“…if a man’s willing to write 1905 pages justifying his own death he’s not interested in being talked out of it.”
Question from Rohit:
Sometimes one comes across really rare incidents – and the reaction of the general public to such incidents really saddens one.
I’ve actually taken some time to go thru some of Mitchell Heisman’s 1905 page suicide note. I do not find any flaw in his logic except perhaps too narrow a focus on the concept of equality.
Some of his ideas are actually pretty interesting.
If you go to his site www.suicidenote.info and see his pic you do not see a guy who’s pathetic in appearance. He actually looks a bit intense. If you read his note even in bits and pieces you soon discover that this was a guy who was not pathetic in mental abilities either.
How would atheism sell life instead of death to Heisman? Can it? Can atheism justify life over death?
Religion’s stand on death seems to be pretty solid by the way. I’m not so sure of atheism’s stand.
I am an atheist and I think it is purely a matter of personal choice, social custom, muddied up with an evolutionary survival instinct (will to live – like that of any living organism – an instinct of flight from danger).
But I’d like to hear your comments on it … there’s been no answer to this in another forum till now.
An aside – Heisman’s is a case that has an eerie comparable in fiction – Dostoyevsky’s Kirilov in “Devils”
Answer by SmartLX:
Excuse me if I don’t devote the next several days to ploughing through all 1905 pages. I’m already reading Scott Pilgrim and I Shall Wear Midnight, and I have a job to go to. The sheer size of the piece may have a lot to do with why there’s no full response so far. Another major factor is that he only killed himself last month. Give it another month or two before you really wonder why there are no responses.
I did skim it though. My immediate response based on that, and your description, is that if a man’s willing to write 1905 pages justifying his own death he’s not interested in being talked out of it. He appears to have pre-emptively dismissed the stances of any set of people who he thought might try: Christians, Jews, members of many schools of philosophy, psychologists, scientists, atheists and so on. (His own position, in the vein of pantheism, might be called “technotheism”: God, or the making of God, is technology and He will have fully evolved at the point of the Technological Singularity.) Nobody, let alone atheism, had a chance of selling life to this guy.
Atheism by itself doesn’t justify life, nor can it be expected to. There’s no line of reasoning that goes, “There is no god, therefore don’t die.” The reasoning that keeps atheists alive, when it has anything to do with atheism at all, goes, “Despite the fact that there’s no god, there are such-and-such reasons to live.” We find reasons not in the simple absence which is atheism but in the incredible presence which is the universe. Philosophically or psychologically this can take the form of humanism (humanity is important), altruism (others are important), egotism (I am important), hedonism (while I live, I can find happiness), curiosity (I can’t explore when I’m dead) or any number of other concepts.
When you get right down to it, it is personal choice and social custom, “muddied up” with the hereditary survival instinct. Humans, by their upbringing and their intrinsic nature, generally want to live and most of the intellectual justification for living (religious or otherwise) is rationalisation after the fact. Mitchell Heisman didn’t want to live anymore, and for an educated man like him that took a mammoth 1905-page effort to rationalise.
The sad thing is that his last work may or may not contain the real reason he killed himself. It’s just as likely to emerge from his own circumstances as the last weeks and years of his life are explored by the media. And wherever it comes from, we may not even recognise it among the chaff.
“God is the reason most religious people use to feel significant where we otherwise wouldn’t be, and losing that can be a frightening prospect.”
Question from Evelyn:
From what I have read you have a major interest in our humanity and how we can be be significant in an otherwise insignificant world. Why is this important for an Atheist to feel this way?
Answer by SmartLX:
I think it’s important to a human being to feel this way. That’s why I get tons of arguments along the lines of, “If there’s no god then nothing we do matters.” God is the reason many religious people use to feel significant where we otherwise wouldn’t be, and losing that can be a frightening prospect.
What I’ve written on the subject is generally ways to claim significance without referring to an absolute authority, which is necessary to fill that gap. It’s easy, really, because we humans are tremendously significant to each other.
Ultimately I think we are insignificant in the grand scheme of the universe because besides us and any aliens who might come along, there’s no one out there to be significant to. And because of this, it shouldn’t matter to us in the slightest.
“It is certainly possible for the mind of a Christian to change. Whether they change as a result of outside influence or internal reflection is more of a philosophical matter.”
Question from Brian:
Is it actually possible to change the mind of a christian? It seems like they’re just so cemented in their ideas that it’s impossible.
It is certainly possible for the mind of a Christian to change. Whether they change as a result of outside influence or internal reflection is more of a philosophical matter.
Check out Convert’s Corner on richarddawkins.net, where people describe exactly why they no longer believe in whatever gods they used to. Plenty of the contributors are ex-Christians.
