Saturday, August 6, 2011

Atheism as a Worldview

I (and several others) recently got involved in a discussion of the philosophical underpinnings of atheism and "New Atheism" over on Confessions of a Former Conservative. This was sparked by a series of posts over at Red Cardigan's blog. (The specific posts are here, here, and here.)

Now, to be fair:
1. Red Cardigan is trying to specifically address the "New Atheists", which is tricky since the folks who get lumped together under that banner aren't a particularly unified group. They might best be described as outspoken, vocal advocates of atheism (also skepticism, the scientific method, and a few other things) - describing them as "leaders" in any sense is misleading - who generally hold a very low, if not actively hostile, opinion of religion.
2. A great deal of the criticism of Red Cardigan's posts revolves around her misrepresenting the position of the atheists she is criticizing. While she does seem to be attacking a straw man, I think this is less of a rhetorical strategy and more of a legitimate misunderstanding. And, very much to her credit, she spent quite a bit of time and text in the comments on Former Conservative's site engaging criticisms and asking questions and generally trying to figure out what she might be missing.
3. In the process, Red Cardigan asked some interesting questions, which I think are worth repeating (along with their answers) and maybe even exploring further. Looking at my lack of belief from the perspective of classical philosophy is, quite simply, not something at ever occurred to me.

Red Cardigan appeared (to me) to be arguing that atheism, and in particular New Atheism, made for an inconsistent worldview. My immediate response (reposted here) was to stop and define what atheism actually means. Atheism is not, in itself, a way of looking at the world; it's just a lack of a belief in one, two, many, or any gods. It can be part of a consistent worldview, but it isn't the basis for one... or for much of anything else, really. It's a conclusion, not a starting point.

Red Cardigan then responded by asking (more or less - I'm trying to abbreviate the actual conversation, here) whether that didn't make me more of a subjectivist than an atheist.

To answer that, I had to go look up subjectivism (it turns out to be, basically, the belief that we can only really know the things we've experienced ourselves), at which point I posted this:
Okay, having read the Wikipedia description of relativism… Well, honestly, I think that’s beside the point. If you want to dig around in my philosophical viewpoint, you’ll find that I am to some extent a relativist; specifically, I tend to think that human beings are, by nature, very much mired in our own subjective points of view, and largely incapable of discerning Absolute Truths on our own. However, I also think that we can use intersubjective means to reach conclusions that are close enough to objective truth to be, at the very least, useful.

That really has very little to do with my main point, which was that atheism consists entirely of the disbelief in a god (or gods). It’s not a comprehensive worldview, in the way that Christianity or Taoism (etc.) can be. That is to say, while you can find meaning and purpose and even draw your morality from Christian (etc.) beliefs, you really can’t do that from a lack of belief. Conversely, because an atheist must find their sense of meaning and their morality elsewhere, the fact that atheists generally do have a sense of meaning and a moral code cannot be a refutation of atheism per se – there’s no connection between the lack of belief in gods, and the conclusion that good behavior is, well, good.
Red Cardigan also included a set of questions:
Atheists tend to say that if they don’t see any reason to believe in something, they don’t believe it. So:

a) If you believe that life has meaning and purpose, what is your reason for believing this?
b) What does your reason tell you the meaning and purpose of life is?
c) How does your reason resolve the apparent conflict between a notion of a meaning and purpose in life with life’s extremely short duration, likelihood of pain/suffering, and end in oblivion? Or does your reason tell you there is no conflict?

