Advice to an Atheist
Before now, I've written two previous posts offering, and soliciting, advice for atheist readers who've found themselves in difficult situations. With today's post, I'm thinking I ought to make it a regular series.
I was contacted by a reader with the following dilemma:
As part of my job, I am often expected to attend and participate in public meetings that are put on either by my employer or by community councils that are affiliated with it. My Canadian employer is considered to be a public organization and the council members are voted in by their respective communities. None are government bodies and none have any religious affiliation or mandate. However, most of these meetings begin and end with a Christian prayer for which all in attendance are asked to stand. Most participants also close their eyes and bow their heads during the prayer which is typically given by an elder in attendance at the meeting and which often asks for guidance from God for the various decisions and discussions undertaken at the meeting.
I am an atheist and although this may be a small matter to many people, being asked to participate in prayer is not something I feel at all comfortable or happy about and am thankful that my regular duties and staff meetings do not include them. I don't believe that supernatural guidance is necessary or is imparted in order to carry out our responsibilities at these meetings and I resent feeling coerced into an implicit agreement with this belief by participating in these prayers.
Certainly, no one is forcing me to stand or to be present for these prayers but by declining to participate at all, I must choose to centre myself out (and my nonparticipation in the prayer) either by remaining seated or by leaving the room. Although to date, I have participated by only standing and not bowing my head, I feel that even this is a compromise of my own principles. I am annoyed by the procedure, although I know that the prayers are benign and no one intends to give offence.
This isn't a daily event and it isn't a huge imposition but it has bothered me enough that I have written this. I am not sure that making a fuss is worth it, particularly given that I live in a small community and the ramifications of any overt action may be farther reaching than I would like. However, I also think that those responsible for leading these meetings need to consider that not all in attendance may wish to pray to the Christian god or indeed, pray at all and that conducting prayers in this way is coercive. What makes this situation also unique is that my organization and these councils were created specifically for the benefit of an aboriginal First Nation and hence many who attend these meetings would be sensitive to any criticism that would be seen to impose upon their cultural practises, particularly given the history of religious indoctrination imposed upon Canadian aboriginals in the past by government education policies.
I'd be grateful for any thoughtful advice you or your readers could give me.
And in a followup e-mail:
...As another example of how religious my home community is and how prevalent the prayer-before-a-meeting procedure is, a few nights ago our community began a debate with our local candidates for a federal election (!) with a Christian prayer, for which all were asked to rise. A woman beside me muttered to me before the prayer that this was something she never gets used to and is continually surprised by. Nonetheless, we both rose and stood silently along with everyone else in the room during the prayer which in usual style, asked for God's guidance, assistance and oversight for all during the proceedings.
As always, context is everything when giving advice in situations like this. Much depends on how the prayer is viewed by the council members. Is this prayer just a formality that they carry on for the sake of tradition, or is it something they genuinely believe in and consider meaningful? (Granted, different council members may take different views about this.)
If it's the former, you may have a chance at stopping it without causing a public scene. You described the situation by saying that no one there intends to give offense and that they may not realize that all attendees are Christian. Would it be possible for you to convey that to them? I'd advise starting with one particular council member - whichever one you think is most likely to be sympathetic to your views. You could approach them in private, state the fact that you're not Christian and that you don't feel comfortable being asked to take part in a prayer session for a religion in which you don't believe. This approach could be adjusted depending on how you expect it to be received. If you're concerned about a hostile response, your contact could be in the form of an anonymous letter. On the other side of the equation, you might make more of an impression if you could come, not just representing yourself, but with a signed petition from other attendees who are also opposed to the prayer. (It sounds though you're not the only one.)
If you make your case and the council isn't sympathetic, or if you elect not to take that route, the situation becomes tougher. I fully understand why you wouldn't want to take part, or even give the impression that you're taking part, in a religious ceremony. I feel the same way. To me, it would feel as if I'm going against my own principles to stand for prayer. Politeness is one thing, but being polite does not require that you give the appearance of assent.
On the occasions when politeness compels me to attend church, such as a wedding or a funeral, I follow a basic principle: I'll sit quietly and politely, but that's all. I don't stand when the congregation stands, nor kneel if they kneel. I feel this strikes a good balance between attending the ceremony, not making a scene, but making it clear that I come as an outsider, not a member of the faith. I won't interfere with people's religious rituals, but neither will I participate. Perhaps this is a plan you could consider adopting, assuming the council isn't willing to make things easier for you.
What do you say, readers? Can you improve on my advice?
From the Mailbag
Although I get my share of kook mail, I'd much rather share the truly inspiring e-mails I receive - the ones that remind me why I write and give me the motivation to keep at it. I welcome the reminder that, beyond the political battles and debates that accompany every nascent reform movement, there are real people, fellow freethinkers, whose lives are affected by what we say and do. I'm always grateful to make the acquaintance of a kindred spirit, somewhere out in the wilds of the world; and if by some chance something I write strikes a chord within them, then it's my privilege to have had that opportunity.
In the past week or so, I've had two e-mails I'd like to share. I reprint them here not to boast, but as proof that our efforts as advocates for atheism are not in vain - that we do have the power to make a difference in peoples' lives by nourishing the seeds that were already latent within them.
