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.

It’s okay to say “I don’t know”.

Todays question comes from Tejash who asks…

I am a very rational and logical person and although i don’t tend to fall into unnecessary arguments with theists but I have two questions about two known miracles. I need an answer desperately before my strong atheism hold gets shaken. 1) It is said – and i coudn’t find any against-article on google as well – that zamzam water (well) in mecca is always flowing and its in a desert. Therefore, its a miracle. Is this actually a miracle?. and if it is then what more do we atheists need as evidence. Please give a logical explanation asap so my believe in rationalism is not shaken 2) Dead body of a pharoh (by the name ‘firon’) was found in red sea and it has not decomposed for thousands of years. Which is scientifically not possible which many muslims claim. The reason why it has not decomposed is that its God’s miracle to show what will happen to your body if you do a lot of crimes like ‘firon’ did. Please tell me how do i rationally, scientifically, and logically disprove this because I could not find anything logical in it. I hope for a positive reply. Thank you.

I’m going to disappoint you by not specifically answering the two examples you gave me. Why? Because answering them doesn’t really help you. You see, the problem is that you’re committing a logical fallacy called “Argument from ignorance”. This is when you give an answer to something that you don’t really know or understand. For example saying “I don’t know how this happened, so it must have been Billy.” is an argument from ignorance. If you don’t know how something happened, how can you attribute it to anything? So simply put, just because you don’t know how these “miracles” happened doesn’t mean that a god did them. It just means you don’t know.

And that’s the tricky thing. Humans don’t like not knowing. It’s why we’ve made so many advancements. It’s why science is always striving to understand existence. It’s our curiosity that has driven us out of the caves and into the light. However that same yearning for answers can dupe us into thinking any answer is better than none at all. Sometimes we have to be okay with saying “I don’t know” because it’s only then that we leave ourselves open to finding the answer.

 

Agreeing With Philosophers

Question from Sammy:
Maimonides was the greatest philosopher ever, his influence has spanned centuries and cultures, and he believed in God.

I am sure he was aware of atheistic theories, and still he believed. Isn’t that something to count on? Is it possible to be smarter than the smartest?!

I would appreciate some clarity, tnx!!!

Answer by SmartLX:
The claim that Maimonides was the greatest philosopher ever is highly subjective, especially given the competition from the rest of history. Just for starters, he’s up against Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, Lao Tze and Buddha; from a quick online search, Maimonides rarely seems to make the top ten.

While most of the men on this impromptu list believed in some kind of divine presence they were completely at odds as to its nature, and therefore could not all have been right. So you can stack your Maimonides, Thomas Aquinas and Blaise Pascal up against my Epicurus, Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell and it won’t mean much in the end, because it is demonstrably possible and in fact very common for even the world’s greatest thinkers to be dead wrong. Sometimes we don’t know which ones are wrong, but when they’re diametrically opposed at least one position has to be.

For Maimonides to actually affect the debate over the existence of gods (let alone his God) we have to look at what he actually contributed to that area of theology. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, his attempts to prove God all boiled down to variants of the cosmological argument, which I’ve covered. If you think one of his versions is beyond what I addressed in my earlier piece or the follow-up, put it in a comment and we’ll discuss it. Otherwise there’s nothing new or convincing to be had.

Importantly, Maimonides’ intelligence and his arguments for God are most likely not why he believed in the first place. From what we know of his life, he grew up in Spain during what’s known as its golden age of Jewish culture, when Muslim Moors ruled but Jews were accepted and their culture prospered. Just about everything he would have read or heard from either Islamic or Jewish sources simply assumed the existence of God, and used it as a premise to argue for other things. Chances are he did that himself in his youth, so when he eventually began to argue for God he was just looking for ways to confirm what he already “knew” and please his audience. That’s the thing about religious apologetic: in the end its actual use is usually not to convert unbelievers but to reassure believers.

Atheism is a…what?

Question from Kristen:
What is Atheism?

Answer by SmartLX:
Years ago, site founder Jake did a great job answering the question, “What is an atheist?” He defined the word very simply, and dispelled some myths about atheism which even now are depressingly prevalent. In an effort to be complementary instead of redundant, I will instead discuss what atheism actually is, in other words, how it can be categorised.

Is atheism a religion? No. The basic definitions of the word “religion” have in common the existence of a set of beliefs, usually in something unknown and supernatural, and atheism as defined by most atheists is a lack of belief in any such thing. (Since I’ve just referenced dictionary.com, I should address the definitions of “atheism” there: the first one, an actual belief that there is no god, is known as strong atheism, and is not a very common position. The second definition is better.)

Some theists nevertheless accuse atheists of being religious, for example about evolution or an as-yet-undetermined natural cause for the universe. Evolution is easy to accept with confidence, rather than belief, because it supplies plentiful evidence. A natural universe-starter cannot inspire positive belief unless you take a guess at what it actually was, and stick to that guess to the exclusion of all other possibilities. Few people do this for anything but a god.

Is atheism a worldview? Hardly, because it only takes a position on one thing. If there are no gods in the world, that doesn’t tell us much at all about the world, especially given that theology regularly defends gods by explaining why the world usually looks as if there are none.

Is atheism a philosophy? No, for much the same reason it isn’t a worldview. The absence of gods is not very informative with respect to logic, morals and so on. Atheists look to other sources for these, not to some god-shaped hole in the world.

If it’s none of these, then what is atheism, finally? It’s a position one can take, at least. I had a go at nailing down the specific position here. More directly, though, it’s a rejection of a position, namely the theist position that there is good reason to believe in a Creator or other deity. Atheists think there’s no good reason.

So if that’s all atheism is, why is it so important to proclaim and to encourage? Because the alternative position locks people into rigid religions, worldviews and philosophies with little or no evidential support behind them, which may or may not even apply to modern people’s lives. Once one is free of theism, one may draw upon the sum recorded total of human wisdom (the only kind we know there is) to formulate one’s own approach to life, and accept the world more as it really is. I am confident that we’d all be happier this way. True persuasion, not coercion, is the only way to get people there.