Must Atheists Be Nihilists?

Writing in The Week, Damon Linker has a strange essay arguing that atheists who are honest about the consequences of their beliefs ought to be sad and mopey. The subtitle of his essay is, “That godlessness might be both true and terrible is something that the new atheists refuse to entertain.”

This is a trope that arises from time to time in anti-atheist rhetoric, but it is one I find incomprehensible. Partly this is because I contrast atheism with the alternatives on offer, and find it fares well in the comparison. The most common forms of Christianity, for example, tell me that human beings are hopelessly vile and sinful, that our Earthly lives have meaning only insofar as they determine our disposition in the afterlife, and that we can be condemned to an eternity of suffering merely for thinking the wrong thoughts. If that’s the other option, then perhaps I can be forgiven for preferring that the universe simply ignore us.

It is also because it has never occurred to me, outside of discussions of religion, to find meaning and dignity in my life by looking for cosmic significance. Seems a bit melodramatic to me. I don’t understand the mentality of someone who says that if you do what you do simply because you find it satisfying to do so, then your life is meaningless and empty and without purpose. But if you do those same things because you think it is what God wants from you, now suddenly your life has meaning.

At any rate, most atheists don’t seem to have noticed that honesty requires them to be very sad. Let us recall that the sociological experiment has been done, and we now have several examples of societies in which free nonbelievers predominate. They are not marked by nihilism and existential angst. Nor are they marked by heartlessness and social isolation. Quite the contrary, in fact. They are among the most contented and socially conscious societies on Earth. The situation in heavily religious countries tends to be considerably less happy. So, yes, I do think we have some basis for thinking that people would be much happier if religion were forced into retreat.

So let’s have a look at how Linker defends his dubious thesis:

If atheism is true, it is far from being good news. Learning that we’re alone in the universe, that no one hears or answers our prayers, that humanity is entirely the product of random events, that we have no more intrinsic dignity than non-human and even non-animate clumps of matter, that we face certain annihilation in death, that our sufferings are ultimately pointless, that our lives and loves do not at all matter in a larger sense, that those who commit horrific evils and elude human punishment get away with their crimes scot free — all of this (and much more) is utterly tragic.

What a strange paragraph! I am happy to agree that a universe that caters to humanity’s every existential whim is preferable to one that doesn’t, but it is a very childish view of religion that Linker is offering here. Let’s take his checklist in order. The God of Christianity created and presides over a world of stunning cruelty, suffering and evil. Forgive me for preferring loneliness to His company. A supernatural being that can answer my prayers can also inflict draconian punishments for trivial crimes (and according to Christianity, that’s precisely what He does). Linker’s next two items are especially strange. Why should my view of humanity be affected in the slightest by the manner in which we appeared, and how does atheism imply that we have no more intrinsic dignity than inanimate matter? Likewise, I don’t see why atheists should require the universe to ratify our lives and loves. They seem so inherently meaningful, that I don’t know what higher sense I should be looking for. Finally, I agree that it’s tragic that in an atheist framework, villains who escape human justice are never called to account. The trouble is that the major world religions seem equally unable to satiate this need. Christianity, for example, holds that eternal punishment is reserved only for those people who die without having accepted Jesus as their savior. That’s not the sort of eternal justice I had in mind.

This was actually the high point of Linker’s essay. The rest devolves into the usual pseudointellectual references to Nietzsche and Camus. He seems especially obsessed with a poet named Philip Larkin. There’s some pabulum about how humans were created to love and religion caters to that need. Whatever.

I could understand why an atheist who once had religious faith might feel a sense of loss. But for many of us, religious faith has never been a viable option. In my own case, I have been an atheist for as long as I have been old enough to think about such things. Sure, I can imagine metaphysical frameworks that are more comforting than atheism, but since none of them have ever seemed remotely plausible to me I feel no sense of loss for rejecting them. Moreover, when I see how effective religion is at promoting xenophobia, tribalism and anti-intellectualism, I feel no urge to participate. I’m afraid it’s nobility is lost on me.

In short, I’m too busy living my life to worry too much about its cosmic significance. If that makes me dishonest, then so be it.

Comments

  1. #1 Steven Carr
    March 12, 2013

    1 Corinthians 15:19
    If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

    How come Paul could see that Christians were the people most to be pitied, not non-believers, while Mr. Linker can’t?

    LINKER
    ‘ that those who commit horrific evils and elude human punishment get away with their crimes scot free’

    CARR
    According to Christianity, those people are going to Heaven. The Christian god does not decide people’s fate by their good/bad ratio in life.

    Perhaps Mr. Linker is confusing his gods. Understandable.It is hard to keep all these gods straight, and to learn the differences between each one.

    It is Allah that Mr. Linker should worship, not Jehovah.

  2. #2 Kel
    March 12, 2013

    What I find curious about this argument is that I keep hearing it from believers, but I don’t hear it from atheists. It’s not that atheists deny any of the facts in questions, but don’t seem to take that same nihilistic attitude (some) religious people expect from them. If life isn’t worth living because of ultimates, then why aren’t there more suicides among the faithful that despise this life?

