Atheism and moral condemnation

In another very interesting discussion on Uncommon Descent, Chris Doyle asked:

1. Why should… a miserable atheist bother with life at all?

2. How do you dissuade an atheist from free-riding?

 

And later, in a post on another thread:

…how can any atheist condemn Breivik in terms that can be reconciled with their worldview? If life is meaningless and we face oblivion then nothing really matters – there is no wrong or right, because there is no Good or Evil: even the purpose we forge for ourselves is an act of self-deception if the atheistic worldview is true.

I’m reposting selected portions of my original response below, because, although the conversation has continued in a lively fashion since then, Chris gave me an opportunity to think though my views on this, and I thought like to invite him, or anyone else who wants to continue the discussion, the opportunity to do so in the quieter backwaters of this blog.

I wrote:

To take your first question: “how can any atheist condemn Breivik in terms that can be reconciled with their worldview?” Well, this doesn’t seem very difficult to me! Acts have consequences, and those consequences include making people feel better and harming people. But as words are awkward, and come with baggage, let me invent two new ones: I’m going to call acts that make you feel better at the cost of harming other people “gak”. Now, if everyone goes around making themselves feel better, and no-one else is harmed, there is no gak, and everyone has a good time. But if people go around doing stuff that makes them feel better, but harms other people, not everyone has a good time.

So although it might be tempting to give yourself a good time by doing gak stuff, nobody else is going to agree with you, because they are going to get the rough end of the gak. So we make some social rules: we say: if nobody does gak stuff, everyone will have a pretty good time. But if people do gak stuff, some people will have a horrible time, even if the gak-doers get a heck out of a kick out of it. So, for the good of us all we will declare gak taboo.

And to make sure that as little gak is done as possible, if people are found doing gak stuff, we try a number of things; we lock them up so they can’t do it (containment); we make them do something they don’t like doing, so that they (and others) learn that even if gak stuff makes them feel better at the time, they end up having a rotten time in the end anyway (deterrence); we try to make them see that if everyone forgoes the gak stuff, everyone else, including them is better off, and anyway, it’s much more fun making other people feel better than making them feel worse (rehabilitation); and we try to get them to undo the harm they did (reparation).

And this works pretty well, because as human beings we have this remarkable capacity called “Theory of Mind”, which enables us not simply to see things from our own point of view, but from other peoples, and even to feel things on other people’s behalf – what we call “empathy”, or, better, “love”, although some people seem unable to do that last part. For those, sometimes, some kinds of rehabilitation can help, but unfortunately, sometimes, permanent incarceration is the only answer, if the rest of us are to be safe from the gak.

So that’s it really. Instead of “evil” we have “gak”. But we call it “evil”, because it looks exactly the same as what you call evil. It’s just, like the old gag about Shakespeare goes (“Did you know that Shakespeare’s plays weren’t actually written by Shakespeare, but by another man living at the same time, with the same name?”), another thing with the same properties and the same name.

 * * * * * * * * * *

1. Why should such a miserable atheist bother with life at all?

Because it’s fun, and beautiful, and filled with good things! Including joy, and curiosity, and love. Why does an otter bother with life? Think of atheists as otters.

2. How do you dissuade an atheist from free-riding?

Well, firstly, because atheists are as human as you are (:)) they share the same capacity for empathy, and the same capacity for joy in another’s joy, and grief in another’s grief. So it’s not a major problem, and, in any case, not all free-riders are atheists! But there are indeed free-riders, and we deal with them as above, which includes persuasion (“look, if you don’t do gak stuff, you still have a good time, and so does everyone else – in fact you have a better time, because actually it’s a lot more fun to enjoy things that other people enjoy too, than to do stuff that only you enjoy and other people hate. Also they are more likely to like you, which is nice, and less likely to incarcerate you, or make you do stuff you don’t like in return. Also gak is ungood, and ungak is good. You don’t know what good is? Here, let me show you….” *demonstrates kindness and empathy*). But if that doesn’t work, deterrence and incarceration are backups.

 * * * * * * * * * *

 

…it seems that you think a miserable atheist simply needs to recall that “one of our drives is to be, simply, happy.” But I don’t think a miserable atheist needs reminding of this fact, do you? He is all too aware that happiness is what he wants but he is struggling and suffering on a regular basis.

Why is he? I don’t mean that you have the answer, but if someone is unhappy, it’s good to know why. Then either they can fix it themselves (as long as that doesn’t involve gak) or someone else can help. Usually a bit of both. We all need a little help from our friends :)

Even if a miserable atheist does experience glimpses of happiness, they are all too brief and soon disappear to be replaced by the norm: drudgery and hopelessness. You then point out that “We are… therefore able to transcend ourselves.” Again, I don’t see how this provides a reason for the miserable atheist to bother with life at all.

But life is good! I mean, not for everyone, but it’s not only atheists who suffer, and the answer could be anything from relief of poverty to treatment for a mental disorder. Or, even, getting out a bit, and helping other people. That cheers most people up.