First, from Daylight Atheism reader Andrew:
I really wanted to email you and let you know more directly how your writings, from both ebon musings and daylight atheism, have impacted my life in a positive way. I was raised catholic and was fully indoctrinated as a child all the way until College. I guess I kind of always had questions (especially in the realm of the "problem of evil") related to what I was taught. It is amazing, looking back, that I had accepted or entertained so many of these religious assumptions and "truths". I guess it is a testament to the power of religious indoctrination. Even if my parents only wanted the best for me they themselves were indoctrinated, and were trying their best. When I got to really hardcore questioning, closer in time to where I am now now in grad school, it was well thought out and expressed arguments and writings, like yours in particular, that helped me immensely. As a cognitive neuroscientist now working toward my PhD currently I am attempting to be as utterly honest and objective as I can. The appreciation for empirical evidence has only been increased through a clearer view of reality, and materialistic views, that I have gained with help from you. These understandings are crucial to reaching my goals and contributing to the scientific endeavor in the long run, and I wanted you to know how thankful I was for your help. I continue to read your blog and look forward to your book eagerly.
Also, I just received this letter from a reader in Chile (I don't know if she was okay with me using her name):
I rarely write emails to people I don't know, but this time I had to :). I just wanted to thank you: finding your site has comfort me, open my eyes and liberate me in so many ways I can't explain. Not only it has assured me in my atheism, but also it has given me weapons to fight with the people that try to impose their beliefs in my life, people that have make me feel sad, uncomfortable, angry and wrong. I'm chilean, I've been an atheist since my early teens. I'm studying laws in, which supposedly, is the best university around, but which is sadly, a catholic one (Chile is a very catholic country). I first entered the university because I was told that they embraced the natural laws doctrine, which I find obvious, but no one told me that the only natural law theory we would study was the theological one. As you can imagine, the natural law class is awful: they base the laws in God and his "eternal law" (crap crap crap. at least the other classes are good), etc. Not once I have study Kant, Descartes and other rationalists that subscribe to naturalism. I have fought with the teacher, which is a fundamentalist of course, and even left in the middle of some classes because of anger. Obviously I started looking for ways to refute the stupidities the teacher tell us (I'm not a philosopher!), and that's how I found your website. I have your "unmoved mover" essay printed out and sticked in my natural law notebook, haha; is great to feel that that man who feels so secure about the 5 ways to prove god (saint thomas) is WRONG. But all your other essays are amazing, and a "blessing" for me; I even cried with "stardust", though I think the same thing about the issue than you do. Reading your site is now an everyday must for me!
Well, I hope you read this mail. If you do, again, I want to thank you over and over.
Sharing the Kook Mail
For whatever reason, I don't get as much entertaining e-mail from religious nuts as some other atheist bloggers I know of. If I were inclined to flatter myself, I'd say it's because they're silenced by the devastating power of my arguments. More likely, it's just because most of the notorious crazies haven't come across my site.
In either case, crackpot e-mail in my inbox is sufficiently rare that when I do get e-mail from genuine kooks, I can't keep it to myself. I just have to share it with you all. Following is a message I received the other night from a person whose hatred of atheists is evident, whose hold on reality is debatable, and who holds a unique interpretation of the death of Jesus. All spelling and grammar is as in the original. Enjoy!
Date: 16 May 2008 11:22
Subject: Feedback: An Easter Blessing
One thing is sure. The devil has his ring in your nose and is controlling your every thought and action.
He has you convinced that there is no proof of Jesus. As with all of his other lies he is wrong.
I have proven the reality of Jesus for years. I live in perfect health because of Him. I live a life of miracles including divine protection.
I have seen Him as He hung on the cross. Because He had suffered the worst case of every sickness and disease that would ever touch a human body, His body was so grotesque rhat if the people had been able to see it, they could not have handled seeing it.
I have seen Him seated at the roght hand of the Father in heaven.
The devil has you so deluded that you are arrogant and condescending, thinking you are smarter than we who know Jesus.
Unless you rejest the lies of the devil you will spend eternity in hell with your father, rhe devil.
May God have mercy on your pitiful soul.
As a rule, I don't make fun of people who are clearly mentally ill (although I consider anyone who attracts a substantial following to be fair game). On the other hand, the line between excessive religiosity and psychosis is a blurry one. This writer's soteriology is a bit unorthodox, but his religious visions and his claims to be the beneficiary of miracles would not be out of place in many large, conventional churches. Nor, for that matter, would his denunciations of atheists.
Unfortunately, the way that religious belief exalts irrationality means that genuine mental disorders can go unnoticed. Primordial Blog tells the sad story of Blair Donnelly, a man whose untreated psychosis resulted in him murdering his daughter because he believed God had told him to do so. This tragedy might have been averted if Donnelly had received psychiatric treatment, but he was a member of a Pentecostal sect that viewed his constant claims of hearing voices and seeing demons not as symptoms of illness, but great spiritual gifts. I have no reason to believe that my correspondent suffers from any similar disorder, but the possibility cannot be completely dismissed.
An Open Letter to Ellen Johnson
I was away last weekend and came back to an astonishing story: Ellen Johnson, Madalyn Murray O'Hair's successor as president of American Atheists, has proudly announced that she didn't vote in the recent presidential primaries. Even more jaw-dropping, she's urged atheists not to vote in the general election either. Here's the video, which is still linked from American Atheists' homepage at the time of this writing.
