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Apr 19 2014

A Response to Damon Linker

The Week’s Damon Linker has an article up about how Atheism isn’t the answer. What the question is? I don’t really know. Maybe it’s the human condition he refers to. Well Mr. Linker is rather wrong.

Atheism is merely the absence  of a god. WIthout a god, you have to chose how you live your life. Most choose wisely and productively despite there being no objective point to being alive.

In my last column, I examined some of the challenges facing religion today. Those challenges are serious. But that doesn’t mean that atheism has the upper hand. On the contrary, as I’veargued many times before, atheism in its currently fashionable form is an intellectual sham. As Exhibit 653, I give you Jerry Coyne’s latest diatribe in TheNew Republic, which amounts to a little more than an inadvertent confession that he’s incapable of following a philosophical argument.

The thing is, it’s easy to claim that Atheism is a sham. It’s really quite simple. There are no gods. Why? Because there is no evidence for any and frankly living our lives assuming one exists and that he really hates gays, idol worshippers and beef is really stupid.

That’s really it.

What we do with this is what is different. Some chose to just live their lives out without wasting time raging against the machine. Some protect the rights of women and the GLBT who are so often the victims of religious rule making. Being an atheist isn’t the end of what you are. It’s the start. Remember to some people being a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim defines them in a huge way. When we lose that capacity to define who and what we are we replace it with secular versions.

I am not just an atheist. I am much more than that. So are most people who don’t believe. And indeed who do believe.

Atheism shouldn’t be wholly identified with the confusions of its weakest exponents any more than we should reduce religious belief to the fulminations of fundamentalists. Yet when it comes to certain issues, the quality of the arguments doesn’t much matter. The fact is that there are specific human experiences that atheism in any form simply cannot explain or account for. One of those experiences is radical sacrifice — and the feelings it elicits in us.

It’s called altruism and is widely  seen in society. It has no divine origin, no hand of god. It exists because we are a social species and our future survival of our society is in our children. In the game of life we are the pawns, the children are the king. We trade our lives for them so that one day they will trade their lives for their kids.

We are a K-selected species, fighting to defend our expensive and unique offspring is ingrained because we do not make that many of them. It’s our survival strategy. Few Children with High Survival. Had we been a species that spawned like turtles, then altruism would not be as common.

From a young age we are trained to not be alone. In fact one of the key developmental milestones is “playing around others” and that develops into “playing WITH others”. We pride ourselves as individuals but the joke is you are just another brick in the wall. But what a wall it is.

We make tiny sacrifices every day. We sacrifice time, we sacrifice little slices of eternity to help others. I do this on a large scale. In fact right now, that is all I do. It isn’t due to something divine but due to something all human beings are capable.

Think of a soldier who throws herself on a live grenade to save her comrades. Or a firefighter who enters a blaze to rescue a child knowing that he will likely perish in the effort.

None of these things are due to a divine drive. The soldier does so because he wishes to protect his friends.

No… His brothers. An old Army joke is that the Army is your family now. And the men around you are brothers. Brotherhood is a common theme in soldiers. A lot of soldiering is creating brotherhood and the most successful armies had this. The soldier who leaps on a grenade does not do so out of a divine force but an unconscious decision to do something that will save the lives of his fellow soldiers.

And in some cases? Soldiers walk away such as Lance Corporal Matt Croucher who smothered a grenade with his body and his backpack. He flew a fair distance but he survived with a bloody nose, a George Cross and being the only man I know to ever attempt a rocket jump.

The Firefighter? He fights fires. It’s his damn job. He is paid to do so. He is trained to do so. And we save children because yet again we forget that they are our future and each one is a guarantee of a stronger future for others. And the risk is calculated. Firefighters don’t charge blindly into buildings.

Or consider Thomas S. Vander Woude, the subject of an unforgettable 2011 article by the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg. One day in September 2008, Vander Woude’s 20-year-old son Josie, who has Down syndrome, fell through a broken septic tank cover in their yard. The tank was eight feet deep and filled with sewage. After trying and failing to rescue his son by pulling on his arm from above, Vander Woude jumped into the tank, held his breath, dove under the surface of the waste, and hoisted his son onto his shoulders. Josie was rescued a few minutes later. By then his 66-year-old father was dead.