I’m not meaning to be flippant here, Chris, I just think you are describing a non-problem. Or, rather, a problem that is not at all unique to atheists. I do know of a few nihilist atheists, but most are not, and I’ve known pretty nihilist Christians as well. And anyone who hates being alive needs help. Think of those otters.

If he can feel another’s pain, then that is only adding to the pain he is already experiencing on a daily basis!

hmmm. Empathy is an odd thing. Yes, another’s pain hurts, but shared hurt is not something on the whole one shuns. And sharing hurt can help. It’s like that old saying (golly I sound like the Readers Digest today) about love being the only thing where the more you give the more you have.

But you know this, Chris. What I’m saying is that atheists know it too, they just don’t give it the same name. I still do (habit, I guess, I call it grace) but atheists are just as capable of, and receptive to, grace. It’s just they don’t call it that. Not sure what they call it, but not everything needs a name.

 * * * * * * * * * *

 

 

Looking at the second question, you first of all appeal to the “collective” over the individual. If we had all been assimilated by the Borg, then resistance to that argument would indeed be futile! But, we’re not. And an intelligent, rational, logical but selfish atheist knows just how to exploit that. He knows that the moral society we live in isn’t about to break down just because he is free-riding on it. He “can look at that situation logically and decide that as long as he maintains a public appearance of moral steadfastness, he can commit immoral acts whenever he desires as long as he avoids detection.” And, your very interesting response to this was:

“Well, sure, but so can a theist.”

Woah! Blink and you miss it! Let’s rewind and slow that down before getting ahead of ourselves. A rational atheist can logically free-ride: maintaining a public appearance of moral steadfastness while committing immoral acts whenever he desires (as long as he avoids detection) and your response is “Well, sure…”

I think we should pause there for a moment, Lizzie, to let that important fact sink in rather than trying to gloss over it by changing the subject to theism.

If you agree that a rational atheist can logically choose immorality then atheistic morality fails.

Well, it’s only logical as long as there is no system, agreed by “the collective” to deal with the free-riders.

It comes back to this gak-thing again. In atheist terms, free-riding is gak. And we don’t want to live in a society where gak is easy to do. So a) we persuade people of the benefits of not doing gak stuff (for them, not just for everybody else) and b) if that doesn’t work, we invoke our gak-minimising system.

Which is, of course what in your mirror-world is called a justice-system. So we call it that too, even though it’s “really” a gak-minimising system. It just happens to be an identical system with the same name. We also call the process of devising anti-gak rules “ethics”, like yours, and the incentive to keep to them “morality”, like yours. Except of course it’s really just our anti-gak drive.

;)

The whole point of morality is that it should take precedence over all other considerations. Morality is easy when the right thing to do is the thing we want to do. But, as soon as the wrong thing to do is the thing we want to do then, providing we can get away with it (or can live with the consequences) then atheistic morality is over-ruled by logic and reason.

Ah, but you are moving the labels. No, the anti-gak drive behaves exactly like morality. The only difference is that your justice system is has an infinity-drive powered CCTV camera and an automated incarceration system, complete with highly deterrent torture rigs, that infallibly awaits any freeloader who escapes the human-derived one.

Except that, weirdly, it has a “faint hope” clause, which means that the infinity-drive judge will waive the incarceration under certain (not terribly well specified) conditions. For no terribly obvious reason, except that the uncertainty probably keeps people on their toes.

Or perhaps that’s not your vision (although it certainly is in some versions of Christianity). Perhaps in your vision, nobody gets the incarceration – in which case, it’s no more effective than our gak-minimising system.

What I’m saying, Chris is that all the aspects of morality that you see in terms of a judging God have their exact counterparts in atheism, with the sole exception of this bit that happens after we die.

So we have:

gak=evil.
anti-gak rules =ethics
anti-gak drive =morality
gak-minimising system=justice system

So to say, oh, but atheist morality is over-ruled by reason if they can’t be found out, is,as I said, shifting the labels out of their categories. Atheist morality is a drive – the anti-gak drive, just as theistic morality is – the drive to be good, the love of God, if you like. In fact, I’d go so far as to cite Jesus in claiming they are identical: The two greatest commandments, in Matthew, are 1) to love God, and 2) “which is like it” is to love your neighbour as your self. And lest there be doubt as to whether loving your neighbour as your self was really “like” loving God, Jesus said “whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me”.

Well, as I think I’ve said before – atheists just cut out the middle man. Or may be the end man. You love God by loving your neighbour; we just love our neighbours. Both are what we call “morality” (although for us it’s just our anti-gak drive of course….)

Taking that further, we can now argue that it would be irrational and illogical for an atheist to choose morality when there are literally no drawbacks to the immoral choice.

Well, practically, there are always drawbacks. Even hiding the body is a drawback. The loneliness. The regret. The nightmares. That’s what I meant by “moving the labels”. Atheists are as capable as anyone else of foreseeing the consequences of their actions, including those consequences for their own peace of mind. We are an empathetic species. We are stuck with it. We can over-ride it, and do, but always at a cost.