Regardless of former religion, though, you’ll notice as you read that they generally see it as an internal process. What they were reading and who they were talking to is secondary to what they reasoned and realised and how they felt. The other thing you’ll notice is that deconversion takes a good long while, and is rarely complete at the end of a conversation.
Therefore, from your perspective as an advocate of atheism, even if what you say to a Christian is what ultimately convinces them that Christianity is false, they’re unlikely even to admit that you have a valid point while you’re talking to them. Encouraging deconversion often lacks the instant gratification of seeing people go, “Wow, you’re right!” About the most you can hope for is a look of frustration, then confusion.
Two other reasons why you’re not likely to see immediate change are peer pressure and doctrine.
– Evangelicals especially know that their fellow Christians will turn on them, in a sense, if they show doubt.
– It’s a common teaching that any words which sow doubt are ultimately from the Devil, so that doesn’t help your credibility among your audience.
Most importantly, none of this means that you are not having an effect.
“It’s caught on because it lends immediacy and even more confrontation to the process of witnessing and proselytising.”
Question du jour:
“What are you going to do with Jesus?”
“Not much. If he ever lived then he died a long time ago and there’s no indication that he has any stake in what I do today.”
The question probably got its start in the video The Jesus Rant. It’s now popular enough to populate many pages of Google results.
It’s caught on because it lends immediacy and even more confrontation to the process of witnessing and proselytising. Jesus, it implies, is right in front of you, waiting for your answer. No passive response is available because action is required of you; inaction is point-blank rejection.
Importantly, there’s no really polite way to engage and then dismiss it. This is a technique learned long ago by aggressive salespeople and beggars: force the customer to stifle prompted responses, be rude and/or feel uncomfortable and guilty in order to escape signing up or handing it over. Since the question assumes the continued importance (and existence) of Jesus, the only way for a non-believer to answer honestly is to go “off script” and challenge the question itself. That means being more forward than you might like, especially when you’re responding to a friend, family member or apparently nice person. That’s the point.
Another important aspect of the question is what it doesn’t mention. Those who ask it are hardly going to follow up with, “Okay, now what are you going to do with the Buddha?…Mohammed?” To accept Jesus is to reject all other potential objects of worship just as strongly. Considering this goes against the purpose of the question; you’re supposed to accept Jesus and be relieved of guilt. Any mention of other religions, and suddenly it’s like you’re giving a pony ride to only one child out of a group.
I can’t make responding to this question easy, even by supplying an answer as I did first off, because its impact is primarily emotional. Once you understand that, however, you can see it for what it is: simple but effective propaganda.
” If you believe in a god, the reasons you want to help others have partially to do with influencing that god’s treatment of you (and possibly them), in the here and now and in the hereafter.”
Question from Rohit:
I’ve been thinking about the value of the human being in three different types of world views – the god belief world view, the atheistic-humanistic world view, the atheistic-enlightened self interest world view.
In the best form of the god-belief world view I’ve come across people who think human life is precious and all human beings must treat each other well as they are all “drops of the divine ocean”
In the atheistic-humanist world view people say that human beings have an intrinsic value and thus one important goal is the upliftment of human beings. One should not treat other human beings badly as we all have an intrinsic value.
In the atheistic-enlightened self interest world view, again the human being is important – as your self interest lies in not treating people badly, trying to help people (so that you are helped in return) but unlike the God-belief or atheistic-humanist views, no intrinsic value is given to the human being.
Being nice becomes a means to an end (the end being your enlightened self interest). Also, various degrees of “being nice” are permitted, depending on one’s enlightened self interest. This world view borders on opportunism.
And since no intrinsic value is placed on the human being (except as an enhancer of one’s enlightened self interest) – one tends to value different people differently.
Now arguably, the atheistic-humanist world view is just as deluded as the God-belief world view – it simply trades the delusion of existence of a God to the delusion of intrinsic value of the human being. Why should the human being be assumed to have an intrinsic value – is it because we are intelligent, or conscious or both? Do more intelligent human beings have more intrinsic value then? If we came across an alien civilization much more advanced than us, would their life be more valuable than the life of a human being?
I find only the atheistic-enlightened self interest to be logically consistent. It seems to me to be without any significant assumptions/ delusions.
But as I indicated above, it seems to be almost opportunistic.
I’d really like to hear your comments on this! Am I missing something here? Is there a logical, consistent atheistic world view that does not simply reduce human beings to objects/ means to an end.
Well, humans are objects. Philosophically, so is anything else with a physical or even conceptual presence. Saying humans are objects doesn’t therefore reduce or belittle them.
