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Investigating Atheism: A Response

28 August 2013, 11:01

Recently an article was published, the author of which wished to understand what it was like to be an atheist. In order to discover this, he asked a number of questions. I decided that I should try to answer those questions in a significantly fuller manner. So, I’ll just be giving, as it were, a view of the world through my eyes. I don’t think my views necessarily represent those of other people, but they are considered views. I hope my considerations provide some further illumination about the various issues, and how to possibly view them from a non-theistic (indeed, naturalistic) perspective. I’ll cover (what I saw as) the 5 main issues in the original article: (1) the origin of life, (2) questions about the meaning and purpose of life, (3) justice and morality, (4) teaching religion to children and (5) death.

(1) The origin of life is the first issue to deal with. The original question read, ‘where do you come from?’ There are a number of common sense answers to this question, but it won’t really get at the heart of the issue which, I think, is how life began to exist, where once there was no life.

I’ll first say that the notion that God created life appears to me to be totally unintelligible, or otherwise false. This is the claim that a supernatural person, who exists nowhere (spaceless) and at no time (timeless) and, paradoxically, at all times (eternal), with no mass, energy, force, charge, momentum, velocity, or the potential for any of these things (God is non-physical), who thus has no power in any sense we can understand (although, paradoxically, is meant to be all powerful), created something from nothing. I don’t think this is a sensible thing to believe. It is a claim which, if it is coherent at all, carries no persuasive power whatsoever for me. So, whatever the answer comes out as being, I see no reason to expect it to be anything like the theistic claim.

Actually, it seems to me that this question causes people unwarranted anxiety. Life is (identical with) a physicochemical process. How this particular physicochemical process came about is, thus, officially an empirical question, and its answer will lie somewhere in the domain of physics and chemistry. This much, at least, is obvious, just on the principles of the situation. What the actual scientific explanation looks like is a matter on which we have no stable answer, but that there should be a scientific explanation is not in question at all.

Perhaps I can diagnose the problem in the following way. We think that ‘life’ is a thing which either exists, or does not exist; there cannot be gradations of life (this is an essentialist view – life is a kind of essence, and something either has it, or it does not). But if life is a physicochemical process, as it is, this cannot be correct. ‘Life’ is really a collective term for a wide range of gradations of more or less complex physicochemical processes. The essentialist view of life, while strictly incorrect, is really a kind of abstraction which we bring to the world in categorizing it in ways which are useful to us.

It is a failure to distinguish between our pragmatic prejudices and what is real which leads to the essentialist view, and thus to the apparent (but unreal) perplexity of the problem. But once we can distinguish between our prejudices and reality, the question reveals itself as being quite non-mysterious; and the original questioner is revealed, so it seems to me, as being obscurantist or otherwise unreflective. It is an interesting fact that life is a physicochemical process; the explanation of which lies in future physical science. The absence of an answer does not suggest to me that God did it. For the abovementioned reasons I find it incredibly difficult to take that claim seriously at all. 

(2) The next issues I’ll turn to are those related to the ‘purpose’ or ‘meaning’ of life. There are, again, some obvious answers (of a functionalist kind) to these questions; but those sorts of answers rarely satisfy people who ask these questions. Unfortunately, there is a sense in which they cannot be satisfied by any answer I can give. This is not because I’m incapable of coming up with the ‘correct’ answer, from my naturalist perspective. Rather, it is because there is no legitimate answer to those kinds of questions. As I see it, the ‘deeper sense’ of those questions really isn’t there – they are, as far as I can tell, pseudo-questions – and consequently any proposed answer will be a pseudo-answer. Again, I’m steadfastly unmoved by these questions – they bore me.

I consider the question “how do you calculate the volume of a square-circle?” to be on a par with the question “what is the meaning of life?” These questions are grammatically sensible, but semantically empty. That is, they aren’t real questions, and if they get at anything real at all, then it certainly isn’t expressed in their literal form.

Why should the claim “the purpose of my life is to have a relationship with (an immaterial person called) God” have any more significance than the claim “the purpose of my life is to find happiness”, or “the purpose of my life is to be a good person”, or even, “the purpose of my life is to be eaten by wolves”? As I see it, these are just instances of pseudo-answers, appropriate, perhaps, as they are responses to a pseudo-question. None, I think are more correct than the others, because none are capable of being correct at all.

The best sort of answer I can give, on the most generous interpretation of what such vague or senseless questions are asking, is the following. Purpose or meaning is not found in the world, nor is it given to the world by an immaterial person. Purpose is something we put into the world, and it derives completely from us, and has no reality outside of us.

