Good Reasons to Keep the Faith

by Luke Muehlhauser on March 18, 2009 in General Atheism

I don’t think there are good intellectual reasons to believe in Zeus, fairies, Jesus, or other magical beings.

But there are many good practical reasons for believers to avoid anything that might cause them to doubt their religion. In a religious world, doubting religion can carry high costs.

For example, let me consider what my father – a pastor – stands to lose if he ever chooses to doubt the dogma he was raised with. He could lose:

  1. His dearest friend, Jesus.
  2. His home (the church owns it).
  3. His job, the only good one he is really trained for.
  4. His wife of 25 years.
  5. Many of his dearest friends, nearly all of whom are Christian.
  6. Relationships with many of his family members, nearly all of whom are Christian.
  7. The social advantages of having official rank in the dominant religion of his country.
  8. The social privileges conferred by the state on his religion.
  9. The peace of knowing he will not die, but live forever with Jesus.
  10. The emotional satisfaction of being certain.
  11. The comfort of being loved by the Creator of the universe.
  12. The exciting sense that he is on a personal mission from God.
  13. The pride in knowing he has invested so many decades towards a good cause.

Now those are some seriously good reasons for my dad to avoid questioning his faith. In fact, it’s quite possible that for him, the benefits of atheism (having a coherent worldview, freedom from ancient superstitions and prohibitions, etc.) do not outweigh the costs of losing his faith.

Would I be doing my father harm by trying to get him to consider his religion rationally, with the same common sense he uses to consider everything else?

And the cost of doubt is even higher for many others. Some Muslim countries execute those who leave the faith. You can even get your Christmas presents taken away!

The real barriers

I say all this because I want atheists to be aware of what they are dealing with. We are not dealing with intellectual barriers. We are dealing with more powerful barriers: emotions and relationships.1

So when talking with Christians, perhaps atheists should focus less on a believer’s intellectual needs and more on their human needs. It is important to promote evidence-based thinking, but it is also important to show believers that atheism can be moral, fun, meaningful, passionate, social, loving, and acceptable. A believer very often only has relationships with other believers, so it is important to form genuine relationships with believers so we can show them that atheists aren’t evil or unhappy.

Reduce costs

Also, we need to reduce the costs of doubt. This means fighting for political and social acceptance of atheists. This means promoting interfaith tolerance and love. This means emphasizing the superior morality and freedom possible through atheism. This means offering community and relationships to potential ex-believers. This means offering comfort without God.

We need to give believers not just good rational reasons to doubt their religion, but also good practical reasons.

  1. This is, by the way, equally true of most atheists. Christian evangelists know that people don’t convert for intellectual reasons, but for emotional and relational reasons. They invite rejected outsiders to join their special club and take part in activities with people who are kind and generous. They tell unbelievers that God loves them and has a special mission for them. I bet more atheists are converted by these tactics than by intellectual Christian apologists. []

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{ 50 comments… read them below or add one }

anselm March 18, 2009 at 12:25 pm

You make some good points. Certainly, the belief that without God human life is meaningless and absurd is a factor in Christian belief. It is a belief, however, that is shared by some of the greatest atheists, e.g., Camus. (The difference is that Camus embraced that absurdity as inevitable). To me, Camus is much more consistent in his atheist worldview than a “happy-talk” atheist like Carl Sagan (who seemed to want to transfer his sense of the transcendent to “the Cosmos.”)

However, a similar point can be made about what atheists would have to give up to accept Christianity. Many atheists have a deep, pre-rational desire that there NOT be a God. E.g., prominent atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel:

“It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that. ” (from Nagel's book “The Last Word”)

Similarly, Christopher Hitchens regards God as a tyrant against whom he would rebel even if he existed:

“”An atheist can still say he wishes it was true. It would be nice if it was true. I can't see why it would be nice if it was true. I simply can't see that. To have pre-cradle to post-grave round-the-clock supervision and surveillance by someone with a very devious form of morality,” he says, “who wants this to be true? I'm delighted that there's no reason to think that it's true. It's humanity's most obvious falsification.” (see http://tinyurl.com/cjo64p).

The concept of a God who holds us morally accountable should be unsettling, since we have all failed to consistently live according to the highest moral standards. So the Christian can just as easily see the atheist as engaging in wish-fulfillment to avoid that kind of moral accountability as the atheist can see the Christian engaging in wish-fulfillment to find meaning in life.

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anselm March 18, 2009 at 12:25 pm

You make some good points. Certainly, the belief that without God human life is meaningless and absurd is a factor in Christian belief. It is a belief, however, that is shared by some of the greatest atheists, e.g., Camus. (The difference is that Camus embraced that absurdity as inevitable). To me, Camus is much more consistent in his atheist worldview than a “happy-talk” atheist like Carl Sagan (who seemed to want to transfer his sense of the transcendent to “the Cosmos.”)

