On Godless Theology

Guys, I dunno about this:

It’s important to understand that atheists scare religious people not because we’re different, in other words, but because our beliefs do literally threaten their own. We don’t simply present ourselves as another religious group whose beliefs can be kept to ourselves. We openly and unabashedly argue that religion is toxic and we’d like to see it end, just as we believe sexism and racism are toxic and should end.

My first thought on reading something like the above is that I must be pretty shitty at being an atheist. For one thing, I’m terrible at scaring religious people, even when I wear my black turtleneck and talk about how heaven is a lie and death is the end of existence. (It does not help that I am not a very intimidating dude.)

But then, maybe I’m not trying hard enough. I certainly don’t “openly and unabashedly” call for the death of religion, like good atheists are supposed to. That’s probably because I openly and unabashedly don’t care whether or not people believe in God.

Really, the whole New Atheist “death to religion” push seems like a case of misdirected priorities to me. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the history of Communism and watching The Big Lebowski, it’s that people don’t need religion as an excuse to do shitty things to each other. Religious people don’t even have a monopoly on banning abortion!

But maybe that’s not the point. Maybe the point is that religious claims are false, and people shouldn’t be teaching their children lies as a means of controlling them. To that, I again say: “Eh.” It really depends on the character of the religious claim being made. People shouldn’t have to grow to adulthood thinking that the world is 6,000 years old and dinosaurs died because they got left off the ark (the world is actually 8,000 years old, and dinosaurs died because they were too awesome for this fallen world). But most religious claims — indeed, the most popular and important ones — are metaphysical in nature. They don’t concern facts in this world, but the other world. You know, that one.

You can call claims about that world “lies,” but I prefer to think of them as “fictions.” A lie is a verifiably false claim — false in the sense that it contradicts a fact. But what is the nature of a “fact” that takes place outside of the physical world? On what grounds do you call a claim about that world “false?”

The standard atheist response here is that such a world doesn’t exist. “There is something beyond the material world” is a false claim, and any subsequent claim that takes that one as a premise is also false. Which, sure, okay. The only problem with that argument is that most of the people making it don’t seem to really believe it.

People tend to bristle when you tell them that they don’t really believe what they say they believe, and that’s perfectly understandable. But if you’re an atheist materialist, it’s worth asking yourself if materialism is compatible with how you answer the following questions:

  1. Is it a fact that murder is wrong?
  2. Do you have a mind? Are its characteristics, thoughts and sensations all facts?
  3. Is it a fact that 2+2=4?

The last of these questions is the most important, because it exposes the true character of claims about the metaphysical world. Say we agree that 2+2=4 is not a “fact,” because it does not describe a characteristic of the material world. What is it, then? Is the statement, “2+2=4″ false? Or is it just nonsense?

Surely even the most hardened materialist would be inclined to say, “neither.” So instead let’s call “2+2=4″ a true statement that describes a fact about the world of mathematics. The world of mathematics isn’t a “real” world in the same sense as the physical world, but we pretend that it’s real because doing so makes it easier for us to document and predict real-world phenomena. Mathematical equations are therefore “facts” by social convention and within the context of what Wittgenstein might call our mathematical language game.

So far so good. But that logic, when applied to questions #1 and #2, suddenly becomes much less palatable. That’s because most of us, even most atheists, are moral realists — that is to say that we believe moral claims are facts even outside the context of language games. They are facts about the mind-independent world.

Atheists have gone to great lengths to defend moral realism, albeit unsuccessfully. Ayn Rand, building off of Aristotle, argued that moral facts were discoverable through a sort of internal reasoning process. Sam Harris’ recent book, The Moral Landscape, is based around the premise that moral facts can be deduced from empirical observation of the human brain. These views sound attractive, but they’re fundamentally unsound and philosophically confused.

Similarly, many atheists take the existence of the mind as a fact about the physical world, because “mind” is simply a description of certain neurochemical processes within the human brain. But that argument, too, is exceedingly thin. To see why, we need only examine the language we use to describe facts about the mind. When you say to someone, “I am sad,” do you mean only that your brain is going through the neurochemical process that occurs when you feel sadness? Can we imagine a sentient robot that is capable of feeling sadness even though it doesn’t have a human brain? Can we imagine a creature whose brain undergoes the same chemical process but produces an entirely different emotion?

Atheists who make these sketchy arguments want to have it both ways: they want to discard religion while still clinging to comforting religious concepts. You can see them attempt the same thing in godless theories of historical determinism: the inevitability of Communism, the end of history, and the singularity all have a sort of musty, eschatological odor to them.