There are many things in the world that I enjoy, which make my life ‘meaningful’, that make me want to keep living. These things are not made less meaningful if I stop believing in the idea that it was (somehow) ‘produced’ by an immaterial person who exists nowhere and at no time. These things would not be made any better if there was an immaterial person who (somehow) existed in no location and at no time.

The question of the existence of this immaterial person is entirely beside the point of whether or not some things are ‘meaningful’ (insofar as such questions are intelligible). I am not moved at all by the theistic mantra that without God there is no meaning in life. Such claims are as meaningless (formally and personally) as the claim that freezing the colour green increases the sound of ice, and if green cannot be frozen, then ice cannot have a sound. Such locutions appear to me to be exactly on par with theistic claims.

Questions can be raised about the ontological status, on my view, of ‘meaning’ – is it real, is it subjective, is it any less real if it is subjective? I won’t pursue these questions here. Needless to say, I am unimpressed by questions about the meaning of life. My life is, as far as I can tell, worth living – and that’s all that matters (and all that needs to matter) to me. And if people can find things which make their life worth living, then they are doing just as well as they can. If some find that the belief in an immaterial person makes their life worth living I can only say two things. Firstly, that it doesn’t imply that if it is a false belief then no one else’s life is worth living. Secondly, that it appears that we can talk sensibly about what makes life worth living without referring to immaterial people.  

(3) Next I should turn to questions of justice and morality. I’ve written quite extensively about my views on such matters, so I won’t reproduce here what I have already written elsewhere. I’ll just make a few general comments.

I struggle to understand the monotheistic God as being a God of justice. It seems to me, and, I’d suggest, to most people, profoundly unfair and unjust to punish or reward people on the basis of their (metaphysical and ontological) beliefs. Yet this is precisely the activity which God engages in. 

By any regular standard, if a story was told about a person who punished others based on their metaphysical beliefs, few would have trouble understanding that such a person would be unjust. On the subject of God, it seems, people will either make irrational accommodations for God’s injustice, or are otherwise unreflective about what is really a profound problem for the notion that God is just.

Of course, God is claimed to be the provider of ‘cosmic justice’. Although our institutions on earth might fail to provide justice for all people, God certainly will once people pass on. By ‘justice’ we normally mean fairness, and getting what we deserve in accordance with our behaviour and its results. By ‘cosmic justice’ (presumably something more magnificent) people mean that you will be disproportionally rewarded just in case you held to a very particular (and strange) metaphysical perspective, and disproportionately punished if you did not. For reasons which should appear obvious, I cannot take this claim seriously. The claim that only if God exists can there be final and ultimate justice seems to me to be a perverse joke – a manifestation of a thought process entirely abstracted from reality. It doesn’t move me; or if it does, it moves me to frustration.

So, when we wonder about those people who have not received justice on earth, I don’t believe it to be sensible to suppose they will get justice ‘outside’ of the space-time manifold either. The world would not be more just, it would be less just if God existed, or, so I see it. I can’t say much which is positive about the victims of injustice though – if they can’t receive justice on earth, they surely won’t receive it after they die. Their plight should serve as an example of how human beings can and do fail each other, and it should motivate those of us who can be productive to do something about it.

 (4) There are two issues which remain: the issue of children, and the issue of death. I’m not a parent, and I cannot, I think, give very deep advice regarding how to raise children, or what to teach them about the world. I have, though, written about this issue before; from a more abstract perspective. I argued that it was an abuse of cognitive freedom to teach children that any particular religion was The Truth. I still think that. I argued, further, that children should be educated about religions in the same way people are educated about other matters for which we have less than ideal evidence – they should be taught as much as possible, and given as many tools as possible which will enable them to make a meaningfully informed decision, once they reach an appropriate age. I also still agree with that.

(5) The issue of death, and the finitude of life, and the meaning or meaninglessness of life, constitute my final considerations here. I have already mentioned what I think about questions of meaning and purpose. Insofar as such questions are sensible, the question of the existence of immaterial people seems orthogonal to the issue. Similarly, whether or not life goes on forever seems beside the point.

There is a lot that can be said about this, but I’ll try to stick to just a few considerations. Let me tease out some of our intuitions. We can picture all the things we have done, and will do, in our life time. Perhaps we will write a book, or land an amazing deal for a fantastic corporation, or advance the field of knowledge in some significant way, or bring a beautiful child into the world. Whatever it is we imagine will happen, if life ends at death, the following is also true. In probably a few short decades, perhaps a century, everything you ever achieved will be forgotten, all your loved ones will have died, and no one will remember you ever existed.  Perhaps people will attach a name, a string of letters, to whatever technology you invented, or knowledge you produced, but they will not remember you, nor will they care in the least for who you were.

