What Lies at the Dark Heart of Atheism?

Once God is extinct, claimed one of Dostoyevsky’s characters in The Brothers Karamazov, everything is permitted. And this is a common theist mantra.

What unfathomable perversion lies at the dark heart of atheism?

My answer: nothing more salacious than loyalty to life. At the heart of atheism is a single-minded loyalty to this short breath of existence we call life here on planet Earth.

Atheists recognize that we are body beings. That we are inherently physical, that this bit of chemical, experiential life is not just all we have, it is what we are.

Atheist loyalty to life is necessarily paired with something else: antipathy towards death. Our lives are all that matter, and dying is the loss of all that matters. The finality of death imparts a finality to life. This makes life valuable to us as nothing else can.

In contrast, the afterlife religions worship death (which they euphemistically call heaven) and eagerly try to convince us to sacrifice our lives for an incoherent, imaginary state that can only be obtained by dying.

Aliveness requires movement and breath and temporality; it cannot exist in an eternal, timeless state. Life and eternity are inimical opposites. We will not sacrifice life for the eternity of non-existence, even if you sweeten it with names like Heaven or Nirvana.

Atheists embrace and indeed worship reality, because we realize it is all there is. We are human bodies with human feelings, desires, needs, hopes—and we live within a fragile biosphere that is as temporary as we are.

There is no God. There will be no afterlife, no elsewhere.

With this stark embrace of reality, atheism proclaims its loyalty to life.

It follows that we are all in this together. Nothing can be experienced after life ends, and the brutal fact is that life will end. Every one of us will die and cease to exist. This fact forces us to the realization that our fulfillment relies entirely on each other.

No heaven, no hell. There is only Eden, our one earth, and we share it with everyone else.

That’s it. This simple, honest confession about ourselves, about life itself, is what lies at the heart of atheism.

Posted in Atheist Culture, Atheology, Meaning & Value, Naturalism | Leave a comment

Absurd Conversation

Two self-styled atheists and a Christian engaged in conversation. Their names were A, J and T. It went something like this.

J – Life is absurd.
T – No. It follows God’s plan.
J – Then it’s an absurd plan.
A – You’re both wrong.
T – You. . .
J – Your problem. . .
A – Your problem. . .
J – is you. . .
A – is you. . .
T – should read. . .
J – take life. . .
A – don’t take life. . .
T – the bible.
J – too seriously.
A – seriously enough.

J – Why should I?
T – If that’s. . .
J – Life is one big. . .
T – your attitude. . .
J – cosmic joke.
T – then the joke’s. . .
J – The joke’s on. . .
T – on you.
J – all of us.
T – You won’t think. . .
A – Life. . .
T – think it’s. . .
A – is not. . .
T – a joke. . .
A – a joke.
T – when you wake up in hell.

J – Cut the religious crap.
T – It’s true.
J – It’s crap. Religion. . .
A – I thought. . .
J – is full of. . .
A – you embraced. . .
J – absurdity.
A – absurdity. . .
T – God is real.
A – of all stripes.
T – It’s not absurd.
A – If it’s a joke. . .
J – It’s a joke. . .
A – one punchline. . .
T – There is a hell. . .
A – is as good. . .
J – and absurd.
A – as another.
T – and a heaven.
A – So you insist. . .
J – Don’t. . .
A – on your. . .
T – Jesus loves. . .
A – denomination. . .
J – misrepresent. . .
A – of humor. . .
J – me.
T – you.
A – instead of T’s.

T – Christianity. . .
A – So life. . .
T – is no joke.
A – is a joke but. . .
J – Ha!
A – only if you. . .
J – It’s. . .
A – get to. . .
T – There is a God. . .
J – one big. . .
A – pick the joke. . .
T – in heaven. . .
J – fucking. . .
A – is that it?
J – joke.
T – above. . .
A – You love to sit. . .
J – This whole. . .
A – on the fence. . .
T – who judges us. . .
J – conversation. . .
A – stabbing your balls. . .
J – proves just. . .
T – and assigns us. . .
A – while you declare. . .
J – how meaningless. . .
A – how absurd. . .
T – to heaven or. . .
J – everything is.
A – everyone is.
T – hell.

Posted in Atheist Culture, Christianity | Leave a comment

The Bill of Rights is only paper

Senator Rand Paul is conducting a gallant filibuster of the Senate confirmation of John Brennan (architect of the US Government’s drone program) as director of the CIA. Paul is filibustering because Attorney General Eric Holder stated that the Obama Administration considers it within their authority use the CIA drone program to target and kill terrorists on US soil.

Now it is true that Holder said the circumstances would have to be unusual to for them to choose a target on US soil—but that does not make the Administration’s position any less frightening or outrageous.

That’s because no less than the Attorney General of the United States has decided that the “war on terror” trumps any guarantee of due process in the Bill of Rights. And since the drone program is conducted by the CIA, it means the Obama Administration considers it ok for the CIA to conduct domestic operations, including kills on US soil. (It used to be completely illegal for the CIA to carry out operations within the US. Apparently the war on terror has changed that.)

What amazes me is the great number of Americans who just don’t care. Perhaps they don’t understand how precarious liberty actually is. James Madison (in many respects the “father” of the US Constitution as well the Senator who introduced the Bill of Rights to the first Congress) understood very well that the only thing his generation could offer future Americans was a flimsy “paper” barrier to tyranny.

Paper barriers—whether Constitutions or Bills of Rights—are only stout when people actually understand their value and care enough to stand up in defense of their principles. For those of us partial to liberty, Rand Paul has made himself an instant hero. He has stood up to defend the values that have kept us free 200+ years. We may not agree with many of his libertarian and conservative positions, but on this we are with him 100%.

Here is Senator Paul explaining why due process is so vital to freedom.

[President Obama] is not a judge. He’s a politician. He was elected by a majority, but the majority doesn’t get to decide who we execute. We have a process for deciding this. We have courts for deciding this. To allow one man to accuse you in secret, you never get notified you have been accused. Your notification is the buzz of the propellers on the drone as it flies overhead in the seconds before you’re killed.