Friendly Atheist, Atheist Revolution, and others have discussed this story, and I had to chime in. Below is my letter to Ellen Johnson.
UPDATE: Ellen Johnson responds. See below.
* * *
Dear Ms. Johnson,
As an atheist and an American, I watched with incredulity your recent video in which you urged atheists to sit out the 2008 presidential election and not vote. With all due respect, I have just one thing to say: Have you lost your mind?
I consider it a moral obligation for every citizen of a democratic nation to vote, but more than that, I consider it essential for atheists, for sound reasons of political self-interest. Ms. Johnson, I know I don't need to tell you that the threat posed by the religious right is grave. They are working their hardest to darken the founding principles of our secular democracy and turn America into a theocratic state where their repressive and dogmatic faith holds sway. If we are to defend against this threat, if we are to triumph over it, we must vote! How else are we possibly supposed to exert our political will? You say, "We should flex our muscle and stay home in the general election in November" - but what you are proposing is not flexing our political muscles. What you're proposing is that we sit on the couch and not use those muscles at all!
I share your frustration with candidates who pander to religious interests and ignore secularists, but not voting is not the answer. Things are this way because, for the longest time, religious groups held unchallenged power in our society, and politicians had to appease them to have any hope of winning. With the strong, assertive atheist movement that has risen to prominence in recent years, this situation is starting to change. But politicians, conservative creatures by nature, are used to the old order; and in any case, we haven't developed our infrastructure to the point where we can change the course of elections all by ourselves.
I understand why an atheist would be upset, seeing the burgeoning freethought movement and yet still seeing a slew of candidates whose speeches and positions are saturated with god-talk. But this doesn't mean that our efforts have failed and we should turn away from politics. What it means is that we've only just begun to fight! We do have the power to change the political landscape, but it will take time and effort. And it will only happen if atheists get more involved in politics - not if we stay home on election day. We need to vote, we need to form interest groups, we need to court and lobby politicians. When we lose, we need to take that as our cue to work harder. We're not guaranteed success, of course, but one thing that is guaranteed is that we will never change anything by giving up.
You assert that our not voting will persuade candidates that we cannot be taken for granted and will encourage them to pay greater attention to our desires in the future. In all probability, its actual effect would be to persuade candidates that we are irrelevant, and will encourage them to write us off and further concentrate their attention on those groups who do vote - the extremists of the religious right. Far from strengthening atheists' political hand, our abstention from politics would only strengthen our most dangerous enemies and cause politicians to spend even more time and energy flattering, courting, and appeasing them. Democracy is like temperature, and elections the thermometer - we sample the mood of the electorate by averaging out the motions of individual voters. Remove all the voters on one end of the scale, and you only shift the average in the other direction, much as removing all the coldest or hottest atoms causes a liquid's temperature to shift toward the opposite extreme.
Democracy is by its nature a process of compromise. Do you not like any of the candidates? Vote for the one you dislike the least. In this way, we exert a "selective pressure" in the desired direction. If that candidate wins, then others will be drawn to those positions in the next election, and again, you can exert selective pressure in the right direction by voting for the best of those candidates. Anyone who understands evolution should understand that we steer the course of democracy in this way. Not voting, by contrast, only allows our political opponents free rein to shift the landscape in the directions they desire. It makes us irrelevant in the truest sense.
I was not a member of American Atheists before, but I can say with great confidence that your message has persuaded me never to join or support your organization as long as you are its president. I don't understand what American Atheists' purpose in existing even is, if it wants nonbelievers to abdicate their place in politics. As for me, I am a member, and will continue to be a member, of atheist and freethought organizations that encourage their supporters to vote, to lobby, and to make our voices heard.
A Response to the Theist's Guide
I first posted "The Theist's Guide to Converting Atheists" on Ebon Musings in June 2001. At that time, I promised that I would cite any theist who prepared an equivalent list and posted it on the internet. In the six and a half years since, I've had a total of two responses to that offer. One was discussed in June of last year.
Last month, I got a second reply from a theist calling himself Quixote. He told me that if he had heard of my essay earlier, I wouldn't have had to wait this long, and I quite agree. He's offered a sincere effort, for which I duly applaud him. I'm glad that he invested the time and effort to compose an honest response. I think his criteria also offer some insights into the mind of the believer, but I'll offer some more specific comments before getting to that.
The primary thing I think readers should notice about Quixote's list is that there is little or nothing along the lines of, "If we observed X, Y or Z, that would prove theism is false." Instead, his essay is mainly concerned with abstract philosophical issues such as "prove that justice doesn't exist", or "prove that mind is more likely to arise from natural than supernatural causes". No explanation is given as to how to accomplish any of these things or what a valid answer would look like. I believe I can claim that the conditions offered in my essay are far more concrete, objective and definite than Quixote's, most of which are vague, ill-defined and subjective.
The first item on his list has to do with the existence of emotions and qualia:
Hope, joy, love, jealousy, personality, intelligence, and the like — we observe them everyday, both firsthand and in others. Both atheism and theism account for them in their systems, however, theism has a prima fascia advantage given these observations.... Personality appears to permeate the universe, which lends itself to theism over atheism. Were it demonstrated conclusively that these observations are more likely to obtain under atheism (not proved, mind you), I would deconvert.
