Monday, October 30, 2017

Do Atheists Face a Dilemma Inherent in Atheism?

Steve Hays of Triablogue has yet again come out with another hit piece to malign “atheists” generally. He must really resent people who don’t believe in the god he has set up in his fantasies. Equally fantastic seems to be the paradigm case he paints of the average atheist, plagued by scandalous internal deficiencies and haunted by inescapable quandaries. If Hays’ dark characterizations of atheism and atheists were so true, one wonders why anyone would ever be an atheist!

Hays writes:
Militant atheists are duplicitous on what makes life worth living.
Whenever I see the expression “militant atheists,” I get this image of a gang of brutish thugs dressed in combat fatigues, carrying M16s, sporting big red A’s on their lapels and puffing on cheap stogies as they canvass neighborhoods and retail establishments sniffing out underground religionists - sort of like Che Guevara, the Federales and Saudi morality police rolled into one.

But where does anyone ever see anything even approaching such a spectacle? There are no atheist military police, not that I know of anyway. Rather, it seems that the expression “militant atheists” is used deliberately as a triggering term, one intended to conjure all kinds of imagery that simply does not correspond to anything we actually find in reality. (Similarly, when we read the New Testament gospel stories, we find stories about all kinds of miracles that we never actually find in reality. Notice a pattern here?)

Of course, there very well may be atheists who are provocative and confrontational (attributes that have been present with mankind since prehistoric times no doubt), but from what I’ve seen their conduct is confined to verbal behavior. Granted my personal report is merely anecdotal, I don’t know of any cases where an atheist initiated violence against a theist simply because he detested theists, though it’s very possible that there have been isolated cases of this – and even then, such isolated cases say nothing about the broader sub-population. The typical case is one of snickering and ridicule, but we find this on both sides. (I’m reminded of Hays’ own pet epithet, “village atheist”; do disparaging epithets such as this really help to ease tensions between sparring factions?)

As for views on what makes life worth living, atheists – as we know – are a mixed bag, and like most believers, the vast majority of non-believers are not philosophers by profession. (And even then, I would advise caution and even a healthy dose of skepticism regardless of whether the touted thinker is religious or not, given current trends in philosophy; rather, if you don’t already know, make an urgent effort to discover for yourself what makes your life worth living.) And since this very topic is one which most people are discouraged from investigating, either because individuals are expected to accept what they’re told on such matters (e.g., the purpose of your life is to serve an invisible magic being which has no needs or use for your sacrifices in the first place, or to make sure you’re separating your recyclables appropriately, etc.), it’s “too selfish” a concern, or because they’re simply preoccupied by a world of distractions and entertainment that captivates their immediate interests, it’s not something most people seem to take very seriously, which I agree is a huge travesty. Then life passes by and it’s too late to give it any substantial thought.

Given these considerations, I’d say it’s a good thing whenever an individual sits down and explores questions pertaining to what makes his life worth living. It’s a huge topic, one that too few people ever consider seriously, and given the preponderance of higher abstractions which inevitably come into play in such investigations, we should not be surprised to find human fallibility expressing itself in efforts to come to an assessment of such matters. At the outset of such explorations, it’s perfectly reasonable – indeed expected – to immediately say to oneself, “I have no idea.” That’s why one explores it – to find out in the first place. It would be naïve to expect an individual to “just know” what makes his life worth living without applying some critical thought to the matter; moreover, while knowing what makes one’s own life worth living is one thing, being able to articulate that quality to another human being may be a challenging if not forbidding task in itself.

So in short, we should not be too quick to fault people for earnest conclusions when it comes to what is commonly referred to as “the meaning of life.” If they have any conclusions and can flesh them out with some semblance of coherence, whatever those conclusions may be, I’d say they’ve got at least that much going for them. On the contrary, I’d say it’s an inestimable loss when individuals simply give the matter no thought whatsoever; it’s a loss to them as individuals, and it’s a loss to everyone whose lives they touch. As the Socratic dictum puts it, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” (No, I did not read that in Leviticus or Paul’s letters. Nor did I read it in Derrida.)

