The Humanist Symposium #53

by Luke Muehlhauser on April 25, 2010 in General Atheism

humanist symposiumThe Humanist Symposium is a blog carnival featuring articles that seek to “celebrate atheism as a positive, fulfilling worldview and to defend the philosophy of humanism.”

I am a strange host for this blog carnival because I am not a humanist and I think atheism is not a worldview.

So why am I hosting The Humanist Symposium?

I’m hosting it because I suspect many other atheists are, like me, not humanists and don’t want to treat atheism as a worldview, and I want to invite these atheists to participate in things like The Humanist Symposium anyway.

Perhaps you don’t think atheism is a worldview, but merely a belief about the existence of gods. Historically and definitionally, that’s correct. But this is only a semantic quarrel. What we atheists need to share with a superstitious and fearful world is that you can live a life of beauty and morality and purpose and happiness without gods. On this, atheists can agree.

And perhaps you disagree with the current edition of the Humanist Manifesto, which places the source of moral value in human needs, and does not mention animal needs. I understand. But as John Shook explains, there are many varieties of humanism, and what they share is a commitment to doing ethics with those human tools of reason and science rather than superstition. So you can contribute to the swelling of humanism if you are a conservative humanist trying to defend the hard-fought rights of women and minorities,  or if you are a cutting-edge humanist trying to expand the circle of compassion to conscious animals. Humanism needs both.

So even if you, like me, object to some forms of humanism, and to understanding atheism as a worldview, I still invite you to take part in celebrating atheism as part of a positive, fulfilling worldview.

Now, without further ado, the articles:

Mat Wilder reflects on The Struggle for a Life Worth Living:

The great problem with religious ethics is that it infantilizes humanity, by portraying everyone as capable of goodness only if there is a great Candyman in the sky who will give you all the sweets you could desire, if you only do what he wants.

Though Mat is a fan of the great nihilists Nietzsche and Camus, he struggles onward:

I dream of a world where people are good. Not just good – magnificent. A world where humanity has overcome itself… Where people are awe-inspiring and make each other stronger.

Moving on, do you know where the meaning of the word “Easter” comes from? Andrew shares with us the original, pagan meaning, and how he celebrates it as an atheist.

Greta Christina celebrates indie songwriter David Bazan’s new album, which reflects on his conversion from Christianity to agnosticism.

Paul Fidalgo says that since the word ‘atheism’ is rarely used to narrowly refer only to nonbelief in gods, Go Ahead and Organize Your Life around Atheism.

But some unbelievers – non-believing clergy - are unable to celebrate their unbelief. Adam Lee suggests we help them.

That’s all for this edition of The Humanist Symposium!

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

noen April 25, 2010 at 11:12 am

Thank you. I have been told consistently and repeatedly that atheism is not a worldview. No way, no how, nuh uh. The reason that they make this claim is that it is their only defense against the charge that atheism is just another ideology and that atheists are being dogmatic ideologues when they engage in the kind of bigotry that Dawkins and Harris et al are famous for.

For the truth is that Atheism really is just another ideology. One that defines itself as being free of the negative marks of other ideologies. But this is just a delusion that atheists have about themselves. They are in denial and because they cannot see themselves as others see them they feel free to engage in the most amoral or even immoral behavior they can get away with. After all, when you are pure goodness and light doing battle with the forces of evil and darkness, well then, anything goes doesn’t it?

This is why as an agnostic I reject atheism. Atheism claims that it is nothing more than the mere “lack of belief”, “we don’t have dogmas”, “there is no club or church of atheism”, “you cannot say anything about atheism because there is no such ‘thing’ as atheism” and so on.

But this is all a lie isn’t it? There really is such a thing as atheism and it really is possible to identify a set of commonly held beliefs that most atheists share. Since these facts are true then it is possible to criticize atheism or the New Atheists and to hold them to account for the unrelenting hate that they spew at other people.

Thank you so very much.

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Adito April 25, 2010 at 12:14 pm

Noen, you have made a lot of gross generalizations. If there is any tendency in atheism then it’s towards the idea that there is no light or dark that defines the world but simply people who define it for themselves. While I agree that the current public arguments aren’t so great the fact remains that it’s a subject worth discussing and people like Dawkins help get the argument out there were people can see and consider it.

