Friday, January 3, 2014

No such thing as a good atheist?

A Pastor Rick Henderson wrote an absurd article for the Huffington Post, is which he argued that there is no such thing as a 'good atheist'. He based this on some very strange 'logic' and definitions seemingly chosen at random to make his point. Let's take a look, and all laugh together at his poor attempt..
For those of you who are eager to pierce me with your wit and crush my pre-modern mind, allow me to issue a challenge. I contend that any response you make will only prove my case. Like encountering a hustler on the streets of Vegas, the deck is stacked, and the odds are not in your favor.
So he starts out by being arrogant and provocative? Interesting strategy... But wait, did he just use a comparison that likens the dishonest cheater (hustler) to his position? Apparently he didn't think that analogy through. Much like the majority of the following...
Before our love fest continues, allow me to define an important term, "worldview." A worldview is your view of everything inside (and possibly outside) the universe: truth, religion, beauty, war, morality, Nickleback -- everything. Everybody has one.
Not quite... 'worldview' (n) is defined as the overall perspective from which one sees and interprets the world. That's quite a bit more broad that the definition he gives. One's opinion on Nickleback is not part of a worldview. That example would be the persons personal opinion and nothing more. Rick is being far too specific, and by doing so, is redefining the term to fit his needs. A Christian worldview may be that our purpose is to glorify and serve God. My worldview may be that we live in a purely natural universe and make our own purpose. And another atheist may have a different personal worldview.

From their worldview, a Christian may then build on the specifics from there. They may turn to the Bible, but have different opinions on what's beautiful, differ on war, what's moral, and whether Nickleback is any good. They share a worldview, yet some details differ. The same will likely be true of any worldview. I may think that The Beatles were the greatest musical group of all time. Another atheist may say Led Zeppelin, and another may declare Metallica to be the best. Is Henderson seriously suggesting that differences in musical taste necessitates a difference in worldviews?
While some want to state that atheism is simply a disbelief in the existence of a god, there really is more to it. Every expression of atheism necessitates at least three additional affirmations:
Um, no. Atheism really is the lack of a belief in gods and nothing else. There may be many things that most atheists agree on, but they aren't required opinions to be an atheist. What if I said that a hot dog is a kind of cooked sausage. Then someone said that just about everyone that eats hot dogs agrees that hot dogs are best with mustard, thus a hot dog must have mustard. Is a hot dog without mustard then somehow no longer a hot dog? Of course not!
1. The universe is purely material. It is strictly natural, and there is no such thing as the supernatural (e.g., gods or spiritual forces).
 This isn't a required opinion for an atheist to have. There are atheists that actually believe in ghosts. I'm not one of them. But that said, a majority of atheists would agree that the universe is purely material.
2. The universe is scientific. It is observable, knowable and governed strictly by the laws of physics.
 Again, atheism does not require this opinion, though most atheists would agree that this is true. Additionally, the laws of physics serve for an excellent explanation for the universe as well see it. Magic, however, does not.
3. The universe is impersonal. It does not a have consciousness or a will, nor is it guided by a consciousness or a will.
 Isn't this sort of just another way to restate #1? But once more, Henderson fails. Atheism does not require a belief that the universe is impersonal and unguided. In fact, one could be an atheist and believe in a guided universe. Such a person could believe that our universe and everything in it is really just a very powerful computer simulation being run buy an advanced future or alien intelligent being. Such a universe would be guided, yet still god free.
Denial of any one of those three affirmations will strike a mortal blow to atheism. 
 Incorrect. As I've stated above, NONE of Rick's three points are even required to be an atheist. Furthermore, there are possible scenarios where you can disagree with all three and still be an atheist. That's because the only thing required to be an atheist is to not believe in any gods. It really is that simple.
Anything and everything that happens in such a universe is meaningless. A tree falls. A young girl is rescued from sexual slavery. A dog barks. A man is killed for not espousing the national religion. These are all actions that can be known and explained but never given any meaning or value.
 That depends on what you mean by 'meaningless'. If you are demanding cosmic significance in order
to have meaning, then I suppose he's correct. But from where I'm standing, these examples can all be explained, and they also have meaning as well.