Paul does not object to using drones to carry out attacks in combat zones. (I should point out, however, that many of the drone attacks the US has conducted under Obama have been outside any legitmate “combat zone”—they have occurred outside the borders of Iraq, Afghanistan, even Pakistan.)

The Obama Administration apparently believes that “combat zone” means anywhere they think they’ve identified a terrorist. That is what has led to this unprecedented assumption that the due process guaranteed in the Constitution simply doesn’t matter. The whole world is their war zone.

Senator Paul again,

But when people say, ‘Oh, the battlefield’s come to America’ and ‘the battlefield’s everywhere,’ ‘the war is limitless in time and scope,’ be worried, because your rights will not exist if you call America a battlefield…

He is undoubtedly right about that.

Now, it’s likely that the Obama Administration has no concrete plans to launch drone attacks within the US. As Eric Holder indicated earlier today, any plans at this point are only “hypothetical”. But it is frightening enough that our government now claims the right to execute people inside our borders without even a pretext of Constitutional due process.

And this “right” will be passed on to the next Administration, and the next, until the day arrives when domestic drone strikes against government defined “terrorists” actually begin.  By then, citizens won’t even bat an eye.

At that point the paper barrier called the Bill of Rights will be worthless.

 

Posted in Afghanistan, Atheist Culture, Bush Wars, Homeland Insecurity, Iraq | 4 Comments

Atheism is not enough

Rejecting the God and gods of religion is sufficient to make you an atheist. But that is not enough. You can be an atheist and still cling to supernatural beliefs.

It happens too often.

Let’s explore a few examples.

  • the atheist who believes in reincarnation or some other form of afterlife
  • the atheist who worships “Reason” as if it was something existing outside us
  • the atheist who sees intelligence in the universe, or believes the universe operates by inherent & fundamental scientific laws.
  • the atheist who believes in the principle of sufficient reason

Such beliefs make atheism inconsistent, if not incoherent, because to be sustainable atheism requires a natural worldview and all of the above incorporate some form of supernaturalism.  A natural worldview is fairly easy to define: it means a worldview which takes physical existence as a starting point and maintains that everything else—everything involving subjectivity, sensation, consciousness, experience, emotion, thought, intelligence, reason and so on—had to come into existence afterward by process of evolution. Naturalism requires this biological hypothesis for the origin of mind and all its accoutrements, otherwise it fails to stand in opposition to supernaturalism.

I said that atheism requires a natural worldview in order to be consistent, and the reason is simple. If we fail to derive the existence of consciousness, intelligence, reason, sensation and related phenomena from physical existence, then we have no choice but incorporate them into our starting conditions concurrent with (if not prior to) physical existence. Since only agents can have intelligence or consciousness, the unavoidable result is that agency is granted to the universe long before the evolution of actual biological organisms can begin. If this doesn’t throw God into the beginning of things, it at least throws godliness there, and it therefore ought to be anathema to atheism. To allow this would not even be atheism light, but atheism lightheaded.

Returning to my list of beliefs inconsistent with atheism, I think its easy to see why the first two should be rejected by atheists. Reincarnation and afterlife can’t be explained in a physical universe without adding something non-physical to the picture and making it trump physical and biological reality. Likewise, worshiping reason as if were something outside us raises the question of its ante-biological origin, a question that can only be answered supernaturally.

But what about the atheist who sees intelligence in the universe, or believes the universe operates according inherent & fundamental scientific laws? But here too I hope the issue is already plain enough that what holds in the case of postulating ante-biological reason holds for ante-biological intelligence just as surely.

But what about the second clause: shouldn’t atheists embrace the existence of “inherent & fundamental scientific laws”?

The problem here is mostly one of terminology. In the sciences today the empirical nature of scientific laws is readily conceded. They are descriptions subject to falsification and tests of usefulness, not laws laid down as if by some pre-ordained authority. They are not part of a blueprint of existence but (like all other scientific knowledge) useful descriptions of the world. Unfortunately this is widely misunderstood, in large part because the term “scientific law” dates to a period when all scientists were theists and the existence of a God who gave form to the physical world was a given. That bias no longer holds in the sciences, but terms engendered by it continue to confound the public at large.

But what scientific laws (thus clarified) cannot be is “inherent and fundamental” to the universe, for to assert this is to make the same mistake I outlined above with Reason and intelligence. It is to adopt the supernatural premise that rather than being biological products of evolution, mathematical forms and other elements of intelligence are concurrent with the universe. This is not consistent with the atheist project of rejecting supernaturalism.

We come finally to the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR). I will be brief and perhaps overly dogmatic. If we assume naturalism and evolution are true, then it is almost certain that reason is imperfectly matched to the physical world. Whatever reasoning faculties humans and other animals possess have certainly evolved for usability and usefulness—not as a system for unlocking the nature of the world, but as a pragmatic method of modeling the world so we can manipulate it to our benefit.

Since the knowledge systems which did evolve in our species are simulacra, it must be extremely unlikely if not impossible for knowledge so acquired to be “true” in anything beyond a pragmatic sense. If we carefully follow scientific methods, our acquired knowledge can be become quite dependable; but that is the most that can be expected of a faculty which evolved by natural selection. Knowledge did not evolve to reveal the nature of things. It evolved to be useful and reliable, and that is all.

My argument here in a sense is a modification (if not reversal) of Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism. If you analyze his argument carefully, you discover that Plantinga assumes the Principal of Sufficient Reason (PSR) as a necessary given, and he then combines it with evolution in order to falsify naturalism (or at least render naturalism extremely unlikely or inscrutable). But the PSR is a relic of theism. No advocate of naturalism and evolution should ever accept it.

