Should Atheism Be A ‘Comfortable’ Belief?

Fetch… THE COMFY CHAIR

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.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. 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."

  • Brian S

    I see why your virtue ethics would feel uncomfortable in this framework. And yes, it definitely is…uncomfortable at times…knowing that we’ll be dead and eventually the heat death of the universe will probably render everything we have ever done immaterial. On the other hand, it matters for now. If the universe is a 4-dimensional collage of space-time, I’m happy to quilt my square.

    That said, I also have views that I don’t think are incompatible with Atheism at all. Simply put:

    Why don’t I believe in God? I don’t see any compelling evidence to do so. I’m the kind of person who generally seeks evidence, so there you have it. I think faith is more or less predicated on the notion that you are believing something you can’t prove or even necessarily come close to proving. If you could offer compelling evidence one way or the other, everyone would believe the same thing. So…you either say God exists, or you don’t. Most God-loving Christians I know tell me about how they can Feel his Love and they simply Believe. Well, I don’t, and it’s not really something I’m even capable of changing my mind about. You either Do, or you Don’t. It’s like asking if I believe the proverbial Schrodinger’s Cat is alive or dead.

    As for why do good, if I don’t believe in God or afterlife or etc. etc.? Social conditioning and judgment, mostly. Probably some genetics involved. Doing good feels good, I guess?

    • Cous

      If you could offer compelling evidence one way or the other, everyone would believe the same thing.

      Brian, is that really how you think? If the simple existence of disagreement signals to you that there is no compelling evidence for one side or the other, I’m surprised you have any beliefs at all. And that blade cuts both ways – if there’s compelling evidence for atheism, then all intelligent, well-meaning people should be atheists. But that is clearly not the case; look no further than this blog.

      Regarding faith as something diametrically opposed to reason, that rings a bell…what was it…oh yeah! An official letter written by the leader of the largest Christian community in the world concerning “Faith and Reason” (“Fides et Ratio” for you closet classicists) about how they’re not just compatible but should be inseparable. Now if all of your Christian friends have been telling you that faith is based on emotion or subjective feelings of God’s love, it’s understandable that you think all believers define faith that way, but there are significantly different definitions out there. Do some investigating before making a blanket statement like that. Maybe I’m interpreting your comment incorrectly, and if so I apologize, but it sounds a bit like you’re sitting back and are surprised that no convincing evidence for God has shown up, all neatly tied with a ribbon, and plopped itself in your lap.

      • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

        Now if all of your Christian friends have been telling you that faith is based on emotion or subjective feelings of God’s love, it’s understandable that you think all believers define faith that way, but there are significantly different definitions out there. Do some investigating before making a blanket statement like that.

        Not to be contrarian here, but as someone who has been doing some investigation, this is exactly what Christians say. I agree with you that Faith and Reason are not diametrically opposed, and indeed can be held in parallel by the same person. But what are you claiming faith is based on, if not emotion or subjective feelings of God’s love? If it were based on repeatable observation, it would be science.

        I suspect that your reply would be something along the lines of there being logical arguments for the supernatural. That’s all fine and good (and to some extent, I agree), but it is not the basis of the faith that Christians maintain. Nobody looks at science and at the Old Testament and decides to trust the several thousand year old book over direct observation without some serious predispositions towards believing it

        • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com The Ubiquitous

          Nobody looks at science and at the Old Testament and decides to trust the several thousand year old book over direct observation without some serious predispositions towards believing it

          Science and the Old Testament? As if they’re opposed? Indeed, 5th-century Augustine wrote about how if our reason conflicts with our understanding of Scripture, our understanding of Scripture is wrong.

          But what are you claiming faith is based on, if not emotion or subjective feelings of God’s love? If it were based on repeatable observation, it would be science.

          I notice these are all sorts of experiences. Who says it’s based on experience?

          logical arguments for the supernatural [are] not the basis of the faith that Christians maintain.

          There are many possible responses, but let’s go with this one: Is the Pope Christian? Are Catholics?

          If Catholics follow the teaching of the Pope — as Catholics, they’d better — it follows that if the Pope teaches that logical arguments for the supernatural are the basis of the Christian faith, then Christians as Christians had better do it.

          • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

            Science and the Old Testament? As if they’re opposed?

            Yep. 100% they are. People do not live for 900 years. There’s not enough water on the earth to cover all the mountaintops. The earth is older than 10,000 years. The order of Creation listed in Genesis is not correct (plants did not come before the sun). Science and Faith are not diametrically opposed, but science directly contradicts clear factual claims made by the Bible. You have to reject one of them if you are to accept the other. If you’d like to reject taking the Old Testament as historically accurate, that’s fine with me, but its pretty clear that in every way science possibly could falsify the Old Testament, it has.

            Indeed, 5th-century Augustine wrote about how if our reason conflicts with our understanding of Scripture, our understanding of Scripture is wrong.

            This is a noble sentiment, but in practice it boils down to making your Holy Book unfalsifiable. If you’re allowed to reinterpret every time you get something wrong, then you’re not actually making any claims about reality.

            I notice these are all sorts of experiences. Who says it’s based on experience?

            hmm… not quite sure what you’re getting at here. What’s the alternative to basing it on some sort of experience? Do you think the conclusion of the Christian God can be reached a priori?

            if the Pope teaches that logical arguments for the supernatural are the basis of the Christian faith, then Christians as Christians had better do it.

            well I’ll admit to never having been a Catholic, so I can’t speak to Catholic-specific beliefs. However, the thing that differentiates logic from every other form of knowing is that it doesn’t require faith (beyond, I suppose, a “faith” in our own ability to practice logic?). Moreover, I have read a great many arguments for the logic of Christianity and have yet to find any of them in the least bit compelling without the introduction of something quite different- something experiential, some appeal to something quite beyond the realm of pure rationality. At the very least, I think we can agree that claiming that your belief is based on logic is not the same as your belief actually being based on logic, since almost every belief system would make this claim. In practice, we have to show that our belief is based on logic. And I’ve yet to meet a Christian who can keep a (metaphorical) straight face when confronted with the problems of belief being largely geographically dependent, or the factual claims made by the Old Testament, or the internal contradictions in the Bible, or how to rectify the claim of an eternal soul in the face of the fact that brain damage can fundamentally change someone’s personality and moral behavior.

            I would be interested where the Pope teaches that logical arguments are the basis of the Christian faith, though. I skimmed the article posted by Cous, and it seemed to me to be advocating for reason as a good and worthwhile thing, but not the same thing as faith. The first line is “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth”. This reads to me like a clear distinction between Faith and Reason (but again, I’m not an expert on Catholicism, so I’m open to being corrected)

          • http://last-conformer.net/ Gilbert

            Jake, all your examples for science and the Old Testament being opposed are from Genesis.

