Not All Atheists Hear The Same Thing When People Debate Theology
April 20, 2011

Dante and Virgil in Hell

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I’m an Amanda Marcotte fan, but I’m also one of those atheists like Robert Farley who doesn’t really get her hostility to theological debates. Nor do I think there’s any reason to doubt that Andrew Sullivan, et al, are sincere in their faith. Lots of intelligent people really are devout believers, and to suggest otherwise seems either profoundly misguided or just plain churlish.

Given all of that, I think there’s value for nonbelievers in figuring out why intelligent people believe, and in grappling with theological claims on their home turf. Back around Christmastime I wrote a series of posts about atheism in which I argued, among other things, that atheists could benefit from understanding theological claims as an indirect way of describing the structure of the claimant’s perceptual experiences.

So take for example Andrew Sullivan’s understanding of Hell. He says:

Whereas in fact Hell is, in orthodox terms, is simply our refusal to accept the love of God. Our inability to accept it. And that exists on Earth as it does after death. We can be living in Hell right now if we do not accept the love that is openly given us by God, the Father and the son. And that is what Hell is. Heaven is simply the ability to let go of your pride and let God in.

One way to react to all of this is just to take offense at Sullivan’s assertion that we nonbelievers are in Hell and ascribe all sorts of unsavory motives to that claim. Or you could just mock Sullivan’s faith and suggest that he’s some kind of dumb rube for believing what he does. But I don’t think either of those possible responses are all that useful or interesting. I’d rather take a closer look at Sullivan’s reasons for believing what he does and consider how those shape his interface with the world. That doesn’t mean you can’t be critical of those claims. But for Spider-Man’s sake, at least be critical in an engaged, interesting way.

Since I’ve blogged a bit about Nietzsche recently, I might as well note that he had some very engaged and interesting ways of responding to the sort of doctrine Sullivan espouses above. In Thus Spake Zarathustra he calls those who speak of Hell on earth as “preachers of death” who “carry around within themselves the beast of prey and have no choice but lust or self-laceration.” The point being that, in Nietzsche’s view, this urge to embrace the eternal and escape from the worldly represents a sort of fear and loathing of the world as it is. His response is to embrace the world — what the preachers of death call Hell — just as those same preachers embrace what they call God and Nietzsche calls death.

I don’t subscribe to Nietzsche’s scorched-earth style, but I think there’s a kernel of insight and psychological acuity in his writing you won’t find in a blithe dismissal of all faith as meaningless bullshit. And even if you disagree, at least Nietzsche’s making a proper argument out of it.

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If Atheism Is Inherently Amoral, Theism Is Too
July 8, 2010

Republican candidate Mitch Daniels
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This has been bouncing around Twitter a bit: an interview with Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels (pictured) in which he says:

People who reject the idea of a God -who think that we’re just accidental protoplasm- have always been with us. What bothers me is the implications -which not all such folks have thought through- because really, if we are just accidental, if this life is all there is, if there is no eternal standard of right and wrong, then all that matters is power.

And atheism leads to brutality. All the horrific crimes of the last century were committed by atheists -Stalin and Hitler and Mao and so forth- because it flows very naturally from an idea that there is no judgment and there is nothing other than the brief time we spend on this Earth.

That’s certainly not a novel argument. I’ve sure you’ve all heard some version of it before. But it is a decidedly ugly one, and something tells me that most of the people who make it haven’t thought through the full implications of what they’re suggesting. Taken to its logical conclusion, Daniels’ argument concludes that the whole concept of “morality” is meaningless.

In order to explain why, let me first make a few reasonable suppositions about the nature of Daniels’ own faith. First: he’s most likely a monotheist. If he thinks that atheism has no moral foundation, that suggests he thinks morality comes from God, or that, at the very least, the relationship between God and objective moral goodness is such that if there is no God, there is no morality.

I’d also wager that Daniels is a Christian, which means this morality is connected to an incentive system: if you do good things, God sends you to heaven, and if you do bad things, he sends you to Hell. As for the relationship between morality and that incentive structure, you could claim:

  • Good deeds are good because you are rewarded with eternal paradise.
  • You are rewarded with eternal paradise because of deeds that are good prior to the reward.

The first option suggests that good deeds are good for purely self-interested reasons, in which case morality is reducible to that which is in your long-term self-interest. But I don’t think that’s what Daniels meant. If I were a betting man (though, of course, gambling is a sin), I would wager that Daniels believes good deeds are good because God has deemed them good, and as a result he rewards people who do good deeds.*

The problem is that, by instituting this flawless incentive system, God pretty much makes morality irrelevant. Because, again, if you know that eternal bliss is the reward for good behavior, and eternal torture is the punishment for bad behavior, then rational self-interest dictates that you engage in good behavior as much as possible. Except rational self-interest doesn’t seem like a very good criteria for what constitutes a moral act, because it means someone could be extremely morally upright without using any sort of moral reasoning or intuition. The difference between a good person and an evil person ends up just being a matter of having the right information and knowing how to hustle.

Now, you could argue that a true Christian is one who is aware that he will receive an eternal reward in heaven but doesn’t consider that a motivating factor when it comes to his own good deeds. But that seems pretty implausible, given that we’re not always totally aware of our own motives—and besides, if that is the case, then it would seem that the threshold for what constitutes a good deed is ludicrously high. It might even mean that the only person capable of truly virtuous acts is the atheist—and he’s likely disqualified from eternal bliss anyway.

In a situation like this, probably the best thing is to be aware of the existence of a God who prescribes certain good actions and proscribes certain bad ones, but remain unaware of the existence of heaven until after your death. In which case, according to Daniels, pretty much every Christian in the world is screwed.

The other option is to concede that it is possible to have some kind of non-theistic moral framework which, broadly speaking, overlaps with theistic moral intuitions. In which case, congratulations! You’ve just admitted there’s such a thing as moral atheism.

*Philosophy nerd footnote: The near-identical question “Is piety good because it is loved by the gods, or do the gods love piety because it is good?” is what sparked Plato’s famous dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro. My metaethics professor argued that this was the first metaethical debate in philosophy.

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