But when a thinker does examine his life and try to formulate a coherent outlook on what makes his life worth living, the question of starting points arises. What is the proper starting point to such questions? This is where primary philosophy comes in. But where are thinkers going to learn about primary philosophy? This is key to the whole matter.

Hays identifies two horns of the duplicity he has in mind:
On the one hand they say you don't need God to have a meaningful life. What makes life meaningful is what's meaningful to you. What you personally value.
That’s one horn. And insofar as it goes, I see nothing wrong with what is described here. After all, should what makes one’s life meaningful not be something that’s meaningful to him? Should one not personally value what makes his life meaningful?

Here’s the other:
On the other hand, they attack Christianity for giving believers false hope. Christians waste the only life they have by banking on the deferred reward of a nonexistent afterlife. They fail to make the most of the only life they will ever have in the here and now through time-consuming religious devotions and prayers and anxieties over sin and sexual inhibitions, because they're staking their ultimate fulfillment on a future payback that will never happen. There is no hereafter, so it's now or never.
I fail to see any actual duplicity here. Specifically, I don’t see that there is necessarily any operative self-contradiction involved in jointly affirming the two sides of the dilemma Hays thinks he has identified here. One can, without contradicting himself, point out the fact that one does not need a god or belief in a god in order to lead a meaningful life while simultaneously holding that Christianity offers believers a false hope. Nor is it mutually self-contradictory to value what makes one’s life meaningful on the one hand while holding that people who put their hopes in a false worldview are wasting a precious opportunity to embrace reality honestly and seek to flourish in an authentic manner. In fact, unless one thinks that enjoying a meaningful life is impossible, I don’t see how the view that Christianity offers a false hope could be logically compatible with the view that belief in the Christian god provides a path to a genuinely meaningful life. Perhaps my disagreement with Hays here boils down to disparate, maybe even irreconcilable understandings, of what entails a meaningful life. (I wouldn’t doubt that!)

Or, perhaps it’s the “attack[ing] Christianity” part that gets Hays’ panties in a bunch. But consider: if one concludes after examining theistic arguments that god-belief is in fact fantastical in nature (especially given the primacy of the imagination that god-belief requires of an adherent), is he expected to give up on leading a meaningful life? Or is it that Hays simply feels that having a meaningful life is not possible without subscribing to his god-belief? How can a meaningful life be rationally predicated on beliefs which are informed of imaginary beings and imagined histories? I would argue that it cannot.

As for what constitutes a meaningful life, whatever it is must, at minimum, involve what Rand described as
non-contradictory joy—a joy without penalty or guilt, a joy that does not clash with any of your values and does not work for your own destruction, not the joy of escaping from your mind, but of using your mind’s fullest power, not the joy of faking reality, but of achieving values that are real, not the joy of a drunkard, but of a producer. Happiness is possible only to a rational man, the man who desires nothing but rational goals, seeks nothing but rational values and finds his joy in nothing but rational actions. (Galt’s Speech, For the New Intellectual, p. 132.)
Now, this is not a conception of happiness that one will find anywhere in the bible, and I would argue that numerous fundamental tenets of Christianity would ultimately make such a conception of happiness impossible to achieve, even if a believer applied the Christian worldview inconsistently to his life. A consistent application of Christianity would require total self-renunciation (cf. “It is really what Jesus said: die and give your life to Him. Die” – see here), while an inconsistent application of Christianity would involve a swirling underclass of clashing premises – some working for the believer’s happiness and others undermining it. Either way, a joy that is in fact non-contradictory in nature would simply not be achievable on the Christian worldview.

So if Hays thinks he’s exhumed some internal self-contradiction inherent in disbelieving in the god he worships in his imagination, I’d say he needs to keep digging.

