A Thoughtful Response (I Hope..)

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While I had chosen a different subject for today’s post one of the pages I read regularly had a comment that I felt the need to respond to today so I thought I’d share the comment and my response. I apologize right off for the length of this post but the comment requires a lengthy response.

Comment: 

“I challenge the atheist community to a debate. Present your greatest, most informed, philosopher and address the prevailing definition among atheists regarding atheism. To the modern atheist, does it still mean the absence of belief in a god? Or does it mean a belief to the contrary, namely a belief that God doesn’t exist? And regarding these positions or definitions or assumptions, what of the implications? If we are the result of mere chance, then mustn’t the atheist conclude there is no reason or purpose to life beyond that which we imbue or ascribe to it? In which case, would this not mean there is no inherent good or evil, no right or wrong but what concensus and/or personal whim says is so, whereby conflicting views are no more valid or imperative than another? And if that’s the case, what ultimate purpose is served by spreading this news to the masses? For those who believe in God, will your arguments bring to them true enlightenment? And if so, to what end? After all, according to atheism, isn’t life itself inherently pointless apart from our own human imposition of meaning? How is humanity made better by abandoning a practical fiction (a God who gives their lives meaning and purpose) vs the atheist’s alleged truth (that faith is a lie, religion is a scam, life is meaningless apart from what we, the freethinkers, say it is)? I’d like to know how despair is more attractive than hope. I’m told the atheist is more rational than the theist. This is their primary reason to resist faith, that faith is for the weak, that faith requires one to abandon reason, that only the freethinker is logical, rational, and informed. Yet the average atheist refuses to discuss these things. So few seem willing, and even fewer seem familiar with the arguments for and against, to articulate their ideology. So again, I encourage you to consider the implications of your stance. I invite you to address my questions. I welcome you to think about those things that you may’ve simply taken for granted but never questioned or analysed. Thanks for your time.”

Response:

I make no claim to being the greatest, most informed philosopher in any group but since I see it as a duty to answer these types of inquiries and generally combat what I see as the dangers of theistic thinking wherever I find it I’ll make an attempt to answer your  post. A few quick notes however. 1) I am a layman, not a scientist, I do not claim to have an in depth knowledge of the workings of the cosmos or biology. However my study is ongoing and what I do know is more than enough to convince me that a prime mover is not strictly necessary in order to explain the origins of A) the cosmos B) life C) morality. 2) I don’t claim to be fully cognizant of the proper form of structured debate but I will assure you of a couple of points, I will make every effort to stay away from inflammatory language or outright attacks. I will pose my arguments as reasonably and rationally as possible. This is the only form of conversation I’m interested in having. With that being said shall we begin?

First, the definition of “Atheism” This can vary, as can the definition of any group of individuals. The word will mean different things to different groups, strictly speaking however Atheism simply means a lack of belief in a deity. It does not pretend to “know” that there is no such deity; it is simply a statement of a lack of belief. I myself take this a step further and would term myself an anti-theist. Not only do I lack belief in a deity, I hold such a belief to be harmful on both an individual and societal level and I believe that theistic thinking should be combated whenever possible.

As to the second point:“If we are the result of mere chance, then mustn’t the atheist conclude there is no reason or purpose to life beyond that which we imbue or ascribe to it?”

While I also have some objection to the idea of the complex process of mutation, change and adaptation that is the theory of evolution by natural selection being termed “mere chance” I’ll leave that aside and answer the actual question. Quite simply:  Yes. I would agree with that statement as it pertains to life. You’ll often hear this stated as “the universe must be pointless without design” that statement I would disagree with. The point of the universe, even without design, is observable and, at least to me, evident. Its point is creation, destruction, constant change and growth. As for life, I would agree that we have a duty as individuals and a community to ascribe purpose to life. Life has only one objective point, to sustain itself. Animals hunt and feed and find shelter and breed in order to ensure their individual survival and that of their species as a whole, which is their point and purpose. For humans it’s slightly, only very slightly, different. We have the same needs for sustenance and shelter and the same urge to pass on genes in order to keep the species going but we also have evolved large and cerebral and intellectual apparatus. As a result we have an understanding of ourselves and our place in the wider world that is unique (so far).  The simple tasks of maintaining our survival are not enough to stimulate us and so we create. Humans build and imagine and compose and undertake all of the other aspects of what it is to be human beyond the mere survival level out of a need for intellectual stimulation and growth.  The point of human life is much the same as the point I gave for the universe “creation, destruction, growth and change.”