I responded:
A. In the grand scheme of things, I’m not sure life does have any particular meaning and purpose – aside from perpetuating itself, at least. On the other hand, human beings tend to find their own meanings and purposes – and if they can’t find them, they tend to create them. But saying that I find meaning in my life is not the same thing as saying the Life has Meaning.
B. I can’t answer this; it was pretty well obviated by my response to Question A.
C. Because I don’t see a grand Purpose or Meaning, I don’t see a conflict here. In fact, the (relatively) short duration of life, the likelihood of pain and suffering, and the inequalities in living conditions seem to me to be far more consistent with life that arose by impersonal natural systems than it does with an existence purpose-built by an all-powerful, perfectly benevolent Creator.
Red Cardigan responded (much more politely than it sounds when I condense it like this) with a few more questions. Rather than quote the whole thing, I'm just going to put down my answers along with the sections I was responding to:
Would you say that it is fair to say that your own personal ethical system is not based rigidly on empiricism, and that in fact to the extent that some of the new atheists reject what is not based on rigid empiricism you would have to disagree with their attempt to, for want of a better phrase, *make* a philosophy based on the idea that empirically provable material reality is all there is?

I’m not sure exactly what you mean by morality based on rigid empiricism, in part because I’m not sure what you perceive as the alternative(s). I think it’s fairly easy to observe that people function better in structured groups; if you have to do everything for yourself, life gets very difficult very quickly. I think it’s equally evident that part of having that sort of structured group – a society, basically – is having systems in place for getting things done. And I think that social systems like that work best, work most efficiently, when everyone is – for lack of a formal term – playing by the same rules, and when those rules have provisions that allow them to adapt to new or changing circumstances/information. Is that “based on rigid empiricism?”

To expand on that: I think that social systems work best when everyone is playing by the same basic rules (in other words, morality, of which politeness is a subset). And I think that in order to get everyone to play by the same rules, those rules need to treat everyone involved fairly – at which point, we’ve pretty much arrived at the Golden Rule.

And, perhaps, that the antitheism you describe as being part of [the New Atheist] worldview is the reason for their rather fundamentalist views regarding the evil of religion and the need to eradicate it?

I’m not sure that’s a fair characterization of the New Atheist position. I think they’re making an evidence-based argument that, on the whole, religion does more harm than good in the world. Now, the evidence may or may not support that conclusion, but I think you can reasonably make the argument. However, in order to make that argument you have to assume that religiosity can be separated from human nature, and I’m extremely dubious about that assumption.

However, the sort of antitheist atheist promoting the Doctrine of the Exclusive Reality of the Empirically Verifiable and its corollary, the evil of religion and the need to exterminate it would probably not pass such a pleasant evening in my company, nor I in his/hers.

Again, I’d argue that the argument that Religion Is Harmful is not a corollary – not a necessary outgrowth – of the idea that the things we can observe and measure/verify are the only things we can meaningfully know. I think it’s a separate argument, and needs to be addressed that way; trying to connect the two takes you down some very odd and misleading rabbit holes.

Now, all of that was before her most recent post on the topic. At this point, she seems to be arguing that New Atheism, or "PEV Atheism" (by which she means atheism which has its philosophical roots in materialism - as she puts it, Nothing which cannot be empirically verified can be said to have actual existence.) is philosophically unsound (or at least unsatisfying) because it doesn't address the Great Existential Questions such as "What is life?" and "Why are we here?" and "Why is there pain and suffering?"

And, once again, I think Red Cardigan is missing the point. (I'm not sure whether she's deliberately misrepresenting atheism, either for humorous or rhetorical effect; or whether she simply doesn't understand how nonbelievers think.)

Again - again - atheism, new or old, does not address those questions because it isn't the sort of thing that should address those questions. It's not a worldview; it's just a lack of belief in gods - one god, two gods, many gods. So what she's really complaining about is what I'd call materialism - the idea that the world that we can see and measure and verify is the only thing that we can meaningfully talk about. Trying to talk about this as a characteristic of some kinds of atheism is misleading and distracting.

And that sort of materialism does answer the questions she poses. Red Cardigan may not like those answers, she may not find them satisfying, but that doesn't mean they aren't answers. (And, yes, rejecting the validity of a question is, in fact, a perfectly legitimate way of answering. Have you stopped beating your wife yet?) More to the point, the fact that some answers are unpleasant does not mean that they can't be true.