Humans, like anything else, can be means to an end. They can also be ends themselves, as far as a person is concerned. That’s as far as the thought process goes in most cases: you’re doing something for other people. The “enlightened self-interest” part is that you’re ultimately serving yourself because you want something for them. So no altruism is entirely pure.
This is true whether you’re religious or not, so it has little to do with that debate. If you believe in a god, the reasons you want to help others have partially to do with influencing that god’s treatment of you (and possibly them), in the here and now and in the hereafter. That’s the only difference. Where the religious sometimes fail to empathise with others is that they get the idea that without this particular reason to be good to others, there are no good reasons at all. That leads into a lot of arguments over what a “good” reason is.
Meanwhile, even if humans really have intrinsic worth we have no way of determining what it is, so it’s useless to us. However, humans have an undeniable worth to other humans. This may be subjective, but it’s so universal that it’s possible to behave for one’s whole life as if humans have truly intrinsic worth and never be contradicted or even challenged. (I’ve only ever been challenged on it on ATA, by people who advocate a divine source of human worth.) This approach is both humanist in its effects and enlightened in its concept, for it assumes no unverified absolutes.
Speaking more generally, a world view logically consistent with atheism accepts that any value or worth given to people, things or ideals is assigned by us and us alone. Therefore the values assigned by humans are unmatched in their importance to us, and as worthy as any other. Then we just have to compare contradictory valuations on merit.
“If the only reason you currently act “moral” were because you’ll go to heaven if you do and hell if you don’t, you would resent God for forcing you into this behaviour.”
Question from Darron:
If there is no God, and there is no judgment. Why would anyone want to follow any kind of moral code of conduct.
I know if we didn’t of course, everything would fall apart. But most of us barley live to see 90. If your not born well off, why bother with hard work to get to the top. Why not lie, cheat, steal, kill, or sleep your way to the top.
Because lying, cheating and stealing doesn’t usually work in the long term, and because most people don’t actually like to do these things.
God’s isn’t the only judgement you need to worry about. If there isn’t a God or an afterlife, you have just this one short life available to you, and getting a reputation as a crook (let alone being convicted as one) can ruin that life and snuff out your potential. That’s a considerable risk you’re taking if you abandon ethics altogether.
You have an unspoken contract with those around you. Keep to the morals of your society as laid out and agreed upon, and others are expected to respect your moral fibre and be nice to you. People can’t see into your very being and determine what kind of man you are; your words and your actions are all they have to go on. If you genuinely behave like a “good person”, it makes no practical difference whether you really are one or not. And the world likes “good people”.
Another reason you want to follow a code of conduct is that you actually want to help people and make them happy. If the only reason you currently act “moral” were because you’ll go to heaven if you do and hell if you don’t, you would resent that God pushes you into this behaviour by way of a carrot and a stick. But you don’t, do you? It’s gratifying to treat people right, isn’t it?
This is something moral absolutists don’t often consider: human nature, however it may have formed, actually tends toward what we think of as moral behaviour a great deal of the time without any coercion whatsoever. So the religious are happy that God commands them to behave the way they prefer to behave anyway.
“My basic position hasn’t changed since I was 26, and I turn thirty in a week and a half. I’ll let you know if I have a religious experience before then…”
Question from Asylum:
I’ve notice a theme among atheists: many, including myself, start to question faith/reaffirm faith as they approach thirty. Is it more likely for a person to begin to reaffirm their faith and after thirty deconvert?
I have no idea.
My basic position hasn’t changed since I was 26, and I turn thirty in a week and a half. I’ll let you know if I have a religious experience before then, but otherwise I’m evidence that what you’re describing isn’t a hard and fast rule.
If there is some kind of trend towards late-twenties reaffirmation, it’s too subtle to show up in hard statistics. For instance, ReligiousTolerance.org reports that only 6% of self-proclaimed “born-again” Christians say they had their “again” part after the age of eighteen.
I can see why some people might return to their faiths as they approach thirty, though. If they’ve deconverted as teenagers or young adults, in college/university or just after leaving home, and the deconversion was influenced as much by rebellion, peer pressure, would-be intellectualism and/or contrarianism as by actual reason, the age of thirty might well be when those other factors are no longer as important as whatever had them believing in the first place.
You’ve apparently got several people in mind who follow this “theme” of yours. Want to carry out some research? Go and ask them why they believe again, and let us know.
“Death to an atheist is essentially a tremendous waste of opportunity and potential. It’s also actual death, rather than a passport to another life. It’s not often worth hastening.”
Question from Sam:
If I commit suicide, I will:
1) Not experience any of the harms of life.
2) Not miss any of the benefits of life.
So why not commit suicide?