First of all, I don't know what Quixote means by personality "permeating the universe", given that the only personalities we observe are our fellow human beings, and far from permeating the universe, we are presently confined to one small planet out of all the cosmos.
Second: I want to focus on Quixote's claim about which system of thought has an advantage when it comes to explaining human emotions. He says it is "easier" to imagine a world in which these things are fundamental, while the idea of thoughts and emotions arising from matter is a "harder case to make". In other words, Quixote's claim is that he personally finds it difficult to imagine how an intelligent mind might arise from a material structure, and this cognitive incapacity is what leads him to conclude that mind and intelligence are more likely to be non-mechanistic and supernatural. In short, this is a God-of-the-Gaps argument from personal incredulity.
In fact, it's not any easier to explain mind and personality under theism. Indeed, theism tends to consider these things to be irreducibly mysterious, which is the same thing as having no explanation at all. Even if the material causes of these sensations are difficult to explain precisely in an atheist worldview, atheism is at no disadvantage. Unless theism can truly explain these phenomena in a way that atheism cannot, there is no imbalance.
The second item:
I have heard humanity described as "DNA robots," the latest development in the arms race concerned with the survival of DNA. This characterization seems reasonable. If this is accurate, then our selves are illusions. Our sense of purpose and meaning is illusory... If it could be demonstrated conclusively that I was deluded in thinking that life has meaning, I would deconvert.
This is just wrong. Even if human beings are the outcome of a process of evolution that works by propagating genes, it does not follow by any means that our sense of purpose and meaning are illusory. Our genes may have brought us into existence, but that does not mandate that their purposes are our purposes, nor that we are unable to act against them. We are creatures of reason and intellect, and even if those traits originally evolved for reasons of survival advantage, we can employ them to different ends. We can choose not to reproduce, if we desire. We can choose to value nationality or creed more highly than genetics. We can even use genetic manipulation to take deliberate control of our future adaptation. As no less a scientist than Richard Dawkins put it, "We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators."
Quixote's argument is a basic logical fallacy: the claim that the products of a purposeless process must be purposeless themselves. This is like saying that an engineer can't build fast cars unless he's a champion sprinter, or that a soft liquid like water cannot create hard sedimentary stone, or that heavy, non-buoyant metal plates cannot be welded together into a ship that floats or a plane that flies. The product of a process may exhibit qualities not possessed by the process itself. If we choose to find purpose and meaning in pursuing a certain activity, then that purpose and meaning, by definition, is real to us. There is no magical extra ingredient necessary, no elixir of absolute meaningfulness that must be added. Since his premises here are incorrect, I don't think the question of purpose can matter either way when it comes to deciding between atheism and theism, and I'll move on.
Good and Evil, the Problem of Evil, an objective morality. If it could be demonstrated that these are illusory concepts as well, or that they are more likely to proceed from irrational matter, I would deconvert.
As in the last point, these are vague philosophical questions with no objective standard of fulfillment. How would you show that good and evil are "illusory"? How could you prove that they are "more likely" to arise from matter? More likely than what?
Quixote is aware of my proposal for a system of non-theistic objective morality, universal utilitarianism. I'm grateful for his serious consideration of it, but I think he's partially missed the point:
The problem is not that Universal utilitarianism is a bad moral code. It is an excellent moral code. The problem is that UU assumes as its base a portion of the objective moral standard it denies exists.
I've read this several times and I still can't tell what it means. Universal utilitarianism is an objective system of morality, in that it has as its goal a particular aim (the minimization of suffering and the maximization of happiness) such that any action is either actually in accord with this aim (and thus right), or actually not in accord with this aim (and thus wrong). The question of which of these is the case for any given action is not a matter of mere opinion or subjective preference, but a matter of empirical fact which can be resolved by sufficiently careful examination of the world. That is what it means for a system of thought to be objective. The objectivity of UU is not "smuggled in" or "assumed", but is rather a logically inevitable consequence of the axioms it is built on. Those axioms, in turn, appeal to aspects of human experience (the existence of empathy and the desirability of happiness) that are universal or nearly so, and that neither contain nor require any appeal to the gods or any other supernatural entity.
Those who claim that good is only a human construct act as though it permeated the structure of the universe.
Of course morality does not "permeate the structure of the universe". If one atom collides with another, there is no question of which one was in the right. If a comet crashes into Jupiter, it is senseless to ask whether it was unjust for that comet to do so. When an epidemic strikes a human population, we do not denounce the germs as evil. Morality exists only in reference to intelligent, self-aware persons and the acts we commit that affect each other. Quixote's claims about morality seem to contain the bizarre implication that every event, even those that don't involve intelligent agents or even living things, should be judged as having a moral value.
The fourth item on this list rehashes the first:
If it could be demonstrated that rational thought is more likely to arise from irrational matter and causes than from an intelligent agent, I would deconvert.
This is the first empirical criterion on Quixote's list. Not coincidentally, I'd also argue that, by any reasonable standard of judging the question, this criterion has already been met.
We have abundant evidence that thought and personhood arise from, and are unified with, the normal structure and operation of a physical brain - which is why injury, disease, and other insults to the brain can induce profound alterations in a person's consciousness. (This evidence is detailed in my essay "A Ghost in the Machine", which Quixote may not have come across.) By contrast, I know of no evidence whatsoever that personality can exist in the absence of a brain or other comparable physical structure.