Also, you can’t claim to be any better then “that atheist crowd” when you yourself are, for all intents and purposes, an atheist yourself, and no more capable of seeing the ideology from the outside then any other atheist. You’re simply trying to take the concept of being free from other ideologies (and therefor superior to them) one step further.

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RA April 25, 2010 at 12:15 pm

Noen,

You really seem to have a bee in your bonnet on atheism. The term “agnostic” is pretty subjective. From reading your comments on a couple of threads, I would swear you are a Christian pretending to be an agnostic.

You seem to value religion quite a bit. Are you an uncertain type of Christian? What exactly is your perspective other than you are not certain if there is a God or not.

I consider myself an agnostic but seem to have much different views than you do. How specifically do you consider yourself different from an atheist in your view? Just curious.

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Charles April 25, 2010 at 12:55 pm

Noen,

Did you miss this part?

I am a strange host for this blog carnival because I am not a humanist and I think atheism is not a worldview.

Atheism is not a worldview. It doesn’t make any positive claims. It doesn’t tell you how you ought to live.

The claim, ‘All atheists are naturalists’, is like the claim, ‘All rectangles are squares.’

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Haukur April 25, 2010 at 1:46 pm

Moving on, do you know where the meaning of the word “Easter” comes from? Andrew shares with us the original, pagan meaning, and how he celebrates it as an atheist.

Pagan nature spirituality for the win, you guys :)

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noen April 25, 2010 at 2:26 pm

“you have made a lot of gross generalizations.”

I also make gross generalizations about chairs and tables.

“If there is any tendency in atheism then it’s towards the idea that there is no light or dark that defines the world but simply people who define it for themselves.”

There is a distance, a gap, between what people say and what they do. Atheists say one thing and then talk about Christians using either/or, black or white coded language. It would be a simple thing to take certain public statements and just do a simple substitution of terms and poof, we’re back in the middle ages. You’re not really different from the fundamentalists, that’s why you fight so bitterly.

“You’re simply trying to take the concept of being free from other ideologies (and therefor superior to them) one step further.”

But I don’t make that claim. It is not possible for humans to be free of ideology because the definition of an ideology is “that which structures perception”. What we can to is try to compensate for ideology’s distorting field but we can never eliminate it. But that’s hard, it’s painful because it means facing things about yourself you’d rather not face. Much easier then to give up and go to sleep, become unconscious again.

“You really seem to have a bee in your bonnet on atheism.”

It only seems like that to you because everything feels like an attack to people these days. I also argue strenuously against certain Christians. I’m involved in a debate with a presuppositionalist right now. It feels kinda the same talking to you both.

“You seem to value religion quite a bit. Are you an uncertain type of Christian? What exactly is your perspective other than you are not certain if there is a God or not.”

I simply don’t know and for me “to know” has a very specific meaning. But I am willing to entertain certain “possibilities” though not the goofy folk superstitions and crass beliefs of most religions. But, when you don’t know you really really just don’t know.

Religion must have value or else it wouldn’t have evolved would it? It needn’t be true but it must have a needed function. I think that function is to provide desire independent reasons for action. (The inability to provide that is the chief flaw of desirism.) It does so in a way that takes advantage of human ego structure.

“How specifically do you consider yourself different from an atheist in your view?”

I feel I need to carve out a space for myself, to push back against both the atheism and theism of today. I don’t believe in a spiritual realm but I’m not a materialist. I don’t believe in traditional morality but I reject relativism and believe that there are objective moral truths. I don’t accept the goofy belief that the mind is immaterial but I also don’t accept the current belief in the computational model and so on.

“Atheism is not a worldview. It doesn’t make any positive claims. It doesn’t tell you how you ought to live.”

Then why do you run around telling others how they should live? If you really believed that things you say you believe, you wouldn’t do the things you in fact do. If atheism really is a negative definition only then in a very real sense it doesn’t even exist. But that can’t be true because there are all these people who call themselves atheists, identify as atheists, critique other belief systems from an atheist perspective, complain about the bad behavior towards atheists on the part of others, wish to eliminate all religious beliefs and replace them with your own.