However, a similar point can be made about what atheists would have to give up to accept Christianity. Many atheists have a deep, pre-rational desire that there NOT be a God. E.g., prominent atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel:

“It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that. ” (from Nagel's book “The Last Word”)

Similarly, Christopher Hitchens regards God as a tyrant against whom he would rebel even if he existed:

“”An atheist can still say he wishes it was true. It would be nice if it was true. I can't see why it would be nice if it was true. I simply can't see that. To have pre-cradle to post-grave round-the-clock supervision and surveillance by someone with a very devious form of morality,” he says, “who wants this to be true? I'm delighted that there's no reason to think that it's true. It's humanity's most obvious falsification.” (see http://tinyurl.com/cjo64p).

The concept of a God who holds us morally accountable should be unsettling, since we have all failed to consistently live according to the highest moral standards. So the Christian can just as easily see the atheist as engaging in wish-fulfillment to avoid that kind of moral accountability as the atheist can see the Christian engaging in wish-fulfillment to find meaning in life.

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DW1 March 18, 2009 at 1:57 pm

Thanks for the post. Very well thought-out. Having an extremely religious immediate family (including a pastor and a music minister for brothers) i've dealt with this for over a decade, and hoped you'd address it at some point. After a rocky period of not talking for a couple of years, my family and i eventually got past our problems, but it is still difficult relating to them. the ironic thing is, as much as i know they pray for me daily and have great concern for my soul-as i'm sure your father does for yours, i similarly have a burden to share with them the joy of the way i see the world now. For many years i let it go, as i have felt that it is more important that we get along than to try to get them to see the problems with their belief, but as the bulk of my free-time has slowly been taken over by humanist pursuits and the desire to spread awareness of the potential danger of belief systems and the benefit of what you have eloquently labeled 'common sense atheism,' i am reluctant to ignore the issue anymore. i apologize for taking up blog space with personal stuff, but perhaps your other readers can relate. any advice for how to go about spreading the joy of not believing in evidence-less claims to loved ones? or is best not to risk messing with the powerful emotional attachment of religion with the hopes of convincing someone else of a better, more moral way of life?

finally-in response to Anselm's comment, i find it interesting that believers so often like to insist out that atheists live unfulfilled lives, and that no one can find meaning without god. the fact is, the christian worldview simply cannot account for happy, adjusted, satisfied atheists, and their only possible response is to deny that they exist. Certainly, camus and many other atheists grappled with what they perceived as the the absurdity of life, but there are currently millions of atheists who live happily and productively and the number is growing. in my experience, the christian answer for this is inevitably that atheists aren't genuinely happy, or have only convinced themselves that their life has meaning, and that there will always be a 'hole that they need filled' with a jesus-shaped plug. if they expect nonbelievers to accept their direct sensory-free experience of jesus or the holy spirit, than shouldn't they accept a nonbeliever's experience of a life filled with joy. how and why is happiness inconsistent with atheism?

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DW1 March 18, 2009 at 1:57 pm

Thanks for the post. Very well thought-out. Having an extremely religious immediate family (including a pastor and a music minister for brothers) i've dealt with this for over a decade, and hoped you'd address it at some point. After a rocky period of not talking for a couple of years, my family and i eventually got past our problems, but it is still difficult relating to them. the ironic thing is, as much as i know they pray for me daily and have great concern for my soul-as i'm sure your father does for yours, i similarly have a burden to share with them the joy of the way i see the world now. For many years i let it go, as i have felt that it is more important that we get along than to try to get them to see the problems with their belief, but as the bulk of my free-time has slowly been taken over by humanist pursuits and the desire to spread awareness of the potential danger of belief systems and the benefit of what you have eloquently labeled 'common sense atheism,' i am reluctant to ignore the issue anymore. i apologize for taking up blog space with personal stuff, but perhaps your other readers can relate. any advice for how to go about spreading the joy of not believing in evidence-less claims to loved ones? or is best not to risk messing with the powerful emotional attachment of religion with the hopes of convincing someone else of a better, more moral way of life?

finally-in response to Anselm's comment, i find it interesting that believers so often like to insist out that atheists live unfulfilled lives, and that no one can find meaning without god. the fact is, the christian worldview simply cannot account for happy, adjusted, satisfied atheists, and their only possible response is to deny that they exist. Certainly, camus and many other atheists grappled with what they perceived as the the absurdity of life, but there are currently millions of atheists who live happily and productively and the number is growing. in my experience, the christian answer for this is inevitably that atheists aren't genuinely happy, or have only convinced themselves that their life has meaning, and that there will always be a 'hole that they need filled' with a jesus-shaped plug. if they expect nonbelievers to accept their direct sensory-free experience of jesus or the holy spirit, than shouldn't they accept a nonbeliever's experience of a life filled with joy. how and why is happiness inconsistent with atheism?

