“I honestly think that common understanding of words like “existence” stretches far enough that people with different positions on the existence of something important can discuss and debate it in a way which is at least meaningful to them.”
Question from Cody:
When Christians and atheists argue, they seem to assume they mean the same thing when they say words like “existence,” “being,” “is,” and “truth.”
I find that they usually do not. Some speak from the modernist/rationalist mindset, some from the classical metaphysical mindset, and others from the post-modern, phenomenological POV.
What do you, and other atheists you know, assume as definitions for these seminal terms. What is the arbiter of truth? What is being and existence? Or, more realistically, what are your working assumptions about these things?
I’m afraid without clarity about our basic assumptions, any attempt to real dialogue is doomed. Help a devout Catholic understand atheist fundamental philosophy.
Answer by SmartLX:
I don’t think there is any fundamental atheist philosophy, Cody. That’s like asking for the common political views of everyone who isn’t a libertarian. Different people may have come to reject it by different routes.
That’s not to deny that many atheists think about this stuff in similar ways. For many or most atheists, questions of existence are rooted in the material. If something exists as anything more than a manmade abstract concept like love or justice (though of course those can be quite powerful in their own way), then it either has a material presence or some practical effect on something in the world. If something were to exist but have no effect on us, we might be strictly wrong but who cares?
The other assumption I think is near-universal is the idea that existence is universal. If an entity exists, again as anything more than a hypothetical construct, it exists for you as it does for me, and if it doesn’t then it doesn’t exist for anyone. “What’s true for me is true for me” is only meaningful when applied to interpretations of the abstract.
Let’s be explicit here: when atheists and Christians or any other believers clash over words like “existence” and “being”, they’re usually talking about God, or a god. This makes the issue a bit simpler. The Christian God and many others share certain qualities: they watch over us, they are capable of intervening in the natural world and they have complete power over whatever’s left of our personhood (our “souls”) after we die. If a god doesn’t do any of these things, then even if it still “exists” in some sense it might as well not.
I honestly think that common understanding of words like “existence” stretches far enough that people with different positions on the existence of something important can discuss and debate it in a way which is at least meaningful to them.
“What I can do is speak for atheism – as defined by enough atheists, and enough prominent atheists, to make for a working definition.”
Hypothetical question from Effigy2000 on Metafilter, i.e. “So if I were to ask this person a question I’d ask…
…What gives you the right, f*%#-knuckle?”
Answer by SmartLX:
What gives me the right to speak for all atheists everywhere? Nothing. I don’t have that authority. And it’s not just me here either. Perhaps the site’s name suggests such things, but askANatheist.com was taken, as was asktheatheistS.com (to which I also contribute).
What I can do is speak for atheism – as defined by enough atheists, and enough prominent atheists, to make for a working definition. I can speak against arguments for the existence of gods when their flaws are evident. And as in all things, I can bloody well speak for myself.
It’s been helpful, I’m sure, to a great many people over the years. Some don’t have a single self-declared atheist in their lives that they could name, much less ask about atheism. This is how myths about atheism get dispelled in communities where it’s a negligible minority: some brave believer goes looking for a spokesperson. It’s also why the great big arguments don’t go unchallenged as often as they might.
Welcome to the Metafilter community, by the way. Thanks to Paragon, who I’d never heard of, for the link.
“I have handled what I felt was their ridiculous religiosity in many ways and some have panned out, while others brought me lasting condemnation.”
Question from Patricia:
Most of my family are born again christians, and have been for at least 34 years now. I would like a good response to my father and brother especially,when they answer their phone with Praise God! I have been listening to their ignorant rants for far too long! I would appreciate whatever help you could give. Thanks.
Answer by Andrea:
As a child brought up in a born-again Christian family, and now a proud born-again atheist (after all we’re all born atheist until the culture we’re born into gets their mitts on us), I just want to say, I feel your pain.
I have been maligned by many family members, including my (now) ex-husband, simply because I didn’t subscribe to their delusions.
I have handled what I felt was their ridiculous religiosity in many ways and some have panned out, while others brought me lasting condemnation.
You don’t say how old you are, but when I was in my early 20s, I declined their offers of a Bible as present, my aunts never forgave me for it.
Another aunt now knows that I will not pray to a god for my food at her dinner table (who would I pray to? I once asked her), but she and I are still good friends to this day and get along great provided we don’t talk religion.
When I told my dad I didn’t think there was a god he shook his finger in my face and told me in a quavering fire-and-brimstone voice that I could “rest assured” there was a god. We also never discuss religion anymore. I also don’t want him to spend his old age worrying that I’ll be frying in hell for eternity.
My mom and sister and other family members, in the mean time, are becoming increasingly unreligious, so at least there’s balance.
I could make this into a very long post but to spare you, I’ll just make a few points:
1) If you start trying to talk to people into not believing, you run the risk of turning out to be as obnoxious as born-again Christians and missionaries and anyone else who claims to be privy to “the truth.”
2) Also, maybe your dad and brother don’t have much else in their lives or even hate their lives, and the thought of a heaven is the one thing that keeps them from the depths of depression.
3) The way you approach it should depend on your knowledge of what the person can handle, and approach it with compassion and sensitivity. I have often explained to friends my reasons for my disbelief and at least three of them plunged back into their addictions with drugs and alcohol, so I do feel guilty about that, even though a majority of born-agains seem to be somewhat unstable anyway, so many of my friends say those friends who went back off the deep end would have likely ended up there regardless of what I said about their belief systems.
4) Always be courteous and polite and don’t let yourself be drawn into arguments. You are the more critical thinker, you are the bigger person.
5) There are up to 17% nonreligious in this country, and atheism is the fastest growing ideology in not only the US, but globally, so you’re in good company.
You are a true critical thinker, and that counts a lot in this world.
Answer by SmartLX:
If you are in the mood for confrontation and you’re just looking for straight comebacks, they’re endless, though they’re not all terribly good.
“Oh, sorry Praise, must have a wrong number, I was trying to call my brother.”
“Why, does he still have low self-esteem after all this time?”
“Okay…He’s so loving and good that the whole thing with Jephthah burning his own daughter as a sacrifice was probably a BIG misunderstanding.” (Much is made of the fact that in the other story God stopped Abraham from sacrificing his son. Jephthah wasn’t so lucky.)
“…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.