The problem of purpose

I want to continue looking at the Bad Catholic’s post at Patheos because there’s a lot of interesting stuff there. Like this introduction:

Any philosophy that claims that there exists nothing supernatural cannot grant purpose to suffering.

If some natural, secular purpose could be granted to the man suffering, then his pain would cease to be suffering and begin to be useful pain.

He goes on to compare the young athlete’s muscular aches and pains, endured for the sake of fitness, with the inescapable aches and pains of old age, as an example of useful pain versus pointless suffering. In order to be suffering, he says, suffering “requires the lack of a natural, secular answer.” And by “answer” he means “a good reason”—some overriding benefit good enough to justify the means used to achieve it.

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Meanwhile, over at Patheos

I stopped by the Patheos web site to see how some of my former FtB co-bloggers were doing (they seem to be doing well, I’m pleased to say), and I spotted this post, under the heading, “Answer This, Atheists!” The blogger’s name is Marc, his blog is called “Bad Catholic” (great name), and the full title of his actual post is “An Attempt to Explain Christianity to Atheists In a Manner That Might Not Freak Them Out” (not so great name). He introduces his subject with the following preface.

Between being told that Christianity is a system of oppression, a complex way to justify burning with hatred over the existence of gay people, and a general failure of the human intellect, I begin to suspect that few people know why Christians exist at all. This is my attempt to explain why I am a Christian.

Any philosophy that claims that there exists nothing supernatural cannot grant purpose to suffering.

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What you are, not what you aren’t

I have to say, I’m tremendously encouraged by the emergence of a new “Atheism+” movement as the logical outgrowth of the New Atheist movement. The problem with atheism (if you’ll pardon me phrasing it in those terms) is that it’s a definition based on what you’re not, or in other words on the things you don’t do. That’s a negative beacon. Sure, it draws in people who have thought things over, and rejected superstition based on reason and evidence, but it also draws in people who disbelieve in God as part of a larger pattern of antisocial attitudes, as well as people who reject religion as a way of drawing attention to themselves.

Atheism+ is a much needed refinement of the original raw idea. It’s not enough just to disbelieve in God for whatever good or bad reasons you might have. To be part of this new movement, we need to be atheists PLUS we need to be decent people committed to making life better for ourselves and those around us. And that means breaking down all the pernicious vices by which we oppress and destroy one another: superstition, patriarchy, bigotry, sexism, racism—whatever penalizes the innocent in order to profit the privileged.

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Causes, creations and preconditions

I’ve been following Russell Glasser’s online discussion with Pastor Stephen Feinstein, in which the latter claims that he can prove that “atheism is untenable, irrational, and ultimately impossible.” By mutual agreement, it’s a public discussion between just those two parties, but I can’t resist the temptation to supply a little offside commentary, because it looks like Pastor Stephen has made a misstep already, in only his second post.

It is not good enough for me to say, “Russell, I agree with you that this world is real, that we learn from the senses, that reasonable standards are necessary, and that bald assertion fails to prove anything.” By the way, I agree with you on all of these things, but with one revision. However, I want us to account for these things. What are the necessary preconditions of this universe, as we know it? Why are we able to rely on our senses? What are the necessary preconditions for our senses to be reliable? Why must there be reasonable standards? What are the necessary preconditions for any standards at all that avoids the hopelessness of relativity? Epistemology will help us construct workable lists of what things are necessary in order to make these assumptions of ours a reality. Furthermore, we cannot even take epistemology for granted, but must ask what are the necessary preconditions of it too? And at the end of the day, atheism cannot provide for these necessary preconditions.

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Gospel Disproof #48: A Christmas story

I’m currently re-reading the Terry Pratchett Discworld series, and have made it as far as Hogfather, Pratchett’s decidedly warped perspective on old Father Christmas (or as we Americans would call him, Santa). For some reason this reminded me of a famous quote: “If you understand why you do not believe in everyone else’s gods, then you’ll understand why I do not believe in yours.” It’s pithy, but imperfect, because so many believers have really warped reasons for rejecting other gods. (Justin Martyr, for instance, once explained to Caesar that Jupiter and the other Roman deities were really demons pretending to be gods, in order to lead people to hell.)

With that in mind, I’d like to propose an updated version of the original quote: once you understand why you do not believe in Santa, you’ll understand why I do not believe in Jesus. I know, it’s flawed too (don’t try it on Jews or Muslims, for example). But I think it might be a bit more effective with Christians than the original.

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Perfect atheism

Now here‘s an interesting perspective:

A perfect atheist is one for whom god never comes up. They never talk about it, they don’t go to meetings or read books about it, they never use the word “atheist” to describe themselves, and they aren’t rebelling against anything.

They just live their lives guided by internal and external morals and desires, directing themselves towards tangible, terrestrial goals. They find community in friends in their daily lives and online. The big spiritual questions are simply not relevant – they aren’t interested in being a soldier in the war between Dawkins and god. These are the millennial Nones.

I think the writer is guilty of just a bit of band-wagon jumping when he slams Dawkins and Hitchens as old-school traditional atheists. But, that said, there’s something intriguing about the idea of a new generation that finds religion neither right nor wrong but simply irrelevant.

The third option

As a few people have pointed out, there’s something missing from my discussion of religion as the leading source of atheism. I said that when you find a mistake in your religion, you have two options: either leave the church, or become a hypocrite. The possibility of correcting the church’s error is not really an option, because the church’s whole authority system is predicated on the assumption that it cannot make any mistakes in the first place. Acknowledging the existence of an error means admitting that the church’s authority is based on a false premise.

Some people suggested that the third option is to start a new religion, or at least create a schism, but I would include that as a sub-category under the heading of leaving your old religion. When you start a new religion, or a new branch of the old one, you’re saying in effect that the old one is wrong and therefore you’re leaving it. I got to see this a lot in the Church of Christ: each half of the church split would promptly declare that the other half was on its way to hell, because they were rejecting the Bible’s plain declaration that _______ (fill in the blank: “communion is/isn’t one cup”,”missionary societies are/aren’t a permissible means of spreading the gospel”, etc). You may be staying within the broad outlines of religion, but you’re leaving your original faith.

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The leading cause of atheism

The other day I watched an Orthodox Jew engage in a little ritual that struck me as being strikingly pointless. No doubt it had some point in the ancient past, or was at least thought to have a point. But it was pointless—a trivial, superstitious obsession institutionalized into the whole Orthodox lifestyle. And that got me thinking. Here’s somebody’s silly little superstition, that somehow got attached to the religion, and now the religion can’t get rid of it. For thousands of years, they’ve been stuck with it, even when it ceased to make any sense. And there’s nothing they can do about it, because the core of the religious worldview is the supreme authority of tradition. Whatever was believed and practiced in the past is, by definition, the truth. Any attempt to amend it or remove part of it must be apostasy. Hence, religion is not only lacking a way to correct its errors and deficiencies, the very nature of religion is antithetical to the possibility of improvement. To be improvable, religion must first admit that it does not possess the infallibility upon which its authority and existence depend.

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The rest of the [back]story

Like I said yesterday, I decided in my mid-teens that I was going to follow God no matter what men said about Him, and that more than anything else led to my eventual rejection of Christianity. When you try to go beyond what men say about God, to the reality behind the words, you discover that the words are all there is to the reality. Superstition and subjective feelings reinforce the words, but when it comes down to the substance of the faith, it’s just words.

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