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lukeprog March 18, 2009 at 2:44 pm

As it happens, I'm also preparing a post about atheists who WANT God to not exist. :)

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lukeprog March 18, 2009 at 2:44 pm

As it happens, I'm also preparing a post about atheists who WANT God to not exist. :)

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lukeprog March 18, 2009 at 2:48 pm

DW, there is plenty of room for personal stuff on this blog. Yours and mine.

If I come up with some advice on sharing the joy of atheism with others in a helpful way, I'll post it. Right now, nothing comes to mind. :)

Yes, I don't understand why Christians insist that without God my life must be purposeless, unhappy, and absurd. It's like staring at a bumblebee that is flying and saying it is impossible that a bumblebee can fly because of aerodynamics.

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lukeprog March 18, 2009 at 2:48 pm

DW, there is plenty of room for personal stuff on this blog. Yours and mine.

If I come up with some advice on sharing the joy of atheism with others in a helpful way, I'll post it. Right now, nothing comes to mind. :)

Yes, I don't understand why Christians insist that without God my life must be purposeless, unhappy, and absurd. It's like staring at a bumblebee that is flying and saying it is impossible that a bumblebee can fly because of aerodynamics.

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anselm March 18, 2009 at 6:49 pm

The idea is that without God all life is objectively meaningless (regardless of the subjective meaning we invent to make us happy), because then humankind is a doomed race in a dying universe. All of our little projects are meaningless because after the heat death of the universe, it will ultimately make no objective difference whether we ever existed.

And indeed, some of the most prominent atheist thinkers who delved deeply into atheism's implications came to similar conclusions, e.g., Bertrand Russell:

“That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins — all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's salvation henceforth be safely built.” (in “A Free Man's Worship”).

That doesn't mean an atheist is not subjectively happy–who could judge that anyway from the “outside”? I can see how there would be a feeling of liberation in knowing there is no accountability to traditional moral standards and we are free to engage in the “transvaluation of values” as Nietzsche called it (“freedom from ancient prohibitions” as the original post put it). This feeling could certainly be called a form of happiness. But the question is whether Camus is correct that this feeling does not compensate for the objective meaninglessness of life without God (once that fact is fully and frankly confronted).

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anselm March 18, 2009 at 6:49 pm

The idea is that without God all life is objectively meaningless (regardless of the subjective meaning we invent to make us happy), because then humankind is a doomed race in a dying universe. All of our little projects are meaningless because after the heat death of the universe, it will ultimately make no objective difference whether we ever existed.

And indeed, some of the most prominent atheist thinkers who delved deeply into atheism's implications came to similar conclusions, e.g., Bertrand Russell:

“That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins — all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's salvation henceforth be safely built.” (in “A Free Man's Worship”).

That doesn't mean an atheist is not subjectively happy–who could judge that anyway from the “outside”? I can see how there would be a feeling of liberation in knowing there is no accountability to traditional moral standards and we are free to engage in the “transvaluation of values” as Nietzsche called it (“freedom from ancient prohibitions” as the original post put it). This feeling could certainly be called a form of happiness. But the question is whether Camus is correct that this feeling does not compensate for the objective meaninglessness of life without God (once that fact is fully and frankly confronted).

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lukeprog March 18, 2009 at 8:07 pm

It seems you're saying that for something to be meaningful, it must have meaning outside or beyond itself. But this contradicts our common understanding of meaning. Is a birthday party meaningless because it must come to an end? Is a small act of kindness meaningless when it does not affect anything outside the event? Of course not! The meaning of something is found, usually, within the circumstances of the thing itself.

Secondly, to require that everything acquire meaning from beyond itself puts you in an awkward position. That makes God meaningless.

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lukeprog March 18, 2009 at 8:07 pm

It seems you're saying that for something to be meaningful, it must have meaning outside or beyond itself. But this contradicts our common understanding of meaning. Is a birthday party meaningless because it must come to an end? Is a small act of kindness meaningless when it does not affect anything outside the event? Of course not! The meaning of something is found, usually, within the circumstances of the thing itself.

Secondly, to require that everything acquire meaning from beyond itself puts you in an awkward position. That makes God meaningless.

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Teleprompter March 18, 2009 at 10:31 pm

That may be a valid point; however, I do believe, as lukeprog stated – that things (experiences) have meaning in and of themselves. Do we need to ground our subjective experiences in a larger “objective” meaning?

What if the “ultimate” meaning is innate to the subjective experiences themselves? Camus also said, did he not, that “we must imagine Sisyphus happy?” In this universe, I think we may all be Sisyphus, pushing the rock up the slope, only for it to repeatedly fall back again. However, this movement may be where our lives (and our existences) derive their meaning.