This is something that any father, atheist or believer, might do for his son. But only the believer can make sense of the deed.

No, we can too. We do amazing things for those we love. I have seen parents starve for their children. Not because of some divine beast but because we are human beings and we can feel love and camaraderies and hope and work together just as much as we can be fractured.

The sense? Are you suggesting that a divine sky wizard who claims to love us created Down’s Syndrome and “blessed “Josie with it and then didn’t intervene when that grate broke, nor did he help pull anyone out of the tank. His father died drowing in sewage and you think this is the glorious action of a divine creature?

I don’t hold myself to any moral code that is superior and I agree that my moral code is a work in progress but I know enough that if I had the capacity to intervene I would have taken a few minutes to reinforce a septic tank grill.

There is no divine propellant for Vander Woude’s sacrifice. Just a human one. The love of a father for his son. The love of one human for another. These are entrenched into us by a long and painful evolutionary history.

Pick your favorite non-theistic theory: Rational choice and other economically based accounts hold that people act to benefit themselves in everything they do. From that standpoint, Vander Woude — like the self-sacrificing soldier or firefighter — was a fool who incomprehensibly placed the good of another ahead of his own.

Other atheistic theories similarly deny the possibility of genuine altruism, reject the possibility offree will, or else, like some forms of evolutionary psychology, posit that when people sacrifice themselves for others (especially, as in the Vander Woude case, for their offspring) they do so in order to strengthen kinship ties, and in so doing maximize the spread of their genes throughout the gene pool.

But of course, as someone with Down syndrome, Vander Woude’s son is probably sterile and possesses defective genes that, judged from a purely evolutionary standpoint, deserve to die off anyway. So Vander Woude’s sacrifice of himself seems to make him, once again, a fool.

No, these are different issues. Vander Woude sacrificed his life so that his kid would live. His future. It doesn’t matter that his kid has Down’s Syndrome and probably will not have kids himself. What mattered in that moment was that Vander Woude’s kid was in danger. It isn’t a conscious decision. We actually have to tell parents to STOP fighting because in some cases this instinct is so powerful that in fighting the inevitable, parents hurt and put their kids through incredible suffering.

Remember Shere Khan was not killed by Mowgli but buffalo who are willing to charge and stomp the tar out of a stripey killing machine to protect their young. Because the risk of charging the deadly tiger is acceptable if it means their kids will live another day. This is a real behaviour from buffalo who will form an impenetrable wall of angry super cow between the weakest members of the herd and the predator with the threat of being gored by a tonne of angry super cow and then kicked to pieces by his mates.

And these aren’t smart animals. The plan is very simple. Fuck Up That Predator as a Group. There is little strategy to it. It’s just brutally effective when you are nearly a tonne and pissed off.

These are angry super cows and they behave in this way. If we anthropomorphised their emotions we would use words like sacrifice (many of these angry super cows charge out only to run into an ambush and get eaten.) and bravery and love. What it really is? Is a survival strategy. An effective one because there are still little angry super cows romping about with each generation a little more angrier and stompier than the last. Buffalo are like us. Ants are like us. Chimpanzees are REALLY like us. We aren’t unique in this behaviour.

The best example are nature’s suicide bomber. Bees. They die to defend the hive. What benefit does the individual bee have in this deal? None. But the hive survives. What counts are not the drones but the future of the hive.

Society is our hive. Sometimes we make decision like the bee. Our personal survival for that of society as a whole.

It is sad to consider ourselves a brick in a wall. But don’t be. There are negative connotations to this, but are we not a group species? Do we not talk to each other? Form bonds and relationships? With the way our world is changing we are seeing bonds and friendships forming across the world. Isn’t society the wall we all hold up?

We didn’t tear down the wall, we changed what it means to be a brick.