Any biological account of the processes by which the sense organs and brain generate simulacra of the surrounding world should be sufficient to impeach the notion of a principle of sufficient reason. When we consider that such processes gradually evolved over vast stretches of time, I would say that no other conclusion is possible unless one postulates a pre-existing intelligence directing the path of evolution. And that of course is anathema to atheism and naturalism.

Evolution (E) + Naturalism (N) + PSR form an inconsistent trinity. If like Plantinga we insist on combining PSR with E, then we must reject naturalism. E + PSR + S (Supernaturalism) is how I would represent Plantinga’s theistic posture. (For my part, I maintain that PSR is not sustainable in light of modern neuroscience, and that supernaturalism brings well-known problems, but otherwise Plantinga’s worldview is at least coherent.)

Atheists have to take a different tact. We have to embrace E + N + PIR (Principle of Insufficient Reason) if we want a coherent position. PSR won’t do.

The day when atheists could reject God, and simply stop at that, is long gone. If atheists are to root out supernaturalism from their thinking, they will need to embrace not just evolution but naturalism. They must learn to think in terms of a natural worldview, and they will need to reassess intelligence, reason, and knowledge in that context.

Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

Disembodied intelligence and the natural worldview

Roughly speaking, there are two ways of looking at the “big picture” of life, two basic worldviews—which we commonly call the natural and the supernatural. At first glance the difference seems clear. One says everything that exists is natural, the other that there exists something—or some things—beyond what is natural. But what, exactly, does the word “natural” mean? When we try to pin it down, we run into difficulty.

One way of identifying the “natural” is to focus on the source of our knowledge. Whatever we can detect through our senses (or extensions of our senses) is “natural”—anything else is “supernatural.” Following this, the method of science reveals nature; everything else is supernatural.

Yet this distinction is not as clean as it needs to be. For one thing, it doesn’t allow us to identify whether some proposed entity is natural or supernatural until we know where science will take us—and we may not know that for hundreds or thousands of years, if ever. Because the sciences are empirical, we can never be certain of the conclusions (or even the scope) of scientific knowledge centuries hence. In short, this approach leaves us with a distinction between natural and unnatural which is undefinable to the degree that current science is unfinished and fallible. And like it or not, science will always be unfinished and fallible.

Methods of Knowing

As an alternative, we might try to focus less on what is or is not natural, and more on the corresponding method of knowing. Compared to religious revelation, the scientific method is dramatically more reliable—more useful—at uncovering the nature of reality. Yet how do we know that some things supernaturalists believe in today won’t eventually be discovered by scientists as natural phenomena tomorrow? In honesty, we don’t. The best we can assert is that the supernatural approach is flawed—you can’t depend on it. Occasionally it might luck out, but it’s dramatically more likely that it will not.

But there may be another way to look at the natural versus supernatural debate. Supernatural advocates claim that there is an intelligence or consciousness outside of us. And not just outside of us, but outside of any species of animal or plant on any imaginable planet in the universe. Perhaps better put, they believe in the existence of disembodied consciousness and/or disembodied intelligence.* The supernatural method of knowing—religious revelation—involves (so it is claimed) receiving knowledge directly from this disembodied intelligence or consciousness.

With this, the distinction of method becomes clearer. One method is empirical, the other not. The supernatural method doesn’t rely on the hard work of science but on direct reception from disembodied intelligence. Imagine a background intelligence pervading the universe from the moment of its creation, much like scientists speak of the background radiation left over from the big bang. But whereas it takes hard work and carefully calibrated instruments to detect the background radiation, detection of supernatural background intelligence or consciousness is open to any and all, and requires little more than intellectual laziness. The result is that many religious people claim that God speaks to them directly, or that a particular book contains the words of their preferred disembodied intelligence, or that they can mystically perceived the disembodied consciousness in their own consciousness.

What can advocates of naturalism say about this, other than that it is intellectually lazy? Bear in mind that the fact that an approach comes easy or appeals to human lassitude does not make it flawed or render its results incorrect.

For one thing, we can say that the scientific and the revelatory methods of knowledge differ dramatically from each other in their reliability. But that is not the only difference between them.

One method has proven to be reliable in allowing us to engage and manipulate the natural world (even if we can’t exactly pin down what “natural” means). It begins and ends as a method for knowing, one which has been (and continually is being) refined for reliability. The other began not as a method but as an assumption of knowledge—specifically the “knowledge” that disembodied intelligence/consciousness actually exists.

In short, science did not begin as a worldview, but as a method for reliably discovering ways to consistently manipulate the world. We call the world so manipulated the “natural” world partly (or perhaps primarily) because the scientific method is incapable of revealing anything useful about disembodied (supernatural) intelligence or consciousness. What makes something “supernatural” may simply be that it lies outside the purview of science. What makes something “natural” simply that the scientific method “works” for it.

Beyond Method

From this we can see that advocates of supernaturalism may have a counter to the claim that religious revelation is dramatically less reliable than the method of science. It is less reliable, they can argue, not because its method is flawed but because its subject is so inscrutable. The scientific method, they might argue, fails us even more completely than personal revelation when it comes to the primordial disembodied consciousness. Science detects nothing; revelation at least detects something, even if most (or nearly all) of its detections are false positives. And revelation has some kind of logical rationale: if disembodied consciousness exists, what better tool than our own consciousness to detect it? Nothing else—no non-conscious instruments—could possibly do the trick.

I think we are getting somewhere. The real disagreement between the advocates of naturalism and supernaturalism is not as much about method as we have assumed. There is no reason for supernaturalists not to embrace the methods of science when it comes to things natural. But science doesn’t work with the supernatural—and for the most part both sides agree with this.

Naturalists agree because they see supernatural claims as untestable, or about something that simply has not been (and probably never will be) proven to exist.

Supernaturalists also agree, but take it from a different point of view. As they see it,  science only works for natural—that is, embodied—things. Behind the natural world is the one sort of thing scientists are incapable of studying, but that fact doesn’t mean that disembodied intelligence is not there—only that scientific method isn’t the right tool for studying it.

A Natural Response

How is the advocate of naturalism to reply?