  3. #3 Kel
    March 12, 2013

    ”There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” –Camus

    Honestly, I can’t think of a single instance in which God changes anything about what makes life worth living. Perhaps that makes me dishonest, or it makes me dumb, but I just don’t see it.

  4. #4 MNb
    March 12, 2013

    “The Christian god does not decide people’s fate by their good/bad ratio in life.”
    Exactly this injustice – convert on your deathbed and no matter your crimes – put me off when I was 13 or 14. Islam is better in this respect but has some other obvious drawbacks.
    Atheism is gloomy is just a soother for doubting christians, who need to tell themselves they are better off than we sour atheists. Frankly I take comfort from the idea that my cosmological meaning is about zero. It means I don’t have to be perfect and don’t have to bother about all my flaws and stupidities.
    From another point of view it can be argued that atheism is nihilistic indeed. But I still have to meet the first atheist who is only an atheist. Most of them have developed ideas about politics and ethics.

  5. #5 Ashley Moore
    March 12, 2013

    The idea that someone DOES hear our prayers and still, this is the world that we live in seems terrifying to me.

  6. #6 proximity1
    March 12, 2013

    You have what millions–no, excuse me, prehaps billions, if they had the opportunity to compare and to consider–of people would envy as a kind of life: you inhabit what has been, until relatively recently, and still to an extent, remains, one of the most agreeable societies in which to live. And, you’re not there as a clandestine immigrant but a citizen with full rights (such as they have come to be in these times). But that’s not all. Moreover, you have the inestimable privilege of combining your passions’ interests with what you do to earn your living.

    So, why, I wonder, shouldn’t you look upon life without any particular cosmic significance as, despite that, a fairly wonderful joy? Now, I grant that yours hasn’t been a life free of a certain amount of pain and difficulty. Regular readers may recall that you’ve suffered from chronic back-pain and any who know what that means will not underestimate its hardships.

    At the same time, there are many millions with that or far, far more severe suffering that they endure daily–and instead of finding fulfiment in going to work everyday to do something they love, they do work that is utterly without spiritual compensations. They do hard, and mind-numbing routine labor without the slightest intellectual interest and they have no realistic hope of ever doing anything else in the course of their lives. Some have families–but, don’t you, as well? Others don’t, or have lost them to war, disease, famine or other natural or man-made catastrophes.

    “Life” is an impossibly confused mix of experiences and there is absolutely nothing rational or kind about how random events distribute pains and pleasures. They come unbidden, no matter the devotion and patience that one may apply to gaining his or her ideas of success.

    By some standards of measure, our modern lives have incomparably improved in duration and comforts over that which was common even in the most advanced societies of four or five centuries ago. But, this hasn’t necessarily meant that the purpose and meaning that most people do find in life today compares as favorably, when not just the most fortunate are taken into account.

    In a world which was even harsher, more crushing and less generous with the least fortunate, religious faith, however irrational, was for millions, a balm as well as a source of frustration and fear.

    It is, for that reason, very likely a feature of natural-selection’s products over millions of years. I’m not religious today, but I was at one time. And, I don’t find that my secular faiths are any more robust or reassuring, no more an aid to coping with life’s hardships than was religious faith.

    In any case, you should consider that, as a scientist, there are compelling ground s to believe that in many of our thoughts and actions, we’re far short of completely free agents. Our lot is very largely placed within certain more or less probable bounds as a consequence of our inherited endowments, for better or worse.

    If you can do without religious faith’s crutch, consider yourself fortunate for that, rather than less benighted as compared to others who cannot bear their lot without the balm of religious belief, despite is toll in rationality’s awards.

  7. #7 Alex SL
    http://phylobotanist.blogspot.com
    March 12, 2013

    Heh, every atheist blogger I read seems to see the need to react to this piece. Your rebuttal is the best I have seen so far; would be nice if it could be made required reading for every believer who spouts the same nonsense as Linker.

    I don’t understand this either: once you think about concepts like “eternity of bliss”, “eternity of punishment”, what is supposed to happen to the souls of babies and toddlers when they die before their parents, what about people who end up in heaven but their loved ones end up in hell, the free will defense against the problem of evil vis a vis the belief that there will be no evil in heaven, etc etc, it all falls down like a house of cards. The belief in an afterlife becomes either in coherent or repellent. But many believers really, truly do not think these issues through.

  8. #8 Jeff Hebert
    United States
    March 12, 2013

    This is the only subject on my AtheistFAQ.com site that still generates comments. I’ve very happy to see you address the question and to have it done so well. I’ll probably close comments on mine and just put a link in to this one instead since you do it so much more justice. Thank you!

  9. #9 Jeff Hebert
    www.atheistfaq.com
    March 12, 2013

    Done and done. Hope you don’t mind me funneling those questions here, I’m tired of dealing with them :-)

  10. #10 eric
    March 12, 2013

    I’m going to miss out on heaven. Also, mead drinking in Valhalla. The beer volcano. 98 Houris. Reincarnation as an eagle. Running my own planet. Being eaten first. The list of rewards I will miss out on is practically infinite and I can say with complete honesty that contemplating missing any of them makes me equally mopey.