So, let's take a look:
  • What is life? Well, to borrow the dictionary definition, it's "the state or quality that distinguishes living beings or organisms from dead ones and from inorganic matter, characterized chiefly by metabolism, growth, and the ability to reproduce and respond to stimuli."
  • Why are we here? As best we can tell, it appears to be a result of impersonal natural processes.
  • Why is there pain and suffering? This also appears to be a result of life arising as a result of impersonal natural processes.
  • What is the proper response to the existential horror of total non-existence which we believe is our only lasting destiny? Um, what? Look, maybe you enjoy worrying about things that you can't change; I don't. So, for starters: if it's inevitable, why get worked up about it? Make the best of the time you have. Also, Existential Horror is in the eye of the beholder.
If the study of Philosophy has taught me one thing, it's that with a little work you can manage to completely overthink anything.


  1. I'm blaming you for this, Mike. I went on Red Cardigan and wrote this comment...

    "To me, speaking about morality was a shorthand way of speaking about consequences. Saying "I won't do that because it isn't right" was just another way of saying "I won't do that because I won't like the eventual consequences.""

    - Respectfully, that seems to be your personal experience and not typical of the broader population. From what I understand the basic moral instinct that all humans share is compassion. Sure, at some base level no one wants to be punished, but society is bound together more by the Golden Rule (a principle discovered by many cultures at different times). Look at the secular societies of Europe. If everyone there was only out for their own hedonistic pleasure there would be chaos. Punishing criminals only gets a society so far, and considering these societies are lenient in many ways indicates that people are good without God without a need for a police state.

    Here is a link about some research on moral drives:

  2. Well, I hope she appreciates the input. (She seems, at least with this post, to be more interested in explaining why she prefers to be Catholic, but feedback can't hurt...)

  3. Personally, I do fear 'the horror of non-existence'. We fear the unknown, and all our logical thought processes are based around our own conciousness, and to have it just vanish is a terrifying thought for me and many others. Religious people don't worry about it because they believe in an afterlife, so that's OK then. I think what RC was getting at is: 'If you don't believe in an afterlife, how can you cope with death?'. Personally, I think it is a horrible thing for anyone, so we should try and face up to reality and try to prevent it as much as possible, rather than pacifying ourselves with 'Well, he's with god now' etc.

  4. Religious people don't worry about it because they believe in an afterlife, so that's OK then.

    Except, I'm not sure that's entirely true. I've seen people who try to take comfort in the idea of an afterlife, but who don't seem to find the idea all that reassuring - either in terms of their own mortality, or when facing the death of a loved one.

    And I'm not saying that people shouldn't fear death; that's a natural, normal reaction. Describing it as a "existential horror", though, seems to me to elevate it to being an ongoing concern: something you hold in your mind, rather than something you deal with when it comes up.

  5. I think existential horror is a problem for most people at some time. We yearn for reason, for explanation, for someone to be In Charge ... Human mental traits that have up-sides and down-sides, certainly.
    In my darkest hours, I have even wished I could "find God" to make the pain go away. But instead I seek to go beyond the need totake comfort from believing in stories. I do feel a connection to the universe but I don't mistake my projection for fact.

  6. @ julezyme - Thanks for commenting. I'm still thinking about your comment, and I don't have any particularly insightful response, but yeah: I do think that a lot of what Red Cardigan wants to address are, in fact, very natural human reactions. And yeah, it would be nice if the universe really were inclined to take care of us, somehow.

  7. "Why are we here?" and "Why is there pain and suffering?" are biased questions. They appear to deal with causes, but they assume that inherent meaning and purpose exist. Or that they have to exist or should exist. That's the whole basis of those alleged Great Existential Questions. What Red Cardigan calls "philosophical unsoundness" is merely a refusal to start from that assumptions. We don't know if inherent meaning and purpose exist for anything, any more than we know if gods exist. Imagine asking Red Cardigan about the possibility that gods exist who don't give meaning and purpose to anything.

    And this whole business of "unsatisfying" - oh, please. We're not talking about reviewing a musical performance or a film. Either gods exist or they don't, and the answer has nothing to do with how we feel about it.


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