Wednesday, February 18, 2015

For the Skeptical Atheist

On this blog I call myself a skeptical believer. That is, I am a believer but I tend to habitually question everything. I don't go for pat answers or religious cliches. For me this way of thinking is mostly a blessing as it makes me confident that the things I believe in are real, but it doesn't come without cost. There are many times I've wished for a simple uncomplicated faith where I didn't have to wrestle and debate every single point of every single belief like two countries hammering out a peace negotiation line by line.

I know many of you reading this are like me. You are a searcher of genuine truth no matter what it is, and I know that many of you arrive at very different conclusions than I do. This essay then is written for you, the skeptical atheist. The person who genuinely desires to know what is true and real, but leans toward the conclusion that there is no God, that we are alone in a cold, hostile universe. I honestly sympathize with your struggle, and I can respect the reasons you have for believing thusly. They're very compelling. However, I ask you to consider the following:

If atheism is true…
You are nothing but highly-ordered ooze that secretes thought like a stuffy nose secretes mucus.

If atheism is true…
Your love for a spouse/significant other is nothing but chemicals interacting with each other. Your love for your children is an illusion, forced on you by the very cells in your own body for no other reason than to ensure your DNA survives to replicate itself.

If atheism is true…
Good loses and apathy wins. Evil wins. The good guys are wrong and the bad guys are right. Those who cheat senior citizens out of their savings are the true winners of life. A kid who guns down twenty first graders wins. Men who crash airplanes into buildings or cut the heads off those they disagree with…all these guys win if atheism is true. As much as you can win in a meaningless universe, anyway. At the very least, they're not cosmically "wrong" in any real sense.

If atheism is true…
There is no justice. Nothing unfair will ever be set right. Those who escape justice for their crimes truly escape. Rapists get free sex, murderers get away with it. The voices of the oppressed are never heard; their tyrants die warm in bed surrounded by wealth and comfort and mistresses, never to face judgment.

Friend, this can't be true. This can not be true. We all know deep in our bones it can't be true, that somehow someway, goodness and justice are in command and will have the final say. Even if it often doesn't look that way. The insides of even the most hardened atheist cry out and practically scream This is wrong! when they see the horrific atrocities we are capable of.

The problem for an atheistic worldview, however, is that the only basis for morality in a world without God is that things are "bad" because they’re evolutionarily inefficient.

Oh sure, there are all kinds of tortured justifications and rationalizations for being a good person in a world without God. You can spin things any way you choose. In the end, though, when it all comes down to it, those reasons are nothing more than window dressing covering an empty store inside. They're a bunch of deck chairs you're rearranging on the Titanic. A beautiful lie*.

Actually you can’t even say it’s beautiful, because beauty has no meaning in such a universe.  Any beauty or meaning or pleasure that you derive from life is just as illusory and fake as any religion you might decry, if there truly is no god. Everything you've ever loved, admired, or aspired to is all hopeless vanity destined for a cold, silent, permanent death.

If atheism is true, then sentient life is truly the most depressing thing that has ever existed in the entire universe. It means that every single thing you have ever valued is devoid of significance. Life for most is short and brutal, and that's just the way it is. Everyone who has ever lived has died in vain. Your young cousin who died of cancer and never got to "appreciate how precious life is" is gone. My sister's best friend who died of a brain tumor at 19 is gone. Your dad who was killed by a drunk driver is gone. They died for nothing; their sufferings brought nothing and will not be redeemed.

If this is our reality, then Consciousness is by far the cruelest of all possible fates. Better to be a slime than a person!

If you're a true-blue atheist and you believe you've constructed some sort of meaning for your life then I respectfully but forcefully disagree with you. You are fooling yourself. You're not looking at the big picture. Here's the only sensible response I can believe in if there is no God (courtesy of Tommy Lee Jones' character in The Sunset Limited):
Evolution cannot avoid bringing intelligent life ultimately to an awareness of one thing, and one thing above all else. And that one thing is futility.
If people could see the world for what it truly is, see their lives for what they truly are, without dreams or illusions, I don't believe they could offer the first reason why they should not elect to die as soon as possible.
I don't believe in God. Can you understand that? Look around you, man. Can't you see? The clamor and din of those in torment has to be the sound most pleasing to his ear. Your fellowship is a fellowship of pain and nothing more. And if that pain were collective instead of merely reiterative, the sheer weight of it would drag the world from the walls of the universe and send it crashing and burning down through whatever night it might yet be capable of engendering until it was not even ash.