  11. #11 Dan
    March 12, 2013

    Great piece, but come on, why dismiss him as “a poet named Philip Larkin”? You don’t have to agree with Larkin to revel in the magnificence that is http://www.artofeurope.com/larkin/lar2.htm (and I don’t, as a happy atheist who has three children).

  12. #12 Blaine
    March 12, 2013

    It seems Christians often confuse big ‘N’ nihilsim with litte ‘n’ nihilism. For atheists like me, big ‘N’ nihilism follows. If there is no god, no cosmic mind that is responsible for the worlf, then it is meaningless. However, this does not entail little ‘n’ nihilism. Having a mind with intentionality, I can provide significance ( aka meaning ) to my ‘world’. We are already embedded in a world with pre-given human meaning. Biosemitoics can quite well account for how meaning evolved for human as well as non-human animals.

  13. #13 Valhar2000
    March 12, 2013

    Ashley Moore: perhaps that’s because you don’t pray right. If you prayed for a particular football team to win a particular game, the current state of the world would not call the validity of prayer into question.

  14. #14 Jim Harrison
    San Francisco
    March 12, 2013

    Linker and various atheists make the same mistake about Nietzsche’s statement that “God is dead,” and the error isn’t just some fine point of Nietzsche scholarship. The philosopher wasn’t talking about facts but values. What was epochal was not the loss of belief in the God of Christianity—there were plenty of atheists long before Nietzsche’s time—but the apparent loss of any credible absolute standard of value. If you look at things in this way, far from being radicals, the so-called New Atheists are among the last of the faithful, not because their opinions amount to a religion, but because they still worship “one nude goddess.” It doesn’t seem to occur to them that there is anything problematic about their unquestioning elevation of truth above all else. Maybe that’s why New Atheists give off such a powerful aroma of the 18th Century. They are as quaint as the Amish.

  15. #15 Reginald Selkirk
    March 12, 2013

    Linker makes several errors.

    1) Linker’s premise is nothing but a fallacious appeal to consequences. Rather than investigate the truth of the existence or nonexistence of God, he looks to the consequences, and decides which outcome he would prefer.

    2) Given the premise (ad argumendum), Linker has no business telling the atheist how she ought to react. Given a 16 ounce glass with 8 ounces of beer, some people say half full, others say half empty. This is human nature.

    3) One might better spend one’s time wondering why Christian parents of a deceased toddler frequently do not rejoice that their child has gone to Heaven.

    4) Christians seem to think free will is a big bleeping deal. It is so great that according to a popular theodicy, God allows evil to occur just so that free will can flourish. It must be valuable indeed! Why then would the theist free will advocate not rejoice at the prospect that God might not exist, and thus could not interfere with the freedom of their will?

  16. #16 eric
    March 12, 2013

    Why then would the theist free will advocate not rejoice at the prospect that God might not exist, and thus could not interfere with the freedom of their will?

    The apologist telling you free will is critical is very likely going to turn around and in the next breath tell you that they know God’s message, because it was clearly communicated to all mankind in to uncertain terms, and God’s message is that you ought to do X. Consistency is not one of their hobgoblins.

  17. #17 AnswersInGenitals
    March 12, 2013

    I would like to see Linker address the concept of predestination, which necessarily follows form an omniscient god – a god who even knows exactly what “free will” choices individuals will make. Linker has absolutely no control over his post-life destiny. Whatever actions or urges he pursues that may assure or deny his ascendency to heaven were foreordained at the beginning of time (6000 years ago, an infinitely long time ago, last thursday?). Surely, Linker must be feeling nihilistic and mopey over that.

  18. #18 Michael Fugate
    March 12, 2013

    “It doesn’t seem to occur to them [new atheists] that there is anything problematic about their unquestioning elevation of truth above all else.”

    When you say something like this, we know truth means nothing to you.

  19. #19 SimonG
    March 12, 2013

    Even if I accept for the sake of argument that atheism is nihilistic, that’s still not an argument FOR religion. I don’t believe in god(s) and even if it might be nicer if they did exist (and I don’t think it would) that’s not going to change. I just don’t believe.

  20. #20 Kel
    March 12, 2013

    “It doesn’t seem to occur to them that there is anything problematic about their unquestioning elevation of truth above all else.”
    Just where do you think truth gets in the way?

  21. #21 Jim Harrison
    March 12, 2013

    The religious insist that there is no one who is really an atheist. The New Atheists insist that there is no one who thinks that truth isn’t an absolute value. Of course you can appeal to the pragmatic virtues of literal truth—who disagrees?—but then the religious are just as insistent on the pragmatic virtues of their faith.

  22. #22 Kel
    March 13, 2013

    That doesn’t really say anything, Jim. Can you show where truth gets in the way and why that’s problematic? If not, why did you make the assertion to begin with?

  23. #23 Alphameme
    http://www.science20.com/alpha_meme
    March 13, 2013

    So you call an atheist’s valid points “anti-atheist rhetoric” because it is not in line with your new-atheist religious cult? Camus and Nietzsche pseudointellectual? For those who want a less kneejerky reaction that is at least able to give a proper reading of Damon’s article: http://www.science20.com/alpha_meme/where_are_honest_atheists-106275

  24. #24 eric
    March 13, 2013

    Jim:

    The New Atheists insist that there is no one who thinks that truth isn’t an absolute value.