The atheist that clings to armageddon, moral realism and the soul is practicing a very shallow sort of atheism. If he were to fully extend the logic he uses to refute the existence of God, he would find himself gazing upon a world without form or sense: a shapeless, chaotic void in which there is no meaning or value to anything. That is why Nietzsche derides atheists in his famous parable on the death of God: he is trying to tell us that most people who call themselves atheists are wholly unprepared for true atheism.

Indeed, you might say that pure, perfect atheism is an impossibility. I can speak of a world without morality or meaning, but I can’t actually live in it. I’m trapped in the world created by language and conscious thought; there is no way for me to un-see the value I attach to things, or cause my mind to reject its own existence. The best I can do is to approach atheism as a continual process, one which involves scrutinizing and shaping the fictions I tell myself. If I can never know real truth, I can at least try to understand my own perceptual and intellectual limitations. And I can see to it that the stories I tell myself are at least good ones.

Say I could, after all, somehow discard those stories and see the world as it really is. Why would I? The little fictions we tell ourselves are not merely valuable, but the source of all value. Things like morality may be fictions, but they are real enough to us. We might ask ourselves why we need anything more than that, or on what grounds we can attack someone for telling fictions that are different from our own.

Hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving!

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9 Responses

  1. I know you’ve argued about The Moral Landscape before, and I won’t make you do it again (unless you wanna), but I think a big problem with this kind of discussion in general is that we use the same terms to apply to incomparably different things. “Morality” said by Pat Robertson doesn’t cover much or any of the same ground as “morality” said by Ayn Rand, which doesn’t cover the same ground as the Sam Harris’s “morality.”

    What if Sam Harris hadn’t said “morality” at all? What if he had just said that this possible state of the universe is better than that possible state of the universe? Sometimes this “better” is very easy to determine, and sometimes it’s very close and only theoretically knowable, etc.

    The arguments about ought/is and so on would be the same, and maybe everyone would come down on the same side they do now, BUT I think that without the baggage that comes with “morality,” we just might be more willing to think about the topic in new ways, listen to the other guys, and wonder what things would be like if the other guys were right.

  2. [...] On Godless Theology (resnikoff.wordpress.com) [...]

  3. “Atheists who make these sketchy arguments want to have it both ways: they want to discard religion while still clinging to comforting religious concepts.”

    This argument, as tried-and-true as it is, is what it all hinges on. You can live in unbelief about belief, but you’re still a believer. And as a believer, you’re still fallible, because you’re still human, so you’re limited by human faculties — and you know how it goes from here. You can live in belief about belief, and you too are a believer. Or you can live in further variations on either of these, however far down the chain of belief or unbelief suits you.

    It all makes you wonder what atheists really believe..

  4. “When you say to someone, “I am sad,” do you mean only that your brain is going through the neurochemical process that occurs when you feel sadness?”

    Though all the atheists I have spoken to see the origins of things like emotion as having roots in brain chemicals, most are aware that this is not the sum total of the experience which also includes affectual (I subjectively feel this and therefore may act in such and such a way) and social (how others make one feel and how we make them feel + feedback) aspects. Seeing something as chemical or genetic does not remove the emergent complexities that come out of such chemical interactions.

    “Atheists who make these sketchy arguments want to have it both ways: they want to discard religion while still clinging to comforting religious concepts.”

    These concepts come from Neuroscience/physiology/medicine, psychology and sociology respectively and I don’t think that they need to be based in religious concepts (however they got their start). Moreover, many concepts from religion are valid even if removed from that context.

    “I can speak of a world without morality or meaning, but I can’t actually live in it.”

    Morals and meaning do exist, they are just much more dynamic than modernist theories were capable of grasping (Each species/society/individual is subject to different pressures/history). I don’t think we should deny the existence of these things just because they are more complex than we originally thought.

    We are still dealing with the “Death of God”, but we are much further along the line than so called “Hardcore” Atheists such as Neitzsche and Camus, as these writers were dealing with the immediate pre- and aftermath of God’s death. There are may of us in the west who have grown up without such associations (i.e. for us morality is not tied to religion) and who are comfortable with the ambivalent ambiguity of our current knowledge state (how exciting that the search isn’t over and that we may continue to investigate these very interesting matters!!!).

  5. The dogma of atheism. I hear you. I feel, it’s a live and let live kind of thing.

    Frankly, I do believe this is a greater force out there, whether it’s metaphysical or God.. is personal.

    Great post by the way.

  6. Is anyone wiser than Socrates?

  7. [...] by New Atheists such as Sam Harris. As I’ve written before, Harris’ attempts to reconcile moral realism with reductio ad scientism is doomed to failure. However (if you’ll forgive some self-citation): I can speak of a world [...]

  8. [...] writing this post on Godless theology, I’ve been meditating a lot on the possibility of religious atheism. That [...]

  9. Fictions are the source of all value! And what is the distinction between truth and fiction! Does it have value? Is it itself fiction?

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