Banish the fear of death from men's hearts, they wouldn't live a day. Who would want this nightmare but for fear of the next? The shadow of the axe hangs over every joy. Every road ends in death, every friendship, every love. Torment, loss, betrayal, pain, suffering, age, indignity, hideous lingering illness...and all of it with a single conclusion for you and every one and every thing you have ever chosen to care for.
You tell me that I want God's love. I don't. Perhaps I want forgiveness, but there is no one to ask it of. And there's no going back. There's no setting things right. There's only the hope of nothingness. And I cling to that hope.
That's some honest atheism right there. That's the only kind of atheism I could get behind, if atheism were the truth.

In light of all this, what I ask of you is to be just as skeptical of your atheism as you are about your spirituality. What's good for the goose is good for the gander. I also urge you to be skeptical about your skepticism. We "skepticals" like to pretend we're above the fray, more intellectual and rational than the ordinary person. Really though, when healthy skepticism becomes an excuse for indecisiveness--or worse, drifts into cynicism--it's just as much an emotional response as anybody else's. Pride, anger, betrayal, or any of countless other woundings are usually the true source hiding behind the intellectual facade.

I'm convinced that we all, even atheists, are desperately searching for meaning. Unless you're completely nihilistic, you want to be part of a story that makes sense of your life and tells you that you matter to this world. Just look at some of the ways great scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Carl Sagan have tried to romanticize a world without a god.**

With all due respect to their prodigious intellects, I think their inspiring rhetoric is flatly delusional if God isn't there. You can't build a life worth living with honest atheism. There is no story to be part of. If atheism is true, any meaning you give to life is an illusion. If atheism is false, any meaning you derive is reflected light from the life of faith. Either way, faith provides a background tapestry and direction for your life, and atheism provides...well...a cold, dead universe. For this reason alone it's worth applying your skepticism to atheism, if only for the opportunity (no matter how slim you think it might be) to find something real that matters.

So.

You have a choice to make, in the end. Which do you think is the aberration of humanity: our ugliness or our beauty?

Atheism says that all the greatness of humanity is merely an artifact of evolution. Our highest achievements and our best moments as a species are dust in the wind. "Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!" Atheism means the sickest depths of human depravity are merely potential evolutionary paths that will either win or lose depending on how efficient they are. It's just the way it is. Sorry if it royally sucked for you, but that's life.

Faith takes a look at that and cries "Hell NO!" It's our evil that's the artifact. The artifact of a Fall that can and will be remedied. Faith contends that you are not an accident. You, the person reading this, are not an accident! You have an important role to play in this world that nobody else in the entire universe can fulfill. Your life matters. What choices you make in life matter. Your suffering matters.

Faith means our goodness is the expected normal and our evil is an unnatural stain that needs to be risen above and done away with. Faith means everything noble, everything pure, everything lovely, everything admirable, excellent and praiseworthy is the way things are supposed to be, and that these things are worth fighting for because they are going to last beyond the universe and exist into eternity.

That's a story worth looking for.

Jeremy
Truth poorly defended loses not its truthfulness;
likewise Falsehood aptly defended loses not its falsity.

---
This post is dedicated to my sister's husband who loves to pose endless "late-night dormroom-philosophy" questions. Even though we poke fun, his questions are always thoughtful and earnest. Hope you get something out of this, Josh! 

*I give myself points for fitting a Bowfinger reference into an essay about atheism. You get double points if you got it.

** It's important to note that both these gentleman have described themselves as agnostic, but their views are still relevant because they are almost universally claimed by present-day atheists as champions of their beliefs. Also, I love the Pale Blue Dot speech. It's one of the best speeches ever given, but it only makes any sense in the context of "there is a God".