That's because we have emotions. A girl being rescued from sexual slavery would move me. I would sympathize with her plight, I would recognize the horror she was freed from, recognize what her return means to her family, etc. There's tons of meaning and value to be found in things without the involvement of a grand supernatural plan.

As for meaning, while we do not have a grand cosmic meaning to life. Life can and does contain much meaning. What your life means to you is what you make of it.
A good atheist -- that is, a consistent atheist -- recognizes this dilemma. 
Except that there is no dilemma since his three points are not required of atheism...
His only reasonable conclusion is to reject objective meaning and morality. Thus, calling him "good" in the moral sense is nonsensical. There is no morally good atheist, because there really is no objective morality. At best, morality is the mass delusion shared by humanity, protecting us from the cold sting of despair.
The problem is that there is no such thing as a truly objective morality, not even in the Bible. Is what God says is good because he says it? Or does he say something is good because it already is good? The latter removes the need for a god, while the former means that Biblical morality is just another form of subjective morality... God's personal opinion on morality. And it's an opinion that he has no problem changing his mind on. Though shalt not kill... except for these people in this land I want to give you. Go ahead and kill them. Doing so is righteous and good. It doesn't get much more subjective (and sadistic) than that. But in honesty, subjective morality can be superior to an objective morality... But I'm sure Rick will give me an opportunity to expand on that though later.
Based on the nonnegotiable premises of atheism, these are the only logical conclusions.
 What nonnegotiable premises? For the last time (I hope), atheism ONLY requires the lack of a belief in all gods.
But I've never met an atheist who's managed to live this way. All the atheists I've known personally and from afar live as if there is objective meaning and morality.
Huh? Pretty much everyone I know lives by subjective morals set up by societal standards. Care to give some examples? No? Carry on I guess...
How is this explained? In a Hail Mary-like attempt to reconcile the inescapability of objective morality and their assurances of atheism, two possible answers are launched.
 I have a bad feeling this is about to get even more frustratingly ignorant...
1. Morality is the result of socio-biological evolution. This is a two-pronged attempt at justifying moral claims. First, a sense of morality evolved to ensure human survival. Much like an eye or tooth, it is necessary for the human race to continue. If this were true, for any claim to be moral, it would have to serve the practical purpose of advancing the human race. So compassion for the dying would be immoral, and killing mentally handicapped children would be moral. Perhaps the most moral action would be men raping many women and forcing them to birth more children.
What the hell am I reading? Is this the Onion? Oh shit... this guy is actually for real. The examples he gives are ridiculously absurd, and not indicative of what the biological evolution of morality would entail. The Biological 'prong' of the evolution of morality would be more in the respect that a healthy population needs as many breeding individuals as possible to survive. This means not needlessly killing or harming one another. It does not mean that compassion is immoral. In fact compassion is easily understood in natural morality when you consider empathy. Furthermore, killing the mentally handicapped would not be the moral choice (sounds like something the Bible would command though). The biological aspect would allow them to live, not kill them. From there natural selection would dictate if they breed and pass on their genes. But that's another topic of conversation. Rape being moral? I thing he got his argument and the Bible mixed up again...
Morality, in this view, can only mean those actions that are helpful to make more fit humans. It does nothing to help us grapple with the truth that it's always wrong to torture diseased children or rape women.
Actually, fit or unfit is something that is left for natural selection to rule on. But Rick's taking a too simplistic approach. You can't just point at one path to some morality and single out something that path doesn't explain. The simple fact is that our morality has come from a complex mix of multiple paths to morality. Each solving their own problems. The societal path toward morality actually answers most of the problem he provides as examples. Like the rape example... A healthy society is one where everyone can get along and trust one another. Rape seriously damages that trust and ability to get along, thus it is socially wrong (not to mention the empathetic path to morality).
Second, morality was developed to ensure the success of societies, which are necessary for human survival and thriving. Like the rules of a board game, morality is contrived to bring us together for productivity and happiness. If this were true, there is nothing to which we can appeal when we find the behavior of other societies repugnant and reprehensible. Because morality is the construct of a social group, it cannot extend further than a society's borders or endure longer than a society's existence.
Grasping for straws? There are multiple ways to look at morality. You can focus on the specifics of specific groups and contrast them. Or you can look at morality of a species. There are some things most people agree on. But then there are differences that are regional. As humanity spread across the globe, they found themselves in different situations. Opinions on some things may have changed to fit their surroundings. They may have created a religion in one part of the world and a different one in another. These two groups may then amend the moral code to fit the claimed morality within that religion.