How can one possibly do these things if atheism is nothing more than the negative state of the lack of a belief? Do non-stamp collectors write books, give speeches and debates, join in clubs? Do non-stamp collectors self identify as non-stamp collectors and complain about how they’ve been oppressed through history?

No they don’t. It isn’t even possible. If atheism is really a negative sate of belief then it is not possible for it to function as a positive state of belief. Yet it does. Therefore, it seems likely to me that atheists are in denial about themselves because it is politically expedient for them and gives them a rhetorical advantage.

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RA April 25, 2010 at 2:57 pm

Those were pretty good answers. Religion clearly has value to those who practice it. It’s nice to think you are going to go to heaven and that God cares about you. And it might even be a net positive as a motivation for good.

But for someone that doesn’t like atheist dialogue, you seem to use the same approach.

What’s an example of an objective moral truth?

What are some of the possibilities you entertain?

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Jeff H April 25, 2010 at 3:05 pm

Though Mat is a fan of the great nihilists Nietzsche and Camus, he struggles onward:

Uhh….whaaaaaat? Nietzsche and Camus are definitely not nihilists. They’re existentialists. They primarily wrote as a reaction against nihilism. Existentialism essentially starts at a nihilistic viewpoint (roughly speaking) and then moves on from there to find meaning and values. You could only claim that Nietzsche and Camus are nihilists if you’ve never read more than the first ten pages of their books…

(*cough* sorry…I’m fresh off a course on existentialism, so it just bugged me.)

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Zeb April 25, 2010 at 4:18 pm

Do non-stamp collectors write books, give speeches and debates, join in clubs?

That’s a good point. If I had endless time to kill I would like to start a YouTube channel under the name NonGodBeliever full of satirical videos about the stupid hobby of stamp collecting.

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Derrida April 25, 2010 at 4:27 pm

“This is why as an agnostic I reject atheism. Atheism claims that it is nothing more than the mere “lack of belief”, “we don’t have dogmas”, “there is no club or church of atheism”, “you cannot say anything about atheism because there is no such ‘thing’ as atheism” and so on.

Neon, I think that atheism the metaphysical claim and atheism the popular position need to be distinguished here. The claim of atheism is that there are no gods. Now, you state that you reject atheism because atheists are “hateful” and “immoral”. But that, of course, doesn’t make the claim false. It could well be that atheism is true, even if atheists are hypocritical. In order to be reasonable in rejecting atheism the claim, you need to show that atheism isn’t likely to be true, which means evaluating the arguments put for atheism (E.G. http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/nontheism/atheism/arguments.html). If the arguments both for and against the existence of God are equally strong/weak, then agnosticism is the rational position.

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al friedlander April 25, 2010 at 5:35 pm

Noen, you have some pretty interesting beliefs. I suppose, I would categorize myself as some sort of agnostic-atheist. I am confused about something, though.

“I can assure you that I never think about fucking and that helping others really is a top priority for me. ”

Back here, were you being sarcastic? (entirely possible). If not, I’m actually legitimately curious as to why you, as an agnostic, have such a strong aversion towards even thinking about sexual activity.

Given the case that you weren’t actually completely serious, would you admit then that you were being a tad hypocritical in your comment:

“Fucking at the top, helping others near the bottom. Nice to see those atheist moral values at work. Good luck with that.”

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noen April 25, 2010 at 6:49 pm

“But for someone that doesn’t like atheist dialogue, you seem to use the same approach.”

Heh, good point. Well lets just say that I need to test out my ideas and the best way to do that is to engage in tough dialog. People who sit around pick each other’s fleas never really accomplish much.

“What’s an example of an objective moral truth?”

“Brother sister incest is wrong.” There are no human societies for which that statement is false. Additionally, you should read some of what Luke has on his sidebar esp. the Ethics FAQ. He talks about “desirism” which makes a claim for objective morals. I think it’s very interesting but I have a few reservations.