If this existence is superceded by another realm, by another existence, which is eternal or altogether of a different character, do the experiences of our brief lives here still matter? Would the circumstances of our current existence possess any greater inherent level of meaning in this state of affairs – if everything we knew were to perish, and be replaced?

Whether there ultimately is a God or not, one must note that the entirety of our current existence has been endowed for change. It is inherent in the state of our universe – that, change is inherent in our existence, and the loss of subjective meaning is a condition which seems arranged if there is a Creator. It seems that if there is a Creator, it has intended for the religious and the non-religious alike to seek solace in subjective meaning.

Therefore, it seems that when the theist points to the atheist and claims “you have a lack of objective meaning”, it does seem to be a slight red herring, since the theist also does not appear to have objective meaning: at the least in this present existence, that appears to be the case. I think this would be a better point for the theist of any one religion if he/she could point to some specific thing and say “this is where I get objective meaning that you (the non-religious/people of other religions) do not have”, but I don't see that the theist of any one religion could do this.

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Teleprompter March 18, 2009 at 10:31 pm

That may be a valid point; however, I do believe, as lukeprog stated – that things (experiences) have meaning in and of themselves. Do we need to ground our subjective experiences in a larger “objective” meaning?

What if the “ultimate” meaning is innate to the subjective experiences themselves? Camus also said, did he not, that “we must imagine Sisyphus happy?” In this universe, I think we may all be Sisyphus, pushing the rock up the slope, only for it to repeatedly fall back again. However, this movement may be where our lives (and our existences) derive their meaning.

If this existence is superceded by another realm, by another existence, which is eternal or altogether of a different character, do the experiences of our brief lives here still matter? Would the circumstances of our current existence possess any greater inherent level of meaning in this state of affairs – if everything we knew were to perish, and be replaced?

Whether there ultimately is a God or not, one must note that the entirety of our current existence has been endowed for change. It is inherent in the state of our universe – that, change is inherent in our existence, and the loss of subjective meaning is a condition which seems arranged if there is a Creator. It seems that if there is a Creator, it has intended for the religious and the non-religious alike to seek solace in subjective meaning.

Therefore, it seems that when the theist points to the atheist and claims “you have a lack of objective meaning”, it does seem to be a slight red herring, since the theist also does not appear to have objective meaning: at the least in this present existence, that appears to be the case. I think this would be a better point for the theist of any one religion if he/she could point to some specific thing and say “this is where I get objective meaning that you (the non-religious/people of other religions) do not have”, but I don't see that the theist of any one religion could do this.

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DW1 March 19, 2009 at 2:23 am

It is a common (and somewhat misleading) ploy by theists to present the paragraph from the very beginning of bertrand russell's 'A free man's worship' in an apparent effort to show that one of the most well-known atheist thinkers despaired of life and its lack of meaning. Why do they always stop quoting there? (Not that it is necessary for bertrand russell to have found meaning in life in order for any other atheist to, but regardless) If they'd read the remaining 9/10s of the essay, it is quite evident that Russell did believe that meaning could be had in spite of the unavoidability of death:

“From that awful encounter of the soul with the outer world, enunciation, wisdom, and charity are born; and with their birth a new life begins…United with his fellow-men by the strongest of all ties, the tie of a common doom, the free man finds that a new vision is with him always, shedding over every daily task the light of love…Be it ours to shed sunshine on their path, to lighten their sorrows by the balm of sympathy, to give them the pure joy of a never-tiring affection, to strengthen failing courage, to instil faith in hours of despair.”

(full essay link)
http://www.philosophicalsociety.com/Archives/A%…

teleprompter, your very last sentence makes an excellent point. The intangible quality of the objective meaningfulness of life somehow automatically bestowed by belief in god is suspicious. It seems somewhat akin to the theistic claims of an objective moral foundation.

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DW1 March 19, 2009 at 2:23 am

It is a common (and somewhat misleading) ploy by theists to present the paragraph from the very beginning of bertrand russell's 'A free man's worship' in an apparent effort to show that one of the most well-known atheist thinkers despaired of life and its lack of meaning. Why do they always stop quoting there? (Not that it is necessary for bertrand russell to have found meaning in life in order for any other atheist to, but regardless) If they'd read the remaining 9/10s of the essay, it is quite evident that Russell did believe that meaning could be had in spite of the unavoidability of death:

“From that awful encounter of the soul with the outer world, enunciation, wisdom, and charity are born; and with their birth a new life begins…United with his fellow-men by the strongest of all ties, the tie of a common doom, the free man finds that a new vision is with him always, shedding over every daily task the light of love…Be it ours to shed sunshine on their path, to lighten their sorrows by the balm of sympathy, to give them the pure joy of a never-tiring affection, to strengthen failing courage, to instil faith in hours of despair.”