            I don’t think that holds much water because Genesis very obviously wasn’t meant as history or science book. I know Protestant and atheist fundamentalism are very loud about interpreting it that way but that’s actually a very modern development. So on that question I’d like you to take an, um, outsider test on interpretation.

            See, a few millennia are not enough for a large evolutionary development of intelligence. The human authors of Genesis knew a lot less than we do, but they were not stupid. They might not have known about the sun being a lot older than plants but they clearly could see the internal contradictions you get when you read Genesis as a strictly historical text. It all starts out with two completely different creation stories basically stapled together. Then there are people marrying when no single woman are in existence and founding cities at single-digit world populations. And peoples, extant at the time of the writing, supposedly descending from lines extinguished in the flood. Etc., etc., you can surely find a few dozen further examples in the standard atheist pamphlets. And all that in a text written by people who were not only (obviously) literate but actually had complex politics. Seriously, only a fundamentalist could deny the contradictions but only a chronological snob could think the authors were too stupid to notice them. Add to that stylistic elements like cities appearing in family trees together with people, like people being the ancestors of professions rather than tribes, like the same metaplots repeating over and over and, well, like people living 900 years, and it’s just blindly obvious that this is a collection of allegories. If you had never heard of it and saw it for the first time you might have difficulties finding out what exactly it is allegorical of (and in fact there are passages I believe we simply don’t understand anymore), but you surely wouldn’t entertain the idea of it being a literal report. And so (almost) nobody read it that way before the post-Darwinian co-evolution of Protestant and atheist fundamentalists.

            On reinterpreting the bible making it unfalsifiable, I think it depends on what needs to be interpreted away. To go with the standard example, if the resurrection didn’t happen we Christians should better close shop and any interpretation flexible enough to remove that contingency makes it empty. But I think neither Augustine nor The Ubiquitous would disagree with that. Nor would the pope, his Introduction to Christianity is pretty damning on that kind of Interpretationschristentum (“interpretation Christianity”, but the sting doesn’t quite translate). But on the other hand other branches of knowledge too get to tweak the details rather than being rejected on the first unexpected result. The cartoon model of natural science describes it as not doing that, but that’s a lie told to children. In truth even there the first reaction to unexpected measurements is to suspect overlooked influences and not to reject all laws involved in predicting them. And what Augustine talks about is much closer to the legitimate tweaking side.

            On reason as a base of faith in Catholicism I’ll refer you to this canned response from the catechism.

          • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

            Jake, all your examples for science and the Old Testament being opposed are from Genesis.

            That’s true, but that’s because Genesis is the only book that makes any scientific claims we can test (perhaps I should stop using the word “claims”, because it appears I’m now talking to Catholics who do not take it literally :)). I guess my question is, at what point can we start believing the Bible? I don’t think it’s Exodus, because there are some pretty obvious historical inaccuracies in there (600,000 fighting Israelites, by my understanding a historically unsupported flee from Egyptian captivity, plus all that “God hardening Pharaoh’s heart” business we had that discussion on a few weeks ago). Certainly not Leviticus, or we would have quite the Draconian society. Not Numbers, because it suffers from exactly the same census problems that Exodus does. It seems like we have to admit that the whole of the Old Testament is at best unreliable, and and worst no better than the origin myth from any other religion. Where exactly do Catholics draw the line?

            I don’t think that holds much water because Genesis very obviously wasn’t meant as history or science book

            I don’t know that I would call this obvious. Certainly the (non-Catholic) Christians I’ve talked to would strongly disagree. One of my problems with the Bible (particularly the Old Testament) is that we’re so far removed from the language and culture that it’s basically impossible to tell what anything was “meant” as. And if we’re flying blind in that department, I think we’re back to the problem of the Bible not really making any claims at all.

            only a fundamentalist could deny the contradictions but only a chronological snob could think the authors were too stupid to notice them

            I agree that it’s a mistake to think of people from the past as stupid. However, I see two fundamental differences: first, we have a great deal more scientific knowledge with which to contend with the creation story in the Bible than they did. Second, we don’t get stoned to death for denying the existence of God, so we (modern man) have a great deal more free and open discussion about these contradictions. And I think the presence of the Fundamentalist movement shows pretty conclusively that people (even smart people) are absolutely capable of living in the denial necessary to claim the Old Testament as historical fact (particularly if they’re totally cut off from anyone else who shares their heretical views)

            But on the other hand other branches of knowledge too get to tweak the details rather than being rejected on the first unexpected result. The cartoon model of natural science describes it as not doing that, but that’s a lie told to children.

            This is a good point, and I’m glad you brought it up. I do think there’s a fundamental difference here though- other branches of knowledge are not constantly working with the same pool of evidence. Christianity doesn’t generate new scripture in the way that science generates new data. When we reinterpret the Bible, we’re not saying “look, I got some new data, and I notice it doesn’t quite match with my old beliefs”. Instead, we’re saying “uh oh… somebody found out this part isn’t true. We’d better figure out a way to make it so we no longer claim that it is true.” Obviously this is a bit of a characterization (I don’t think Christians are scheming to trick us all), but I think to treat Christianity as another branch of science (which can have parts of it falsified by other branches of science) is a mistake. Christianity can’t falsify other branches of science, and Christianity doesn’t make predictions. Moreover, we could do the same with some absurdist religion (Imagine a religion written entirely in a secret code. We could “reinterpret” it to fit our exact view of the world at any given moment. Is this religion making any substantive claims, or generating any knowledge or predictions? Not really). Finally, when enough evidence piles up, we will eventually flat out reject a scientific theory in favor of a better one. Christians obviously don’t have this option, and are left with tweaking their theory to the point of unrecognizability (obviously if their theory happens to be right, they won’t have to do much tweaking, but it seems to me that they passed that threshold at some point around the time of Copernicus)

            While reason plays a significant role – if the world were inaccessible to human reason, man could not be expected to believe – the Church has always been very clear that the strength to make that “leap of faith” cannot come from reason alone, for “Faith is a gift of God, a supernatural virtue infused by him.”

            It sounds like we’re now arguing terms here, because this exactly fits my definition of “subjective experience”. You may claim that it’s God infusing a virtue, but so do hundreds of other religions. And that makes it a subjective experience.

            To be clear, I do agree that reason can reinforce faith (I trust my family because they have shown themselves to be trustworthy, not by some arbitrary choice), but I think to say that faith is based on reason is simply wrong. Faith is in fact an overcoming of reasonable doubt by making a “leap”. If there was no reasonable doubt, there would be nothing to leap over.

            Thanks for the links, both of you. You can probably tell I’m a bit out of my water in Catholicism, and should probably at the very least read through the Catechism. I am curious on one point- if you really consider your faith to be based on reason, then do you also consider your belief to be Bayesian? Are you only 80% a Christian, and 20% something else?