I’m probably not being as clear as I could be (but I’m trying!) – but I think your mistake (and I’m convinced it’s a mistake!) is in thinking too narrowly of what “benefits me”, and envisaging atheist “morality” as merely “what would suit me now that I can get away with”. Because you think that’s what logic dictates. But what you are missing is the anti-gak drive. We are not, in general, comfortable with doing gak-stuff. At its most shallow, people don’t like to be disliked, or considered selfish. More deeply, people don’t like to see the pain they caused, even if it was fun at the time. That’s why reparative justice works so much better than you might think it would. Doing gak stuff actually makes people unhappy, and one of the things we do when we raise children to be good (“teach them right from wrong”) is to make them realise that if they are mean to another child, that other child will be unhappy, and unhappiness is infectious. Which it is. Again, for us it might “really” be showing children that gak usually rebounds in the end, and that gak now means misery later, rather than showing them the difference between right and wrong, but we call it that, because, yet again, it looks exactly the same:)

Free-riding is undoubtedly the best course of action available to intelligent, rational and logical atheists (especially ones who are more selfish than selfless). And, if the more selfless atheists ever truly realise that they are needlessly denying themselves on many occasions, then what is to stop them saying “well, if you can’t beat them, join them!” Based on your responses so far, Lizzie, absolutely nothing.

No, free-riding is not “the best course of action available to intelligent, rational and logical atheists”. You let slip the reason in your parenthesis “(especially ones who are more selfish than selfless)”. The best course of action availabe to intelligent, rational and logical people is to do things that will bring about their own long-term happiness. Sadly few of us are that intelligent, rational and logical, but we try. And for most of us, our long-term happiness depends on being decent people, and avoiding doing gak stuff. In other words, by being moral. And for those who are “more selfish than selfless”) then those who have anything to do with those people (husbands, wives, siblings, parents, offspring), the first response strategy is to try to demonstrate the long-term benefits that they seem unable to see.

Actually there’s another point here, which I think is important: most people are not so much “selfish” as “short-termist”. We do what makes us feel good now, no matter how bad we will feel later. My own take on “free will” is that it’s best thought of as “freedom from immediacy”. And most people as they grow, learn that gak-stuff usually brings only short-term fun. So with good, caring, wise (if only) mentors, we should grow up with a well-rooted anti-gak drive, i.e. become moral adults. And I’d say that athetists are just as capable of developing thus into moral adults, and indeed of being good, caring and wise mentors, as anyone else, because it doesn’t actually require belief in God, just the conviction that the more people with a strong anti-gak drive in the world, the happier we all shall be.

(fixed duplicate paragraphs – h/t to Amy.

86 thoughts on “Atheism and moral condemnation

  1. Thank you damitall, for honestly stating that you “have boundless pity for the misery of anyone who truly believes their life has no such value, who experiences no such demonstrations – not even from the local deity – , and would not blame them in the least for choosing not to continue.”
    This is exactly what an atheist (uniquely) should be saying, because, if we lead a tragic meaningless existence, in an indifferent universe then oblivion is undoubtedly the best option.

  2. Wow, Woodford, small world! I used to live near Snaresbrook Underground – one stop down from South Woodford. It’s a nice part of London with a lovely pub (you may know it) called “The Eagle”.

    You said:

    So honestly, I don’t think I have a simple “do this” kind of answer, because I think it is a difficult problem. But then atheism is simply a tool to understand what the world really is (or isn’t) and doesn’t or shouldn’t pretend to have all the answers.

    I put it to you that if we understand what the world, or existence even, really is then we have enough information to make an informed choice between suffering and oblivion (and, as a miserable atheist, that is often the choice they must make). And to look for answers elsewhere is to borrow from things that have been ruled out by the atheistic worldview.

  3. Chris,

    Two questions – what makes you feel so strongly that all people need external motivation to continue living? Do you agree or disagree that there is a drive to survive and avoid harm?

  4. Everything he has said is presumptuous and sanctimonious, and personally denigrating to atheists. It’s just his usual shtick.

    Just my perspective on this, but I don’t see Chris’ comments as denigrating atheists so much as denigrating himself. I mean…it’s his opinion the world is a miserable place. He’s just wondering how, given his theistic security crutch that keeps him going an atheist can possibly do it. So to me then, his point is only denigrating if you buy into his assessment that one needs a security blanket. I don’t buy into that though or into his perspective that the world is a miserable place. Not that I haven’t experienced misery throughout my life (oh…I SOOO have), but I don’t define life in general by my misery in specific.

  5. Chris Doyle:
    Yes, because when it seems like your only choice is pain or oblivion, then the rational choice is oblivion.

    There are many circumstances in life in which we try to relieve the pain with oblivion, albeit temporary oblivion. For example, depressed people often sleep for longer. Sleep is like oblivion. Miserable people often try to drink themselves into oblivion (certainly, the more you drink, the better you feel!) In desperate circumstances, people want to be knocked out rather than be conscious when there leg is being hacked off without anaesthetic.

    So, if a miserable atheist believes that they have the opportunity or capability (even if that’s not true) to grit their teeth and bear it until live becomes worth living again, then there is at least a reason to carry on. But in fact, even if a miserable atheist believes that there will be joy in the future, they might consider that the suffering they must endure until then is frankly not worth it. However, if a miserable atheist is overcome with hopelessness and can see no way out (even if that’s not true) then there is no reason to carry on. If they’re convinced that they must suffer until the day they die, then the sooner that day comes, the better.