I feel that this is a very abstract thought, and that while it isn’t incomprehensible, it is quite difficult to grasp in its fullness. Nevertheless, I suppose that something like the above represents a great fear, or something quite tragic about life. This seems like a good reason to think that unless there is life after death, everything we could possibly do will amount to nothing at all, and will be essentially meaningless.

Let us take another look at this. Think back to those things you might do with your life that will make it worth something. I submit to you that any of these things, and even the collection of all of them, will have no significance for anyone at all in 100 trillion years. I’m not aware of the precise numbers, but all artefacts ever produced, every word ever written, every statue ever grafted, every piece of art ever wondered at, will all be annihilated, eventually, in the heat death of the universe. So, one way or another, the following two things will happen. All artefacts ever created will be destroyed, and all actions ever performed will have absolutely no significance in the fullness of, say, 100 trillion years.

This seems uncontroversial to me. So I am quite amazed that people think if only you keep on adding trillions and trillions of years, for infinity, then, and only then, will life and its activities have meaning and significance. The afterlife envisioned in our religions is one of eternity. Take the most beautiful thing you have ever experienced, and think about its insignificance in 100 trillion years. Why should we think that if we only kept going, say, an eternity longer, that the event would have significance?

I want to suggest, actually, that the notion of an unending life would make any kind of action utterly ‘meaningless’. I do not see that living eternally will make my life better, but I feel, quite strongly, that it would make things worse.

What is there to say, then, about these two extremes – a short finite life, and an infinitely long life? The lesson, I think, is quite simple. The meaning of life is not derived from the duration of life. The meaning of life is derived from the contents of the life that is lived. My life is worth living, even though it will end. I hope this essay has been worth reading, even though it will end. My career is worth pursuing, even though it will end. A wonderful dinner party is wonderful, even though it will end. Life can be beautiful and meaningful, even though it will end. Because its meaning is not connected to the fact that it will end; it is connected to the fact that it was experienced.

To cheapen this lesson with the repetitive drones that if there were no invisible reality, no immaterial people, no significant truth to an old book with outmoded moral lessons, then life can’t be meaningful, is to succumb (and this is the best way I can describe it) to a form of madness. Religion, in this sense, is a form of madness, because it teaches us the wrong lessons about life.

Religion is factually incorrect, at least given certain readings of its texts, and this is significant. But, further, religion is morally and spiritually incorrect, in fact, I think it is the most anti-spiritual institution in existence. It teaches us to be satisfied with logically untenable beliefs, and that it is a virtue to defend these beliefs. It teaches us that spirituality is about the muttering of incomprehensible garbage about the origin of humans and their destiny, alongside an immaterial person, in an unseen reality, forever. It is teaches us that death is not real, despite appearances, and that if it is real everything in the world is ugly. It teaches us that justice and goodness are not related to our actions and their consequences, but rather related to a particular subset of metaphysical (and logically tendentious) beliefs. It teaches us that without these beliefs we couldn’t have beauty or goodness, and that life wouldn’t be worth living.

I’ll stop here. This is really just a sketch of some of my views on some topics of interest. As I said, I don’t want to be thought of as representing the views of other people, but I hope my comments have given the author of the original article some insight into his questions. In sum: I view religion in, perhaps, two ways. I view it firstly as a hypothesis (or set of hypotheses) about the world – about our origins, our nature, our place in the world, etc. I think that these hypotheses are either false or formally meaningless. I am entirely unmoved by religious considerations which, as I think about them more and more, appear to me to be more and more bereft of sense. I also view religion as comprising a spiritual/ethical doctrine, and I view religion, in this regard, with a great deal of contempt. Religion has, as I see it, given us the wrong spirituality and the wrong ethical code – it has made a mockery of something very important in life.

I am deeply concerned with the nature of the world, and the nature of how the world ought to be, but such issues are immensely difficult to get ones head around, and one is unlikely to have much success by studying the answers people gave to these questions thousands of years ago. For the reasons (among others) I have mentioned above, then, and because I am concerned with discovering truths about the world, I cannot take religion seriously at all. It is, in my view, an intellectual mistake, and nothing more. It gives us the wrong model of the world, both in descriptive and normative terms.

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