...[I]f it were demonstrated that justice is illusory, I would deconvert.
Again, atheism is compatible with the objective existence of justice. And again, this is a vague and subjective criterion with no explanation given of how it could be fulfilled. What evidence or argument would demonstrate that "justice is illusory"? What does that even mean?
If it could be demonstrated conclusively that the sensus divinitatis and theistic experience is the result of a “god gene” or some other natural cause, I would deconvert.
As mentioned above, my essay "A Ghost in the Machine" discusses the evidence for the neurological roots of religious experience, including studies that can reproduce these experiences on demand by magnetically stimulating the brain.
As I mentioned above, I think Quixote's criteria are probably a good snapshot of why most people believe in God. There's little or nothing in the way of empirical evidence regarding physical phenomena in the world; rather, it's mostly philosophical questions of mind, morality and justice, combined with his personal opinions of what strikes him as more likely. These issues, it seems, convince Quixote that a divinity exists, without even studying the real world to see if this belief makes any concrete predictions that can be tested.
But the question of God's existence is not a philosophical matter; it's an empirical matter. Common sense is not a reliable tool when it comes to understanding the true nature of the universe. Not even philosophy is a reliable tool for that. If we want to obtain reliable truth about the way the world is, we need to guide our reasoning with evidence. We need to let the facts guide our judgment.
Daylight Atheism in the News
I wasn't going to post today, but I was going through my Google news alerts and what do I find:
The Daylight Atheism author states, "Over the past several years, I have observed to my dismay the forces of militant religious fundamentalism gaining in strength, both in my home country, the United States of America, and worldwide. This ominous development, driven by those who are dedicated enemies of all the progress and enlightenment that has been achieved over the past several centuries, threatens the liberty and happiness of all people everywhere. As a result, I have been compelled to grow more involved in political causes to help oppose it. We need as many voices as possible calling attention to the evil of the religious right and shining the light of scrutiny on their true goals. Only by doing so can we hope to stop them, and I hope to play some small part in that."
This brief article appeared in the Navasota Examiner, which printed a howler of a column back in December wondering if America's separation of church and state was meant to punish Christianity for the Inquisition, and fretting that the atheist cabal which apparently controls our country now is about to ban the celebration of Christmas. In "The Real Enemies of Christmas", I gave the column's author, Joy Stephenson, a brief lesson in American history and encouraged readers to write in to correct her faulty understanding. Evidently some of you took me up on that, and evidently, Joy Stephenson's bosses at the Examiner are just as blinkered and ignorant as she is.
The letters sent in which were reprinted in my comment thread were very reasonable and polite, but the Examiner's Evalynn Christiansen immediately takes a tone of huffy dismissal, gasping in shock that we dare to disagree with her:
These atheists have declared themselves intellectually superior to all who do not hold their beliefs. That sounds like hypocrisy to me.
In the first place, if disagreeing with someone amounts to declaring yourself their intellectual superior, then one can only assume that Christians must consider themselves the intellectual superiors of everyone who believes differently. I doubt most believers actually feel that way, but it's a direct consequence of this columnist's own logic - which, as usual, she selectively applies only to people she dislikes, with no thought to how the same reasoning would affect her own position.
Second, Christiansen apparently doesn't know what the word "hypocrite" means. Hypocrisy means speaking for one position and acting to support a different one. We atheists are clear and consistent: we advocate free speech, religious neutrality in government, and the use of reason - but since she doesn't like that, she evidently gropes for the first term of insult that comes to mind and then throws it out without thought for its relevance.
Joy Stephenson writes witty op-ed pieces with her audience in mind and was really "preaching to the choir" with this one.
Joy is a delight to read. Keep it up!
Keep what up? Making foolish errors based on a pervasive misunderstanding of America's laws and history? It's notable that Christiansen doesn't even respond to the corrections sent to her, nor does she acknowledge that her columnist was in any way mistaken. She just insults the letter writers, assumes that by doing this she's dealt with their criticisms, and then cheers on her laughably uninformed colleague.
To finish her column, Christiansen announces that most of her paper's subscribers "believe in Christian values" - as if that somehow excused their getting the facts so outrageously wrong. Like many believers, she assumes that her religion should be exempt from criticism and that everyone else should treat her pronouncements with unquestioning assent. Perhaps we need to show her the error of that way of thinking. Here's a link to send a letter to the editor. Anyone care to join me in giving this paper another volley?
The Basis for an Atheist's Morality
Yesterday, the Washington Post published an editorial titled What Atheists Can't Answer. The author, Michael Gerson, is an influential evangelical Christian and was formerly George W. Bush's chief speechwriter.
Compared to most attacks on atheism, including a few I've rebutted recently, Gerson's essay is fair and honest. He rightfully steers clear of the slanderous and unfounded insults so common in apologetic literature, conceding that human beings can be good without God. However, while he agrees that atheists can be moral, he expresses a time-worn worry:
Human nature, in other circumstances, is also clearly constructed for cruel exploitation, uncontrollable rage, icy selfishness and a range of other less desirable traits.
So the dilemma is this: How do we choose between good and bad instincts? ...Atheists can be good people; they just have no objective way to judge the conduct of those who are not.
This is a serious argument and deserves detailed consideration. Following is the text of a reply I sent to Gerson and to the Post.
Dear Mr. Gerson:
This is a response to your July 14 column, "What Atheists Can't Answer".