I think we can begin by reframing the debate between naturalism and supernaturalism as a debate about the nature and history of intelligence and consciousness. The advocate of naturalism maintains that intelligence and consciousness are brain-based phenomena, and made their appearance in the universe over the course of evolution of species on earth and (probably) other planets. In contrast, the advocate of supernaturalism maintains that intelligence and consciousness can be disembodied and pre-exist the formation of the physical universe.

One says matter existed before mind, the other says mind existed before matter.

Framing the debate this way allows us to disentangle worldview from method, and that is useful because it then becomes possible to move the conversation forward. So long as advocates of each respective worldview reject the other side’s method of knowing, discussion can go nowhere. This is because rejecting everything but the scientific method is tantamount to rejecting supernaturalism, since what science can study defines natural. On the other hand, embracing religious revelation is tantamount to embracing supernaturalism since it presumes a disembodied source of revelation.

As a method of knowing, revelation has a fatal flaw—it is based on direct interactions with disembodied consciousness, and therefore the knowledge revealed is unavoidably hidden and personal. Any method for knowing disembodied consciousness by direct revelation is necessarily going to be private rather than public. If private revelations were in agreement, this would not be a serious problem. But they never seem to be. And there is no way to broker the differences, other than violence. The result is that we have more religious sects than we have nations. Even within a sect, there is often substantial disagreement from individual to individual.

For this reason, revelation is useless for open inquiry. What is needed is a broader intellectual method—one that embraces scientific method but can step outside the natural to address supernatural postulates in a rational and intelligent way without having to resort to claims of revelation.

Theology doesn’t fit the bill—unless if we limit it strictly to “natural theology.” Yet the name itself, natural theology, shows that it assumes supernaturalism as starting point.  In contrast, atheology can be thought of as an equivalent which assumes naturalism as a starting point. One might argue that both follow the same common rules of rationality and logic, but bear different names simply because their practitioners have reached different conclusions or begin with different worldviews. If this be so, then we have agreement, not on assumptions or conclusions, but on approach: these “common rules of rationality and logic.”

In other words, we can all agree on the basic rules of philosophical inquiry. That is an important starting point. But sorting out worldviews is not something that should be or can be relegated to philosophers. It is something we all would profit from doing. The inquiry needs to be engaged at a level and in a manner more practical and less arcane than philosophy as practiced today in academia. Otherwise, the worldview discussion becomes inaccessible to most people. And it must not ignore scientific knowledge.

With this in mind we might ask, how do intelligent people go about deciding which of two disparate and conflicting worldviews best fits the reality around them? The ideal approach is to begin with no preference or assumptions. One should objectively study natural theology and atheology in turn in order to understand the respective supernatural and natural worldviews, and only afterwards come to a judgment about which one provides the more coherent worldview.

But in real life most of us begin with an allegiance to one side of the question. That makes objectivity difficult. But there is a process intelligent people use to ameliorate their biases, and it begins with engaging the issue from your opponent’s point of view. This means temporarily suspending your own beliefs and disbeliefs (much as we do when reading a novel or watching a movie) in order to see the world momentarily from the other side.

Like trying on clothing, we should try on worldviews. Only then can we see what fits.

_______
When I use the terms “disembodied intelligence” and “disembodied consciousness” I don’t mean that either must be singular. Souls are also disembodied consciousnesses, according to most religious people. This makes it clear that at heart what distinguishes supernaturalists from naturalists is the question of whether consciousness or intelligence can be disembodied.

It is my belief that this is a question that can be scientifically addressed. For example, if intelligence and consciousness can be demonstrated to be brain phenomena, then the question is essentially settled. There is also the historical question—when does intelligence/consciousness enter the picture of existence? Is it beforehand, or did it evolve into existence with brains. Is there evidence of intelligence or consciousness before brains evolved? That ought addressable by science. It is, after all, a factual question.

Scientific answers to the above may not be the final word. But they will help clarify what we likely are as human beings. Are we minds who happen (at least now) to possess bodies? Or are we bodies which happen to have evolved minds? Should we define ourselves as essentially body, or as essentially mind, or as an indivisible combination?

Posted in Atheology, Naturalism, Supernaturalism | 3 Comments

Billy Graham on Atheism

Atheism is often misunderstood by the religious—which is not surprising given how foreign disbelief is to the theistic outlook. A recent but typical example comes from longtime evangelist (and “spiritual advisor” to several U. S. Presidents) Billy Graham, Jr.

Many atheists, I find, reject God for one reason: They want to run their own lives.

It’s an interesting perspective. Graham seems to think Christians (some percentage, at least) yearn to run their own lives, and that this desire to be free can lead them to embrace atheism. Perhaps Graham experiences a bit of this himself. Perhaps wistfully, on occasion, he has wished he wasn’t bound by the dictates of his religion. Perhaps he’s had the sudden thought, if I was an atheist I could do anything I wanted.

Running your own life, making choices, it certainly is appealing. Maybe Graham’s right that Christians sometimes peevishly desire to chuck God for the freedom of atheism. But, for the vast majority of us who are atheists, he’s got it all wrong. We reject God because—surprise!—we do not believe God exists. It’s as simple as that.

Atheism is a conclusion about God’s existence.

If you desire to “run your own life,” you don’t need anything as drastic as atheism. Rejecting God is like traveling a thousand miles further than necessary. There are plenty of religious, God-believing alternatives that can get you out from under the thumb of the know-it-all churches whose leaders like to dictate how their followers should live. If what you want is freedom from the pretenders who claim to speak for God, you’ve got a smorgasbord of options. There’s Unitarianism, Paganism, Wicca, and New Age religions galore. You can stay away from organized religion altogether and become a Deist. Or just stop going to church. Atheism is not required.

Of course, atheists do notice the propensity of religious leaders to constantly claim they speak for God. We notice, and we criticize. We’re pretty sure God doesn’t exist, so we don’t have a high opinion of the God-know-it-alls. Nevertheless, it does not require atheism to see their vanity. Easy enough to break free without ditching God.