    OK. Well, let’s say I accept that.

    Can you tell me what a theist would do in identical circumstances?

    I know you are trying to avoid comparisons, but it seems to me we need to establish what is a property of atheism per se, and what simply a property of life.

    So I think it’s time to see what a non-atheist (see what I did there?) would do.

  6. Greetings Brother Daniel,

    You said:

    You can’t bring up atheism without implicitly bringing up theism.

    That’s a fascinating statement. Although I disagree (for the sake of argument, it is very straightforward to assume the atheistic worldview is actually true and therefore remove all references to religion from the conversation) I’d only refine it slightly to read:

    Atheists can’t bring up atheism without bringing up theism!

    Anyway, we digress. Returning to the matter in hand, you said:

    Are you presuming that no one should ever do anything that they don’t have a knock-down philosophical reason to do? If so, you could simply turn your question around: What reason does anyone have to kill themselves (or do whatever the opposite of “prolong their existence” is in this context)? You haven’t provided one, let alone one that follows specifically from atheistic premises.

    You also ask: Why NOT delay the inevitable oblivion any longer than necessary?

    Perhaps you missed the point I made to Lizzie a few days ago: when oblivion becomes more appealing than sober miserable consciousness, the atheistic worldview offers nothing. Because, to such tragic people, if this is your one and only life, it’s not a life worth living so you can stick it where the sun don’t shine. Feeling and knowing absolutely nothing is preferable to feeling pain and knowing there’s no point in it.

    I suggest that that point provides ample reason to give up on life (and suicide isn’t necessarily the first step in that process, but often the last one).

  7. Hiya Lizzie,

    I happened to whizz past Nottingham twice yesterday on my return trip up the M1 to Leeds. I would’ve waved but my boss was in the car ;-)

    Yes, it will give me great pleasure to tell you what a theist would do in identical circumstances. I will submit an OP on the subject of theism and cover “theistic meaning” in it. With your permission, we can then discuss that there.

    I might not get to it as quickly as I’d like, but I will get to it (I know I don’t need to beg your patience, Lizzie!)

  8. Uniquely? No, give theists more credit for compassion than that. I know lots of decent theists.

  9. Hi Chris,

    Yes, small world! I grew up in Woodford Bridge, so not so far away from you and had relatives in Snaresbrook. The Eagle wasn’t my local but I do remember where it is.

    OK, now to the serious stuff

    I put it to you that if we understand what the world, or existence even, really is then we have enough information to make an informed choice between suffering and oblivion (and, as a miserable atheist, that is often the choice they must make). And to look for answers elsewhere is to borrow from things that have been ruled out by the atheistic worldview.

    I guess I’m not really sure what you’re ultimately getting at here. It’s quite easy to concoct another example here were the theist’s only choices are between suffering and a tentative (but unseen, unproven) afterlife. What’s to stop them also choosing the easy way out? But many theists don’t. Of course you may argue that their faith and relationship with God sustains them. And in some cases that’s true (although I think the “relationship” that theists like to claim they have with God is a hugely overblown and oversold idea and offers very little of the real comforts of real tangible human relationships). But why shouldn’t art or music or any number of things sustain atheists even during their suffering? In the end should I choose to be a theist (even though I think there is no evidence for theism, just because it would give me some reason to carry on living? But again my own personal experience is that I’m happier and more content as an atheist than I ever was as a Christian.

    You also mention that atheism “rules out” borrowing from elsewhere. Why should a “belief in no-Gods” stop an atheist from adopting any number of philosophical positions or even spiritual practices if they find these life-enriching? Why would an atheist (which again I would argue is not a “worldview” but a non-belief in supernatural gods and little more), not borrow from other sources.

    Atheism does not solely define who a person is. An atheist could quite comfortably also be a libertarian, a democrat, a Republican, a Unitarian, a Zen Buddhist, perhaps even a Raelian! It is not a worldview but just one of many stances about the world that a person could adopt (and one could argue similarly that the labels “Democrat” and “Republican” in the US are quite inadequate now to describe a whole variety and spectrum of different political views that people hold).

    After all Christianity and probably all religions have freely cross-fertilized (and arguably many of the basic tenets of Judaism/Christianity are found in other religions too, even earlier ones I believe – e.g., the Golden Rule is probably not unique to Judaism but originated earlier).

  10. Perhaps you missed the point I made to Lizzie a few days ago: when oblivion becomes more appealing than sober miserable consciousness, the atheistic worldview offers nothing.

    I suppose, if you want to consider atheism as a baseline from which theism represents a divergence, you could consider atheism to offer “nothing”. The question would then be: What does theism offer, relative to atheism; and is it a good thing?

    Because, to such tragic people, if this is your one and only life, it’s not a life worth living so you can stick it where the sun don’t shine.

    Alternatively, if this is your one and only life (as opposed to just a rehearsal for the real thing, as implied by any worldview involving an “afterlife”), it could be seen as more worth living rather than less.