And what it means to be a brick will change even more as we learn that bricks can be different. The wall is changing too.

Things are no better in less extreme cases. If Josie were a genius, his father’s sacrifice might be partially explicable in evolutionary terms — as an act designed to ensure that his own and his son’s genes survive and live on beyond them both. But the egoistic explanation would drain the act of its nobility, which is precisely what needs to be explained.

Because the evolutionary pressure doesn’t really differentiate between children’s potential for changing the world but on the fact that they are your children irrespective of rational survivability. There are parents who insist that their child will live  despite having lost 95% of their brain function and where the only thing keeping the child functional is the technology of life support.

Not because they are irrational, but because there is a major benefit to defending children to the death without differentiating between their potential survivability. What matters is that there is a child, it is yours and therefore you will do anything to make sure it stays alive.

There is no need for nuance, the number of people who die “pointlessly” to save non-viable human beings is rather small. And in many cases? Both survive.

We feel moved by Vander Woude’s sacrifice precisely because it seems selfless — the antithesis of evolutionary self-interestedness.

Actually it is because we have always put self sacrifice for the greater good on a pedestal (sometimes literally) and encourage the act of selfless service to a greater cause. It has been evolutionarily beneficial for people to display their valour in such ways. What we see here is a tragic misrepresentation of human evolution.

Our evolution has never been as individuals. We have never prevailed over the elements and our predators through brute strength but through cooperation, cunning, technology and guile.

It has been society that has let us survive. Our survival as a social group is much higher than if we were individuals.

But why is that? What is it about the story of a man who willingly embraces a revolting, horrifying death in order to save his son that moves us to tears? Why does it seem somehow, like a beautiful painting or piece of music, a fleeting glimpse of perfection in an imperfect world?

I’d say that only theism offers an adequate explanation — and that Christianity might do the best job of all.

Clearly? Because divine duty and love is not a concept in Hinduism! Oh wait! It is. It’s also something in nearly every religion out there.

Christianity teaches that the creator of the universe became incarnate as a human being, taught humanity (through carefully constructed lessons and examples of his own behavior) how to become like God, and then allowed himself to be unjustly tried, convicted, punished, and killed in the most painful and humiliating manner possible — all as an act of gratuitous love for the very people who did the deed.

Really? And we can think of no other death that is as horrific as crucifixion? Such as the fevered tortures of the Inquisition or the Nazis? Or even the simple cruelty  of modern men who stone people to death or indeed of Nirbhaya who died in such a gruesome manner. Really? Are we just outright declaring old JC to be the winner of this idiotic argument? That literally hundreds if not thousands of people who died in this fashion are somehow less divine than one Jewish dude?

Hell what about pre-Jesus? Stories of Self Sacrifice predate Jesus. Hell the entire logic of human sacrifice in the Aztec faith was based on gods that sacrificed themselves to create the world of the Aztecs. Does Linker think there were no “Band of Brothers” pre-Jesus? Does he think that there was no tales of such sacrifice pre-Jesus?

There is one very famous tale told among Western Europe. I speak of The Defence of the Bridge. How many of us know of Horatio and  Lartius and Herminius. The men who held the Pons Sublicus and defended Rome. Three. JUST Three men against an Army.

To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods,

This event pre-dates the rise of Rome as a global super power. And it predates Jesus by a good 600 years. It’s laughable that Linker thinks that Jesus was the only reason we uphold sacrifice.

Why does Vander Woude’s act of sacrifice move us? Maybe because in freely dying for his son, he gives us a fleeting glimpse of the love that moves the sun and the other stars.

I think the Sun and Stars move due to physics rather than love. In fact I am sure most of the life on the planet is powered by nuclear fusion and fundamental forces. And it’s been a while since I read physics but I am sure love is not one of them.

And this is labouring under the notion that the Christian has a direct guideline to what is right and wrong. Which is nonsensical considering we still are arguing about whether or not it was wrong for priests to molest children. Hell just a few hundred years ago, Christians had an extensive conflict that killed millions over many things. One of those was whether or not slavery was right and just and both side cited the Bible. Whether Slave Owners had a moral obligation  to act against their self interest. Most did not.