If Graham and other religious leaders hope to stem the tide of modern atheism, their best bet is to figure out why there are so many atheists today. Here’s a hint: the real reason has something to do with becoming unconvinced that God exists. Atheists are people who have looked at the world around us, and discovered that it makes more sense if there isn’t a God than if there is.

Unfortunately for theism, it doesn’t help that Graham and myriads of other religious leaders keep throwing dirt on God by insisting that the Bible, or Koran, or Torah, or Book of Mormon is His handiwork. Seriously flawed holy writ doesn’t fit with a perfect Creator, which is why quite a few religious enthusiasts have suddenly discovered, half-way through Seminary, that their religion just isn’t adding up.

Still, you don’t have to chuck out God when you chuck out your religion of birth. There are plenty of alternatives far less drastic than atheism. So why the ongoing exodus to godlessness? The answer, I say, is that a lot of us have noticed that a natural, scientific worldview can be a consistent, intellectually satisfying alternative to supernaturalism. It just works, without all the drama, perplexity, and contradiction that comes with believing in God.

The Basic Questions of Life

Billy Graham has other misconceptions about atheism, it would seem. In the same piece, he writes,

For one thing, atheism has no satisfying answer to the basic questions of life — questions like “Who am I? Where did I come from? Why am I here? How do I know what’s right and wrong? What happens when I die?” Atheism says we are here by chance, and life has no meaning or destiny. Taken to its conclusion, atheism ends in despair.

To those of us who are atheists, this sounds very familiar—religious people like to make such pronouncements. Meaningless life? Despair? Why would anyone ever want to adopt an outlook that can only lead to despair? Graham hopes, of course, that once the atheist comes face-to-face with the cliffs of despair, she’ll come running back to God pronto.

And I’m sure this has happened—for someone somewhere. But the atheists I’ve met don’t seem to know where these cliffs of despair can be found. When they hear or read pronouncements like Graham’s, they usually react in one of two ways. Either they get upset at what feels like slander or misrepresentation—or they laugh.

Laughter is the better reaction, I’d say. Religious leaders like Graham don’t intend to slander—it’s just that they honestly don’t understand atheism.

Maybe I can clarify things for their benefit. It’s pretty simple. Religions and worldviews do (or at least ought to) address the who, how, what, why questions Graham presents. But that is outside the purview of atheism proper.

Atheism, as stated previously, is a conclusion about God’s existence. It’s not a religion or a worldview. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m a firm believer that everyone ought to have a well-thought out worldview, if not a well-thought out religion, and this holds for atheists as well. Most atheists, I believe, do have a worldview—though not necessarily the same one.

We draw our answers to Graham’s questions not from our atheism, but from our worldview. Why? Because it requires a worldview in order to have the kind of framework necessary. As I stated earlier, I think most new atheists today adopt atheism because they have discovered that a natural, scientific worldview simply works. It makes better sense of the world than does supernaturalism, and satisfies emotionally as well as intellectually. Science, it turns out, provides an engrossing, wonderful front-seat view of life.

When I answer Graham’s questions…

Who am I? Where did I come from? Why am I here? How do I know what’s right and wrong? What happens when I die?

I get my answers from my natural worldview, based on my understanding of current scientific knowledge. Who am I? A biological being, an individual organism who experiences wonderful sensations created by my very physical body as I move within the physical world. Where did I come from? Other species of organisms who have evolved over billions of years within Earth’s biosphere. How do I know what’s right and wrong? I know, because as my species evolved it acquired a suitable, self-beneficial moral nature. What happens when I die? I will cease to exist as an individual organism (although my body will persist until folded back into the biosphere by the activity of microorganisms).

Billy Graham may not like my answers. But they are honest and, for that reason, satisfying. When I became an atheist, I acquiesced to the reality that I am a biological being who will someday die, and that every aspect of my consciousness will cease to exist. Graham, who characterizes atheists as wanting things their way, seems to be the one who is incapable of acquiescing to the powers that be. Those powers are biological and physical, and they dictate that life is fragile, vulnerable, temporary, and that we die forever.

Graham, and the millions who follow him, can’t accept that. They demand eternity. They invent God, and they fantasize that God will provide a heaven to their liking. Thanks to their supreme selfishness, they are willing to sell out life on Earth. They’ll even sell out the biosphere, so long as they smell the sweet promise of eternal life.

Not me.

I prefer reality to fantasy. And so, I gather, do most atheists. It’s not selfishness which animates us, but honest acquiescence to the reality of being.

Posted in Atheist Culture, Atheology, Naturalism | 13 Comments

Death of the Caliphate

His life ended with the kind of brief episode of terror he had schemed for thousands of others. To call up a Biblical phrase he might have appreciated, you reap what you sow.

He sowed terrorism, but what Osama bin Laden hoped to reap was a full-out war of Islam against the modern world. His target was modernism; his bulls-eye was on modern values such as democracy, equality between sexes and social groups, separation of religion and government, sexual freedom, and affluence. He hoped to use anger against heavy-handed American and European support of Israel (and against US military interventions in the middle east) in order to galvanize Muslims to join in asymmetrical warfare against the “modern” infidels. His ultimate goal: restore medieval theocracy, an Islamic Caliphate.

The past few months have made it evident that he has failed. We have seen the beginnings of a general revolution breaking out in the Muslim world—not against modernism but for it. This is the opposite of what bin Laden had in mind. As Juan Cole writes,

Usama Bin Laden was a violent product of the Cold War and the Age of Dictators in the Greater Middle East. He passed from the scene at a time when the dictators are falling or trying to avoid falling in the wake of a startling set of largely peaceful mass movements demanding greater democracy and greater social equity. Bin Laden dismissed parliamentary democracy, for which so many Tunisians and Egyptians yearn, as a man-made and fallible system of government, and advocated a return to the medieval Muslim caliphate (a combination of pope and emperor) instead. Only a tiny fringe of Muslims wants such a theocratic dictatorship. The masses who rose up this spring mainly spoke of “nation,” the “people,” “liberty” and “democracy,” all keywords toward which Bin Laden was utterly dismissive.