“What are some of the possibilities you entertain?”

Well, it could turn out that despite my feelings to the contrary that the Orch-OR theory of consciousness is true. That the quantum domain gives rise to conscious awareness and that therefore the virtual domain would then correspond to what we call “god” or at least a realm outside of time and space of unbounded information and potential.

Or perhaps Hume was right, that science is just a habitual way of looking at the world and that true reality is pure chaos. In that case everything is true, even every work of fiction, and that all we have to do perceive them is to think very differently and that that’s what mystics do when they tap into an alternate description of the world.

Or, perhaps those who promote eastern forms of meditation are right and that an adept meditator can access “deeper” levels of reality.

Or perhaps evolution is right. Religion evolved just like flight evolved even though until recently we could not explain how some insects did it. Perhaps there are deeper principles involved and that “something like” religious truth really is true.

“But that, of course, doesn’t make the claim false. It could well be that atheism is true, even if atheists are hypocritical.”

If the rule that you followed has brought you to this, of what use is the rule? If the purpose of any belief system, and I think atheism qualifies, is to produce a human culture better than the state of nature where only the will to power rules, and if a proposed substitute fails to do so and in fact makes things even worse. Then it seems to me that system can be rejected.

“I’m actually legitimately curious as to why you, as an agnostic, have such a strong aversion towards even thinking about sexual activity.”

I said I never thought about fucking, which is empty and sometimes violent sex. I think about lovemaking and not that much really. Something I am sure 16 year old boys find unimaginable.

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Hermes April 25, 2010 at 7:14 pm

A trivial but important thing … the word manifesto.

The intended meaning of that word is direct and elegant.

The connotation of that word includes it’s association with the Communist Manifesto; a horrid document that not only lead to horridly naive intellectual conclusions, but ones that implemented actual mindless horrors in communist countries.

While there were some noted atheists who embraced and advocated communistic ideals, and few shamefully and illogically do so today, it is archaic for the humanists to even associate with such doggerel. There are plenty of bad ideas available. Wouldn’t it be better to reject them all as soon as they are detected? By not doing so now, by clinging to them as a duty to history or prior bad decisions, by explicitly not acknowledging the bad choices of the past no matter how minor, they are dragging along a psychological deadweight. They are pouring diarrhea effluent on a fresh bowl of fruit.

It is worse than the stench of failure. Pushing it is the pride of the foolish and obstinate. It bolsters those people who promote biases and are proud of their un-closeted skeletons and who want to make as many new skeletons as possible, and as soon as possible.

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Hermes April 25, 2010 at 7:26 pm

Once again, someone who doesn’t know — or possibly care — for the distinction between a statement of belief and a knowledge claim causes havoc. Spreads needless, self-righteous, and inaccurate confusion.

To quell those who care to honor the difference — those who see no conflict between being an agnostic and either some kind of theist or non-theist — I offer my own larger discussion of the subject;

What is your religious perspective?

I can only hope that those who are currently making this mistake will realize that it is one.

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lukeprog April 25, 2010 at 7:36 pm

Zeb,

The point of the analogy ‘non-stamp-collector’ is to explain the propositional content of atheism, not its importance. Not believing in gods has far more important consequences in life than not collecting stamps, and that’s why it’s worth writing books about the former but not so much the latter.

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Hansen April 25, 2010 at 9:28 pm

Do non-stamp collectors write books, give speeches and debates, join in clubs? Do non-stamp collectors self identify as non-stamp collectors and complain about how they’ve been oppressed through history?

I bet you non-stamp collectors would do all those things if they had indeed been oppressed. If history had been full of violent conflicts between different strands of stamp-collectors, if laws had been passed trying to discriminate or silence people who don’t collect stamps, and if stamp collectors generally thought that you needed to collect stamps in order to be a good person, then you would indeed see non-stamp collectors stand up and speak out.

Would doing so turn non-stamp collecting into an ideology then? Of course not. And that’s exactly true of atheism too. You are confusing being outspoken and passionate with being ideological and dogmatic.