        • Cous

          Hi Jake,

          Not to be contrarian here, but as someone who has been doing some investigation, this is exactly what Christians say.

          I can only repeat: the largest Christian community in the world (the Catholic Church) does NOT say this. If Catholics you’ve been talking to have been saying this, well, they need a serious refresher course. I refer anyone interested to Chapter 3 of the Catechism, “Man’s Response to God” That’s the best resource I can give you.
          To summarize that chapter briefly, faith complements but is not co-extensive with reason; faith is a freely made act of belief in a witness (Jesus Christ; since we are not eyewitnesses to his life, the writings and testimonies of others throughout the centuries are how we get to know him; “martyr” means “witness”) about facts which we do not have direct, empirical access to; reason is what gets us to the point where we are justified in thinking that the witness is credible. While reason plays a significant role – if the world were inaccessible to human reason, man could not be expected to believe – the Church has always been very clear that the strength to make that “leap of faith” cannot come from reason alone, for “Faith is a gift of God, a supernatural virtue infused by him.” And once there are new dimensions opened to our minds by faith, reason continues to propel us forward in evaluating new observations and pursuing further knowledge; we have “fides quaerens intellectum,” “faith seeking understanding.” We humans are obliged to do the best we can to investigate the truth, collect reasons and arguments for different points of view and evaluate them to the best of our ability, but faith is an act of trust, an act of the will, that God must give us the strength to make. I’m currently reading “Belief and Faith” by Josef Pieper, which is a somewhat dry but excellent book on this topic.
          And speaking of that “leap,” one of my favorite books is “A Severe Mercy” by Sheldon Vanauken. He and his wife were atheists considering Christianity, and he describes how he had done a critical mass of research, reading, and arguing with friends such that he found himself at a point where he could no longer remain neutral; he either had to reject God or accept him:

          Between the probable and proved there yawns
          A gap. Afraid to jump, we stand absurd,
          Then see behind us sink the ground and, worse,
          Our very standpoint crumbling. Desperate dawns
          Our only hope: to leap into the Word
          That opens up the shuttered universe.

          • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

            Comment placement fail :/

            See ^ comment for my response

          • Cous

            Hi Jake,
            Sorry, you’re talking to a philosophy major with only passing familiarity with Bayes’ theorem (terrible, I know; I”m hoping to change that)…maybe if we were talking in person we could work it out, but prima facie that question sounds absurd to me, it’s like asking a woman if she’s 80% married to her husband. What you could ask the woman is how certain she is that her husband will in fact keep exhibiting all the traits and characteristics that she’s come to expect from him, or whether, given 10 years of marriage, she would marry him for the same reasons she had 10 years ago, or how affectionate she feels toward him on a given day. For religions like Judaism and Catholicism, where the supreme commandment is “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, your whole mind, your whole soul, and your whole strength,” to believe does involve assenting to a series of proposition, but it also requires making a serious commitment to a particular being, hence my marriage analogy.

            And speaking of marriage, would you call deciding to get married “a subjective experience”? Being attracted to someone or suddenly waking up and just “knowing” that you and your girlfriend are meant to be together may be subjective experiences, and that’s what those conversion experiences sound like to me. But that’s separable from making the decision to commit yourself to your girlfriend by standing in front of witnesses and swearing your fidelity till death do you part. That decision requires having lots of good reasons as well – you’ve known her long enough to feel confident that she’s reliable, honest, that she cares for you too, etc. If those people decided to convert solely because of that experience, I would say they’re being foolish and irresponsible, same as I would say to a teenage girl who wanted to elope with her boyfriend solely because no one else has ever made her feel this way before. That said, while it’s very tempting to want 100% certainty (I struggle with this myself) before making a move like deciding to get married or asking for admission to a particular faith, if people only got married when they had perfect foreknowledge about how much their spouse would change in the next 50 years and about the serious hardships and joys they’d go through together…well, no one would ever get married. And the “God-infused” part of faith means that, if you peeked behind the scenes, the strength you received to take a deep breath and make that act of trust was not something you can take any credit for or can replicate at will, although you can take credit for deciding to use that strength to make that jump.

            Faith does not consist of ignoring the fact that you’re standing on a cliff with no bridge (read: watertight empirical evidence) between you and the other side; it’s seeing someone you trust (read: God, or in the marriage analogy, your spouse-to-be) on the other side telling you, “Jump, I promise you’ll make it!” and deciding to jump because you have good reason (read: all the reasons the Church offers for faith, any some subjective experiences too) to trust them, even if you don’t know how exactly you’ll make it. And then, before you know it, you’re on the other side, not longer alone, but with that person. It’s both the most terrifying and the most liberating decision you can make.

          • Cous

            Edit: that should be “and some subjective experiences,” not “any some subjective experiences”

          • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

            maybe if we were talking in person we could work it out, but prima facie that question sounds absurd to me, it’s like asking a woman if she’s 80% married to her husband

            I think the difference is you don’t have legitimate reason to question the existence of your husband. We can of course construct a scenario where you do- if you’ve recently been committed to a mental institution (or you’re that dude from the “Awake” tv show), then maybe you are only 80% sure you’re married? The point is, your belief is contingient on your experiences, and isn’t “bulletproof”, so to speak. Every experience (or at least the relevant ones) updates your Bayesian priors, and makes you either more or less convinced of a truth. It just so happens that the experiences telling a woman she’s married (she remembers having a wedding cerimony, she can see/hear/touch/taste/smell her husband, her husband introduces her as his wife, etc.) happen to be extremely convincing. But even in this case, you’re actually only 99.99…% sure that you’re married. Maybe your husband has a previous marraige that renders your current one null and void? Maybe there was an error at the marrige license processing center and your paperwork never went through?

            The fact is (or rather, my opinion is- perhaps this is where we differ?), there are some pretty solid arguments both ways in the Theism/Atheism debate. I’m not saying we necessarily need to hedge our bets , I’m just saying that if you don’t have any legitimate doubts about your view of God, you’re probably not thinking very hard (and that goes for both Atheists and Theists).

            You can assent to a set of facts without 100% buying into it- most of human belief works that way. Someone tells me my favorite sports team won, and I believe them- but not very strongly. If I see a conflicting report on the news, I’ll probably change my view. My issue with a lot of Christian individuals (I’m not sure if it’s an issue inherent to the religion or not, which is why I’m curious about your response) is that they refuse to consider evidence against their beliefs. It’s not just that they consider the evidence, update their bayseian priors, and are still Christians- it’s that they never get to the step of updating their priors at all. They are 100% Christian, and always will be 100% Christian, because they reject the evidence itself. They filter the evidence through their belief, instead of the other way around (not that this is unique to Christianity, but it does seem pretty prevalent)

            And speaking of marriage, would you call deciding to get married “a subjective experience”? Being attracted to someone or suddenly waking up and just “knowing” that you and your girlfriend are meant to be together may be subjective experiences, and that’s what those conversion experiences sound like to me. But that’s separable from making the decision to commit yourself to your girlfriend by standing in front of witnesses and swearing your fidelity till death do you part.