In which case, would this not mean there is no inherent good or evil, no right or wrong but what consensus and/or personal whim says is so, whereby conflicting views are no more valid or imperative than another?”  

I agree with the statement given previously that the ideas of “Good” and “Evil” are cultural overlays. I would also agree with the statement that empathy is the basis of human morality. Empathy is a cerebral function, demonstrable and testable. It exists as part of the material world, and is in fact essential in a social animal such as man. However I won’t go as far as saying that all morality is instinctual. I believe the basis of morality to be just that, however I also believe that as creatures of intellect our morality has grown and changed (as if by selective mutation) as our intellect has grown. To demonstrate this point: the Judeo-Christian Theology had for long centuries absolutely no issues whatsoever with slavery, in spite of all of its moral teaching the bible has absolutely no bad word to say about the practice of some of god’s children owning others. It was only as our understanding and intellect grew that we came to acknowledge the practice of slavery as a reprehensible one and saw to its abolition. Injunctions against theft and murder are necessary in order to maintain a cohesive and productive social group, an instinct inborn in us in order to enhance our likelihood of survival. Yet opposing things like slavery, rape, child molestation, these are moral decisions made on the basis of empathy. While different cultural areas may have practices that would infringe on this inborn morality I would argue that they’re acting against this sense, not that theirs is different.  I would argue that everyone, inside themselves, knows that rape is wrong. Cultural conditioning may allow the suppression of this truth, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. As for the lack of objective right and wrong I’m personally of the opinion that “Right” is properly defined as “that which provides the greatest possible well being for all” and “Wrong” is defined as “that which detracts from the greatest possible wellbeing for all” I don’t see how any other definition is possible, and by these definitions I see the Theistic approach t life as fitting into the “Bad” category.

And if that’s the case, what ultimate purpose is served by spreading this news to the masses? For those who believe in God, will your arguments bring to them true enlightenment? And if so, to what end? How is humanity made better by abandoning a practical fiction?”
 

Well in my personal view I think the purposes and benefits are manifold. First, from the moral standpoint the truth that we are material entities in a material universe of cause and effect leaves to us a responsibility to act as such. Theology, any theology, removes responsibility from us and places it in the hands of a supernatural overseer. All good, and all judgement of said good, or of bad comes from Yahweh or Allah or Vishnu or Thor. It’s the “I was just following orders” defense.  We have no responsibility save to follow the edicts of whatever deity our cultural, societal, and political situation tells us is true. Without the “safety net” of theology each individual and society as a whole is forced to consider their actions in the light of their effect on the world around them. This goes back to the definition of good as “that which provides the greatest possible well being for all” Removing the divisive and elitist constructions of theology and the false distinctions of race, tribe fostered by these faiths can only enhance the ideal of human unity.

Second, the belief that this world, this existence is only some kind of preface or prelude to some vastly superior ultimate form of existence removes any imperative to care for this world or its inhabitants. By this I don’t intend to state that religious people have no interest in this world. Only that their focus is split, their energies unfocused.  Imagine if all of the effort, intellect, wealth and time spent on the various theologies had instead been channeled into the betterment of the secular world. I contend that with more focus and effort spent on enhancing our secular world rather than advocating and promoting some theological system the very heaven/paradise/nirvana that nearly every Theology offers would be unnecessary. To paraphrase Marx:

 “Criticism will pluck the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower.

Third, “faith” the belief that you already know the reasons for everything, the cause of everything retards the exploration of important topics, and general progress. The discovery of truth, most often in our history, has been the result of skepticism. As a matter of fact a great many of the truths we hold today were discovered against the will of theology. It’s a stumbling block to progress and advancement, and once we discover something to be true the theology in question simply changes it’s position. Instead of the new idea being heresy or blasphemous it turns out that that discovery only heightens the truth of their position.

I’ll conclude in this way. While it is by no means certain that people would act better without theological influence it is, I think certain, that the removal of theology would remove one of the great excuses for ignorance, barbarism and prejudice. Theology, while providing no completely unique benefits does present completely unique problems. There are enough secular, real world problems that need solving without creating more which have no bearing on our day to day reality. 

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Posted on September 21, 2012, in debate, Editorial and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I apologize for any errors in the text, I’ve spotted a couple but for some reason WordPress won’t allow me to edit at the moment…

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