You wrote that, in the dilemma of choosing between good and evil, theism gives us reason to "cultivate the better angels of our nature." However, any honest assessment of history would conclude that religion makes people bad at least as often as it makes them good. Religion has inspired great acts of charity and selflessness, beautiful music, art and architecture, and countless examples of human kindness and compassion. It has also inspired horrific, bloody wars, brutal inquisitions, tyrannical theocracies, fanatical campaigns of terror, and countless incidents of discrimination, prejudice, and bigotry.
Far from being a force that pulls ceaselessly toward the moral apex of the universe, religion is more like a megaphone, amplifying both the good and the bad of human nature in equal measure. This is not surprising to an atheist, because there is no objectively verifiable evidence of any god who wants people to behave in any particular way. As a result, people can without fear of contradiction invent a god who speaks for them, who confirms all their opinions and prejudices - and this is exactly what all religious people do, the liberal as well as the conservative.
You worried that atheists have no compelling answer to a person who says, "I'm going to do whatever I please." But religion does not solve that problem. If anything, the problem is far worse when the malcontent is a theist who claims that his desires are not just some idiosyncratic expression of individual preference, but the very will of God. An atheist, at least, has no warrant to claim holy sanction or divine infallibility for his opinions, and in theory can be persuaded by reason. On the other hand, a person who sincerely believes that they are acting in accordance with the will of the creator is immune to evidence, diplomacy, and compromise - as the many religious wars still smoldering after millennia should make abundantly clear.
In your column, you said that morality cannot be anchored without reference to a higher power: that if God had not commanded us to be good, we would have no reason to be good, and no justification for condemning those who were not. This claim betrays its own incoherence, for we can then ask, why does God command us to be moral? Does he have reasons for that edict? If so, then we too can make use of those reasons, for if they are good ones, they will stand on their own without reference to who is giving them. On the other hand, if God has no reasons for his commands, then religious morality is cut loose from any anchor. God commanded us to be merciful and kind, but that was just an arbitrary choice with no deeper significance. He could just as easily have commanded us to be vicious and cruel, and those traits would then be the definition of goodness which we were all bound to follow. Can any rational person accept such a nonsensical conclusion?
You asked what reason an atheist can give to be moral, so allow me to offer an answer. You correctly pointed out that neither our instincts nor our self-interest can completely suffice, but there is another possibility you've overlooked. Call it what you will - empathy, compassion, conscience, lovingkindness - but the deepest and truest expression of that state is the one that wishes everyone else to share in it. A happiness that is predicated on the unhappiness of others - a mentality of "I win, you lose" - is a mean and petty form of happiness, one hardly worthy of the name at all. On the contrary, the highest, purest and most lasting form of happiness is the one which we can only bring about in ourselves by cultivating it in others. The recognition of this truth gives us a fulcrum upon which we can build a consistent, objective theory of human morality. Acts that contribute to the sum total of human happiness in this way are right, while those that have the opposite effect are wrong. A wealth of moral guidelines can be derived from this basic, rational principle.
You said that in an atheist's world, the desire for meaning and purpose are "a cruel joke of nature." Nothing could be further from the truth. I am an atheist, and my life is full to bursting with meaning and purpose. I rejoice to be alive in this beautiful, complex, awe-inspiring world. I am grateful for the interactions with my fellow human beings who illuminate my mind with their brilliance, inspire me with their dedication, and offer me the chance to enter into the deep communion of love. The knowledge that our lives are finite does not make them less precious, but infinitely more so, as we know that we must seize this one opportunity while we possess it and drink deeply from the rich spring of all that life has to offer.
A Reply from D.J. Grothe
A few days ago, I criticized Matt Nisbet and D.J. Grothe for asserting that "there is no such thing" as discrimination against atheists, in the post "Atheism Is a Civil Rights Issue". I also wrote to Grothe to raise some of the points made in that post, asking him if he stood by his claim that there are no known examples of atheist bashing. I've had two replies from him now, which he's given me permission to quote in full. I'll do so and then voice my remaining objections.
As we say in the piece, atheism is not a civil rights issue on par with the grievous social injustices faced by racial and sexual minorities. It is more of a public awareness, "consciousness-raising" issue, as Dawkins himself says. Obviously, some atheists disagree with us on this point. Others simply misunderstand us to be arguing to diminish and make light of how bad atheists have it (as atheists, I know just how despised we are in America, and we offer suggestions for confronting this in article linked in the post-script below).
As I said to P.Z. Myers, I am just as much an angry atheist as anybody else is. But speaking strategically, we should also just admit that our moral indignation, our anger, is not on par with those who marched on Washington in 1963 to end public school segregation, and for legal protection against police brutality, and to make it illegal to racially discriminate in public and private hiring, and the like. Our indignation is not about how oppressed we are in society, but about how wrong we think society is to believe destructive nonsense. Even so, many atheist activists have put the beleaguered atheists' plight on par with sexual or racial minorities. The same goes for many Christian activists who are these days talking about Christians themselves being the last oppressed minority in America. Both are arguments are wrong. Being popular is not a civil right. It is our job to make atheism and secularism more popular, and wrapping ourselves as a "movement" in the cloak of being an oppressed minority whose civil rights are as under attack as racial and sexual minorities won't do that trick.