    Bollocks. I accept that there is at least one human (and probably many) who think that truth isn’t an absolute value. There, how’s that?

  25. #25 eric
    March 13, 2013

    Alphameme (in his link):

    honest thinkers admit that after sufficient dis-illusioning, any jumping to the support of other dogmas is a sell-out. The frustration of our desire to have fundamental certainty and meaning, the insight of that such is always illusion, and the unavoidable suffering without hope are all real, though little else is real but the absurdity of it all.

    I was with you until the “unavoidable suffering without hope” part. You’re wrong about that, both empirically and theoretically. Empirically because there are atheists who have hope, and do not suffer for the lack of it. That’s just a fact, and the only way around it I can see is to take the religious fundie’s ‘no true scotsman’ approach and claim every hopeful, happy atheist is lying and putting on an act.

    Theoretically you’re wrong because your conclusion requires the premise that hope derives solely from this one source (certainty, ability to eliminate illusion from ones’ life). While the absence of certainty is certainly annoying, it is clearly just one aspect of of most people’s lives. Hope also comes from professional development, family, education, hobbies, and so on. So a critical premise of your argument appears to be (very badly) wrong.

    Third, I’d say that biologically it makes perfect sense that we would be able to have positive emotions like hope while performing decision-making under uncertainty. The latter is something every animal is forced to do tens if not hundreds of times a day. Its a perfectly sensible adaptation to be able to feel rewards and positive emotions while in situations the animal has adapted/evolved to be regularly in. Claiming that humans must suffer a lack of hope in the face of uncertainty is sort of like saying dolphins can’t possibly enjoy the water.

  26. #26 Reginald Selkirk
    March 13, 2013

    Alphameme #23: that is at least able to give a proper reading of Damon’s article

    A “proper reading” would involve pointing and laughing.

  27. #27 Jim Harrison
    March 13, 2013

    My point is simply that the religious aren’t the only ones who have a problem with a loss of faith. The scientists are also affected by the crisis of values that Nietzsche advertised with his “God is dead” pronouncement and not just in vague “spiritual” ways. It matters if science is just a useful tool of industry and the military or something quite different. After all, if the disinterested search for truth about the world is meaningless, why not fake research results if you can get away with it? Why pursue a theoretical understanding of the nature of things if all that matters is whether the rocket hits the target? Even the Iranian mullahs want their weapons to work. In the absence of a larger sense of purpose, one can certainly still be curious about biology or physics or whatever. The taxonomy of sparrows may still be interesting, as stamp collecting can be interesting to many people, but it won’t be more than that. Mere curiosity. The practice of science embodies or once embodied an ethic with implications that go a long way beyond the lab. What happens to that?

    I don’t raise this issue because truth isn’t a value for me, but precisely because remains a value for me. It would be a lack of integrity on my part not to ask why.

  28. #28 Michael Fugate
    March 13, 2013

    “The practice of science embodies or once embodied an ethic with implications that go a long way beyond the lab. What happens to that?”

    What larger purpose existed in the past? Can you give some examples of what you are talking about? People have been faking data for centuries – atheism or new atheism hasn’t changed that. You don’t think current graduate students aren’t excited about the work they are doing? Please refrain from claiming the past was better without anything other than a gut feeling to back it up.

  29. #29 eric
    March 13, 2013

    if the disinterested search for truth about the world is meaningless, why not fake research results if you can get away with it?

    Well, some scientists do that because they care primarily about status and fortune. Most do not because they care more about figuring out the right answer than the (likely short-term) social benefit they might get from faking it.
    But, importantly, both types of scientists care. Both types would reject your idea that such explorations are meaningless. For the first group, they find meaning in what it gets them. For most, they find meaning in knowing a bit more about the world than they did yesterday. But neither group needs an eternal existence to find meaning in doing what they do.

    Why pursue a theoretical understanding of the nature of things if all that matters is whether the rocket hits the target?

    See above: because some people are just curious and want to know how stuff works.

    If you want a purely pragmatic reason, I can give that too. We humans have a difficult time determining which basic research will lead to which innovation before we do it. So even if the only thing you care about is hitting a target, it often behooves you to perform (or fund) a wide range of basic research that may have little to do with target-hitting. Because very likely, the next innovation in target-hitting will come from a bit of research you didn’t think was related to target-hitting. DOD is a huge funder of basic research for precisely this reason; they understand that they don’t know where the next best target-hitting innovation will come from. So they pursue a wide variety of ‘theoretical work into the understanding of things,’ understanding that the wider the net, the more likely they are to get what they are looking for.

  30. #30 Jim Harrison
    March 13, 2013

    I don’t know if the past was better than the present. Indeed, I don’t think it was. There were formerly various justifications/explanations for the dignity of knowledge, however. The obvious example is the old bit about reading nature as the other book of God, but there were more philosophical notions as well, including secular rationales.