(full essay link)
http://www.philosophicalsociety.com/Archives/A%…

teleprompter, your very last sentence makes an excellent point. The intangible quality of the objective meaningfulness of life somehow automatically bestowed by belief in god is suspicious. It seems somewhat akin to the theistic claims of an objective moral foundation.

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dan March 19, 2009 at 3:33 am

Tolstoy has some words that are relevant to this topic:

“I know that most men — not only those considered clever, but even those who are very clever and capable of understanding most difficult scientific, mathematical, or philosophic, problems — can seldom discern even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have formed, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.”

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dan March 19, 2009 at 3:33 am

Tolstoy has some words that are relevant to this topic:

“I know that most men — not only those considered clever, but even those who are very clever and capable of understanding most difficult scientific, mathematical, or philosophic, problems — can seldom discern even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have formed, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.”

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Matt M March 19, 2009 at 4:04 am

I think that atheists and theists may often be using meaning in different ways.

I agree with Anselm that objective meaning is most likely a myth in an atheistic universe. When the universe is gone, what I did will make no difference. It may even well be that the impact my life has on the universe lasts no more than a few centuries. By 2300, it could be as if I never existed.

But this all makes little difference to the subjective meaning of my life — what it means to me, now. I find this discussion meaningful because it enriches my life right now. What influence it has a year, five hundred years or a millenia from now is irrelevant to me.

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Matt M March 19, 2009 at 4:04 am

I think that atheists and theists may often be using meaning in different ways.

I agree with Anselm that objective meaning is most likely a myth in an atheistic universe. When the universe is gone, what I did will make no difference. It may even well be that the impact my life has on the universe lasts no more than a few centuries. By 2300, it could be as if I never existed.

But this all makes little difference to the subjective meaning of my life — what it means to me, now. I find this discussion meaningful because it enriches my life right now. What influence it has a year, five hundred years or a millenia from now is irrelevant to me.

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Teleprompter March 19, 2009 at 8:31 am

Why is this not in English? (Hace 17 horas?)

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Teleprompter March 19, 2009 at 8:31 am

Why is this not in English? (Hace 17 horas?)

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anselm March 19, 2009 at 12:59 pm

Regarding the definition of meaning, for a something contingent to have objective meaning, that meaning must be supplied from outside itself. If an individual human being ceases to exist, or humanity as a whole ceases to exist, they are contingent; on atheism, it makes no ultimate difference whether they ever existed at all. God, however, is not contingent by definition, and therefore does not derive his objective meaning from outside himself.

Certainly our subjective experiences can appear meaningful in the sense that they make us happy, but on atheism there is no ultimate point or purpose to our lives (or the universe) that goes beyond our death (or the death of the universe). Camus and Russell accept this, but advocate bucking up and soldiering on to make the best of a bad situation (to “shed sunshine” amidst the “tie of a common doom”, or to continue to push the rock up the mountain, defiant in the face of ultimate absurdity).

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anselm March 19, 2009 at 12:59 pm

Regarding the definition of meaning, for a something contingent to have objective meaning, that meaning must be supplied from outside itself. If an individual human being ceases to exist, or humanity as a whole ceases to exist, they are contingent; on atheism, it makes no ultimate difference whether they ever existed at all. God, however, is not contingent by definition, and therefore does not derive his objective meaning from outside himself.

Certainly our subjective experiences can appear meaningful in the sense that they make us happy, but on atheism there is no ultimate point or purpose to our lives (or the universe) that goes beyond our death (or the death of the universe). Camus and Russell accept this, but advocate bucking up and soldiering on to make the best of a bad situation (to “shed sunshine” amidst the “tie of a common doom”, or to continue to push the rock up the mountain, defiant in the face of ultimate absurdity).

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lukeprog March 19, 2009 at 1:09 pm

What is not in English? Check your DISQUS language settings.

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lukeprog March 19, 2009 at 1:09 pm

What is not in English? Check your DISQUS language settings.

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lukeprog March 19, 2009 at 3:31 pm

This seems like another trick to sneak God into picture by saying that:

- all things only get meaning from outsides themselves, EXCEPT GOD
- all things are contingent on other things, EXCEPT GOD

But when asked how you KNOW that the buck stops with God, the only thing I ever hear is “Because that's how God is defined.” How silly. I could just as well define The Flying Spaghetti Monster to have the same attributes and then posit him as the ultimate end of infinite regresses, instead of Yahweh. Wow! I've just solved all problems in the universe: FSM Did It!

I think Youtuber NonStampCollector satirizes this quite well in this video.

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lukeprog March 19, 2009 at 3:31 pm

This seems like another trick to sneak God into picture by saying that:

- all things only get meaning from outsides themselves, EXCEPT GOD
- all things are contingent on other things, EXCEPT GOD
- all things require a cause, EXCEPT GOD
- nothing can be infinite or contain an infinite series of events and objects, EXCEPT GOD
- etc.