Today, nearly a decade after his triumph on 9-11, he has been erased from the scene. It’s too much to hope that al Qaeda and Islamic suicide terrorism have suddenly come to an end. But perhaps we can see a bit of sunrise. Perhaps this is the beginning of the end of what bin Laden tried to sow.

Posted in Bush Wars, Iraq, Islam, Islaminsanity, State & Church | Leave a comment

Women and Patriarchy

Dear Atheology Readers,

I am honored to have been invited by Dwight to write a post on atheology.com. Raised by Fundamentalist parents in the Bible Belt, I am excited to share some of my thoughts on why women join—and leave—fundamentalist religion. When I look back at the religion I left, I am struck by how great an emphasis its leaders place on womens’ submissiveness and “traditional” family values. Many of the older women and almost all of the young women in the church in which I grew up were devoted to the idea of Biblical Womanhood.

Biblical Womanhood means, essentially, that women are to joyfully submit to their husbands in everything, devote themselves to the “High Calling” of being wives and mothers, and dress and behave modestly. While the idea of womens’ working outside of the home is not discouraged if it stems from economic necessity, the highest praise and approval is reserved for full-time wives and mothers. Women who choose not to marry or not to have children are often viewed with suspicion. Women, who represent a numerical majority among members of every Christian sect, are barred from any position in the church which would give them authority over men. It was routinely suggested from the pulpit that married women ought not own their own money, have a private email address, or make friends with men.

Lest you think these ideas are unique to one congregation, the idea of Biblical Womanhood is widely endorsed across Evangelical denominations and is rapidly growing in popularity among young women and teenage girls. Many of these women say things like “I’m feminine, not feminist” and “I’m a Proverbs 31 woman!” or a “I want to be a Titus 2 woman!” Many Fundamentalist Christians view any move toward womens’ empowerment to be part of a liberal attack on Christian Family Values.

But why? Why do Fundamentalist Christians seem so obsessed with curtailing womens’ rights and equality? Why is male dominance and female submissiveness a Christian Family Value? The first and most obvious reason for embracing a system in which men rule over women and women are treated as second class citizens is that it is biblical. Taken at face value, the Bible does not set forth a society in which men and women are equals. While the Bible describes a handful of powerful women, those women do not represent a model for ordinary godly women. In fact, powerful women in the Bible are often villains (Vashti, Delilah, Jezebel). The Bible is crystal clear about women’s relationship to men (1 Corinthians 11:3, Ephesians 5:22). If one chooses to live by a literal interpretation of the Bible, one must accept that gender equality is simply inconsistent.

Of course, the Bible has been (roughly) the same for centuries. So, what has brought about the recent emphasis in Fundamentalist circles on controlling women by returning to “traditional” gender roles? One argument is that, until a few years ago, these gender roles represented broad social norms; but that, in the past few decades, the wider society has changed while the church has held with “tradition.” To some extent, this is true. The recent emphasis on women’s “returning” to biblical gender roles is, at least partly, the church’s response to feminism. In the past few decades, women have seen tremendous changes in their position relative to men. Men, too, have necessarily seen changes in their positions relative to women. Men are suddenly (in the past few decades) faced with realities which their fathers never imagined: women bosses; women professors; women in high political office—women in charge of them. Men can no longer rely on the law, on science, or on prevailing social norms to justify mens’ dominance and womens’ subjugation. One place men can reasonably expect to receive affirmation of their superiority is in Fundamentalist churches—churches which seek to live by a literal interpretation of the Bible. It follows, then, that the more rights and powers women gain in society, the more the church will seek to take those rights and powers away.

If one gives it much thought, it isn’t difficult to see why men in recent decades have embraced a system which reinforces patriarchal values just as the broader society is beginning to reject them. What may be more difficult to understand is why women would choose to live under such a system. One may reasonably imagine that women are dragged into Fundamentalist sects through abuse and manipulation by their husbands. Certainly this is sometimes the case. Other women, like myself, have been brought up by Fundamentalist families. But a shocking number of young women willingly convert to Fundamentalist sects, or, being raised in a Fundamentalist family, embrace more conservative views than their parents. Why? Why would a woman knowingly embrace the message that she is inferior?

Again, the most straight-forward reason is that the Bible tells me so. What does a woman think when she reads verses like “I do not permit a woman to speak or to hold authority; she must remain silent”? The same thing a man thinks: Women must not be as good as men. If a woman begins with the premise that the Bible is the literal word of God, and she then observes that the Bible prescribes a subservient position for women, then she must conclude that God prescribes a subservient role for women. The only way to obey God, then, is to accept her own second-class status.

Another reason why women cling to religious doctrines which preach male dominance is a bit more complicated. Rather than reflecting the successes of feminist movements, womens’ adherence to Fundamentalist views on gender reflects the failures of feminist movements. That is, it speaks to the fact that women are still oppressed in very real ways which are seldom acknowledged. When people tell little girls that we could grow up to be President of the Untied States, we know they aren’t telling us the truth. We know that, in reality, we probably can’t do that. In the same way, when people tell us that women are just as smart and capable as men in the work place but we consistently earn less money and receive fewer promotions, we feel lied to. When we are told that women have equal protection under the law, yet we are treated with suspicion and contempt when we report being the victim of a violent crime, we feel lied to. When we’re told that we are sexually liberated, but what we experience is comodification and objectification of our sexuality, we feel lied to.A doctrine which tells us that women aren’t meant to be equal to men and that we will be happier if we accept our lot in life—just seems more honest.

Not only is the idea of a divinely ordained patriarchy consistent with many womens’ experiences, it brings positive meaning to those experiences.