8 comments:

  1. Wow! Such a well written essay, this was awesome! You can see how much thought was put into this post, and it's so compelling. I loved it, what a thinker!

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  2. I'll respond to a few of your points (severely edited to fit character limit!):

    If atheism is true…You are nothing but highly-ordered ooze that secretes thought like a stuffy nose secretes mucus.

    That is all in how you choose to look at it. I say we are matter that has become conscious to the point of being able to contemplate our existence. That is actually pretty amazing!

    If atheism is true…Your love for a spouse/significant other is nothing but chemicals interacting with each other. Your love for your children is an illusion, forced on you by the very cells in your own body for no other reason than to ensure your DNA survives to replicate itself.

    We have learned much about emotions and the complex neurological activity that creates them. However we still experience the same meaning regardless of where it comes from. If anything it is MORE meaningful this way, because our thoughts and feelings come from within us, not because some higher being breathed them into us.

    If atheism is true…
    Good loses and apathy wins. Evil wins... "wrong" in any real sense.


    Actually, this is up to us. If this life is the only thing we have, it is up to human beings to prevent these terrible things from occurring!

    If atheism is true…
    There is no justice. Nothing unfair will ever be set right. Those who escape justice for their crimes truly escape. Rapists get free sex, murderers get away with it. The voices of the oppressed are never heard; their tyrants die warm in bed surrounded by wealth and comfort and mistresses, never to face judgment.



    Justice is admittedly an elusive thing that must be fought for. Every single advancement in civil rights, medicine, or human progress in general has come from one place - human beings. in If God was real, why should this be the case? In what tangible ways has God and only God intervened to make this world more just than it would be otherwise?

    Oh sure ...will not be redeemed.

    All the more reason to embrace what little life we have. If this is all we get, we shouldn't be waiting for someone else to tell us whether or not it is meaningful. We experience meaning for ourselves - why can't this be enough?

    In light of all this... facadefacade.

    Hoping for some "macro" purpose or eaning is really a denial each person's individual "micro" meaning that comes from or individual experiences. Our life does matter, and our suffering does matter, because we experience it that way.


    With all due respect to their prodigious intellects... real that matters.


    For all the lip service you have paid to "skepticism," I do not see evidence for this in your post. What is it that you are skeptical of, exactly? It seems to be a problem for you that there may not be a transcendant meaning, or that any meaning we decide for ourselves is somehow inferior. You can farm out "meaning" to some higher source, or you can recognize that your life is inherently meaningful because it is YOURS. Either way, it is ultimately YOU who decides this.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for your comment Nate, I enjoyed reading it. We do seem to have a fundamental disagreement, however, as to the nature of meaning. My belief is that any meaning you construct for yourself in an atheistic universe is an illusion.

      Think big picture here. If there is no transcendent being outside of this physical universe who independently created it, then we know what the fate of the universe it. It is ultimate and final death, complete and total cessation of energy. It doesn't matter how many planets we can fly to and colonize; in the end all of it will die forever.

      Even if the universe itself were infinite, however, we are not. If our sentient existence ends at death, then for all intents and purposes the universe ends for us at our death. The only meaning you ascribe to life is the self-constructed kind, and it will die along with you.

      If you live a comfortable first-world life in a time of relative peace and security, and face no major tragedies during the course of it, then hey you may have had it pretty good. Better than most people. But what would you tell the person who was jailed for life for a crime he did not commit? What would you tell the man whose wife was raped and murdered in front of his eyes?

      Better yet, what would you tell the man who did the raping and murdering? He's just living life according to his own self-constructed meaning. What is your basis for telling him his way is wrong? His way is just another way, and if evolution likes it, *his way will win out*.

      "In what tangible ways has God and only God intervened to make this world more just than it would be otherwise? "

      Well there's this guy you may have heard of. His name was Jesus? ;)

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    2. Hi Skeptical.. we can keep going until one of us gets tired!


      My belief is that any meaning you construct for yourself in an atheistic universe is an illusion.


      Think big picture here. (death, cessation of energy, no meaning, etc).