            I would absolutely say your decision to get married is based on a subjective experience. Put it this way- if I had had a different subjective experience (the girl annoys me, I don’t find her attractive, she has a history of cheating), I would be making a different decision. In my mind, the decision and the experience are not actually all that seperable (at least in todays world of not-very-many-arranged-marriages). Even if I have a good experience but decide not to marry her, that really just means I didn’t have a good enough experience to convince me to take that next step. Sure, your experience hasn’t compelled you to marry her in some irresistable way, but your experiences never do that. In my mind, a claim that your decision in this case is not based on subjective experience is tantamount to a claim that no decision you ever make is based on subjective experience.

            That decision requires having lots of good reasons as well – you’ve known her long enough to feel confident that she’s reliable, honest, that she cares for you too, etc. If those people decided to convert solely because of that experience, I would say they’re being foolish and irresponsible, same as I would say to a teenage girl who wanted to elope with her boyfriend solely because no one else has ever made her feel this way before

            I get what you’re saying, that you need both reason and experience to make a decision, and I agree with it. I just don’t think this means that your decision is not based on subjective experience. It may be based on both, but it’s definitely not based solely on reason. I suspect we’re arguing semantics here, because I don’t think that’s what you’re arguing for either.

            And the “God-infused” part of faith means that, if you peeked behind the scenes, the strength you received to take a deep breath and make that act of trust was not something you can take any credit for or can replicate at will, although you can take credit for deciding to use that strength to make that jump.

            This troubles me greatly. It bothers me any time any religion claims that the only way to believe is if God somehow picks you. It definitely sets up a “we vs. them” mentality, and it’s a great excuse for a) not being able to convert someone b) someone else not finding your arguments convincing and c) not needing to justify your arguments/beliefs because you somehow have divinely imparted knowledge that the rest of us just don’t have. Not to mention that it’s totally unverifiable, even subjectively. It’s just really easy to make the jump from “I have divinely imparted knowledge” to “I don’t need to think critically about my beliefs” (not that I’m accusing you of doing this at the moment- just a comment on one of the problems I see with Christianity)

            Faith does not consist of ignoring the fact that you’re standing on a cliff with no bridge (read: watertight empirical evidence) between you and the other side; it’s seeing someone you trust (read: God, or in the marriage analogy, your spouse-to-be) on the other side telling you, “Jump, I promise you’ll make it!” and deciding to jump because you have good reason (read: all the reasons the Church offers for faith, any some subjective experiences too) to trust them, even if you don’t know how exactly you’ll make it.

            See, but that only makes sense if you can actually hear your spouse-to-be (God) talking to you. Otherwise, you’re just jumping off a cliff. And for those of us who have jumped and not made it in the past (and there are quite a few Theist-to-Atheist converts), this argument rings pretty hollow.

          • Cous

            Hi Jake,
            You’re a great discussion partner – I appreciate your well though-out replies. I’m somewhat short on time, but I’ll try to address your main concerns.

            You’re right that my cliff analogy needs some adjusting, but I will say that it does apply to some people, i.e. those who lived in the time of Jesus and saw him face to face. They could see, hear and touch him; they only had one “step,” to decide whether they trusted him enough to believe all the things he was saying. Or for the early Christians, there were only a few degrees of hearsay between them and Christ. For us, who seem millions of levels of hear-say removed, there are two “steps”: first we have to examine the evidence about whether this person named Jesus existed, what he said, and what happened to him, and then we can get around to deciding if we’re going to believe what he supposedly said.

            But the beauty of the Church is that, even 2,000 years after the fact, we’re not just given a stack of eye-witness accounts and told, “Figure it out for yourself.” If you jump, you’re not jumping alone into the void clutching nothing but a bunch of documents. You’re jumping with a living community: an institution that claims to be the same Church that Christ founded – led by a man whom the Church claims is appointed in unbroken succession from Peter – a set of statements that she proclaims to be the truth (short version here, long version here) and 2,000 years’ worth of scholarship in interpreting those eye-witness accounts, defending the faith, and preserving the unity of the Church. For me, once you’ve gotten past step one, which I see as pointing to Christianity, it’s Catholicism or bust; I see a total lack of this unity in the Protestant Church, both in doctrine and in leadership. The Orthodox Churches are much closer, with just a couple things missing.

            I completely agree with you that “there are some pretty solid arguments both ways in the Theism/Atheism debate.” I struggle with my faith often. I encounter convincing arguments against the faith, or enter a time of suffering or doubt. This doesn’t mean I immediately drop out of the Church and re-think everything. Instead, I tap into the immense resources and wisdom of the Church – I read arguments in the Catechism and elsewhere, I talk to a priest or a spiritual director, I do a LOT of googling, have conversations with friends, and get into debates like this one. I couldn’t help smiling when I read your question about whether all Christians “reject the evidence itself [and] filter the evidence through their belief, instead of the other way around;” from 8th grade through college, the Catholics I’ve been surrounded by have always had an attitude of “Bring it on!” The Church isn’t bound to a literal reading of the Bible; if you’ve got rock-solid proof that the Gospel of Mark was actually written by two people, we can roll with that. It might take us a few decades or even centuries to “roll with it” – you don’t last for 2,000 years by making snap judgments – but there’s no reason to fear the evidence when you profess belief in a God who is Truth itself and created a universe obeying rational laws, and when you enshrine reason as one of the key contributors to your faith.

            The Church makes no qualms about the fact that faith is hard; when you start reading lives of the saints, you see that men and women have fought this battle down through the ages. And the Gospels themselves show the shaky faith of the first disciples on numerous occasions, the “Doubting Thomas” incident being the best known case. As one saint writes,

            How humbly and simply the Gospels relate incidents that show up the weak and wavering faith of the apostles! So that you and I won’t lose hope of some day achieving the strong unshakable faith those first few afterwards [see the Acts of the Apostles] had.

            Finally, about the “chosen” aspect of faith and its “subjective experience.” To a certain extent, I am going to bite the bullet and say: ultimately, yes, you have faith because God gave you faith. But it’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card; this does not preclude our obligation to do all the investigating and questioning that we can; we have to do all the work to get ourselves to the edge of the cliff, and once we’re there, we shout, “OK, I’m here! If you want me to jump, you’ve gotta help me out!” If you’ve jumped and not made it in the past, I can only say that it must have taken a lot of guts and integrity to face up to that. I think you’re doing the right thing in continuing to search for the truth, to question, to engage in debates like the one we’re having. I’d ask that you stay open and not give up hope, and while it sounds silly to a non-believer, I’ll be praying for you.

