A Relationship with the Divine

Question from Samson:
I am studying philosophy and worldview and I’m currently working on an assignment where we are meant to explore this question:
“What is the relationship between humanity and the Divine?”

If you aren’t sure how to answer the particular question outright, I think answering these questions might give me what I’m interested in knowing:

1. Do atheists believe in any gods or supreme beings?
2. Do you believe in the supernatural or paranormal at all? Not just gods, but stuff like ESP, magic, mind reading, ghosts, etc.
3. Does life or humanity have intrinsic value?
3a. If not, is there any way for a human or their life to be “valuable” or have meaning?

Answer by SmartLX:
The main question is easily answered from an atheist perspective: “probably none”. There has to be a Divine for humanity to have any real relationship with it; if there’s not then much of humanity is operating on false assumptions, and any perceived relationship is in their heads.

And now for the rest of the questions, which I’ve numbered above for clarity.

1. Atheists, by definition, do not believe in any gods, and most definitions of a “supreme being” are close enough to a god as makes no difference. For instance, there’s a similarly poor standard of available evidence and logical arguments for a non-divine supreme being, so it fares no better than gods in that respect.

2. Lots of atheists believe in supernatural or paranormal phenomena. For instance I’ve discussed ghosts with many self-proclaimed atheists who believe in them for various reasons. It’s consistent (to some extent at least) for an atheist to believe in such things if they do not necessarily require a god to exist. I personally do not believe in any such things, as far as I’m aware.

3. Look up definitions of value and you will find expressions like “the regard that something is held to deserve” and “one’s judgement of what is important in life” (emphasis mine). Value is subjective by its very nature, because it has to have value to someone. Even its definition as a verb is phrased along the lines of “consider (someone or something) to be important or beneficial”, which is again dependent on the one doing the considering. For something to have “intrinsic value” it would need to be of value to the universe as a whole, entirely independent of people. That either means the universe is conscious and values certain things, or it is controlled by an entity such as a god which has its own values. Atheists don’t think either is the case, so there’s no such thing as intrinsic value to us – unless you instead define value in terms of physical quantities. A pint of beer might cost $10 or it might come for free or it might save or end a life, but it will always measure one pint.

3a. The above does not stop us from valuing things, because subjective judgments are still judgments. Life has value to the living, humanity has value to humans, and we’re all living humans so we can happily behave as if they are intrinsically valuable. If there’s no god then you’re not looking for a stamp of approval for your values from the universe at large, only from the people your values may impact or impress.

With that covered, take a step back and consider the nature of question 3a. I don’t know whether you’re repeating it from somewhere, but it could be considered an attempt to have atheists admit a bleak, nihilistic outlook, as the existence of 3a makes it look likely that the answer to 3 is “no” and the answer to “3a” might just be “none”. If this is the author’s motivation, it is an appeal to consequences as it does not say anything about whether atheism is right or justified. Apologies if this is clearly not the author’s intention, but it is exactly the intention of some advocates so I wanted to mention it regardless.

3 thoughts on “A Relationship with the Divine”

  1. If I ask myself –
    1. Do atheists believe in any gods or supreme beings?
    Nope … as SmartLX has succinctly put across.

    2. Do you believe in the supernatural or paranormal at all? Not just gods, but stuff like ESP, magic, mind reading, ghosts, etc.
    Umm … I used to … some weird things happened to me a few times. But I’ve shrugged them off on hindsight. I currently don’t believe in any paranormal phenomena. Sometimes weird things happen. It’s just how things are. There are usually very normal, physical explanations which become apparent if you step back and apply your mind a bit. Weirdness simply means the explanation is not immediately apparent – no need to invoke the “eerie beyond”.

    3. Does life or humanity have intrinsic value?
    Without going into too much definitions and clarifications (for e.g. what on earth is meant by intrinsic value … “intrinsic” in what sense?) and going by just the “feel” of the question (forgetting precision), I think it does.
    I define value in terms of utility (the economic sense of utility – measured in “utils” and all that 🙂 ) – particularly human utility since we are the dominant beings for now on this planet. I put a constraint on that value – an individual’s utility should not be increased by decreasing some other sentient organism’s utility. Apart from that, one should gun for maximizing one’s utility or utility of humanity in general (the constraint ensures that the general case happens as a consequence of the specific).
    Viewed from this perspective, life has intrinsic utility because it has the potentiality of enhancing human utility. Does life have any utility beyond this? If there is life elsewhere in the universe, then I would talk about utility of all sentient beings in the universe and say that life has intrinsic value in that sense (it helps to enhance utility of sentient beings).

    3a. If not, is there any way for a human or their life to be “valuable” or have meaning?
    Every life is a potential utility enhancing function … thus every life has an intrinsic value in that sense … and is valuable. Our lives (the meanest to the most sublime) tend to add utility to the overall in various dimensions and in various intricate ways. Non-linearity is a confounding thing – but that is how nature operates.

  2. Quick note; surely having value to a god would still count as extrinsic value? I mean, a god would be something outside of us.

    Also, points for the line ‘If there’s no god then you’re not looking for a stamp of approval for the universe at large’, which beautifully sums up something I’ve been trying to express about the ‘but if there’s no god we have no intrinsic value!’ argument.

    1. Thanks very much, doc. And good point about a god’s values being extrinsic to the universe, but the effective belief of many Christians and others is that God “baked” his own values directly into the foundations of the universe (like so many chocolate chips) since the universe exists to serve some grand purpose of His.

      Another way a god might make values intrinsic to the universe is to BE the universe, as pantheists believe.

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