But when asked how you KNOW that the buck stops with God, the only thing I ever hear is “Because that's how God is defined.” How silly. I could just as well define The Flying Spaghetti Monster to have the same attributes and then posit him as the ultimate end of infinite regresses, instead of Yahweh. Wow! I've just solved all problems in the universe: FSM Did It!

I think Youtuber NonStampCollector satirizes this quite well in this video.

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anselm March 19, 2009 at 4:02 pm

Well, you can call what I call “God” the FSM if you want, but it would be the same basic concept. Note that the point I made is not aimed at showing that God exists–just that IF life is to have objective meaning, God must exist; and that IF God does exist, he does not exist contingently. That doesn't show that God definitely DOES exist (putting aside the ontological argument for the moment).

On the atheist scenario in which God does not exist, then everything is contingent and the universe and human life have no objective meaning (as Russell and Camus recognized). That doesn't prove that atheism is wrong–it just proves that atheism depicts humanity in an absurd and tragic existential situation when you fully confront it (although it does have the side “benefit” of liberating us from thestic-based traditional moral standards).

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anselm March 19, 2009 at 4:02 pm

Well, you can call what I call “God” the FSM if you want, but it would be the same basic concept. Note that the point I made is not aimed at showing that God exists–just that IF life is to have objective meaning, God must exist; and that IF God does exist, he does not exist contingently. That doesn't show that God definitely DOES exist (putting aside the ontological argument for the moment).

On the atheist scenario in which God does not exist, then everything is contingent and the universe and human life have no objective meaning (as Russell and Camus recognized). That doesn't prove that atheism is wrong–it just proves that atheism depicts humanity in an absurd and tragic existential situation when you fully confront it (although it does have the side “benefit” of liberating us from thestic-based traditional moral standards).

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jurisnaturalist March 19, 2009 at 9:59 pm

Christians should give up any privilege attached to the label, and any afforded to them by law or society. We are to sacrifice all for the least of these.
We should not reject anyone nor end relationships based on their beliefs or changes in belief. To do so is utterly un-Christ-like.
I wonder, why would an atheist demonstrate any altruistic behaviors?

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jurisnaturalist March 19, 2009 at 9:59 pm

Christians should give up any privilege attached to the label, and any afforded to them by law or society. We are to sacrifice all for the least of these.
We should not reject anyone nor end relationships based on their beliefs or changes in belief. To do so is utterly un-Christ-like.
I wonder, why would an atheist demonstrate any altruistic behaviors?

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lukeprog March 20, 2009 at 7:46 am

Great quote!

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lukeprog March 20, 2009 at 7:46 am

Great quote!

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lukeprog March 20, 2009 at 7:48 am

If you're looking for an evolutionary explanation, there are some, but I don't know how true they are. I certainly feel compelled toward altruism, along with billions of other people who don't believe in Yahweh.

Do you think Christians only perform altruistic acts because God will punish them if they don't? I don't even know if I would call that “morality”…

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lukeprog March 20, 2009 at 7:48 am

If you're looking for an evolutionary explanation, there are some, but I don't know how true they are. I certainly feel compelled toward altruism, along with billions of other people who don't believe in Yahweh.

Do you think Christians only perform altruistic acts because God will punish them if they don't? I don't even know if I would call that “morality”…

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jurisnaturalist March 20, 2009 at 8:35 am

Christian theology says that those who believe have altered human natures. That is, they are no longer self-interested. So, no, they do not behave altruistically because they fear punishment. They behave altruistically because they see themselves as an extension of Jesus' pure altruism, completely self sacrificial to the point of death.
They also do not regard altruism as action which is rewarded. They perceive the alteration of their natures, combined with communion with God as the full expectation of reward.
Of course, most professing Christians believe nothing like this at all, in which case I argue that they do not rightly understand their own beliefs, or the object of their belief.

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jurisnaturalist March 20, 2009 at 8:35 am

Christian theology says that those who believe have altered human natures. That is, they are no longer self-interested. So, no, they do not behave altruistically because they fear punishment. They behave altruistically because they see themselves as an extension of Jesus' pure altruism, completely self sacrificial to the point of death.
They also do not regard altruism as action which is rewarded. They perceive the alteration of their natures, combined with communion with God as the full expectation of reward.
Of course, most professing Christians believe nothing like this at all, in which case I argue that they do not rightly understand their own beliefs, or the object of their belief.