            And yes, faith relies on “subjective experience” insofar as it goes above and beyond pure reason. I guess I’m not sure how we’re defining subjective experience – if it just means “anything that’s not a set of arguments,” then whatever terrifying vision produced the Book of Revelation and the warm-and-fuzzies that you get after singing Kumbaya both count as subjective experiences. Witnessing the deep and effusive joy that I’ve seen in the lives of my friends striving every day to live out their Catholic faith would count as a subjective experience, and it’s certainly one that’s influenced my faith. But while it can be informed by subjective experience, faith is ultimately an act of the will, a decision, not a reflexive response or a bunch of external factors that you get passively swept along by.

          • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

            Hi Cous,

            Thanks for the good discussion. I just want to respond to one last part, because apparently I can’t resist :)

            For me, once you’ve gotten past step one, which I see as pointing to Christianity, it’s Catholicism or bust; I see a total lack of this unity in the Protestant Church, both in doctrine and in leadership. The Orthodox Churches are much closer, with just a couple things missing.

            I see the argument all over the place that “you can’t judge Christianity by individual Christians”. I think this is the first time I’ve ever heard a Christian use the reverse argument, that Catholicism is true specifically because of it’s unity. I think I tend to agree with you, that while judging Christianity by the actions of a few individuals leaves you open to a lot of sampling bias, judging Christianity by the actions of the corporate body seems like a reasonable thing to do. But I am surprised to hear a Catholic make this argument, since one of the principle objections against the Catholic church is that it has historically dealt with a great deal of corruption (or at least engaged in actions that don’t fit with our modern conception of Christianity), from the Crusades to the excommunication of Monarchs to Indulgences, and even up to the modern day sexual abuse scandals. I’ll once again admit to not being an expert on the history of the Catholic Church, and perhaps these instances are much more the exception than the rule, but I do think that if we’re to take this approach of judging the Church by its actions, we need to extend it to the historical Church as well (particularly when, as you said, there’s a great deal of tradition that derives its authority from these historical periods)

          • Cous

            One of the principle objections against the Catholic church is that it has historically dealt with a great deal of corruption (or at least engaged in actions that don’t fit with our modern conception of Christianity), from the Crusades to the excommunication of Monarchs to Indulgences, and even up to the modern day sexual abuse scandals.

            Definitely. The Church, insofar as she is made up of flawed humans who often do stupid, selfish, and even downright evil things, has done many things wrong, and has much to answer for. On top of external persecution, which has been present from they day Jesus first opened his mouth to teach, she’s had to deal with internal plagues: schisms and heresies, internal corruption and disobedience, popes who committed mortal sin…the list goes on. Lately it’s been the sexual abuse scandal and rebellion against her teachings about sex and marriage. But even as her own children drag her into the mud and tear at her clothes, she picks herself up time and again to keep affirming the same body of truths, to call her members yet again to repentance, to try make amends, and to keep fighting her way back to her Spouse who is calling her. It’s a lot like the individual struggle for sanctity writ large. But even as the actions of her members often show discord and sin, her unity lies in the central truths she professes, in the Eucharist she celebrates, and her proclamation of God as Creator and Redeemer. (Sorry if that sounded like one big mixed metaphor – Catholics have this weird way of referring to the Church as a mother, a body, a bride, a community, and a dozen other things all in the same breath).

  • Ash

    I don’t think you are addressing the same question as Greta. You seem to be asking, “Should it be comfortable to be an atheist?”. The first sentence of Greta’s post was “In the next generation or so, will it be easier to become an atheist?”. Big difference.

  • Jay

    Leah, this is probably an issue where you and I diverge sharply in our atheism, and I think it’s broadly related to the idea that you have a lot more respect for various religious arguments and positions than I do. But really, it strikes me as kind of crazy to suggest that the burden is on non-theists to explain why life, purpose, morality, etc. can still have meaning without God, rather than on theists to explain why those things can only be meaningful with God. The notion that atheism is somehow an intrinsically “uncomfortable” belief seems like the sort of intuition that exists only because non-theism had to develop against the background of and in clear opposition to widely accepted religious norms.

    In the alternate Everett branch where humanity dispensed with supernatural superstitions in the hunter-gatherer stage, and where pretty much all civilizations had internalized Enlightenment/Baconian notions of truth and existence since the dawn of recorded history, I don’t think this conflict would even be intelligible. If you could talk to the modern-day people in this alternate Earth, where “atheism” was no more a concept than “a-teapotism” and where the idea of the “supernatural” would be seen as a confusion in terms, I’m not sure you could even get them to understand what you mean when you say that not believing in God is “uncomfortable.” I’d bet that there wouldn’t be enough common ground to even explain why this was an issue, and I confess I have some trouble understanding it myself.

    I mean, suppose it were true that there was some super-powerful dude out there, not composed of regular old quarks but “fundamentally mental,” who created the universe, created us, wants us to act in a certain way, and will punish or reward us based on how well we follow his commands. Why in the world would we think that makes it easier to find meaning and purpose in our lives? What distinguishes that situation from super-powerful aliens that decide to take an active interest in humanity?

    If God is real, then he’s just another part of existence, another entity out there to be interacted with, influencing how we live our lives (albeit in a pretty powerful way). The decision-making tasks people face are still basically the same — look at the world, look at what’s out there, put things together the best you can, and make decisions accordingly. Sure, an all-powerful tyrant commanding that you do things a certain way on pain of hellfire is going to be one hell of a factor to take into account. But it’s not fundamentally different from a lawful, natural universe, which is perfectly capable of coming up with similar such factors. Or is the idea that atheism is “uncomfortable,” but it would cease to be so once a rogue AI takes over the world, issues orders, and is capable of creating simulated versions of people to reward or torture indefinitely? If anything, doesn’t that sort of existence seem much more hostile to the prospect of finding meaning, purpose, morality, etc.?

    I’m not trying to say that the answers to these big questions are clear and obvious, or that you can draw a simple path from non-theistic naturalism to personal moral philosophy. I’m saying that postulating God’s existence or non-existence is not fundamentally relevant to this challenge in the first place. If God exists, that’s just another fact about the universe. Or to put it differently, to whatever extent atheism risks anarchistic nihilism, then theism risks tyrannical nihilism. And the tyranny hardly seems to help the matter.

    • Maiki

      I don’t think Leah is suggesting the dichotomy you are proposing between atheism and theism. Theism also should explain how God (or their spirituality) give meaning to life. OTOH, atheists aren’t exempt from this duty just by being atheists. Both groups should put their best foot forward in this regard, it isn’t either/or, that one side has to explain and the other is the “Default”. Similarly, just because moral questions/philosophical implications should make an atheist uncomfortable, doesn’t mean theists don’t feel the same way (or that they shouldn’t). Theists also grapple with this uncomfortableness, that what our first instinct of how to feel or what to do does not match what we ought to do.

