Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing -- fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death.
- Bertrand Russell, ‘Why I Am Not A Christian’
I realise this post could be seen as vaguely insulting, I can only say that it’s not intended to be so.
Reading through some of the comments by theists on the posts below, it seems to me that the same objections to atheism keep reoccurring, objections which put me in mind of the quote which I’ve used to kick-start this post.
I want to try to deal with the three main (as I see it) objections. My apologies for being a little brief, but most of them have been dealt with at great length elsewhere, so this is really just a “summing up”. When I get a chance later I’ll put in links to the bits of the site which deal with them in a more comprehensive manner. Fear of nihilism:
As God is the source of all meaning, without Him we’re condemned to a meaningless, unhappy existence.
Meaning is not, however, something which is external to human existence; it is something which we project onto the world: for an object or situation to be meaningful it simply has to mean something to us. Life is often beautiful, bewildering and intriguing – all things that appeal to me on an intuitive/emotive level – and therefore incredibly meaningful to me (especially considering the only alternative: non-existence).
People all over the planet find life to be more than meaningful without depending on a divine power in any way. The theist may counter that life with god is more meaningful, but then it’s incumbent on them to demonstrate that this is so. (A particularly tricky task, given that it would involve quantifying meaning).Alex adds:
The misunderstanding here is that you take it that I am saying if there is no God it is impossible for anyone to feel a sense of meaning and we all must live miserable lives. This is of course a silly position to take if one believes there is no God. As you point out quite clearly, we exist and we find things to be meaningful. End of story. Believing there is, or is not a God doesn't change that in the least. It's not even a part of the equasion.
However, there is a subtlety to my argument that I feel must be pointed out clearly. The point I have been trying to make is that without God there is no ground for any of our meaning other than our own personal experience. (It is worth pointing out that modern psychology is working hard to write personal experience out of existence as well.)
So it is not that I see the absence of God as causing the absence of happiness, (to be precise, I would regard the absence of God as the absence of anything
) but if we choose to imagine a world that exists without God, I would argue that any meaning that would result from this world would be false and would need to be maintained through self-deception.Matt rejoins:
If you say that any meaning which doesn't come from a higher source is "false"
, then yes: humanistic meaning is false. But most non-theists would simply reject that definition. All that is required for something to be meaningful - in a "true" way - is for it to mean something to me. So there's no self-deception involved.Alex re-rejoins:
I will respond to this argument here.
Fear of social collapse:
Without God sitting in judgement, people will have no reason at all to be good.
If this were true, we’d expect that the more secular the country the higher the crime rate. Yet, not only is this not true, but some have suggested
that the opposite may actually be the case.
The reason that most atheists don’t go on rampages of pillaging and murder is that there’s an incredibly strong pragmatic case for supporting certain notions of right and wrong: ask any random person whether they’d rather live in a society governed by law and order or one in which people were completely free to do what they like and, regardless of their metaphysical beliefs, you’d get an incredibly high percentage going for the former.
The reason for this is that it’s in my own self-interest to live in a society which respects individual rights. Not only am I much safer, and therefore able to achieve more of my goals, but the same applies to those I care about. This is the concept of reciprocal altruism, or, to put it more simply, I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine. Alex adds:
I must say I am not worried a bit that more "religious" countries have a boatload of social problems. I would be perfectly willing to go along with the charge that "religion" can in fact do more harm than good. Luckily for me I'm not arguing for religion.
I also don't really tend to the fear of social collapse. Most countries that are of a more secular flavor tend to nurture a dishonest view of godlessness. They play down the logical conclusions that are the result of having no God. Even if the bare bones meaninglessness and hopelessness of that ideology were promoted full force, no one would accept it. We are not wired to life lives like that. As you well know we are built to find meaning. We are built to believe that love is true and is the ultimate joy we can achieve in this life.
So again it's not that I so much fear social collapse, it's that without God a societies success depends on how well they maintain their delusion that people have value, that love is true, and that their lives have purpose and meaning.Matt rejoins:
Again - you're defining things like love and value in a way that most non-theists would reject as pointless. People have "value"
if we care about them - which acts on an intuitive/emotional level and has little, if anything, to do with our views on God.
Fear of determinism:
If we’re just biological machines, as the theory of evolution seems to suggest, then we’re subject to a strict determinism which obliterates the concept of free will.
This may indeed be true, but religious belief offers only a cheap, and ultimately unsatisfying way out of it.
Whenever I go to make a choice, certain background factors inevitably come into play. If I were trying to choose between two pizzas, then the decision would be made on a number of – fairly predictable – factors such as taste, how much effort I wanted to expend, what I’d recently had to eat, etc. All of which can be seen as determining my choice.
Yet, the existence of a soul, separate from my physical body, does nothing to change this. Unless, of course, we say that God somehow allows us to make choices which, while not determined by our pre-existing preferences, isn’t purely random. But this is a somewhat lazy way out of the problem.Alex adds:
And now for determinism. First off, I'm not so sure I'm comfortable with the idea of a soul separate from the body. At one point, that was my position, but revvvvd challenged me on that one and I have since done some more reading that has caused that position to be a bit less tenable than it used to be. I would now suggest that we are
souls. We are biological bodies, but the trouble comes when we say we are "just"
biological bodies. We are body. We are spirit. Different aspects not different substances. Anywho, enough on that.
If, as Matt suggests, This indeed may be true
, regarding a strict deterministic world view, how can you live your life without an extreme
dose of self-deception? Speaking of laziness, if you were to internalize the concept that you had no free will the level of apathy one would be forced to maintain would be what we now call a type of neurosis. It is impossible for us to have a healthy mental state and truly believe that we have no control over our life, decisions, or actions. To believe that everything will simply be what it will be and we are powerless to affect change of any sort, imparts a feeling of despair that you simply cannot avoid without lying to yourself.
Now the charge that all Christianity has to offer is a cheap, and ultimately unsatisfying way out of it.
needs to be demonstrated.
Here's my position: We are created by God. God has told us who He is. He has told us he created us for joy and the fullest of life. He tells us He created us for a love so great we cannot now conceive it. We are free to make our own choices and are responsible for our actions. We are free to affect change in the world for better, or worse. Our thoughts really are our thoughts. They are not simply chemical noise. I can say of my own free will "Matt you are a person I respect and I very much enjoy our conversations."
The deterministic position: We are the product of a mindless explosion. The conditions at this precise moment were determined by the precise conditions at the time of the massive explosion. We are the effects of an uncaused cause. We are complete slaves to the conditions surrounding us. Even our own thoughts are results of causes beyond our control. Our futures are determined, we cannot change it. Matt cannot say, "Alex you are a nice chap.", but the big bang can, not that it really matters since no one is listening anyway.
I don't know about you, but I know which one leaves me feeling unsatisfied.Matt rejoins:
I didn't say that it was "all Christianity has to offer"
- but I've yet to see a convincing theistic argument which demonstrates the existence of the type of libertarian free will suggested here. Either our actions are determined by our preferences (whether God-given or evolved) or they're random.
Labels: Free Will, nihilism, Religion, Social Ethics