophy. And until then, it makes sense that our hearts are restless. Feeling uncomfortable with our belief system is a good goad to refine it and figure out if we can metaphysically backslide into a better-grounded philosophy.
What makes me particularly uncomfortable is the comment by Greta’s friend that he can’t imagine what the big deal was that made people shrink away from existentialism. There are vanishingly few one-sided arguments. Every time you think you’ve found one, you should squelch your intuition, because you’re almost certainly wrong.
I don’t trust people who can’t imagine any evidence for the other side or who can’t scrape even a low pass on an ideological turing test. You end up comfortable in your beliefs when you’ve got enough evidence in favor of your side to give you some epistemological inertia and you’ve seen some of the objections and found them not powerless, but not powerful enough to move you.
I really distrust the tendency of the atheist movement to write off philosophy and metaphysics. (At the American Atheists convention, Lawrence Krauss said philosophy hadn’t accomplished anything in the past several hundred years and drew a fair amount of applause). Atheists need to explain why these critiques are irrelevant or talk a bit more about how our epistemology works when it comes to moral questions.
My virtue ethics/neo-platonism is painfully uncomfortable and it’s incumbent on me to find a way to fix my beliefs. You can go on for a while with a patchy approximation of a philosophy that’s just less wrong than anything else on offer, but it should always feel slightly wrong — a burden you’d be glad to set aside.