We still argue over abortion, freedom of speech, freedom of belief, separation of church and state and GLBT rights because Christians themselves cannot form a unified idea about what isn’t and is moral and right and good.

We die for others because we love them, not because we were divinely made to do so.

Which is to say, he gives us a fleeting glimpse of God.

No, he gives us a very long glimpse at what it means to be a human being. We merely created the gods to emulate the ideals we wish to aspire to. That there are people willing to do this to save the ones they love, not because they were ordered but because they genuinely want to help and protect those they love.

That might sound outlandish to atheists. But for my money, it comes closer to the truth, and does more to explain the otherwise irreducibly mysterious experience of noble sacrifice than any competing account.

It’s only irreducibly mysterious because you declared it so and ignored any attempts to explain it.

The only reason it explains it to you is that you want there to be something inherent and powerful and magical as the reason for the actions we consider “good”. What you fear is that these things are mundane. That they are normal.

That we all are capable of this.

Don’t buy it? I dare you to come up with something better.

What Vander Woude did was to show us what it means to be human. We are cockroaches. Nothing can stop us, we are survivors. One human is a plethora of knowledge and tools, a bunch of us is unstoppable. We don’t deal with problems by  simply dying until on of us evolves. We are the only species that became an active predator of it’s own predators. And we were so effective WE are an extinction level event. We are terrible and terrifying because it is not strength that defines us by  imagination, drive, cunning and intelligence. We understood the game of evolution and played it to win it. We are the Moneyball team. Physically Weak, Average Eyesight, Unarmed, Hairless, Slow. We built tools that made up for every weakness and surpassed the tools created by millenia of evolution. We evolved to make tools and use them.

And we didn’t do this on our own. We did this as a social group and this meant we had to be altruistic. We had to be social. We had to be kind and gentle. We had to cooperate. We had to love.

We had to sacrifice for society. We had to sacrifice for each other. Because that is how we survive. We would never have learnt to hunt our predators if we didn’t fight and risk death to protect each other. Do you think we would have come so far if we didn’t have this ingrained into us? You may think such a sacrifice is sullied because it’s a biological impulse? So what? A smile is a biological impulse too, does that mean comedians are not talented?

Vander Woulde showed ideals we hold to high esteem as humans because they were always essential to survival. And that makes him a human being. That is the highest honour we can bestow on anyone. And it’s something we all can be.

10 comments

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  1. 1
    Marcus Ranum

    Vander Woude jumped into the tank, held his breath, dove under the surface of the waste, and hoisted his son onto his shoulders

    Good thing he didn’t just pray.

  2. 2
    steffp

    These people seem to live in an echo chamber: Damon Linker knows about Van der Woude because he lives in the same bubble as him, and thinks it’s an exceptionally rare thing. Well, regarding the example of the Christian divine father towards his son it sure is.
    A simple Google search would have told him it’s a global phenomenon: “Father saves Son” returns 635 million articles. If you google “Jesus Christ”, you get less results…

    The fact is that there are specific human experiences that atheism in any form simply cannot explain or account for. One of those experiences is radical sacrifice — and the feelings it elicits in us.
    In fact, atheism cannot be made accountable for flying, you know, Boeings into skyscrapers, donning suicide vests before attending a wedding, and going on shooting sprees in Luxury Hotels. I must say that I’m quite glad about that.

  3. 3
    coffeehound

    That might sound outlandish to atheists. But for my money, it comes closer to the truth, and does more to explain the otherwise irreducibly mysterious experience of noble sacrifice than any competing account.

    Wonderful. We’ve started with the irreducibly complex and we’ve progressed to the irreducibly mysterious.
    As Avicenna has shown, there are actually excellent explanations for altruism in even simple societies and Linker still chooses to ignore them to be able to engage in reductio ad absurdum to make his own appeal to ignorance seem reasonable. His argument is as old as man’s existence and as flawed.
    Well, I choose to believe in Thor when I hear thunder; scientists don’t have an answer for it, what with all their cold empiricist tools like their fancy “meteorology”. Thunder, how the f**k does it work? Thor does more to explain the irreducible mysteriousosity, and for my money comes closer to the truth than any competing account (that I’ll cop to).