      Yes, that very well may be the case! Life is full of uncomfortable realities. One way to deal with is to make the best of the time you are given, and to help others do the same. We can pass along our DNA; write, create beautiful art or music, teach a child how to read, or change the world in some other big or small way. We don't get to determine what's true based on what is comforting or easy to contemplate. It may very well be that when we die, we are finished. Lots of people get used to the idea. As the great late Mark Twain said: 'I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience..."

      But what would you tell the person who was jailed for life for a crime he did not commit? What would you tell the man whose wife was raped and murdered in front of his eyes?

      What do YOU tell them? You have a much larger burden as a Christian, to deal with the problem of evil; mainly how a perfectly good, omnipotent and omniscent being allows these things to happen every day. The only way to resolve this question is to make up complicated excuses that amount to little more than special pleading and baseless speculation.

      Better yet, what would you tell the man who did the raping and murdering? He's just living life according to his own self-constructed meaning. What is your basis for telling him his way is wrong? His way is just another way, and if evolution likes it, *his way will win out*.

      "What to tell" this person or that person is beside the point. We may not have a God to infuse the universe with any kind of ultimate justice. It is up to human beings to sort these things out; naturally, we hope that innocent people don't wind up in prison while rapists and murderers go free, but it is no guarantee.

      "In what tangible ways has God and only God intervened to make this world more just than it would be otherwise? "

      Well there's this guy you may have heard of. His name was Jesus? ;)


      I said TANGIBLE. My question still stands.

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    3. Hey Nate, sorry for the late reply. I went on vacation and have neglected responding here since I got back.

      We don't get to determine what's true based on what is comforting or easy to contemplate.

      This is very true. Conversely, it also means we don't get to determine what's objectively true based on what is hard for us to believe. Truth simply is.

      What do YOU tell them? You have a much larger burden as a Christian, to deal with the problem of evil; mainly how a perfectly good, omnipotent and omniscent being allows these things to happen every day. The only way to resolve this question is to make up complicated excuses that amount to little more than special pleading and baseless speculation.

      Quite the contrary. Christian belief, as historically understood, is the only path I've found that adequately addresses the problem of evil. You seem to be restating the classic objection that, since evil exists, either a) God is not all good, or b) God is not all-powerful. I find that nearly every non-theist or anti-theist I have ever encountered seems to be ignorant of the fact that literally billions of people throughout history, including those of prodigious intellect and honest heart, have faced the "problem of evil" just as directly as anyone else, and found suitable explanation. There's no way I can go into it here in a comment reply, but I'd suggest that you owe it to yourself to investigate how it is that someone can look at the same evil in the world as you do, and come to the conclusion that an all good, all-powerful God is still in control of it.

      Nearly all of Jesus' very first followers were horribly persecuted for their belief in him. Surely they, of all people who ever lived, would be the ones most probable to feel entitled to special protection from suffering. Yet they endured the opposite and still hung steadfastly to their belief in the goodness of God. This fact alone ought to suggest that the simple syllogism above is not adequate to dismiss belief in God.

      Jesus himself also addressed the issue briefly in both Luke 13:1-5 and Matthew 5:45. Jesus' worldview and Christian theology unequivocally affirm both the real existence of evil and the real existence of an all-powerful, all-loving God. It's a disservice to your own intellect to wave this away with a simple "A + B, therefore C".

      "What to tell" this person or that person is beside the point. We may not have a God to infuse the universe with any kind of ultimate justice. It is up to human beings to sort these things out; naturally, we hope that innocent people don't wind up in prison while rapists and murderers go free, but it is no guarantee.

      It may be beside the point to you, but I guarantee you it's not beside the point to the man's brother.

      If no Creator exists then you're right, it's up to us alone to sort these things out. My point is that whatever you decide on to give your life meaning, it's an illusion. And you may hope that rapists and murderers don't go free, because you're a decent person, but you don't have any objective grounds for disagreeing with someone who believes people should get away with rape and murder.

      And why are you a decent person anyway? Because evolution has trained you that this is the most efficient way for humans to thrive? In a world without god that's about the best you can do. If that's the truth of it, then so be it. That's about the least inspiring story for my life I can think of. But the point I made in the original post is that I believe we all know deep down inside that there's more to it than that.