      I think Leah is advocating not being philosophically lazy — that goes for everyone.

      (Ok, can’t speak for Leah, I apologize. But I didn’t get the impression that because there is some heavy lifting to be done on the atheist side that theists get a free pass)

      • Jay

        If that’s really the case, then that’s fine, and I apologize for misunderstanding Leah’s position. My inference from both Leah’s post and the quoted material was that we all take for granted how and why theists find meaning, purpose, and morality, but that non-theists at least struggle on those fronts. Even if theists don’t get a “free pass,” we tend to think there job here is nevertheless easier. And whether Leah herself thinks that atheism is in a special category, it’s certainly a common view. Indeed, it’s one of the most common arguments made against atheism — i.e. “you have to believe in God; otherwise you can’t be moral and your life won’t have meaning” (logical fallacy: appeal to consequences). And my main point was just that this view is extraordinarily silly.

        Yes, overall it’s good not to be philosophically lazy. It’s good to reflect on what your values are, why you think and act the way that you do, what kind of society you want to live in, etc. I’m skeptical of almost everything “produced” by modern academic philosophy, but I agree that atheists as a whole shouldn’t just write off this whole enterprise of “philosophy.” I just don’t think the existence or non-existence of a super-powerful dude out there who wants us to act a certain way has much to do with this.

        • leahlibresco

          Yup, Maiki really helped clarify. Plenty of religious derivations of meaning from God make no sense, and they should get called on that, too. But you always have higher expectations for your own team (particularly when the atheist community is pretty intellectually elite).

    • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

      “But really, it strikes me as kind of crazy to suggest that the burden is on non-theists to explain why life, purpose, morality, etc. can still have meaning without God, rather than on theists to explain why those things can only be meaningful with God.”

      Why the rather? Perhaps there’s a burden on non-theists to explain why life, purpose, morality, etc. can have meaning (in a system among whose features is an absence of a God or God or gods, etc.), while there’s also a burden on theists to explain why those things can have meaning (in a system among whose features is the presence of a God or Gods or gods, etc.). That is, the task for everyone is the same, but the context in which they do that changes what it means for them to have that task. I’m getting kind of tired of these discussions about who has the onus to explain themselves or where we should locate the burden of proof. There isn’t a finite quantity of onus, nor is it reasonable to demand an account from another that you do not have yourself (ie. you can’t just shift the burden of proof if you haven’t adequately dealt with the issue yourself, and if you don’t want to adequately deal with the issue, you can’t expect anyone else to).

      • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com Christian H

        Whup, Maiki dealt with this as I was typing my comment. Oh, well.

        • shiny1

          But did Maiki use the phrase “There isn’t a finite quantity of onus…”? No s/he did not. And that phrase put you in the lead, and very well might spell victory for you and your response.

  • Kerry Neighbour

    I find this a funny question. It already is comfortable to be an atheist in Australia – and I suspect many other countries. It is the default position. Religion pays such a little part in most peoples’ lives it is not even remarked upon. And being an atheist is just assumed for everyone. It is more remarkable to find a religious person, and most of those would seem to be the older generation – and usually of immigrant stock.

  • Joe

    This may too personal, but what makes you uncomfortable with your virtue-ethics/neo-platonism? Catholic morality makes me uncomfortable at times because I have so much trouble living up to it.

  • deiseach

    I’m going to do something which I usually hate, particularly when I see other people doing it, and tackle what Greta and Tim said about existentialism, and how they can’t see why it’s a big deal (I’m leaving atheism out of this since that’s a separate, if related, matter).

    I don’t think they’ve grappled with it in the same sense that “Sartre and Camus and that whole crowd” did. Tim seems comfortable with creating his own meaning, but I don’t get the impression (granted, I’m basing my impressions on Greta’s recounting of a brief, informal conversation) that he quite realises that any meaning he constructs is ultimately, objectively meaningless. In other words, he’s telling himself fairy tales just as much as any theist about Santa Claus or the Sky Fairy.

    I imagine Greta is, from her profile, fairly liberal (she has some stuff on there about sex positivity and sex workers, for example) and I also imagine that if you asked Greta and Tim, they would have some guidelines or principles about ‘you should treat people fairly’ and ‘don’t be judgemental’ and ‘the most important thing is, if you’re not huring anyone, then you can do what you feel you need to do’ and so forth. But have they quit internalised that these attitudes are no better or more correct (speaking from the ultimate, objective, universal viewpoint) than the homophobia or domestic violence or coercion they would protest against? Even saying “Well, these attitudes and beliefs conduce to the greatest happiness of the greatest number, unlike the repressive theocratic values of the Pope/Republicans/homophobes” is meaningless and arbitrary and does not matter a straw to the state of the universe.

    Existentialism means it does not matter one way or the other what you believe or do; all will end in entropy and your life is a small flicker of random existence due to impersonal forces which will crush it out as blindly as they brought it into being. There is no reason for me to, for example, refrain from kidnapping and torturing to death a random stranger, apart from the risk of being caught and imprisoned by society. Even if I say “I don’t like violence or killing”, that is a matter of personal taste as if I said “I prefer pears to oranges, myself”.

    We do things to construct a society in which we can more or less all rub along together, but it does not mean that our attempts to create meaning are anything more than a child’s sandcastle which will be washed away by the sea. The universe doesn’t care if we are happy, or that the greater good of the greater number will be served by our choices. I note that one of the comments on Greta’s piece was from someone who mentioned, as a contributing factor to her becoming atheist, that she was told by a Christian proselytising group, that Pinochet could go to heaven if he repented before he died, and she felt that this was unfair.

    Existential worldview means that fair or unfair have no meaning, so her attitude is meaningless or one of sentimentality (to think that fairness or justice should befall people according to their deserts is as sentimental as believing in the Easter Bunny – it may be a personal comfort, but it has no greater meaning outside of what value you yourself assign it). I think that, deep down, Tim and Greta haven’t challenged their assumptions as to what is ‘right’ or ‘fair’ or ‘good’ behaviour, so “constructing his own meaning” is not seen as problematic because Tim is still operating on base assumptions derived from social capital of virtues, and has not realised that “Sartre and Camus and that crowd” were grappling with the idea that every moment of existence is utterly futile and whether you save a drowning man or torture a cat to death by skinning it alive all boil down to the same thing, so that every day, you have to re-assert and re-construct meaning by an act of will that you know is all in vain.

    • Patrick

      The rejection of the validity of a metric is not the same as the assignation of a zero value on that metric.