    That’s the problem with these arguments that try to link premises in the form of fact to conclusions in the form of emotion. It’s very easy to turn them around and get the opposite conclusion, because you’re not really dealing in the realm of reason.

    Feeling and knowing absolutely nothing is preferable to feeling pain and knowing there’s no point in it.

    I’m happy to concede that there are some circumstances in which seeking oblivion is a good idea. Any attempt to spell out what those circumstances would be might be a little tricky; it would start with some reference to misery and then pile on a bunch of qualifiers. So the idea that “oblivion is better than pain” is, in a sense, on the right track, IMO.

    But this reference to the idea of there being “no point in it” is misleading at best. It’s nothing more than a figurative and emotional statement of how an atheistic life looks from a theistic perspective. So it really adds nothing to the cost-benefit analysis of whether to persist with your life or not.

    When you’re comparing one worldview to another, for the sake of examining their effects on that cost-benefit analysis, you can compare their effects on how a person would feel about persisting, and you can compare their effects on how a person would feel about ending it all. You have a lot of work ahead of you if you seriously want to argue that theism makes this life more attractive than atheism does. I can see how theism would make the other option (suicide or whatever) less attractive than atheism does, but that’s not a point in favour of theism.

  11. Hello again, Woodford.

    What I believe has emerged from this discussion is that, within the atheistic worldview, pleasure is the ultimate goal. Therefore, if an atheist is leading a pleasurable existence, or even an existence with more pleasure than pain, then there is nothing further to discuss… providing the atheistic worldview is true. But, if an atheist is leading a painful existence, or even an existence with more pain than pleasure, then a choice emerges: pain or oblivion. And faced with that choice, oblivion becomes more appealing and rational than pain.

    In your most recent response you appeal to “art or music or any number of things to sustain atheists even during their suffering”. While I agree that “art or music or any number of things” can and do bring pleasure, they absolutely do not bring enough comfort to the truly miserable people in this life. When the pain becomes too much, we say to ourselves “please make it stop” and we really mean it. An atheist can make the pain stop whenever they like by choosing oblivion. If they are desperate enough, it is the only rational choice. Now, if you disagree with that, you need to explain why by offering an alternative rational choice.

    Atheism rules out borrowing from elsewhere because, “elsewhere” (if the atheistic worldview is true) is at best, untrue; at worst, meaningless nonsense. Naturally, atheists can and often do borrow their values from religion but, if the atheistic worldview is true, then that is a purely irrational act. I even agree that many atheists don’t allow the consequences of their worldview to affect their lives: they choose meaning when there is none and choose morality when they don’t need to. But, if there really is no God and our meaningless existence serves only to briefly interrupt eternal oblivion, then reason demands that that fact informs every aspect of our lives. Ignoring those demands, as many atheists do, is irrational.

  12. Good Morning Brother Daniel,

    I want to assume that the atheistic worldview is true and, so far, I agree with you that we can “consider atheism to offer ‘nothing’”.

    I understand that this discussion provokes an emotional response. However, my argument is entirely non-emotional. On the contrary, it lies entirely within the realm of reason: faced with a choice between pain and oblivion, then the rational thing to do is choose oblivion. It’s no good saying “but this is your one and only life so it is more worth living than less” because if existence is painful and oblivion is inevitable, it is much more rational to choose oblivion if that is the only way to make the pain stop. At least the miserable atheist can be assured that they won’t have to suffer in another life.

    You appreciate this fact, which is why you say:

    I’m happy to concede that there are some circumstances in which seeking oblivion is a good idea.

    And

    So the idea that “oblivion is better than pain” is, in a sense, on the right track, IMO.

    But you dispute “this reference to the idea of there being ‘no point in it’” is misleading at best. The absence of any purpose in existence is precisely what makes the choice between pain and oblivion such an easy one to make in purely rational terms.

    You know, you might not like it very much, but I think you agree with me more than you realise when it comes to atheistic meaning. Please take some time out to reflect on that fact without reference to religion.

  13. I want to assume that the atheistic worldview is true

    But instead, you’ve been describing what an atheistic life looks like from your theistic perspective.

    and, so far, I agree with you that we can “consider atheism to offer ‘nothing’”.

    Please don’t pretend that I said so without qualification.

    I understand that this discussion provokes an emotional response. However, my argument is entirely non-emotional. On the contrary, it lies entirely within the realm of reason:

    No, it doesn’t. You claim that life is “meaningless” and “pointless” from atheistic premises, but such a claim has no meaning apart from being a statement of pure emotion. It’s nothing more than your emotional response to how an atheistic life looks from your theistic perspective.

    The absence of any purpose in existence is precisely what makes the choice between pain and oblivion such an easy one to make in purely rational terms.

    The emotional state that can be described as “a lack of purpose in existence” is merely part of what could possibly contribute to existence being painful. You’re misusing an emotional state by treating it as a philosophical premise. Your argument is sleight-of-hand.

    You know, you might not like it very much, but I think you agree with me more than you realise when it comes to atheistic meaning. Please take some time out to reflect on that fact without reference to religion.

    What I “don’t like very much” is your condescension. But that’s neither here nor there.