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Derrida April 26, 2010 at 1:02 am

Neon,

If the rule that you followed has brought you to this, of what use is the rule? If the purpose of any belief system, and I think atheism qualifies, is to produce a human culture better than the state of nature where only the will to power rules, and if a proposed substitute fails to do so and in fact makes things even worse. Then it seems to me that system can be rejected.

Is the purpose of a belief system to produce a human culture better than a state of nature? I tend to choose my beliefs not on the basis of their usefulness, but on the basis of their likelihood. As Hume said, the wise man proportions his belief to the evidence, since we act on our beliefs and if our beliefs are false, our actions will probably be ineffective. Do you disagree with this, neon?

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Zeb April 26, 2010 at 8:24 pm

I think Noen opens an interesting question that I have not yet seen addressed on this blog (but I have only read the first two months and the last month, so maybe it’s here somewhere). The question is, what should be the basis for belief? So many questions pour out of that one – What does truth mean? Which particular meaning should we use and why? Does truth apply only to beliefs, or to other things such as acts or states of being? What is the value of truth anyway? For a long time I had given up on the project of obtaining true beliefs, and tried instead to seek “true actions”. I found it to be a lot more worthwhile at the time, and it lead me back to intellectual dialogue such as this, and now I view the dialogue (the action and interpersonal relationship) as the important thing, not the true beliefs towards which our dialogue aims. But the topic here is the basis of belief. I would propose, Derrida, that we don’t necessarily act in accord with beliefs. We may act, rather, in accord with our nature, and we should act in accord with what is best in our nature. And since belief is an act, I’d say we should believe in accord with what is best in our nature. So even if atheism could be conclusively proven ‘true’ within the structure of rational discourse, if atheistic belief lead people to act less humane or more alienated from themselves, then I think it would be valid to reject it as a belief system, at least until the that problem was worked out. Not that I believe atheistic belief has that effect, I am just challenging the assertion that there is only one certain meaning of ‘truth’ and that that truth is the most important consideration when it comes to belief regardless of other consequences.

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Zeb April 26, 2010 at 8:27 pm

Luke, I know, I was joking, but I do think atheist apologists are due for some ribbing on that rhetorical flourish about non-stamp-collecting.

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Hermes April 26, 2010 at 10:02 pm

Zeb, I point back to the distinction between knowledge claims and statements of belief.

Beliefs aren’t claims to knowledge. They are beliefs.

The search for knowledge requires care and consideration, and *should* inform and guide our beliefs. *Should* — but frequently does not.

Where Neon (now absent from the conversation that they initiated with such fury) failed is that they made statements that simply are not true. They made statements about others on what they claimed as knowledge when Neon should have at most focused on what were stated as beliefs — because the comments at most are belief statements and not knowledge claims unless specifics are provided.

Now, it is true that many people hold beliefs above knowledge. That I fully acknowledge. Those people are making a demonstrable mistake. Why? Because beliefs do not require any personal or public review or any pretense to impartiality. Is complete impartiality ultimately possible? No, yet ignoring or even rejecting it as a goal is not beneficial and — importantly — it ignores that we can know and discuss quite a bit even if not perfectly. We as individuals share a non-solipsistic reality, for example. If we do not, then we are not capable of effective communication and should not take any comments to be informative of anything about reality. The whole conversation falls apart, and the solipsist advocate can and should be ignored.

For example, if I say “I know that the sun goes around the Earth.”, and another person says “I know that the Earth goes around the sun.”, we would both be stuck in the realm of belief if we did not know why what we said was correct and could demonstrate it as a supported claim about knowledge.

Neon’s comments are along those lines. They dwell in belief statements, and then make knowledge claims. This is nonsense.

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noen April 26, 2010 at 10:50 pm

Hansen
“I bet you non-stamp collectors would do all those things if they had indeed been oppressed. If history had been full of violent conflicts between different strands of stamp-collectors, if laws had been passed trying to discriminate or silence people who don’t collect stamps, and if stamp collectors generally thought that you needed to collect stamps in order to be a good person, then you would indeed see non-stamp collectors stand up and speak out.”