    • Ray

      “Even if I say ‘I don’t like violence or killing’, that is a matter of personal taste as if I said ‘I prefer pears to oranges, myself.’ ”

      And what’s wrong with that? It’s also my personal preference not to starve myself to death and not to hack my own legs off with a rusty machete. Funny I never get any existential angst about whether or not I will waver in those convictions. In my experience there are a lot of people who prefer to be law-abiding and generous with nearly the same conviction with which I prefer to be well fed and intact. I like these people, and I would prefer to be one of them. What more do you need? Is it just that re-conceiving these preferences as directives from God lets you feel more self righteous about your own actions? Because, if not, I really don’t see the point.

      • Patrick

        The worst part is that if you re-conceive “love thy neighbor” as the sort of thing that needs to be a directive from a god to be worthwhile, you render it incoherent. If God has to tell you to love your neighbor or else you don’t see the point in it… you don’t love your neighbor. Statements of the form “value X in and of itself” cannot be contingent upon externalities or the “in and of itself” portion is violated.

      • deiseach

        Ray, the point is that is precisely that: a personal taste. So you may not want to hack your legs off, but there’s no reason I or he or she or they may not do it – either to ourselves or to others. Your convictions are fairy tales, just as if you based your life on being nice because Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are nice, and you like presents and chocolate.

        Choosing to live according to those principles is an act of the will and completely subjective, there being no objective, external, real standard by which to measure them. Indeed, if we follow Jerry Coyne’s lead, there is no more merit in those people you mention who prefer to be law-abiding and generous than there is blame in those who prefer to be law-breakers and violent. More than that, there is no such thing as “preference” because choice or anything like it is an illusion; we have no free will and are programmed by our genes and the influence of the enviroment we find ourselves in as to how we will act. You don’t want to hit someone else in the face? That doesn’t mean anything – you are not making a choice to be non-violent, and given different circumstances, you might equally want to hit someone in the face and take their money.

        Existential dread is the realisation of the void at the heart of the universe.

        • Ray

          Meh. You’re barking up the wrong tree, seeing as I tend towards compatibilism rather than hard determinism. But I’m pretty sure that even Jerry agrees the whole free will/no free will thing is a matter of semantics. More broadly, you’re not going to scare me by making me reject the narrowest most naive definitions of the terms of common discourse ever offered by a philosopher.

          Furthermore you’re not going to convince me that existentialism, i.e. the idea that we are defined by our choices, denies the existence of choice or anything like it.

  • Tim

    I’m not informed enough to know if deiseach’s telling of existentialism is right or not – sounds good to me as far as it goes – but I’d point out that deiseach is the only one who has found potentially ideologically uncomfortable arguments, as Leah called for. Jay, for instance, took Leah’s warning that an inability to see any argument for the other side is usually a sign of simple-mindedness as a personal challenge, and admirably rose to the occasion. He probably would not pass the ideological turing test.

    Also, what maiki said.
    Leah’s post seems more epistemologically oriented, than promoting either theism or atheism. Reality is too complex to fall along the lines of even our best patterns. If you find nothing that contradicts your preconstructed patterns, dig deeper.

    • Jay

      “Jay, for instance, took Leah’s warning that an inability to see any argument for the other side is usually a sign of simple-mindedness as a personal challenge, and admirably rose to the occasion. He probably would not pass the ideological turing test.”

      I’m not sure I quite understand what you mean by this statement. I didn’t understand myself to be arguing against the general view that debates shouldn’t seem one-sided. I was simply trying to make the point that to whatever degree atheism ought to feel “uncomfortable,” theism ought to feel uncomfortable as well. More generally, the challenge of identifying and acting upon a personal philosophy isn’t one that has anything to do with belief in God one way or another, at least not fundamentally. No, I didn’t seek to lay out exactly what sort of process I myself have followed here, or what sort of uncomfortable arguments I face in doing so — but that subject seemed a bit too weighty for a blog comment.

      Perhaps what you were responding to was simply the implication in my comment that I don’t find theism at all plausible, and that I don’t see reasonable arguments to be made for it. That wasn’t really the point I was trying to make here, but it is what I believe. I do think the case for atheism is pretty knock-down obvious, once you are in the proper frame of mind to consider it. Policy debates should usually not seem one-sided, but many factual debates really do have a clear answer — and theism vs. non-theism is ultimately just a factual question.

      Now, I do think there are reasonable arguments for why a person would, in good faith (pun intended), go on believing theism for a time. The combination of being raised from a certain religious perspective, the feeling of religious experience, the wish that the universe were more fair, and the set of seemingly rational arguments for the existence of God can all erect a hefty road-block to reaching atheism. I myself was raised Christian, but gradually moved from “real” Christian, to liberal Protestant, to deist, to atheist. But while I don’t think I was an unreasonable person when I fancied myself a theist, but I do think I held unreasonable beliefs. And looking back now, it’s just embarrassing to me how obvious my errors were, and how much even my purported deism was little more than a motivated belief.

      Anyway, I don’t mean to spark a whole separate debate about whether atheism is “obvious.” I’m just trying to provide some clarification of the sentiment you seemed to be (rightly) inferring from my comment.

      • Tim

        Well, I was being a little smart – or more than a little. You’ve responded really irenically, if that’s a word, and that’s very cool.

        I think I was reacting to two things.
        First, I’ll agree with you that theism should feel as uncomfortable as atheism, and maybe more so. But I really can’t agree that atheism is a slam-dunk. To say it’s “just a factual question” is to understate the complexity of this factual question. I think it’s an epistemological question: how ought we to think, and what ought we to take as evidence, and ought we to weight it? That’s very difficult, I think.
        I’ve also been embarrassed to find how much of my beliefs were emotionally motivated, so I feel you there. But partly for that reason, I’m leery of committing to new epistemological beliefs, especially ones that inoculate me against the force of other arguments.

        Second, the idea that God, if one exists, would be an entity among others to interact with, seems to posit a materialist universe, with a big fellow sitting in the middle of it. No one can deny that that accurately describes the working beliefs of many and perhaps most believers. But if God exists, then God would be the “ground of being” – the source, or the destination, of the Platonic triad of Goodness, Beauty, Truth. In St. Paul’s words, “In him we live, and move, and have our being.” In other words, if God existed, then we’d be in a supernatural universe/multiverse, in which a whole other layer of reality would permeate our physical one, and even underlie our own consciousness. Maybe this is sort of a god of the philosophers, but it’s not a Zeus to interact with.

        I look forward to reading more of your comments on this or other posts.

  • Patrick

    “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.”

    In what way were Sartre and Camus motivated by evidence in this regard? If you flat out asked them, would they claim to have been motivated in that fashion?

    I don’t think its incumbent upon me to imagine evidence for other people’s evidence-free emotional responses.

    • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

      I don’t think its incumbent upon me to imagine evidence for other people’s evidence-free emotional responses.

      Well yes, if you start with the proposition that other people’s responses are evidence-free, then you’re relieved of your burden of trying to understand them. But that seems to me a dangerous precedent.