    There’s quite a literature now about the how the attitudes of working scientists have changed as science took its modern form. The sociologists have been doing empirical work in this area for some time, much of it summarized in Steven Shapin’s The Scientific Life, which was published in 2009 or so. My own understanding of the situation is mostly based on working with a great many scientists in my day job and also from reading the policy arguments in journals like SCIENCE. I’m not claiming that scientists have lost their moral bearings en masse. Mostly I wonder why they haven’t, which is why I wrote “What happens to that [the scientific ethic]?” and not “What happened to that?”

    I disagree with Linker because I don’t think that what he calls “nihilism” has much to do with atheism since the atheists mostly adhere to a transcendent standard of values. Indeed, that’s why they come across as throwbacks to the 18th Century to folks like me who read a lot of history. Actually I don’t think either classical atheism or traditional theology have much to say about the current situation. The lack of a God isn’t the problem: the existence of a God wouldn’t help.

  31. #31 eric
    March 13, 2013

    I’m not claiming that scientists have lost their moral bearings en masse. Mostly I wonder why they haven’t, which is why I wrote “What happens to that [the scientific ethic]?” and not “What happened to that?”

    Why do you reject the most obvious and simple answer as to why they haven’t? Its this: moral bearing and scientific ethic are retained by atheists because these things do not depend on a person believing they will live forever or face ultimate judgement.

  32. #32 Jim Harrison
    March 13, 2013

    What does believing in immortality or ultimate judgement have to do with anything I wrote? You do realize that there are more points of view in the world than traditional theology and traditional atheism, don’t you?

  33. #33 Michael Fugate
    March 13, 2013

    I get more confused with each reply.

    My reading of history informs me that individuals have always varied in their reasons for engaging in science – fame, power, money, knowledge, compassion, etc – same as today. People are people.

    Perhaps you could help me with this:
    “transcendent standard of values”? implying atheist morals come from gods? I guess I am not seeing the contrast you are trying to make – what do you think is the correct path?

    On the other hand, I think the 18th century is not a bad throwback – better in many ways than the 19th.

  34. #34 MNb
    March 13, 2013

    @Eric: “humans must suffer a lack of hope in the face of uncertainty”
    Call me stupid, but isn’t it just the other way round? As soon as something is absolutely certain hope doesn’t make sense anymore. If the certainty is something utterly unpleasant only resignation remains; if it’s something nice our hope is already fulfilled.
    I’d say that hope requires uncertainty.

    @Jim: you fail to separate external meaning and internal meaning.

    “if the disinterested search for truth about the world is meaningless”
    In the grand scheme of cosmological things it’s meaningless indeed. For humble me it’s not meaningless at all; without it we wouldn’t be able to discuss via internet.

  35. #35 Michael Fugate
    March 13, 2013

    Jim, why not stop being coy and tell us what you think “the meaning” for you behind doing science or doing anything, for that matter, is? Why do you get up in the morning? Is there a god or gods in the mix? What exactly is nontraditional atheism – cultural religion?

  36. #36 Jim Harrison
    March 13, 2013

    I’m not being coy. If it seems so, it’s probably because of the difference in our backgrounds—my original comment about Nietzsche was hardly an original piece of exegesis. Essentially everybody who has read him closely understands that the “God is dead” statement was about values, not beliefs. The guy was obviously an atheist, but his atheism is not what was virulent about his thinking. Anyhow, Nietzsche aside, it seems to me that atheists have a problem if the most important issue they can come up with is atheism. The world isn’t haunted? Well D’uh.

    I’m trying to make sense of what the sciences are about. That pursuing them often pays in political or economic terms is not in issue. The question is whether they have some larger significance that explains why, among other things, wanting to know the truth about nature is something more than a matter of taste. Maybe it isn’t, and my interest in the issue simply identifies me as a fossil left over from the 20th Century.

  37. #37 Kel
    March 14, 2013

    “The world isn’t haunted? Well D’uh.”
    Glad you’ve figured that out. The question is then why haven’t other people? After all, people who have come to that conclusion are still a small minority.

    And for that matter, why is it that people still try to impose their hauntings onto others?

  38. #38 eric
    March 14, 2013

    @Mnb: yes, in some ways. OTOH if I were absolutely certain I wolud live the rest of a long life in good health and properity, this would not cause me to lose hope. :)

    I’m trying to make sense of what the sciences are about. That pursuing them often pays in political or economic terms is not in issue. The question is whether they have some larger significance that explains why, among other things, wanting to know the truth about nature is something more than a matter of taste.

    I expect quite a lot of people don’t care about figuring out the truth about nature. But you’ve asked why atheist scientists haven’t lost their moral bearing or scientific ethic. That question implies, to me, that you think they should have lost these things, and also implied is that their atheism is at least part of the reason why you think they should’ve lost them. My response to that is: moral bearing and scientific ethic do not necessarily arise from theological beliefs. If you take the latter away, there is no reason to expect the former will disappear.

    Your question is sort of like saying “why haven’t atheist scientists lost their appreciation of classical music?” Well, why would you expect them to lose it? Much of classical music is religious. That doesn’t mean one has to be religious to have an appriciation of it. Likewise, many moral systems are founded on some form of theism, but that doesn’t mean one has to be a theist to have a moral system.