Hays continues:
Notice, though, that their objection is diametrically opposed to how many atheists justify the significance of their own existence.
That’s not an argument. Again, atheism is not a worldview, atheism is not a philosophy, and atheists are not all of the same feather. Hays himself has admitted as much when he wrote "technically, atheism is just a statement of what an atheist doesn't believe rather than what he does believe" (see the comments section of this blog). So it should come as no surprise – indeed, it should be expected – that different atheists will have different views concerning any number of topics, including the question of what makes life worth living. So one atheist lodging a set of objections against some position while another atheist disagrees with those objections has no relevance to the matter.

Individuals who are nontheistic get behind a wide variety of viewpoints, from dogmatic totalitarianism to complete anarchism, from private self-scrutiny and independence of thought to “leave me alone I’m playing video games, Mom!” It is simply naïve to suppose that one could judge the entire class of non-believers according to the statements about specific issues from any subset thereof. At the risk of pissing off post-modernism’s gods, let individuals speak for themselves!

Hoping that Hays is prudent enough to understand this basic point, I’m allowing that he’s not reading too much into what any individual may say (mind you, he does not quote anyone to inform his characterizations or support his points), but instead is merely registering what he considers to be a discrepancy between what some non-believers do say and what other non-believers actually advocate. No doubt such discrepancies proliferate in abundance, but as such they’re ultimately immaterial to the matter. Rather, I’d be concerned that such sober-mindedness is being quashed by a self-instistent exuberance to paint all non-believers with one big dark brush, possibly as a defensive measure against perceived persecution (does the very existence of non-believers constitute a threat to Hays’ faith?). I admit that I’m prone to the same temptation at times, but I recognize that such a proclivity is in fact neither just nor equitable. (When Mike Licona announces about the resurrection “I want it to be true,” should we project this powerfully motivating sentiment onto Hays as well? Then again, Licona is a strident champion of the Christian worldview itself!)

Hays points out:
Many atheists say subjective meaning is sufficient to make life worthwhile.
I have no doubt that this is the report of many self-professed atheists, and very likely it would vary from individual to individual what specifically such a statement may be intended to say. So one should not read much into such statements before exploring the matter to find what definitions and premises inform them. Again, let each individual speak for himself.

But while we’re at it, let’s also not forget that Christian apologists often charge non-believers of philosophically “borrowing from the Christian worldview.” So, how do we know in such cases as Hays cites above that the atheist in question is not in fact simply “borrowing from the Christian worldview”? After all, Christianity requires the believer to imagine the Christian god, to imagine Jesus dying on the cross, to imagine himself being forgiven of some sin he must imagine himself being born with. With all the subjective imagining going on just to embrace “mere Christianity,” how could any conscientious Christian lodge a sustainable complaint against the view that “subjective meaning is sufficient to make life worthwhile”?

No, I don’t raise this question in an effort to defend the view that “subjective meaning is sufficient to make life worthwhile” – there’s too much in life that’s real that does! I’m just posing the question here given (a) the charges we’re seeing Hays lodge against atheists, and (b) the subjective nature of “Christian hope” given the undeniable role that imagination plays in simply conceiving any part of it. Those who live in glass houses should refrain from throwing rocks.

For me, I’m quite live-and-let-live, so long as other people’s choices and actions do not interfere with my values and my family’s values. If some 29-year-old “dude” holed up in his parents’ closet finds his life meaningful because he scored 150k on some video game, fine and dandy for him. See how far that takes him. But as soon as he starts voting accordingly, eager for his gaming habit to be sustained by “free” handouts that require “contributions” from my family, then fuck him! Let him rot in his parents’ closet, is my view. I’m a very empathetic person, but be warned: my empathy is precious and I do not squander it indiscriminately!

Hays asks:
But then, why can't Christians have meaningful lives as Christians, even if (from a secular standpoint) Christianity is false?
Maybe they can, depending on what they do, what they value, and what “meaningful lives” essentially means. But it might not be a rationally meaningful life. So if this is Hays’ worry, then he can stop worrying. No one (so far as I know) is going to come along and prevent him from leading a falsely meaningful life. He can layer the “meaning” he ascribes to his life with all the falsehoods he likes. I’m not going to force him to do otherwise, if that’s what he’s worried about.