    You’ve been injecting emotional content into this discussion all along, so it’s awfully disingenuous of you to try to score points from any hint of emotion you think you see in the responses you provoke.

    As for whether I agree with your statements or not, I think I’m in a better position to know about the contents of my own mind than you are. Please take some time out to reflect on that fact.

  14. A far more effective and convincing way to disagree with me, brother, would be to provide a rational basis for a miserable atheist to choose suffering over oblivion.

    Failing that, reason demands that you agree with me: atheism offers nothing in these circumstances… and no further qualification is needed.

  15. I already exposed your entire argument as sleight-of-hand. You haven’t even TRIED to present a rebuttal.

    I don’t think you’re in a position to dictate what “reason demands”.

  16. OK, time to use some new toys :)

    I have moved a few comments to Guano.
    Will try to clarify the rules a little more as time goes by, but in the mean time people will have to put up with arbitrary diktat :)

  17. Chris: it seems to me this discussion isn’t quite connecting.

    There seems to be general agreement that fear-of-being-found-out-and-punished is a motivation to keep to the rules.

    There is some willingness on the part of atheists to concede that possibly, sometimes, fear-of-being-found-out-and-punished might, in the case of theists, extend to fear-of-God-finding-out-and-punishing-in-the-next-life, and thus, possibly, result in a theist doing something that most people would considier ethically right, when the atheist wouldn’t.

    However, on the atheist side, there is unanimity, it seems to me, that the theist in question isn’t being more moral,but rather merely has an extra personal consequence to consider. And that both of them are extremely selfish individuals, motivated only by self-interest.

    So I think your case that theism makes people more moral remains unpersuasive :)

    Or perhaps it was not your case. Perhaps it was just your case that theism makes people more inclined to obey the rules.

    Or do you perhaps think that these are the same? In which case, does it even matter whether theism is true? Could we not do equally well with Boney, or Schwartze Piet?

  18. What I believe has emerged from this discussion is that, within the atheistic worldview, pleasure is the ultimate goal. Therefore, if an atheist is leading a pleasurable existence, or even an existence with more pleasure than pain, then there is nothing further to discuss…

    Well, again I don’t think there is such a thing as a coherent atheistic worldview. Again…I’m an atheist, and I’m an X, and a Y, and a Z. I completely disagree too about pleasure being the ultimate goal. Atheists can and are responsible citizens who serve their countries, perform civic functions, make sacrifices for their families, and conduct altruistic acts of charity to complete strangers. I’m in a relationship myself, and I care for my partner in a way that goes far beyond just the “pleasure” I receive from being in this relationship.

    In the end we ALL make up our own meaning in life. You get yours (I assume) from a set of holy scripture (of course you claim this is from God directly, but that is a faith statement, not a fact statement). I get mine from a variety of resources, it is not neatly handed to me in a leather bound volume (which frankly is so contradictory anyway is often quite useless as a guide to ethics or moral living). Yes, atheists can get despondent; and theists get despondent. Perhaps you think it’s better to be a theist and at least have a hope in an afterlife, I don’t know. Speaking for myself (and I cannot really speak for anybody else), it has been utterly empowering to take control of my life. Sure, I’m lucky – I have good healthy, good friends, live in a safe place, so sure it’s easier. But in the end though whatever those circumstances I would rather face reality head-on then continue to believe (as I did for 15 years) what in the end I came to realize was a delusion.

    In the end do I a) Want to live a miserable life as a theist (I knew plenty of unhappy theists!) , with the slim possibility that there may be an afterlife and pretend to believe in a deity for which I sincerely doubt exists or, b) Live my life the best as I can, as a conscious human being, in a responsible, caring way that respects other humans, but without the need to wish deities or external supernatural agents for which I cannot find evidence?

  19. You have done no such thing, Brother Daniel. On the contrary, you have actually agreed with me. Then, when the implications of this sank in, you back-tracked at which point I asked you, once again, to “provide a rational basis for a miserable atheist to choose suffering over oblivion.”

    So far, you have failed to do so. Which means, reason is on my side here, not yours.

  20. Morning Woodford,

    You repeat your claim that there is no such thing as a coherent atheistic worldview. This is an interesting way of avoiding dealing with the implications of widely-believed atheistic doctrine like this:

    The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.

    I’m using the term ‘pleasure’ in its widest sense, as it is often employed philosophically. Pleasure encompasses (amongst other things) joy, love, desire and fulfilment. As I pointed out before, sadly, not everyone leads such a rich and rewarding life as you do, Woodford. On the contrary, many live without pleasure, or certainly not enough of it. Rationally speaking, they are faced with a choice between pain (and again, the term ‘pain’ is used in its widest sense) or oblivion. And faced with that choice, oblivion becomes more appealing and rational than pain. Do you agree? If not, then I’m looking for a reason why.

  21. You have done no such thing, Brother Daniel.

    You should go back and re-read the discussion, instead of sticking your fingers in your ears and saying “nyah nyah I can’t hear you”, as you’re doing now.

    On the contrary, you have actually agreed with me.

    I’ve offered a limited agreement with part of your conclusion. The fact that you choose to read far more into this limited agreement than is warranted is not my fault.