And if we look at history, morality has always been shifting. Once upon a time slavery was considered just fine. Now we consider it reprehensible. Today, it's true that two cultures may think the other is immoral when viewed through the lens of their local moral construct. But that doesn't mean that no group can question another groups morality. Consider the base morality that is that is shared fairly universally that it's wrong to just go about killing people. Then look at a group that started a religion and adjusted their morality to fit it. They may now think it's moral to kill anyone of a certain ethnic group, but that doesn't mean we can't question their morality. Yes, they changed their opinion on that issue, and it may be 'moral' to them. But that adjustment is damaging to the well being of the populous, it damages trust, it damages the well being of society as a whole, and it ignores empathy. Seeing how such a position would stand in defiance to many of the reasons for morality would suggest that their 'moral' isn't actually moral.
Furthermore, within our own society, the most immoral are not merely the ones who transgress our code but the ones who intend to change it. 
 Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Someone fighting to declare 'killing Serbs' as moral would fit his example. However, when the moral code was challenged to state that slavery was wrong, that was not a challenge to our code that threatened it. Rater, it was a challenge that improved our morality.
 This would make those fighting for marriage equality the most immoral -- that is, until they become the majority and institute change. I suppose they then become moral, and traditionalists become immoral. But it's the math that determines rightness or wrongness of a side, not the content of any belief or argument.
Wrong. It isn't simply a case of majority rules that declares what is moral or not. If that was the case, is Henderson ready to declare that the civil rights movement was immoral. After all, they were in the minority. The truth is that the numbers did not dictate that holding African-Americans to a lower standard was right or wrong. Sure, the movement may have succeed  because of the rights afforded by the Constitution.

But even though the numbers were against those in the movement, defying it was actually the immoral stance. This is because the segregation of different groups of people is damaging to society. It weakens society. A strong society is one were all it's peoples can come together and thrive. Setting one group as second-rate keeps that group down, can cause animosity and distrust, and lead to a weakened society. Likewise, an empathetic person can see the damage that such practices cause. All the same is true for marriage equality as it was for the civil right movement since marriage equality would not harm society.
So this view of morality does nothing to provide a reasonable answer for why it would be objectively wrong to torture diseased children, rape women or kill those who don't affirm a national religion. It only provides a motivation for continuing the delusion of objective morality.
Yes it does. It is wrong to torture diseased children because of empathy. It is wrong to rape or kill people because of their beliefs because such would harm societal well-being and trust. Biolagically, it would be a waste of a potentially breeding life. And emotionally, there's our good friends sympathy and empathy once more. I wouldn't want to be raped, so they probably don't want to be either. At least he realizes that objective morality is a delusion...
2. Morality is logical. Atheists who take this route start in a position of checkmate without realizing it. First, the temptation is to pervert this conversation into a debate about whether atheists can be moral. Of course they can. That is not the question. The question is how we make sense of moral claims if we play by the rules that atheism demands.
Rules atheism demands? Mind sharing what those are? It seems as though I never got the welcome packet. I sure hope there's not a test...

Seriously though, I've never heard anyone just claim 'morality is logical' and leave it at that without expanding on why.
Morality may be logical, but logic does not equate to morality. The only way to make a logical moral argument is to presuppose morality and meaning to start with. Try making a logical argument that slavery is wrong without presupposing morality. It is impossible. A woman wrote to me with her attempt at doing just that. Her claim was that slavery is logically wrong because it diminishes other human beings. The problem is that that argument presupposes human dignity. In the strict framework of atheism outlined above, what reason is there to ever assume human dignity?
True, logical doesn't automatically equate to moral. If I'm hungry, it would be logical to eat a sandwich. However, eating a sandwich isn't really a moral question. I think that Rick is looking at things a little backwards here. Logic can be used as a sort of fact check on moral choices. Suppose that you think that it would be morally wrong to steal a car. You feel as though doing so will harm the owner emotionally, and empathize with him. You also realize that doing so creates distrust and discord. Things that are unfavorable and bad for society. You can logically look and see that it is logical that stealing someones car would upset them. You can logically see that theft harms society. So logic can be a tool to help confirm moral choices.