Hays continues:
Sure, it's subjective meaning. It doesn't correspond to objective reality (from a secular standpoint). Yet the same atheists insist that your sense of purpose in life needn't correspond to objective value. Rather, value is what is valuable to each individual.
Value is by its nature individual-centric: individuals value things, and to say that something is a value logically invites the question, “Of value to whom?” And, most importantly, it is the individual who needs values to begin with, given the biological nature of his existence and the conditions that must be satisfied in order for the individual to continue living. But none of this renders value as such to be inherently subjective. What is the basis of values? How are they identified as values? What makes them valuable? And to whom are they valuable? What constitutes values in an individual’s life involves a huge context of underlying factors, and there is such a thing as an objective theory of values (no, again, we won’t find such a theory laid out in the prophets or the Psalms).

Perhaps Hays is simply projecting here though. After all, since Christianity lacks an objective theory of values, Hays either expressly rejects the objective theory of values, or he simply does not know what distinguishes it from the religiously-informed morality of his god-belief. This might explain the assumption that an individual valuing something automatically entails subjectivism. But if a value is subjective because it is something valued by an individual, then anything anyone values, including whatever the Christian god is said to value, must be subjective, on account of the fact that it is thereby valued by an individual – an individual god in this case. That dog don’t hunt!

Seriously, I think critics of non-theism need to give primary philosophy some deeper thought just as much as non-theists should.

Hays writes:
So why do militant atheists make their mission in life talking Christians out of their faith, or dissuading people from ever considering Christianity in the first place?
Why does Hays find it necessary to indulge in such hyperbole here? How many “militant atheists” does Hays know who “make their mission in life talking Christians out of their faith”? How long would one be able to sustain such a “mission in life”? Throughout my life, I’ve seen many evangelists standing on street corners preaching their religion and handing out church tracts. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a “militant atheist” doing something along these lines. Perhaps Hays thinks I fall into this category – after all, I am an atheist and I have for many years now published my criticisms of religious worldviews on the internet. But in that time I have known many religious believers in my personal life, and I rarely even discuss the topic with them; I’ve never tried to talk them out of their faith. Again, I’m quite live and let live. Rather, historically it has been religious people who set off on missions to convert people. So whom does Hays think he’s fooling here?

Hays ponders:
Is it because they think Christianity is based on wishful thinking? But what if wishful thinking is what makes you feel that you and your loved ones are important in the grand scheme of things? An atheist can't object on grounds that that's a sentimental projection, for he that's how he defends his own position. [sic]
Again, atheists come in a very wide variety of stripes, some more consistent in their thinking than others. Some atheists are simply overgrown crybabies. Some are coolly rational thinkers. So why any particular atheist has criticisms of Christianity depends on a constellation of variables, and this state of affairs stubbornly defies the desire for uniform categories that seems to hold Hays and other apologists captive.

Moreover, if the operative assumption on Hays’ part that what makes life worth living boils down to how one feels or simply feeling important (“what makes you feel that you and your loved ones are important in the grand scheme of things”), that tells us a lot. The objective theory of values rests on facts, but Hays is chasing after feelings. No wonder his criticisms are so off-target!

It’s instructive at this point to ask whether belief in a god is sufficient to ensure an individual’s virtue, let alone make his life worth living. On this point, I’m reminded of some points a speaker I was listening to not long ago make about his own experience as he was raised in a Christian community. In spite of all the church-going and lip-service to living right and virtuous that issued from the adults in this community, he grew up in an abusive home and yet was surrounded by faithful believers. And even though they all piously attended the same church and swallowed the same dogmatic secretions of the local pastor, sitting through sermon after sermon week after week and year after year about upholding righteousness, vanquishing wickedness and being good Samaritans, not one member of this community attempted to intervene in his desperate family situation and help improve his home life and future outlook. After church they’d prefer to talk about sports and the weather, watch TV and go on recreational outings. They went through the motions of putting on the appearance of piety and sanctity, but this was all a thin façade. Simply believing in a god was clearly not sufficient to foster a community of virtuous individuals, and I suspect because in a religious community the emphasis is on belief, not on virtue. The two are not the same, and virtue does not automatically result from mere belief.