  39. #39 eric
    March 14, 2013

    Ack, my apologies to Jim and Mnb; I was combining two responses. The first two lines are response to Mnb; the quote and stuff below it is a response to Jim @36.

  40. #40 Blaine
    March 14, 2013

    @Jim
    I am not sure why pursuing science under a Christian world-end-life view( weltanschauung ) would change anything. The pursuit of knowledge ( at least in the west ) began during the pre-christian era in a non-monotheistic non-theocratic state. There are many reasons for wanting to know how the world works -if for no other reason than pragmatic reasons not the least of which is enabling a more florishing life and survival. If diabetes runs in your family, understanding the epidemeology is a vital concern. This would be more than a matter of taste. I don’s see how pointing out that the modern understanding of the world is not only inconsistent with the biblical view of the world but positively falsifies it, is a throw back to an eighteenth century view of truth. It is simply a fact of the matter which one can realize without positing some mysterious notion of metaphysical truth.

  41. #41 Blaine
    March 14, 2013

    Forgive my typos…there is no why to go back and edit.

  42. #42 Jim Harrison
    March 14, 2013

    One last time: the issue I raised about scientific values is not about theology. I was trying to stake out some territory to the side the interminable and incredibly boring argument between the theists and the village atheists. Oddly, I seem to be the only one around here who isn’t impressed with the importance of believing in God. Dealing with religion is an unavoidable political problem, of course; but arguing about God isn’t a very interesting philosophical problem if you really don’t give theological ideas any credit. Meanwhile, the question of what we’re for, either as scientists and philosophers or simply as rational creatures, remains after you stop paying the negative homage to the Good Lord so characteristic of New Atheism.

  43. #43 eric
    March 14, 2013

    the issue I raised about scientific values is not about theology.

    Then I fail to see why atheism has anything to do with it.

    Look, maybe this is a communication issue. Pretend I said these two things to you:

    “the readheads aren’t the only ones who have a problem with a loss of faith,”
    and
    “the so-called redheads are among the last of the faithful, not because their opinions amount to a religion, but because they still worship “one nude goddess.” It doesn’t seem to occur to them that there is anything problematic about their unquestioning elevation of truth above all else. Maybe that’s why redheads give off such a powerful aroma of the 18th Century.”

    If I said that, it would be perfectly reasonable for you to think I was making some point about redheads, yes? That’s what you’re doing, but with atheists. I think its perfectly reasonable for us listeners to think you’re trying to make some point about atheists. So if your point is not about atheism, new atheists, or atheism’s impact on how people find meaning in science, etc., then you sure are banging away on that particular drum with a confusingly unnecessary abandon.

    But, let’s push forward. Are you trying to say: you wonder why humans of all stripes find any meaning in scientific investigation? You wonder why humans of all stripes treat truth as an absolute, objective thing? That question is, ironically, probably a bit easier to answer. The answers are: not all do, and those who do have multiple, different reasons, several examples of which various different posters have offered to you.

  44. #44 Michael Fugate
    March 14, 2013

    Eric said, “The answers are: not all do, and those who do have multiple, different reasons, several examples of which various different posters have offered to you.”

    Amen to that.

    Jim, in #14, you brought up atheism and atheists over and over – yet now you claim your interests have nothing to do with an argument over gods – funny way to show it.

    You may find whether gods exist to be uninteresting, but that doesn’t mean it actually is uninteresting philosophically or sociologically. A belief in gods changes a person’s perspective of how they think the world works. I am pretty sure you know this or you wouldn’t be asking if the motivations for doing science changed once scientists became areligious. As Dennett said – it comes down to “skyhooks” versus “cranes”. You seem to be assuming that in the 17th c. everyone who studied nature was motivated because it was a means to understand the minds of the gods. I don’t think we can understand easily understand the motivations for doing science – especially for people long dead – because any justification was and is likely either post hoc or tailored to what granting agencies want to hear. One could easily write the same grant request, but offer many, many different justifications depending on the funding source. There is no one reason for doing anything.

  45. #45 MNb
    March 14, 2013

    @Blaine: “The pursuit of knowledge ( at least in the west ) began during the pre-christian era”
    Not only in the west – in China and India as well. And of course the Mayans produced the most precise calendar ever, long before they were confronted with christians.

    @Jim H: “if you really don’t give theological ideas any credit”
    But why would I? As Mano Singham wrote: there is a simple answer to any theological problem/idea: there is no god.

    “the question of what we’re for remains”
    Really? Possibly it’s just the wrong question. I have learned to prefer “how” to “why”.

  46. #46 Jim Harrison
    March 14, 2013

    Michael,

    Do you suppose that I might have brought up atheism because the title of this thread is “Must Atheists be Nihilists?”
    By the way, my answer to this question is no. Atheists, with their unquestioning faith in the value of truth, are the last folks one can reasonably accuse of nihilism.

  47. #47 Reginald Selkirk
    March 15, 2013

    Jim Harrison #42: the village atheists.

    “Young man there’s no need to feel down
    I said young man pick yourself off the ground
    I said young man ’cause your in a new town
    There’s no need to be unhappy

    Y – M – C – A!”