Fundamentalist women are told that when we choose to submit to our husbands, we are modeling perfect submission to God. When we subject our will to our husbands’, we are not being abused; we are practicing dependence on God. When we choose to dress modestly and eschew the trappings of beauty, we are demonstrating godly humility. When we abstain from sexual intimacy and pleasure, we are saving our selves as a gift for our husbands (just as we save our spirits for God). And when we satisfy our husbands demands for sex and childbearing, we are acknowledging God’s right to control our bodies. By submitting gracefully and demonstrating joy in submission, we are demonstrating to a rebellious and discontented world the “Peace of God, which surpasseth all understanding.”

Viewed through the lens of Fundamentalist Christianity, our oppression ceases to be painful, frustrating, and humiliating, and becomes instead a powerful expression of devotion to God.

Indeed, embracing feminism, not skepticism toward the existence of God, is what first separated me from the church. I didn’t question—either aloud or in my mind—whether there really was a God. I insisted that there was a God. I insisted that God loved me. And I insisted  that I, a woman, was made in the image of God, as the Bible says. I questioned why a perfect creator would create an imperfect creature in Its own image.  I then began to question why, if women and men are both made in the image of God, women should submit to men.The resistance and anger I faced for asking this relatively simple question was the beginning of the end of faith for me. Only when I refused to accept my own inferiority did I begin to reject the Bible and the Bible’s God.

Posted in Christianity, Feminism, Patriarchy | 4 Comments

Fixing Classical Arguments

In my last post, I wrote about how the premises of classical deductive arguments could be construed as either statements of logical definition or of observed fact. I argued that philosophers often confound the two and, as a result, either draw the conclusion that matters of fact can be “proven” by pure reason or else that some factual premises are “basic” and need no support.

Some philosophers use this approach to tag certain premises, such as “Other minds exist” or “God exists”, as part of the basic foundation of a rational worldview. Such basic premises, they maintain, can be rationally embraced without any need for evidence or observation to back them up.

But instead of embracing foundationalism, philosophers can turn instead to the scientific method and learn from it. Let’s take a closer look at what I have in mind.

Science relies on making inferences and then devising tests to see if those inferences are reliable. Philosophy, traditionally, relies on deductive reasoning, as in

Premise: All men are mortal
Premise: Socrates is a man
Conclusion: Socrates is mortal

But the premises are recognized as needing to be buttressed by arguments of their own. Such as

Premise: Only men engage in the use of complex tools and language
Premise: Socrates engages in the use of complex tools and language
Conclusion: Socrates is a man

But even these premises need the support of a logical argument. Thus

Premise: I saw Socrates typing on the computer
Premise: Socrates explained to me in English what he was typing
Premise: A computer is a complex tool
Premise: English is a complex language
Conclusion: Socrates engages in the use of complex tools and language

Eventually we end up with an extremely long string of interlocking arguments in which the conclusion of one becomes the premise of another. But is it enough? Doesn’t each premise always need supporting argument, and each argument need premises which need arguments in a never-ending chain? Not always.

Some premises are different than others. Some premises are true “by agreed upon definition”.

Premise: A triangle is a polygon with 3 sides.
Premise: Figure A is a polygon with 3 sides.
Conclusion: Figure A is a triangle.

We may need a Premise which defines polygon and perhaps one which defines sides. But given an agreed meaning for its words, our first premise defines a triangle. We do not need (and can hardly imagine) a classical argument to support it as a premise. (The best we could do would be to utilize premises which constitute compatible ways of defining a triangle.)

So there are two types of premises: those which define things and those which describe some presumed “fact” about the world. Instead of calling all premises “premises” it would therefore be more useful to call some “definitions” and some “facts”. But there is something a bit odd here. The premises we call “facts” are precisely the ones that seem to need to be the conclusion of prior argument.

The General Semanticists distinguished between “inferences” and “facts” and we will find that distinction useful here. A fact is something that you can observe directly; an inference an assumption you make about things you can’t observe, but which might be observable by someone in the right position. The clock tells you it is 2 PM, so you infer that it is still daylight out. Or you observe sunlight streaming in the window and infer that it is sunny outside. Those are inferences. But only if you see the daylight or the sun directly do they become assertions of fact.

But here we must retreat: even our direct perceptions are not necessarily facts. We infer that the leaf we see on the tree is green because we see it as green—and yet, as we now know scientifically, neither the leaf nor the light reflected from the leaf is green. That the leaf has color is an inference which our brains have evolved to make on our behalf—not because it is “factual” but simply because it is useful. The brain has a built-in inference machine—eyesight—in which it takes hints from detected photons and manufactures colors and shapes from those hints. Sometimes the brain’s built-in inferences are wrong, and we experience an “optical illusion” as a result.

If you observe the way scientists (and other intelligent people) define something as “fact”, what you will observe is that facts are always built on prior, dependable inferences. It is a “fact” that the earth orbits the sun—of course we know that this supposed fact about the sun is built on a complicated framework of inferences about the apparent movement of the sun, planets & stars in the sky. At a lower level of abstraction, we know that our “direct observations” of the sun, planets & stars are themselves inferences—we don’t for example ever experience any of those things “moving” but instead infer that they have moved. And at an even lower level of abstraction, as mentioned earlier, our experience of sight is based on the brain’s inferences about the hints from photons gathered by the sensor cells in our retina. (Of course, that there are such things as “photons” or “sensor cells” are themselves very high level inferences—built upon many levels of inferences treated at each intervening level as facts.)

But back to our classical syllogisms. As we saw, some classical “premises” are “definitions” and others are “inferences.” We might ask, Does it make a difference what we call them? I believe the answer is that it can make a significant difference, and I will argue that the term “premise” ought to be dropped for the terms “inference” and “definition”. Consider the following,

Definition: all bachelors are unmarried.
Inference: John is a bachelor.
Conclusion: therefore John is unmarried.