Moreover, we should bear in mind that belief in a god in no way prevents or deters hypocrisy. On the contrary, such professed beliefs are often used to mask or even excuse hypocrisy, as they lend themselves readily to dismissing concerns about actual injustices by characterizing them as all part of some “plan,” mouthing superficial slogans such as “everything happens for a reason” or “God will provide a way,” etc., which only stifles any motivation to improve life in the here and now. If one’s hopes are set on an afterlife, whatever injustices are happening in this life are simply to be endured, not opposed and corrected.

I’d really like to see a robust explanation of how exactly belief in a god makes an individual’s life objectively meaningful (as well as what precisely that is supposed to mean), how such belief makes life worth living (if in fact that is what religious thinkers want to believe). I tried it myself years ago and found that the fruitless effort of trying to please a being which held all the cards and which I could never persuade to re-consider its judgments, of trying to sustain a fantasy in the face of a continual stream of undeniable facts to the contrary, and succeeded only in making my life utterly miserable.

Far from making life worth living, it made me yearn for my life to come to a swift end, as any form of incurable suffering would. In fact, I found that I could really look forward to nothing that was personally fulfilling, for anything that was truly personally fulfilling in my life was ruled verboten by my elders, not because these things were enumerated as sins anywhere in the bible (I’ve never found a commandment against listening to classical music in the prophets or the Pentateuch, for example), but precisely because I loved them.

It was because I loved them that the things I loved, whatever they happened to be, were seen by other believers as a threat to my devotion to the fantasy of god-belief. Belief in a god was supposed, not only to come first, but to completely eclipse all other passions in my life and snuff them out completely.

And I was apparently expected to force this to come about in my life through repetitious prayers, self-denial, fasting, surrounding myself with my “loving brethren,” participating in as many church functions as humanly possible, etc., all of them efforts to duck the fact that one does not have direct control over one’s emotions, likings, interests, etc.

I was to view anything that gave me real joy in real life – not the pretended joy of a self-inflicted indulgence in theistic fantasies – as an opportunity for Satan, ironically, to rob me of my joy, a joy I could never achieve in the first place. I was slowly and painfully learning that, with the Christian god, I could never win. For so long as I did not renounce and abandon the fruits of my joyous efforts in life, I was sinning against the Christian god.

In this very way the ideal of non-contradictory joy was completely out of my reach, and only a sense of guilt, dread and fear were possible in its place. And such a sinking, inescapable feeling of hopelessness can really discolor one’s outlook on life, to say the least. For all the talk of morality that religionists push on each other and those “in the world,” religious devotion itself turned out to be a most demoralizing experience.

And even though for a long time I was convinced that somehow I was the problem, I eventually came to the conclusion that this was by design. I was being had. My purpose to “die to self,” which meant joy and pleasure were systematically ruled out, and thus I had nothing in this life to make my life worth living.

And yet, in spite of all this horror that Christianity offers conscientious adherents, religious apologists tell us that a meaningful life is not possible without their god-belief.

Hays concludes:
So the atheist has a dilemma on his hands. If subjective meaning is good enough for atheists, why isn't that good enough for deluded Christians?
The question here essentially boils down to: which atheist has such a dilemma? I would answer that only an atheist whose worldview mirrors the religionist’s own worldview commitment to subjectivism has a problem. That does not characterize all atheists, and Hays has presented no evidence to suggest that it does. In fact, the concept of religion and the idea of a commitment to subjectivism are instances of redundancy.