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    4. I said TANGIBLE. My question still stands.
      I was throwing a little bit of good-natured snark your way, please forgive me! Really though, the life of Jesus, as understood by historic Christianity over the millenia, is by its very definition tangible evidence of God's existence and care.

      And Jesus certainly made this world a more just place. He elevated the status of women, he taught us to show love to the outcasts and the outsiders, he taught the "1%-ers" to be generous with the rest, he was no respecter of persons or status but demonstrated that all were equally valuable in the eyes of God, and on and on.

      The Christian story at its core is that God loved his people so much that he came down himself and lived and suffered among us to show this in a tangible way. You may not believe the Christian explanation of Jesus' life but that doesn't change the fact that the "tangible-ness" of it is the very heart of the faith.

      As skeptics and empiricists, we very much want to see hard evidence that can be quantified and measured before we'll believe anything. It's very telling though, that in the gospels Jesus provides exactly this, and many people still refused to believe in him. And in Torah, the Jewish people repeatedly see empirical demonstrations of God's power, yet still continually fall away. This suggests to me that it's our heart that's the problem, not the head. I've found in my own life and in the life of others that the intellectual objections we put up are quite often smokescreens covering up the real "heart" objection. Put simply, we intellectuals are not nearly as objective as we pretend to be.

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    5. However, now that I've just downplayed the role of measurable evidence in determining God's existence, I'm going to contradict myself and tell you my own story of experiencing exactly that.

      As a youth I suffered from very bad hayfever allergies. Nothing dramatic or life-threatening, but it did impact my life. When I was in college I took a class that must have been located at the nexus of all the allergens in the world, because my nose literally would not stop running. I spent half of many class sessions in the restroom just trying to clear my nose out.

      It got to a point where it was so bad that I finally spent an hour or two in my dorm room praying that God would heal me of my allergies. I knew there were much worse things happening to people in the world and I told Him that I was aware of this and I didn't know if would consent to heal me when he seemed to deny healing to others in much worse straits, but I was asking Him all the same. I didn't promise to be good or offer a quid pro quo, I just said "God please heal me. I don't know if you will, but I believe you can."

      The very next morning my hayfever was completely gone. Not a gradual lessening, but 100% gone overnight. That was over 20 years ago, and to this day it has not reoccurred a single time.

      For me, there are only two explanations for this:
      1. I just happened to get down on my knees and earnestly pray for healing on the exact day that my immune system and body chemistry permanently changed naturally and I became no longer sensitive to whatever allergens I had been my entire life.

      2. God answered my prayer with a "yes".

      Clearly I have chosen the latter explanation. It is by far the most probable one to me, especially when combined with all the other things that have happened in my life's story over the years (which I won't go into here).

      I can't give a concrete answer to the question of why God would choose to heal what, in the grand scheme of things, is a very minor physical condition while still allowing my sister's best friend and her mother-in-law to both die of brain tumors, or while still allowing innocent people to become victims of heinous crimes. The simple fact is, I don't know. But I cannot deny the evidence of my own life that it happened.

      What I've come to believe is part of the explanation is this: it is said that all of the miracles of Jesus recorded in the Bible were performed not to amaze or coerce belief, but to authenticate his identity.

      For me, my experience has served as a touchstone of the same. At times over the years of my life since my "mini-miracle" happened, I have struggled mightily to believe that there indeed exists a supernatural creator that we cannot see or communicate face-to-face with. When those times come, and when it's hard for me to believe that the supernatural is real, I remember that the supernatural happened to me. To my own body. My experience of supernatural healing has become a touchstone for my faith, authenticating the identity of Jesus to me personally.

      Now, that experience was mainly for me to help my belief. I don't expect it to change your beliefs, but I do think it is an important answer to your question. The words C.S. Lewis put in the mouth of Aslan (a symbol of Jesus) ring true here:

      “Child" said the Voice, "I am telling you your story, not hers. I tell no one any story but his own.”

      Thanks for taking the time to write up your thoughtful replies, Nate. I'll try not to take so long to respond next time.

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