And in that event the act of not collecting stamps would be a political act would it not. Just like the act of declaring oneself a non god believer is also a political act. In both cases the political act serves to distinguish one as set apart. It is a position, an attitude, a stance, a way of being in the world that draws a line between you and those who do collect stamps.

It is not possible to be in this world and not BE in this world. We are not propositional content expressing finite state machines. We’re not machines Sebastian, we’re organic. Which is not to say that we have some special magical fairy dust that makes us human. But rather that we cannot be reduced to a set of formal statements.

Derrida
“Is the purpose of a belief system to produce a human culture better than a state of nature? I tend to choose my beliefs not on the basis of their usefulness, but on the basis of their likelihood.”

By state of nature I do not mean some temporally primordial state but rather an abstract state that underlies human interactions where will to power is the order of the day. Without higher order social structures we fall back into a state of nature. An example would be life boat ethics where each person is reduced to a snarling beast. That is what happens when you remove social means of control. 4chan would be another example of people who exist in a state of nature with respect to each other. You really sure you want that?

Hermes
“Neon’s comments are along those lines. They dwell in belief statements, and then make knowledge claims. This is nonsense.”

Religion is Not about Belief. It is not a knowledge claim. God is not a hypothesis. I understand that belief as knowledge claim is how it is understood today. I am deliberately using belief in it’s original meaning as “practice”.

Your practice sucks.

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Hansen April 27, 2010 at 12:10 am

And in that event the act of not collecting stamps would be a political act would it not. Just like the act of declaring oneself a non god believer is also a political act. In both cases the political act serves to distinguish one as set apart.

If you want to turn it into a discussion about politics, then it’s not atheism but secularism that I and most other atheists are advocating. And, of course, many theists join us in advocating secularism because they realize that it’s the only way to guarantee freedom of religion.

It is a position, an attitude, a stance, a way of being in the world that draws a line between you and those who do collect stamps.

It’s a position, an attitude, a stance on one very narrow issue. It says nothing about our position on anything else. Calling atheism an ideology or a belief-system dilutes the meaning of those terms to the point of being basically meaningless.

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Hermes April 27, 2010 at 3:53 am

Folks, don’t feed the troll.

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Hermes April 27, 2010 at 4:41 am

One way to identify a troll is to note outlandish statements they use to defend the impossible. Often, they just dip into an imaginative guess and spit something out, something like … well … this;

I am deliberately using belief in it’s original meaning as “practice”.

The sentence above is formed correctly, but is based on a fabrication. Belief never meant practice. For those with an etymological word reference, or better the OED, you can easily verify this is the case. Yet, what makes it more absurd is that the word not only didn’t mean it before, it doesn’t mean it now either; it is a fiction passed off as a real thing.

Then again, maybe this is not an attempt at trollish derision but an expression of earnest yet unwarranted confidence?

So, with that, I retract my recommendation on dealing with this one. It may be a fun chew toy, even if it does not realize it is.

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Derrida April 27, 2010 at 5:33 am

Neon,

By state of nature I do not mean some temporally primordial state but rather an abstract state that underlies human interactions where will to power is the order of the day. Without higher order social structures we fall back into a state of nature. An example would be life boat ethics where each person is reduced to a snarling beast. That is what happens when you remove social means of control. 4chan would be another example of people who exist in a state of nature with respect to each other. You really sure you want that?

Where did I say that I wanted people to be “reduced to snarling beasts”? If you think that atheism reduces people to that, or should, then you’re going to have to say why that is, because it isn’t obvious to me. And the point still stands: even if you don’t like atheists, that doesn’t mean that they’re wrong.

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Mathew Wilder April 27, 2010 at 7:55 pm

Thanks Jeff! It may depend on what one means by “nihilist” but I think it is incorrect to call Camus or Nietzsche nihilists. Nietzsche viewed his entire project was a reaction against nihilism (see Bernard Reginster’s excellent “The Affirmation of Life”). Camus, while perhaps a nihilist in the sense that he believed in no transcendent values or truths, did not subscribe to a nihilistic view as it is typically thought of (e.g. that one can never criticize another’s actions since there is no way to judge right or wrong).

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