Black people make 20% less than white people on average, and have about twice the unemployment rate and infant mortality of whites, not to mention suffering from continuing discrimination from the police and the courts. For atheists, this is hardly the case. Or to take another frequent comparison atheists give: atheists do not suffer as gays do in our culture: we are not fighting for basic legal protections. We already have them. If and when atheists are discriminated against, we have recourse to the law. But in many states, when a gay person is discriminated against, he has no legal recourse. He is denied basic civil rights. There are few state/local laws and no federal laws which protect me from anti-gay discrimination. Anti-gay discrimination is thus legal. Gays are still fighting to be including in those laws (state, local, and federal) which are intended to ensure equality before the law. Atheists are already included in those laws.
Yes, it is true that until 1961 (the Torcaso decision), all the civil rights of atheists werent legally protected. Until '61, we were prevented from testifying in court, holding public office, etc. But we never disputed this.
So if we're not disputing that until 1961 atheists had it bad in terms of their civil rights, and that they still have it bad in terms of their popularity, what is it that we are disputing? We simply deny that atheists now need to wage a civil rights struggle, replete with Marches on Washington, etc., as some atheist leaders have argued for, using strained rhetoric equating the plight of atheists in America today with that of blacks, gays or women today or in other times. I have shared with P.Z. and others many direct quotes from atheist leaders to this effect.
Plainly, atheists have civil rights in America. What what we don't have is popularity and mind-share. Neither a Buddhist, Wiccan, Satanist, or communist would likely anytime soon be elected to high office, but they dont need to respond to that fact by starting a civil rights movement all their own.
(And of course it should be said that just because we currently do have our civil rights, it doesnt follow that with this Supreme Court that we will always have them. We do need to rigorously defend the civil rights we currently have.)
Lastly, as a gay man, I have strong opinions about gay bashing as compared to "atheist bashing." Custody battles, intolerance and bullying of a cognitive minority on a playground, unconstitutional taxation of atheists to support religious programs we find objectionable, the word "God" in the Pledge of Allegiance and on our currency, and the like, do not qualify as instances of "atheist bashing" on par with the documented cases of gay bashing collected by groups like the Human Rights Campaign.
In my response, I made several additional relevant points:
I'm completely in agreement that atheists haven't suffered the degree of discrimination that other minorities such as blacks or gays have been subjected to. We've never been forced to eat at segregated lunch counters, targeted for violence, denied the vote, or denied the right to marry a fellow atheist. No argument there. But... there's a huge difference between saying atheists have not been subjected to the same level of discrimination as other minorities, and saying atheists have not been discriminated against *at all*. Your essay was clearly making the latter, not the former claim. You didn't say that atheist-bashing was uncommon; you said there was no such thing as atheist-bashing. That is just clearly not true.
...Granted, there are already laws against some of these practices to which atheists can turn for help. (Not all of them: being denied custody for being an atheist, for example, is perfectly legal.) That doesn't mean they're not civil rights issues. Granted, these practices are not as obnoxious as the discrimination aimed against other minorities. That also doesn't mean they're not civil rights issues. And even if other groups have suffered worse than we have, that doesn't mean our own injuries are insignificant or do not need to be redressed.
And frankly, I don't know of anyone who's saying what you claim. You said that "many atheist activists have put the beleaguered atheists' plight on par with sexual or racial minorities." I'd like to see some examples of that. What many atheist activists are saying is that we should emulate the *tactics* of other groups that have worked for mainstream acceptance, not that our oppression is equal in degree to theirs. I think this is an attack on a straw man.
Grothe's final reply, in its entirety:
I have quoted many examples of atheist leaders putting the beleaguered atheists' plight on par with sexual or racial minorities in various comments on scienceblogs.com. And of course, atheists have suffered discrimination, as we say in both articles (and I have fought against for over a decade since I first got involved with the atheist movement). We just argued that the level of discrimination is not on par with racial and sexual minorities, and certainly don't rise to the comparizon with "gay bashing," or that of truly opressed peopled. Dawkins and Hitchens et. al make something of a similar argument: they are working to "raise consciousness" and increase mind-share, not to liberate an oppressed people. Expect possible followup in Free Inquiry in the next few issues.
I think there are some important concessions here, though Grothe does not acknowledge them explicitly. First, he admits that atheists have suffered discrimination - an important point which, to my knowledge, Nisbet has not conceded.
However, I still believe Grothe far overplayed his hand with the initial essay and is now trying to back down to a more reasonable position without acknowledging the change. He asserts that he was only saying all along that that anti-atheist discrimination does exist but is "not on par" with the discrimination suffered by other minorities. I find this claim to be non-credible, in light of the sweeping statements made in his original essay:
To our knowledge, there is no such thing as "atheist bashing." If there were cases of such harm, one would expect to hear about them in the media and the courts, or at least in the common knowledge of unbelievers. So, where are the cases? On many occasions we have put this question to leaders in the nonreligious community and have never been presented with a single compelling example.
He first says there is "no such thing" and not "a single compelling example", then says that "of course, atheists have suffered discrimination". I think any reasonable person would view this as a blatant contradiction.
Second, Grothe agrees that atheist activists like Dawkins and Hitchens are making the same argument he is. However, he also asserts that unnamed "atheist leaders" continue to claim atheists have suffered exactly as much as other minorities, yet provides no specific evidence for this claim, only a vague reference to comments somewhere on a very large site. I think this represents a continuing attack on a straw man. No one, to my knowledge, has made this claim except the people who are attacking it.