So what exactly is this terrible crime that “atheists” have allegedly committed, making them deserving of such derision and scorn? It is simply the crime of not believing claims that a deity exists, created the world and controls everything that happens. In the religious mind, atheism is a form of thought-crime. Instead of examining his own positions through the lens of objectivity, Hays chooses to focus his resentment on those who do not endorse theistic fantasies and has made it his mission in life to malign atheists.

by Dawson Bethrick


Ydemoc said...

Hey Dawson,

Thanks for the latest entry! Now all I have to do is find some time to read it!

But seriously, thanks!


Jason mc said...

When basic survival is a struggle for man, religion seems to help him deal with pain and uncertainty. Under modern, civilised conditions, it's a different matter.

I'm inspired to write down my ideas on how religious tendencies evolved alongside the development of higher human intellect, both in a mutually-reinforcing relationship. I'll probably end up with a long, rambling essay that's not appropriate for posting as a comment here, but we'll see!


James P. Caputo said...

I’ve learned more from Ayn Rand (and Dawson Bethrick) about thinking than I did in twenty years of non-stop philosophical reading. This site is a treasure trove.

Unknown said...

Hi guys.

// “atheists” generally. //

Of course Hays is going to insult and demean all who do not choose to believe Protestant Christian fairy tales because like most alleged Christians, he imagines morality as some sort of magical mystical "state" attendant to a substance dualism ghost/soul to alleged magic god Jesus relationship.

This is his problem especially when modern American communists would gleefully gun him and his family down so as to steal his stuff and means of production. He could choose to distinguish between Objectivists who accept and endorse rational philosophy, Capitalism, and Liberty versus collectivists who wish to enslave Man for their misjudged assessment of how they can benefit by bringing all down to their paradigm of subjectivity, but he won't.

Robert Kidd said...

Hi Dawson,

I hope you and your family had a great time celebrating productive achievement on Thanksgiving.

I loved your response to hays' statement about militant atheists. If wanting to convert Christians is being militant then aren't Christians militant for wanting to convert atheists?

Next time a theist tries to convert me I'm going to say, dude, quit being so militant.


Bahnsen Burner said...

Hello Robert,

Thanks for your comment. Sorry for getting back to you so late! Yes, Thanksgiving was wonderful, but already seems so long ago. The days run by faster than I can keep up! Likewise I hope you did as well and that you find happiness in the holidays.

Part of the reason for my delay is that I wanted to find time to re-read my entry before replying to you. I wrote it quite a while ago so I wanted to refresh myself on the details.

Yes, it shows quite a lack of self-awareness for Christians to complain about atheists trying aggressively to de-convert believers from their faith while their own faith insists that believers go out and “preach the gospel to every creature.” I’ve never seen anything at all comparable to Christianity’s evangelism on the part of non-believers. When I used to attend church, our Sunday School had ongoing classes dedicated to witnessing. Where do non-Christians conduct such classes?

There were a couple points in my entry where I think I successfully turn the tables on someone like Steve Hays. First, when Hays accuses “militant atheists” of internal contradictions, I think it’s effective to reply to such charges as, at least perhaps, instances of non-believers “borrowing from Christianity.” Apologists often tell us that we borrow from Christianity without even knowing it. Okay, here may be such an instance!

The other is the observation that a genuinely meaningful life, i.e., one in which an individual can and does achieve happiness in the sense of non-contradictory joy, is not possible on Christianity’s core premises, which hold that the individual believer is not worthy, that he is born into depravity and guilt and consequently in need of a redemption which cannot be earned, that he must sacrifice himself, even “die to self.” It is one’s self which is the primary beneficiary of all happiness-producing action, so if one crucifies himself “with Christ,” as Christianity requires, there’s no self to enjoy happiness.

By the way, I noticed that I had forgotten to include the link to Paul Washer’s blog entry, which I quote. I have corrected that now. I would not have noticed this had you not commented, Robert, so thank you!