Hi. You tell me. Why haven’t you done it yet? Purely because a god told you not to? I don’t think so, or you’d be constantly wishing He’d let you.
If you commit suicide, you will:
1) Not be able to do anything about the harms of life.
2) No longer experience any of the benefits of life.
If you care at all about others, you have an opportunity to help them only when you’re alive. Even if they end up getting your help after you die, in your will for example, you have to prepare for it while you’re still with us. It’s the other people in this world that keep most of us in it, I think. As Robert Frost wrote, we all have promises to keep, and miles to go before we sleep. They can be some fulfilling miles.
If on the other hand all you care about is yourself, then it’s up to you to decide whether the benefits of life still available to you are worth the “harms” you’re likely to go through. Because life is absolutely teeming with potential benefits, depending on what you like, only in really awful cases does the answer to this reasonably approach “no”. It does happen, however, which is why there is a certain amount of support for voluntary euthanasia for the terminally ill.
Death to an atheist is essentially a tremendous waste of opportunity and potential. It’s also actual death, rather than a passport to another life. It’s not often worth hastening.
“Free will implies a supernatural force affecting the brain which isn’t beholden either to deterministic classical mechanics or to quite possibly random quantum mechanics.”
Question from Graham:
If atheism is true then it would seem that materialism – physical matter is all that exists – is also true. If that is so, is it possible for there to be free will?
Materialism would seem to imply that everything functions in a purely mechanical way, with molecules simply interacting according to the laws of physics, and that would seem to leave no room for free will.
If there is no free will then it would seem to be impossible for us to engage in rational discussion. After all, the product of our “minds” would be determined entirely by a long chain of molecular interactions rather than by non-physical reasons.
Atheism implies materialism: materialism implies a mechanistic universe: a mechanistic universe implies no free will: and no free will implies non-rationality.
Do you agree?
I’m with you some of the way, because I don’t believe in free will.
This is for roughly the reason you give. Free will implies a supernatural force affecting the brain which isn’t beholden either to deterministic classical mechanics or to quite possibly random quantum mechanics, and for which there is no evidence.
That’s not to say that will doesn’t exist. We still want things, and we do what we want to do. The absence of free will simply means that we can’t choose what to want. We are driven by our desires. If we refuse to do something we want to, it’s because we want something else more. For example, if you want to lose weight, you don’t eat the big cake.
Will is an example of an abstract concept which accompanies the materialistic worldview for functional purposes. It’s a word which effectively describes an action or quality without physical presence except for a representation in the brain. In a physical sense, my will is a subset of my neurons which stores my short-term and long-term desires and coaxes my brain as a whole to think of other things in terms of those.
There is a long list of such concepts, which fall into the category “information”, including opinions, rules, agreements and of course discussions. A rational discussion is taking place between us, as defined thus: relevant, related information is getting from your brain to mine and vice versa, roughly as intended, through the media of our hands, our keyboards and a ton of networked hardware.
The religious or dualist alternative is that the discussion is essentially taking place between our souls through our subservient brains in addition to all the other media. The only difference is the nature of the participants, since the same information is exchanged. I submit then that if a discussion between two souls is rational then the same discussion must be rational between two brains, or for that matter two computers or other groups of molecules. Of course the brain is a computer, so it’s a thin distinction.
I suspect you have a definition of rationality in mind which makes a much larger distinction, and I’d like to hear it.
“For me it was the Problem of Evil, the apparent contradiction between the existence an all-powerful, all-loving God and the horrible things which continue to happen in the world.”
Question from A:
What was the question that made you say, “that doesn’t sound right?” For me it was when someone told me that I wasn’t going to heaven on my being a good person. When I asked why they told me I had to believe in Jesus and if I didn’t nothing else mattered, it didn’t matter that I was naturally giving and compassionate. The thing that would send me to hell was the fact that I didn’t believe. I thought, “well that sucks!”
For me it was the Problem of Evil, the apparent contradiction between the existence an all-powerful, all-loving God and the horrible things which continue to happen in the world.
Of course there are lots of answers to that question: God’s testing us, Satan is responsible for the bad stuff, it’s a necessary consequence of free will, it’s our own fault things have been crap since the Fall, we only perceive things as evil when in fact they’re all part of God’s plan…and so on, or combinations of that lot.
If my inherited Catholic faith had supplied just one answer, I’d probably have accepted it and carried on, but it coughed up this whole mess of answers, some compatible, some contradictory. It really drove home that even the priests and bishops didn’t really know what’s going on, and if they didn’t, nobody did. Thus came the first desire not to simply accept what the supposed religious authorities told us kids.
Not long after that I was an agnostic, and my slow journey to atheism had begun.