Third, Grothe misses an important point: even if there are laws preventing discrimination against atheists, those laws still need to be enforced and their violations pointed out. The civil rights struggle does not end as soon as such a law is on the books. Gay people such as Matthew Shepherd have been assaulted and murdered for being gay; this does not mean there is no civil rights issue simply because there are already laws against murder. The effort to win mindshare goes hand in hand with the effort to protect civil rights, because working for wider acceptance and tolerance makes it more likely that those laws will be obeyed.
Open Thread: The Problem of Evil
I'm creating a thread to address this comment by Mollie:
I've only been familiar with your site for a few days, so I'm not sure if this is the right place to discuss what I'm about to say. If not, please direct me to a more appropriate place.
My husband thinks it's a bad idea to debate with you guys because we come from two totally different backgrounds of thought- I believe that God exists and that the Bible is totally true and you do not. Therefore, you will not convice me of anything and I will not convice you of anything.
Nevertheless, I can't help but ask the following questions- I don't really want to get in a huge discussion over this either, but we'll see what happens. In your essay above, you give the following:
Assumption (1): God exists.
Assumption (1a): God is all-knowing.
Assumption (1b): God is all-powerful.
Assumption (1c): God is perfectly loving.
Assumption (1d): Any being that did not possess all three of the above properties would not be God.
How did you come to the conclusion that God only has these three qualities, or that these three are the ultimate? I can think of his holiness and justice that would slightly alter the equation.
I do not say this to be offensive, but is seems like you have built up 'your idea' of what God is or who He should be and then proved how he cannot be (rather than taking all he has revealed Himself to be in the Bible) .
Again- this is where the fundamental differences come into play. I believe that God HAS revealed himself in the Bible, so if you don't take the Bible at face value- as it says it is- the Word of God, then it will be hard for me to 'argue' anything with you. I have come to the understanding that without God telling us about himself, through the Bible, we really wouldn't be able to know much about him. So again, I ask, since you don't believe in the Bible- where do you get your idea of what the 'perfect God' should be like?
Feedback on the Theist's Guide
Earlier today I was notified of a post on a blog titled Naked Pastor, "An Anti-Response to An Atheist", which is a response to my essay on Ebon Musings, "The Theist's Guide to Converting Atheists".
Below is the text of a comment I left on that site in response to the post and some other commenters in residence.
* * *
I'm the author of the essay this post is responding to. If I may, I'd like to offer some thoughts.
First, on Heidi's comment:
"The atheist writer surely deserves to be commended for attempting to be open-minded, though his requirements for proof would cause even his own belief-system to fail."
Do tell - why do you say that? The items I listed are applicable only to supernatural belief systems, which atheism is not. Atheism is, rather, the default position. It is what we should rationally conclude if no religious faith can offer persuasive evidence of its truth.
And for Rick Cockrum:
"His conditions are impossible to achieve under any belief system, whether theistic, atheistic, polytheistic, or panentheistic."
Again, I'm puzzled by this comment. My conditions are impossible to achieve? So you're saying it's impossible for prayer to have any measurable effect on anything? It's impossible for God, if he exists, to simply show up at my doorstep in a form I can perceive? It's impossible for a god who inspires holy books to convey any knowledge beyond what was already available in the culture at the time? Not only do your statements imply that God is not omnipotent; they imply that he is completely impotent. And how is a god who cannot affect the world in any way substantially different from a god that does not exist?
"He says I will judge the eternal based on mind and matter."
Yes, that is exactly right. And I say that for one very simple reason: mind and matter are all I have. I cannot make decisions based on evidence I cannot see, senses I do not possess, or knowledge I do not have. Of course I make decisions using my own mind based on the facts that have been presented to me. What on earth do you imagine is the alternative?
Of course, I know what you're going to say: faith. But faith is not a means of gaining knowledge at all: it is a way to convince yourself of the truth of beliefs you already hold, nothing more.
David Hayward's post is a good example of this. Mr. Hayward says he believes in God because he perceives God as an immediate reality not dependent upon evidence. Surely he is aware that millions of people have relied on that same method throughout history, and through it have come to diametrically and often violently opposed conclusions about the identity, nature, and desires of the being they claim to be perceiving.
The vast divisions and endless squabbling among humanity's many religions show clearly that religious experiences do not reflect a single, unchanging reality. If they did, our beliefs would have converged by now, but they have not. In fact, religious confusion and division are more rampant than ever, and unanimity seems farther away than ever. Compare this to science, which in just a scant three hundred years (compared to the many millennia already allotted to theologians) has reached an astonishing degree of agreement about many of the most fundamental facts regarding the nature, origin and fate of the universe we live in.
Mr. Hayward, you say that God has "pressed upon your mind" in a way that is "beyond knowledge" and "beyond proof". I invite you to consider the possibility that, fervent and sincere as your beliefs plainly are, they are mistaken. As a human being, and particularly as a Christian, I assume you agree with me that human beings are fallible, and that we can be wrong even about things which we deeply and passionately believe to be true. I propose for your consideration that this may be one of those things. Clearly you've had some kind of powerful experience; I would not seek to deny or downplay that. But I would politely suggest that it may not represent what you think it does.