    Then, when the implications of this sank in, you back-tracked

    You must be thinking of a different discussion, with someone else, on a different site. Because this description has no resemblance whatsoever to our exchange. I have not backtracked at all.

    Perhaps you should read what I actually write, instead of twisting my comments into a role that you’ve decided for me in advance.

    at which point I asked you, once again, to “provide a rational basis for a miserable atheist to choose suffering over oblivion.”

    A loaded and misleading question.

    Which means, reason is on my side here, not yours.

    Simply asserting that over and over doesn’t make it so.

  22. Chris Doyle: This is an interesting way of avoiding dealing with the implications of widely-believed atheistic doctrine like this:

    There’s no such thing as “atheist doctrine”. Sure, theists often make up stuff, and falsely assert such things. But this is not supposed to be a discussion of the ugly things theists say about atheism and atheists.

    The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.

    That sounds pretty silly. In fact, we should not have any precise expectations. We should observe and discover the world as it is, without attempting to impose preconceived ideas on it.

  23. Neil, I’m quoting Richard Dawkins. Many of his atheistic followers believe every word he says. You are dismissing (as “silly”) something that most atheists believe to be true and something that all atheists should believe to be true if they properly reflect on their chosen worldview.

  24. Dawkins is just some guy with a lot of opinions. The fact that he said something does not give it any special weight.

    You appear to be presuming that Dawkins is (or ought to be) treated as some sort of prophet by atheists. Quite a bizarre idea, that.

    That “most atheists believe [it] to be true” is both unsupported and irrelevant. That “all atheists should believe [it] to be true if they properly reflect…” is at least relevant, but still unsupported.

  25. Chris Doyle: Neil, I’m quoting Richard Dawkins.

    Why are you appointing Dawkins to be the high priest of atheism? Are you not aware that many atheists criticize Dawkins for his books on religion?

    The statement you quote was probably made for rhetorical effect, and not meant to be taken literally.

    You are dismissing (as “silly”) something that most atheists believe to be true and something that all atheists should believe to be true if they properly reflect on their chosen worldview.

    Have you actually done a statistical survey on what atheists believe? Or are you just making stuff up.

  26. Not meant to be taken literally? You mean, what Dawkins really had in mind was that God created the universe and human beings have a purpose in it?

    I know that most atheists don’t practice what they preach: they borrow their moral values from religion for starters! Presumably you’ve conducted such a survey though or else what possible grounds do you have to disagree with me?

  27. Rationally speaking, they are faced with a choice between pain (and again, the term ‘pain’ is used in its widest sense) or oblivion. And faced with that choice, oblivion becomes more appealing and rational than pain. Do you agree? If not, then I’m looking for a reason why.

    It feels like you are playing some kind of rhetorical trick Chris. First you are quite mistaken by an atheistic worldview, despite quite a few people now trying to correct you. For me atheism is simply the absence of a belief in all gods. That of course doesn’t necessarily rule out some “other” in the Universe that I have yet to discover (or possibly even an afterlife, although I admit the evidnece for that is beyond small). What I then do with that information is a personal and individual choice, not something I make based on “atheistic doctrine” (no, we don’t get regular talking points from Atheism HQ…).

    Perhaps some people do choose to take their own lives if faced with the possibility of “oblivion”, but many, even those in dire circumstances, do not. My own personal experience and that of my atheistic friends, is that faced with what is likely just a short time on earth, take life by the horns and try to squeeze every little drop out of it. Now, if my circumstances were different and maybe I had some horrible disease like ALS, would I want to take matters into my own hands at some point. Possibly, I don’t know. But if I did, the reasons would have little to do with atheism, it would be to do with qualty of life, the burden I would put in care givers, and whether my mind was still functioning. And I suspect that the kind of considerations I would go through would be exactly the same as for a theist.

    So I’m increasingly wondering in your posts, what’s your point? After all, in the end we believe there is a god (or gods perhaps if you’re Hindu) or there isn’t. I’m not going to choose to believe there is a god simply because I like the consequences and implications of that choice. I don’t believe in god, simply because the evidence just isn’t there, then I have to deal with the consequences (which as I’ve said before I believe are far more enriching and life-empowering than bowing to some imaginary entity).

  28. Chris Doyle:
    Morning Woodford,

    You repeat your claim that there is no such thing as a coherent atheistic worldview. This is an interesting way of avoiding dealing with the implications of widely-believed atheistic doctrine like this:

    The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.

    Chris, that was Darwin, not Dawkins.

    And he was clearly talking about the universe as a whole, not the things it contains. I think it is an important distinction. The properties of a whole are not the same as the properties of its parts, and it does not follow that if one posits that the universe itself is indifferent to the things it gives rise to, that it follows that things it gives rise to are necessarily indifferent to each other, or, indeed to it.

  29. Chris Doyle-
    I am not a philosopher (I’m more like an otter).
    What do you mean when you say that life, or a life, has meaning?
    When you put the miserable person’s choice as between pain and oblivion, do you mean pain with zero possibility of abating?

    Thanks.