      Do you truly equate belief in God to belief in alien abductions, or fairies, or the flying spaghetti monster? If you do, then I see your point, but I disagree with your judgement about the relative plausibility of these beliefs. If you don’t, then it seems that you accord to them some level of reasonability beyond an “evidence-free emotional response”.

      Also, I think in order to make the “evidence-free emotional response” argument, you have to have a deep enough understanding of your opononent’s beliefs that you might as well refute them with facts instead of sweeping generalizations. That is to say, by the time you actually know their arguments are entirely unfounded on any form of reasonability, it’s too late- you’ve already done the legwork necessary to make a real argument against it. To dismiss someone’s belief set before getting to this point demonstrates pretty severe prejudice against whatever belief system their putting forward. (not that severe prejudice aren’t called for in some cases- I don’t spend too much time looking into the philosophical underpinnings of the Neo-Nazi movement)

      • Patrick

        I wasn’t addressing belief in god. I was addressing a feeling of existential horror at the idea of a universe without a god, as mentioned in the OP. That’s why I included the reference to Sartre and Camus, who were referenced by the OP for the same reason that I referenced them.

        • deiseach

          It’s not just a universe without a god, it’s a universe without anything that can give meaning. I think that is the part that is being missed, so that we’re devolving into an argument about theism versus non-theism, which is not the point.

          The point is that Leah is trying to construct a philosophical underpinning for an objective moral standard (that is not necessarily dependent upon any form of deity to undergird it with authority) and that “Sartre and Camus and that crowd” denied that any such objective standard exists. The point is that I was doing what, as I said I hate when I see other people doing, which is to make assumptions about the beliefs and motivations of others on flimsy or no evidence – my assumptions about Greta and Tim not feeling or understanding this dread, this “nausea” – because, in my opinion, they maintain a foundation of meaning that they may not have examined.

          I am assuming Greta believes, or acts and lives as if she believes, in basic fairness and human decency, and the existentialism argument is that this is illusory if she seeks to ground it in anything more than personal preference, a quirk of her character like (say) a taste for spicy food or ice hockey or the colour yellow. By this measure, the liberal notion of choice and autonomy and ‘do no harm to others’ is just as much a blinkers over her eyes as the atheist mockery of belief in the Sky Fairy. By this measure, you cannot condemn Anders Brevik (currently on trial in Norway for his murders of 77 people, and boasting of it, and maintaining he would do it again) because there is no standard by which he may be condemned. There is no justice, there are only laws, and laws are mere human constructs created by whim and enforced by the will of the brute majority (that’s the plot of “L’Étranger”, for pete’s sake, or at least has no-one here ever heard The Cure’s “Killing An Arab”?)

          The absurdity of living that you have to face is that your principles for how you live your life are as fake as a belief in the Tooth Fairy, and that you realise this, and still find some way of operating in a social manner. This is what creates the psychological tension and the existential dread – the dread of falling off the tight-rope. Cognitive dissonance? Am I making any sense here?

          • Joe

            I understand what you’re saying. Wasn’t it Viktor Frankl that called this existential dread the Existential Vacuum? He was a psychologist, not sure if he was a theist. It would be interesting to know how a philosophically deep atheist would deal with this problem. I haven’t read Sartre or Camus.

          • Patrick

            I acknowledge that the fact that I like human beings is a preference. Its a particularly strong preference, mind you, since it stems from psychological features like empathic response. But yes, its a preference. I’m not sure its possible that such a thing could be anything other than a preference- theistic accounts of meaning are obviously vapid. You can’t just assert that god has a meaning creating property and claim that to be intellectually satisfying, no matter how much architecture you wrap that assertion within! But maybe just as we have different standards for what counts as a satisfying account of ethics, we no doubt have different standards for what counts as a satisfying explanation.

            I just don’t find any of this horrifying.

            And… part of the reason you seem to find it horrifying is because you look at things from a particular framework. For example, you write, “The absurdity of living that you have to face is that your principles for how you live your life are as fake as a belief in the Tooth Fairy,”

            But from your own argument, we could replace “principles for how you live your life” with “preference for spicy food.” Do you find your preference for spicy food (or other applicable preference” to be “fake?” Does it bother you that its “fake?” Given that you actually do have this preference, what does it even mean for that preference to be “fake?” To forestall obvious complaints, I’m not saying that these things are equally important to you, or that they should be. But those questions should stand regardless. If you place yourself in my framework, these questions are a bit absurd, whether they’re about spicy food or about a preference against murder.

            In a way, I feel like you’re making the same mistake as your standard freshman year philosophy students do when they discover the ideas of moral relativism. A classic error is to argue that if no one’s beliefs are objectively better than anyone’s else, no one has the “right” to enforce their beliefs on anyone else. But the idea that a “right” is needed is part of a moral framework that relativism would reject. They’ve only half extricated themselves from their earlier framework, and they’re drawing conclusions based on a chimera.

  • http://fester60613.wordpress.com fester60613

    This is a really interesting discussion!
    There will surely have to be a cultural shift whereby people start exercising critical thinking for themselves rather than swallowing whatever dogma is hurled at them at church on Sunday morning or – dare I say it? – from the podium of a college lecture hall.
    The youth of the current generation with whom I engage in conversation seem mystified by the extremist religious views so currently prevalent in the news. The attitude is “so what if you’re gay? Who cares what you believe? If you’re my friend, I’ve got your back, and I expect you to have mine.”
    If I bring up the subject of philosophy I’m almost always rewarded with eye rolls and sighs of exasperation. The attitude is “Oh, brother! What boring mental masturbation!” As for myself, I took an Existentialism philosophy minor 25-ish years ago, and was quite surprised to see how the courses at Binghamton University have changed since that time. The field appears to be as splintered into sub-groups as is theology.
    Further, IMO, it seems that philosophy has to do as much catching up with its interpretation of scientific evidence, much as the Vatican has to catch up with science itself. Neurobiological research is, of course, important, impelled forward by new technology, but that is all still in its very early stages and the data cannot – again IMO – truly prove anything. I think Sam Harris is off his rocker to dismiss the concept of free will: I cannot for the life of me reconcile the artistic creative process with determinism. I just can’t.
    The humorous way to put this is, “The only thing that can be known for sure is that we don’t know what we don’t know, and we don’t know how we don’t know it!”
    As for comfort: the only places I’ve felt completely comfortable being both gay and atheist was in big cities – specifically Paris, Chicago and New York. How we’re going to drag the iconic small town bigots into large cosmopolitan cities, I have no idea, but I think that’s what it’s going to take. Whether the process is legal or political – who knows?

  • @b

    Re: Krauss on what non-philosphers think of philosophy

    Compare the public impact of recent discoveries from the physical sciences (say of biologists) to the public impact of recent philosophical ideas (say of ethicists).

    Some academic domains are just more interesting and relevent to us as non-experts and citizens.

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