This is how picture Rick Henderson when he was learning
about atheism and non-theistic morality.
Strict framework of atheism? There is no strict framework, damn it! There isn't really a framework at all. Just one point... the lack of a belief in gods. Everything else is up to the individual. And why would atheists have any problem assuming human dignity. I feel empathy for others. I realize how fragile and unlikely life is. I see personal meaning and beauty in life. So where is the disconnect between atheism and dignity?
All logical arguments for morality assume that human thriving, happiness and dignity are superior to contrary views. The strict framework of atheism does not allow for those starting points. So any person arguing for 1 or 2 would not be a good atheist. That is, he lives in contradiction to the mandates of his worldview.
Just read the above again... Seriously, it's like he's thinks his hogwash will become true if he repeats it enough times. Additionally, Rick strikes me as someone who's never bothered to seriously and openly listen to non-theistic explanations for morality. I've written about natural morality previously, but it seems a refresher is needed... Empathy, group benefit and social benefit all combine to neatly explain why social creatures like ourselves have developed morality. Additionally, tit-for-tat, can provide additional selfish motivation.

In fact, I don't think it's too far of a stretch to say that empathy alone, can have the power to explain morality in the absence of a law giving god.

So no, arguing for points 1 or 2 would not make someone a 'bad' atheist, or mean they live in contradiction to their worldview. Remember, he has an incredibly flawed idea of what an atheist is, and has arbitrarily defined 'worldview' to fit his agenda. Because of this, his claims are quite false. If we were to play by his rules and claim that they show that there are no good atheists, then the very same method would also leave us with the conclusion that there are no good Christians. Is he okay with that?
Intelligent people ask serious questions. Serious questions deserve serious answers. There are few questions more serious than the one I'm asking. How do we explain objective meaning and morality that we know are true? If a worldview can't answer this question, it doesn't deserve you.
One sign that your worldview may be a crutch is that it has to appeal to an answer outside itself -- becoming self-contradictory, unable to reasonably account for the question. Any atheist who recognizes objective meaning and morality defies the atheism that he contends is true.
Kind of like how a Christian worldview may appeal to the Bible? Guess that one is also self-contradictory? Oh, and one more false claim about atheism... I almost expect one in every other paragraph now.

But there's one major point that Rick is simply assuming. Objective morality and meaning are not things that we 'all know are true'. In fact, I've never heard an example of a purely objective morality. The Bible doesn't have one. Biblical morality is apparently based on what God thinks is good or bad. It's his opinion, and is thus subjective. This is proven when we see God change his mind in the Bible. First it's just dandy to kill those other tribes. Then Moses gets a handy iSlate that tells everyone that killing people is a no-no. Then God suspends that again when telling his people to gloriously slaughter some other city of people. If something like murder can flip-flop, that's pretty damn

But it's actually a good thing that the Bible doesn't contain an objective morality. If it did slavery would still be perfectly fine. If a moral is objective, it can never change. Since the Bible condoned slavery then, it would still be condoned today.

But that is something great about subjective morality. Since it can change, it can right past wrongs. It was the fluid, subjective nature of morality that allowed us to end slavery in the United States. Subjective morality can be great, so long as it is reasoned subjective morality. Remember that logic fact check I mentioned earlier. This is where it can come into play. By combining logic and reason with our subjective form of morality, we can determine if a proposed change would help or hurt, or even if it is nothing more than a greedy power grab.

So, no... By Henderson's standards there are no 'good' atheists. But then there's no 'good' Christians then either. Instead of trying to create and knockdown straw-men in an attempt to make the Christian stance appear superior, how about we stick to the facts, and stay away from the dishonest and misleading games Rick is playing. Lets sit down, have a dialog, and just do our best to make the world a better place. Atheist and theist alike,pushing egos aside to protect and improve our subjective moral standards for the good of all. Is that too much to ask?

-Brain Hulk

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1 comment:

  1. our preferences do not determine good or evil, because we don’t know the circumstances of everything and every intent a person has, because we don’t know everyone’s thoughts. And many people have different ideas about what is right and wrong, or if morality is an illusion or not. There’s no way to test and experiment with a persons intentions to determine empirically if it’s the correct standard for morality. Secular morality is contradictory.