  48. #48 Sean T
    March 15, 2013

    Reginald,

    Hilarious! Of course, it’s very ironic that you used the song “YMCA” in reference to the “village atheists” comment, considering what YMCA stands for. I certainly hope that was intentional. :)

  49. #49 Michael Fugate
    March 15, 2013

    Jim, I get it now. You saw atheist in the title and couldn’t resist dragging out all kinds of unfounded generalizations about atheists – they don’t know theology, they don’t know history, they don’t know philosophy. Nice.

    It would have been funnier if you had channeled Monty Python and said a fanatical devotion to the truth.

    Even so it is still nonsense and repeating won’t make it true.
    To quote a bumper sticker I saw recently, “I like poetry, long walks on the beach, and poking dead things with a stick.” It almost encapsulates my life as a biologist and fits much better than the one you want to give me “truth above all else.” The latter would take a hell of a lot of hubris as a motto. I think you are confusing opposition to religion with opposition to all things not completely objective. As if atheists can’t enjoy a good meal, a good piece of music, a nice play, a nice view, or even a sporting event. I am glad I am not living the life you think I should be living.

  50. #50 Jim Harrison
    March 15, 2013

    Ah well, it’s futile to try to broaden the argument with folks who think that the sky is five feet across because they live in the bottom of a well. As if the only alternatives to science or theology were looking out the window or listening to the radio.

    For the record, however, I think I was pretty clearly speaking about a subset of atheists. Indeed, my point was the not believing in God doesn’t have as many implications as either guys like Linker or new atheists think. In particular, not believing in God doesn’t obliged anybody to live with an impoverished, vulgar positivist view of the world.

  51. #51 Michael Fugate
    March 15, 2013

    “I think I was pretty clearly speaking about a subset of atheists.”

    Can we have some names – just so we can see some examples of who these vulgar, impoverished people are? While you are at it, can you also give us some examples of the things missing from their lives? What is the perfect worldview in your opinion?

  52. #52 Kel
    March 16, 2013

    “Oddly, I seem to be the only one around here who isn’t impressed with the importance of believing in God.”
    So I take it you don’t think that the beliefs about God that mean the persecution of minorities, women, and try to impose a moral code on the rest of us are that important? Do you think it’s fine that homosexuals are treated as an abomination backed by religious sentiment? Do you think it’s fine that religious believers paint atheists as nihilists who have no place in society because of their belief that morality is set by the divine?

    I just cannot fathom how you think there’s no importance to the beliefs at all. You may or may not be the only one here who thinks it’s okay that women are treated as subservient (to the point of being subhuman) based on an ontological commitment to a particular divine warrant, yet you act like it’s a bad thing to care…

  53. #53 Emre
    March 16, 2013

    In fact, as an atheist, I find the argument for nihilism quiet correct – more about with the definition of nihilism and actual attitudes driven from it. I just cannot understand WHY is it so sinful (both among believers and non-believers) being nihilist (It is not an excuse for crime, rudeness, wickedness). Atheist, let us go back to Schopenhauer. Indeed I find ‘optimistic’ new atheism of Dawkins etc, more problematique.

  54. #54 Jim Harrison
    March 16, 2013

    Kel

    I figured that writing “Dealing with religion is an unavoidable political problem, of course” anticipated your objection. I thought it was pretty obvious that I was talking about the philosophical importance of atheism, which I rate as extremely low. Meanwhile, becoming an atheist doesn’t automatically imply that you will also become a feminist. Atheism can go along with a vast range of political positions. It’s also true that many Christians are liberals or socialists. Belief or disbelief in God just doesn’t say very much about your other ideas. That’s why I don’t think it’s very important in itself, though, once again, the political and social effects of the actions of some believers is another matter.

    Michael,

    Names? How about P.Z., Dawkins, et.al.? Did you really have any trouble figuring out who I was talking about?

  55. #55 MNb
    March 17, 2013

    And which world views of PZM, Dawkins et al exactly you think impoverished and vulgar positivist and why? How exactly is your view of the world so much superior to theirs? You sound like a judgmental believer, you see.

  56. #56 Jim Harrison
    March 17, 2013

    I’m not claiming that my view of the world is superior to PZ’s or Dawkin’s. I’m claiming that lots of views of the world are superior to theirs. Different claim. (By the way, I’m not rejecting everything these guys have to say. PZ is, for example, an excellent expositor of developmental biology and I also mostly second his political opinions, though I think they really don’t have anything much to do with atheism.)

    I may well be judgmental, but I’m simply not a believer and haven’t been for going on fifty years. The notion that anybody who disagrees with you has just got to be one of those religious types reflects the simple mindedness I’m denouncing. Thank you for providing a convenient example of the phenomenon.

  57. #57 Michael Fugate
    March 18, 2013

    What exactly is your point, Jim? Are you upset that unbelievers talk about religion or claim that religion is untrue? What you think is missing from these people’s lives. You claim your world view is not superior to Dawkins’s, but how is it different?

  58. #58 MNb
    March 18, 2013

    You love your hasty conclusions, don’t you Jim H? I wrote

    “you sound like a judgmental believer”
    not

    “you are a judgmental believer”
    so

    “The notion that anybody who disagrees with you has just got to be one of those religious types”
    is a typical case of victimitis, as we Dutch say.
    And thanks for not answering my question:

    “And which world views of PZM, Dawkins et al exactly you think impoverished and vulgar positivist and why?”