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DW1 March 20, 2009 at 2:54 pm

Incidentally, the data supporting biological altruism, though still somewhat controversial, is becoming increasingly more accepted by the scientific community. It is likely that it will be beyond doubt within the next 20 years. I have included links to a handful of journal articles representing the most well-studied current theories. This field is increasingly being studied by zoologists, evolutionary biologists and even political scientists. I apologize if these links are not accessible to all of your readers-I am currently a research scientist at Oxford University and have fairly broad journal access-if you cannot access without paying, i strongly recommend googling “warblers/ reciprocal altruism” or “bonobos/ reciprocal altruism” for the most widely studied research models for those interested. This is well on the way to becoming one more gap filled by naturalism rather then supernaturalism.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19020603?ord…

http://www.springerlink.com/content/au8174976j4…

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=Articl…

http://ezproxy.ouls.ox.ac.uk:2346/nature/journa…

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DW1 March 20, 2009 at 2:54 pm

Incidentally, the data supporting biological altruism, though still somewhat controversial, is becoming increasingly more accepted by the scientific community. It is likely that it will be beyond doubt within the next 20 years. I have included links to a handful of journal articles representing the most well-studied current theories. This field is increasingly being studied by zoologists, evolutionary biologists and even political scientists. I apologize if these links are not accessible to all of your readers-I am currently a research scientist at Oxford University and have fairly broad journal access-if you cannot access without paying, i strongly recommend googling “warblers/ reciprocal altruism” or “bonobos/ reciprocal altruism” for the most widely studied research models for those interested. This is well on the way to becoming one more gap filled by naturalism rather then supernaturalism.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19020603?ord…

http://www.springerlink.com/content/au8174976j4…

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=Articl…

http://ezproxy.ouls.ox.ac.uk:2346/nature/journa…

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anselm March 20, 2009 at 6:10 pm

For me, the key is not whether there is a biological altruistic instinct (what C.S. Lewis called “the herd instinct”)–there may very well be. The key is the human sense “the moral law” which tells us to favor the altruistic instinct over the instinct for self-preservation. As Lewis put it in Mere Christianity:

“For example, some people wrote to me saying, “Isn't what you call the Moral Law simply our herd instinct and hasn't it been developed just like all our other instincts?” Now I do not deny that we may have a herd instinct: but that is not what I mean by the Moral Law. We all know what it feels like to be prompted by instinct-by mother love, or sexual instinct, or the instinct for food. It means that you feel a strong want or desire to act in a certain way. And, of course, we sometimes do feel just that sort of desire to help another person: and no doubt that desire is due to the herd
instinct. But feeling a desire to help is quite different from feeling that you ought to help whether you want to or not. Supposing you hear a cry for help from a man in danger. You will probably feel two desires-one a desire to give help (due to your herd instinct), the other a desire to keep out of danger (due to the instinct for self-preservation). But you will find inside you, in addition to these two impulses, a third thing which tells you that you ought to follow the impulse to help, and suppress the impulse to run away. Now this thing that judges between two instincts, that decides which
should be encouraged, cannot itself be either of them. You might as well say that the sheet of music which tells you, at a given moment, to play one note on the piano and not another, is itself one of the notes on the keyboard. The Moral Law tells us the tune we have to play: our instincts are merely the keys.”

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anselm March 20, 2009 at 6:10 pm

For me, the key is not whether there is a biological altruistic instinct (what C.S. Lewis called “the herd instinct”)–there may very well be. The key is the human sense “the moral law” which tells us to favor the altruistic instinct over the instinct for self-preservation. As Lewis put it in Mere Christianity:

“For example, some people wrote to me saying, “Isn't what you call the Moral Law simply our herd instinct and hasn't it been developed just like all our other instincts?” Now I do not deny that we may have a herd instinct: but that is not what I mean by the Moral Law. We all know what it feels like to be prompted by instinct-by mother love, or sexual instinct, or the instinct for food. It means that you feel a strong want or desire to act in a certain way. And, of course, we sometimes do feel just that sort of desire to help another person: and no doubt that desire is due to the herd
instinct. But feeling a desire to help is quite different from feeling that you ought to help whether you want to or not. Supposing you hear a cry for help from a man in danger. You will probably feel two desires-one a desire to give help (due to your herd instinct), the other a desire to keep out of danger (due to the instinct for self-preservation). But you will find inside you, in addition to these two impulses, a third thing which tells you that you ought to follow the impulse to help, and suppress the impulse to run away. Now this thing that judges between two instincts, that decides which
should be encouraged, cannot itself be either of them. You might as well say that the sheet of music which tells you, at a given moment, to play one note on the piano and not another, is itself one of the notes on the keyboard. The Moral Law tells us the tune we have to play: our instincts are merely the keys.”

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lukeprog March 21, 2009 at 8:03 am

Thanks for the links!

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atimetorend March 23, 2009 at 6:30 pm

Wow, that is a great post. It got me thinking, that while it was hard for me to leave the faith along the lines of the items you listed, there are people close to me for whom it is a lot more difficult than it was for me. People with more of a need for the many of the items you listed.