In the traditional syllogism the first and second statements are merely premises, with the presumption that they are on a par. But by recognizing that the first statement is a definition of terms and the second an inference we have drawn about John, the argument is clarified. The conclusion, of course, is also an inference, since one of the premises it relies on is an inference. This is exactly as it should be, since our conclusion “John is unmarried” may serve as an inference in our next syllogism.

This approach helps us distinguish the following two arguments:

Inference: All men are mortal.
Inference: Jesus is a man.
Conclusion: Jesus is mortal.

Definition: All men are mortal.
Inference: Jesus is a man.
Conclusion: Jesus is mortal.

Per this last argument, there is something “inhuman” about someone who never dies, so that, for example, if Jesus is still alive on the cross 2000 years later he must not be a man after all. Whereas in the case of the prior argument you would not know which inference was false.

Or, taking the Christian doctrine of the trinity as a definition of Jesus, you might have:

Inference: all men are mortal
Definition: Jesus is a man
Conclusion: Jesus is mortal.

In this case if Jesus is still alive on the cross, then the inference “all men are mortal” must be false given the definition of Jesus. (I’m pretending that 2000 years is enough to infer immortality—of course it may not be). At any rate, I hope this shows that distinguishing between premises which are definitions and those which are inferences (even when the wording is identical) is clarifying—and therefore preferable.

Definitions are always tautological (& tautologies are always definitional). In classical syllogisms a premise may sometimes masquerade as an inference but sometimes turns out, on examination, to be tautological in actuality. (Several of the classical arguments for God existence have this flaw.)

There is a lot more that might be written on this topic. But I’ll stop with this: when there is a conflict between an observed inference and a definition, the scientist modifies the definition to fit the inference, whereas the theologian usually denies the inference to preserve the definition (or the basic belief, if they are a foundationalist philosopher). This is why many religions deny the inference of evolution.

It is also why science improves over time, and religion & philosophy do not.

Posted in Faith & Reason, Meaning & Value, Naturalism | Leave a comment

God and Other Minds

Theists like to point out that we can never prove that others (besides ourselves) have minds. The person sitting in the chair next to me may be carrying on quite a lively conversation—but how can I be sure there’s really a “mind” behind all those words. According to many theistic philosophers, I can’t. As Ronald Nash wrote in his book Faith & Reason,

No one has constructed a good argument that others have minds.

Of course, theists take it for granted that other people have minds: they see it as a basic belief, one that is quite rational and reasonable even though it may be impossible to prove. And they see this as justification for another basic belief that may be impossible to prove: the existence of a “divine mind” behind creation.

Essentially their argument is this:

No, I can’t prove that the divine mind exists, but so what? I can’t even prove that the person sitting next to me has a mind. Yet everyone agrees it is reasonable to believe in other people’s minds, therefore it must be reasonable to believe in a divine mind.

Not so fast, I say.

We learned as infants that other people have minds of their own, that their desires and intentions do not always accord with our own, and that things go better for us when we take other people’s minds (particularly our parent’s) into account. It is something every one of us learned inductively through experience and the school of hard knocks. Something which no one doubts unless they are attempting to do philosophy.

For any philosophers reading this, I’ll make it clear. The existence of other minds is an empirical observation, an inductive hypothesis which we reached as infants by essentially approaching the world the way a scientist would. Even little children can be good empiricists. Indeed, the fact that four-year olds can figure out the existence of other minds is evidence that the scientific method (albeit unconsciously) is natural to humans.

But let us become a philosopher and inductive reasoning from empirical observation is suddenly no longer good enough: we want proof. And this means, not evidence but a deductive argument from a set of premises. And here, Nash is telling us, “no one has a good argument that others have minds.” Nor is he alone. A great many professional philosophers would agree.

And yet it’s nonsense. True, no deductive argument can prove the existence of other minds. But that is because of a misunderstanding about deductive arguments. Consider:

All men have minds.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore Socrates has a mind.

That is a valid deductive argument, one which proves Socrates has a mind if its premises are correct. But premises always do one of two things: either they assert a definition (“let us say that Socrates is the name of a man”) or they assert an observed fact (“we have observed the existence of a man named Socrates”). Likewise, “All men have minds” can be taken as defining men as creatures who—by definition—have minds, or taken instead as making an empirical observation about men.

But how do we determine—ever—if an empirical observation is true? There is only one way: by inductive reasoning from observation and experience. Observational “facts” are determined inductively—not deductively. What might be termed “definitional” facts are either declared ex cathedra (a “basic belief”, in other words) or deduced by deductive argument from other definitional facts.

This is why philosophers spin their wheels trying to “prove” the existence of other minds. They are trying to reach a deductive conclusion drawn from definitional facts. Yet it is logically impossible to verify an observational fact that way. How then do we know that other minds exist? The same way the human infant learns that her parents have minds outside of her own: by inductive reasoning from experience. The same method used by scientists.

Furthermore, it follows that the conclusion of any valid deductive argument (“Therefore Socrates has a mind”) will never be an observational fact. It will always be a deduced fact. No deductive argument will ever prove that others have minds; at the same time neither will any deductive argument ever prove that the sun is fueled by nuclear fusion, or that grass is green, or any other empirically-derived observation.

This hints at what I’ve come to see as one of the major occupational hazards of doing philosophy (as opposed to, say, doing science): you come to expect important observations to be knowable by “pure reason.” And when it’s shown they can’t be known by pure reason, you lament that they are “unprovable” and therefore a matter of opinion or “faith”—or declare it a basic belief.

Again and again philosophers trip over the expectation that matters of fact are provable with a syllogism. It leads them to throw up their hands when faced with factual questions. After all a syllogism is only as good as its premises, and philosophers don’t do empirical observations. They don’t confirm premises. Philosophers evaluate arguments for logical validity—does the conclusion follow from the premises?—but philosophers are not in the business of validating premises. The philosophic method has an incredible hole: it can’t vouch for premises, it can’t determine matters of fact.

For that we need the scientific method. Or a four-year old.

Posted in Faith & Reason, Naturalism, Theologians | 3 Comments