  59. #59 Jim Harrison
    March 18, 2013

    I call the New Atheist position “vulgar positivism” in analogy to “vulgar Marxism.” The original positivists attempted to make sense of their own view of things—their ideas may have been wrong but they were actually ideas. In contrast, the philosophy (if you can call it that) of PZ and Dawkins is mostly just a bunch of unconscious assumptions—their weird overvaluation of the sciences seems to be based on a metaphysics that wouldn’t even fly as a theory of data types. Similarly, the narrative of the warfare of science and theology that makes sense of their movement is not based on any genuine examination of history. It’s the folklore of the science tribe.

    I think part of the problem is educational. In the U.K., people educated in the sciences had and apparently have little exposure to the humanities, social sciences, or philosophy; and humanists, social scientists, and philosophers have the opposite problem, ergo the famous Two Cultures bit. That was once less true in the United States because our colleges and universities insisted that students get at least some exposure to a wider world. Nowadays, that is much less true and the Two Cultures problem is back in spades. So we get these ideological formations (or whatever you want to call them) like the scientism of the New Atheists or the objectivism of the Randians that are hard to criticize precisely because they are too crude to even be wrong.

  60. #60 eric
    March 18, 2013

    Jim,
    I have no idea where you are getting your ideas about new atheists, but it seems to me like you’re just using that title as an excuse to tilt at a few major figures.

    AFAICT the thing that defines “new atheism” is a willingness to publicly engage in conversations that many people feel or think are socially uncomfortable. That’s it. They aren’t all positivists. They aren’t all feminists. They aren’t all scientists. They aren’t all anything, except atheists that want to talk publicly about atheism and religion.

  61. #61 MNb
    March 18, 2013

    @JimH: ” the philosophy of PZ and Dawkins is mostly just a bunch of unconscious assumptions”
    Now you’re in for a surprise – I agree to quite some extent concerning PZM and Dawkins. As far as Pharyngula goes I think PZM’s political and ethical views rather shallow, even if I generally agree: “atheism has to liberal and progressive or it will fail.” Moreover PZM has an absolutist tendency – and so does Jerry Coyne btw – that puts me off. Dawkins’ “many believers know deep down in their heart there is no god” is a silly assumption, the result of wishful thinking. And that’s only one blooper in the intro of his The God Delusion. If I had been a believer I had written The Dawkins Delusion as well – not that the actual book is any better.
    But you know, I don’t make the mistake to see them as representatives for all atheists or even all new atheists. My “hero” rather is my compatriot Herman Philipse. After finishing his book “God in the age of science I seriously consider giving myself a 7 on the scale of Dawkins. Summary: god is a meaningless concept; if the concept of god has meaning, it doesn’t have any predictive power; if the concept of god has meaning and has any predictive power atheism has more predictive power.
    No way you can call that book vulgar.
    Further what Eric writes (that happens quite often, so it seems).

  62. #62 MNb
    March 18, 2013

    Oh, and I don’t know if I’m a New Atheist in any sensible defintion. I decided to call myself an atheist some 25 years ago, long before I even had heard of the four horsemen, PZM and Coyne; as a teacher maths and physics I have learned long ago about the failure of logical positivism (which doesn’t mean all its points were wrong, but that’s for another day). The day I called myself an atheist I did not need to get out of the closet as it wasn’t a dramatical change. Actually nobody gave a d**n as I already lived in an environment of unbelievers.
    At the other hand I have been willing to get publicly engaged all my life, was impressed by Bertrand Russell’s debunking of christendom and also by my compatriots Domela Nieuwenhuis (“deriving a divine world from the concrete world is a salto mortale” sounds pretty New Atheistic, don’t you think? The guy died almost 100 years ago) and Anton Constandse (wrote an essaty called “The misery of religion” back in 1923), so what’s new, atheist cat?

  63. #63 Kevin Dowd
    March 19, 2013

    “Ah well, it’s futile to try to broaden the argument with folks who think that the sky is five feet across ”

    Jim very much reminds me of arguments with tea baggers. start with sly unfounded comments… dodge and bring up a different point… claim its the same point.. argue that no one gets the point.. backtrack.. claim insult.. call people names.. act hurt.. declare victory!! Benghazi!!

  64. #64 Kel
    March 20, 2013

    “I figured that writing “Dealing with religion is an unavoidable political problem, of course” anticipated your objection.”
    Doesn’t mean you argued any less of a straw-man. When you say “Oddly, I seem to be the only one around here who isn’t impressed with the importance of believing in God”, I can only assume that you’re trying to make a rhetorical point, because otherwise such statements are incredibly dishonest and misrepresent the positions of others. If you anticipated that objection, why couldn’t you apply that same reasoning that you recognised in the objection to how people view that question. After all, there’s very few atheists who spend their time arguing against religion in our society by espousing the same arguments and ignoring the problems of that question for its societal implications. So how could you be the only one here who happens not to see it that way?! Seems quite intellectually dishonest on your part…