It helps me to understand why it is so hard for them to see me leave christianity. And also to better understand why it is so hard for them to even talk to me about it honestly — if they have so much at stake which they cannot even begin to contemplate losing, how could they have an honest discussion of the veracity and historicity of the religion they are grounded in?

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Patrick March 25, 2009 at 1:49 pm

What occurs to me in relation to this post is that there is a disconnect between the conversion of one to rationality and the conversion of many. Clearly your father is in a particularly precarious position should he choose to question his faith but this all harkens back to the idea of pascal's wager and why it is both an insidious and yet also spurious argument for belief. wouldn't your fathers god want him to question faith and not believe just as a hedged bet on the off chance that he exists. Furthermore the problems of religion are not constrained to one individual blinding themselves to the world around them or to rational thought in general. They extend into society at large and the damage done to a society in which religion is given a free pass is immense and so is it not a moral obligation to enlighten the individual as a means to the ends of removing religion from that society at large? I think it is a tought but most certainly necessary endeavour.

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MountainKing March 26, 2009 at 4:17 am

The problem is that you dont stick to “objectively meaningless” but interchange it with “meaningless” because if you do that you already presuppose what you want to proof: meaning has to be objective meaning. If we use the terms correctly, then nobody could argue, that if nothings beyond this world, nothing can give this world a meaning that only something beyond this world could give >> it lacks objective meaning. But how can you simply state that only meaning applied from outside is “real” meaning? It is just the same with “ultimate point” or “purpose”. You already presuppose that real “purpose” has to come from outside so you can prove your point, that atheism cant give a purpose. No, it can´t give THAT purpose specifically.

That argument ist basically telling somebody first, that life only has a REAL purpose if it doesnt end with the death and then using that to argue against a view that doesnt include an eternal life, claiming it obviously can´t provide a real purpose. But actually the claim that real purpose = purpose applied from outside has to be proven first. We live in a religious and still very influential tradition of thinking that tells us that but that doesn´t make it correct.

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jurisnaturalist March 28, 2009 at 6:32 pm

I would never deny that nature demonstrates reciprocal altruism. I think it is unfortunate that the word is used in this way. The fact that “altruism” in this context must be prefaced with “reciprocal” reveals that it is not pure altruism, which anticipates no reciprocal action, nor any reward whatsoever.
Christians believe that they join in the creative acts of God and that the privilege of participation is the blessing. We call it joy.
What the warblers have is an evolutionary mechanism which places greater value on survival of the species than on the individual. Pure altruism isn't interested in its own welfare, or the survival of the species, but only in the other.
I don't see why anyone would voluntarily choose to adopt such an ethic. It requires postponement of various natural urges such sex, food, and sleep. It requires adoption of a frugal quality of life and then forfeits the surplus to others – often complete strangers with no expectation of repayment. It requires adoption of all sorts of strange rituals and practices. No, it is hard to imagine anyone choosing this way of life. Yet 11 men and many women did, despite the imminent threat of personal harm. I know of no species which practices this ridiculous manner of living. If you can point to a journal article along these lines, I would be most appreciative.
Nathanael Snow

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lukeprog March 28, 2009 at 9:36 pm

I've witnessed such behavior in homo sapiens, but I don't know of it anywhere else. Did you intend to use this fact as a premise in an argument, or were you just musing? Either one is welcomed on this blog…

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DW1 March 30, 2009 at 9:23 am

juris naturalist,
kin selection is a very powerful force of behavior in nature, but to suggest that biological altruism can only be explained by kin selection unfortunately leaves many otherwise inexplicable examples. reciprocal altruism is also only one form of altruism in biology. i have included a couple of more references for you.

Science. 1994 Nov 11;266(5187):1030-2, on long-tailed manakin mating (two males court, but only one gets the female)

Superorganism by E.O. Wilson explains why kin selection is insufficient to explain the evolutionary beginnings of altruism in biology.

Also, unless i misunderstood your post, are you suggesting that christians alone have a unique ability to act altruistically? humans are by far the best example of altruism in biology, regardless of religious preferences or the entire lack thereof. I think to try to explain it by calling it the joy of god leaves millions of people's altruism unaccounted for.

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Reginald Selkirk April 11, 2009 at 4:04 pm

“jurisnaturalist: I would never deny that nature demonstrates reciprocal altruism.I think it is unfortunate that the word is used in this way.The fact that “altruism” in this context must be prefaced with “reciprocal” reveals that it is not pure altruism, which anticipates no reciprocal action, nor any reward whatsoever.Christians believe that they join in the creative acts of God and that the privilege of participation is the blessing.We call it joy.”

————–
(Aaargh, cannot master the editing system yet.) So Christians are nice to people just for the joy of it? The prospect of the greatest reward one could think to offer, eternal life in a pleasant place, doesn’t come into the equation?

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