  30. Elizabeth,

    Actually, I think that was Dawkins, from his book River Out of Eden, according to the Internets. And I think it is his observation, not a doctrine in any sense. Use of words like doctrine, and the treatment by theists of Dawkins and (shhh) Lewontin as though they were prophets of some sort, strike me as reflections of the differences in priors you have mentioned.

  31. No Lizzie, you are completely mistaken on this point. It was Richard Dawkins who said this and he clearly was not just “talking about the universe as a whole, not the things it contains.” Here is a longer quote from “River Out Of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life”:

    The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.

    This is the atheistic worldview that you have subscribed to, Lizzie. You don’t fully appreciate this just now but, like most other atheists, one day you will. And, if the atheistic worldview is true, then Dawkins is absolutely correct, that much is indisputable. Many of his followers certainly believe this, as do his new converts. Dawkins also provides a rock-solid rational basis for the miserable atheist to choose oblivion over suffering and the atheistic young man to steal the old lady’s money jar.

  32. Apologies, looks like you are right!

    However, it seems to be misattributed to Darwin in places on the internet, and I thought I remembered it from something he wrote in connection with the death of his daughter.

    But the rhythm is more Dawkins than Darwin :)

    And I absolutely endorse your main point. I often find it curious when people quote either Darwin or Dawkins as being the authoritative voice on evolution or atheism.

    Darwin was wrong about lots of aspects of evolution, and Dawkins is a terrible theologian.

    ETA: and why would we believe them anyway, just because they said so?

  33. Yes, I was wrong about the quote, Chris, although I’m not the first to attribute it to Darwin! Note to self: always check the primary source….

    But we are still not connecting :)

    Where does Dawkins say that there is “no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference” in the world?

    Do you think that Dawkins thinks (I know he does not, but he has, typically, spoken carelessly here) that no buildings are designed, that people do not act evilly, that people do not do good things, that people are without pity and care nothing for each other?

    Most atheists do not believe that the world was designed by something with a purpose, yet they are perfectly prepared to accept the evidence of their own experience that people behave purposefully – in other words that purposefulness can arise from purposelessness.

    Is this were we disagree?

    Becauses it seems to me that this is the nub of the issue.

  34. Chris Doyle,

    This is the atheistic worldview that you have subscribed to, Lizzie. You don’t fully appreciate this just now but, like most other atheists, one day you will.

    On the contrary, atheists appreciate it just as well as believers. The difference is that they are able to gaze unflinchingly on such a bleak scene while believers need a little supernatural support . In this one view at least, Karl Marx had a point:.

    Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

    From the atheist perspective, it is believers who, faced with all the pain cruelty, evil, and injustice to which Dawkins alluded and which both sides see in the world, have to anesthetize their delicate sensibilities against such an intolerable prospect with a belief in better things to come. It’s a good bet – a rational bet – too. If they are right, they will enter the Kingdom of God. If atheists are right and they are wrong, they will never know.

    Unfortunately, as an alternative explanation for all the suffering in the world, such a faith entails holding the risible belief that all the suffering in the world is God’s sentence on mankind for Adam and Eve’s misbehavior in the Garden of Eden. How any Christian can square the grotesque injustice of punishing not only the original offenders but their families and descendants in perpetuity with the concept of an all-loving God is quite beyond me. But apparently believers find such intellectual contortions well worth the effort.

    Dawkins also provides a rock-solid rational basis for the miserable atheist to choose oblivion over suffering and the atheistic young man to steal the old lady’s money jar.

    That’s not the way atheists see it, Chris. Existence is better than non-existence except in those minority of cases where it is not.

    I had an uncle who was something of the ‘black sheep’ of the family. He was one of those boisterous, always-cheerful types who seemed to enjoy life hugely, mistakes, disappointments and all. He belonged to a church but was never a strong believer as far as I could tell; it was more a faith of convenience, useful for births, marriages and funerals. A while back, he was diagnosed with a cancer but it was too late. It had already spread to other parts of his body and there was nothing that could be done to stop it. He clung to life for as long as he could but, inevitably, his condition deteriorated. Modern medicine, as in so many such cases, saved him from having to make the awful choice of deciding when it was no longer worthwhile to continue. As the pain became worse so the dosage of painkiller was ramped up. Eventually, it was so powerful that he fell into a sleep from which he never awoke. His body simply failed under the combined effects of the disease and the drugs. He showed, although he was far from unique, that, for all its problems, this life can be good and, given half a chance, can be made better without any help from above. Yes, eventually he died, just as we all will. It’s one of those hard, inconvenient truths that we all have to live with, like the lack of any persuasive evidence that there is anything after death.

    If your God exists, Chris, then I hold Him ultimately responsible for all the evil and suffering in the world. I certainly see nothing there to worship. He knew what would happen when He started all this, had the power to prevent it and did nothing. And He still seems curiously reluctant to intervene even when His most devoted followers beg Him for help. So, if He’s not prepared to pitch in and lend us a hand then the best thing He can do is just go away and let us get on with it. We’ll make do with what we have.

  35. I know that most atheists don’t practice what they preach: they borrow their moral values from religion for starters!

    You “know” a lot of rubbish.

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