  4. 4
    brianpansky

    what an ignorant fuck. they always try to tell us what an atheist must be like, and they have no idea.

  5. 5
    torbjornlarsson

    I like how Linker, like the fundamentalist creationists do reflexively albeit belatedly, takes the accusation (that religion is a sham) and throws it back at the offender. That is all the revealing we need.

    As for Hart, it seems the consensus comes down to him a) being a simpler version of Deepak, sans quantum thrown in now and then, and b) despite that doing a good job of distilling all faith down to pantheism.

    So when we reject Harts bafflegab, and we can since his ‘evidence’ for his magic seems to be recycled creationist garbage, we reject all of religion from “Sophisticated Theology” to unsophisticated fundamentalism.

  6. 6
    johnmarley

    What Vander Woude did was to show us what it means to be human. We are cockroaches. Nothing can stop us, we are survivors. One human is a plethora of knowledge and tools, a bunch of us is unstoppable. We don’t deal with problems by simply dying until on of us evolves. We are the only species that became an active predator of it’s own predators. And we were so effective WE are an extinction level event. We are terrible and terrifying because it is not strength that defines us by imagination, drive, cunning and intelligence. We understood the game of evolution and played it to win it. We are the Moneyball team. Physically Weak, Average Eyesight, Unarmed, Hairless, Slow. We built tools that made up for every weakness and surpassed the tools created by millenia of evolution. We evolved to make tools and use them.
    And we didn’t do this on our own. We did this as a social group and this meant we had to be altruistic. We had to be social. We had to be kind and gentle. We had to cooperate. We had to love.
    We had to sacrifice for society. We had to sacrifice for each other. Because that is how we survive. We would never have learnt to hunt our predators if we didn’t fight and risk death to protect each other. Do you think we would have come so far if we didn’t have this ingrained into us? You may think such a sacrifice is sullied because it’s a biological impulse? So what? A smile is a biological impulse too, does that mean comedians are not talented?
    Vander Woulde showed ideals we hold to high esteem as humans because they were always essential to survival. And that makes him a human being. That is the highest honour we can bestow on anyone. And it’s something we all can be.

    This is so much better than I have been able to express. Is it okay if I use it?

  7. 7
    lorn

    As I understand it, I’ve read it multiple times in learned books on the subject, that the Romans considered crucifixion to be a comparatively easy death. The victims were pretty commonly hung up in the morning and killed with a spear at nightfall. Their bodies would then be left to rot.

    As bad as that sounds it is pretty much preferable to some other common methods of execution. Being roasted, either tied to a post with a small fire at your well oiled feet, or hung over a slow fire in an iron cage could take days to kill you. Human remains, in one case an unknown male in his twenties, showed that his legs had been roasted until the meat fell off, as evidenced by the charring of the bone, but that he survived for some time after because the bone showed some amount of regrowth before he died.

    Earlier in his military career Julius Cesar was captured by pirates and ransomed He he came back and had the pirates killed. He wrote that because he was treated well they should be killed by crucifixion instead of a slower and more painful method. The Romans had “death by slow torture” set aside for people who they really wanted to suffer. It was claimed that people could suffer for months before dying. The Romans made something of an art out of making people suffer.

    Nothing particularly special about noble sacrifice. Females of many species are known to risk their lives, either by fighting or drawing off predators, to protect their young.

  8. 8
    Kiwi Dave

    Here are two more examples of radical self-sacrifice giving us a glimpse of a god we’d all want to worship. I’d offer them to Linker to support his argument, but can’t see a comments section, so put them here.

    1) Kamikaze pilots flying their planes into US warships 70 years ago.
    2) Jihadis flying planes into US buildings 13 years ago.

  9. 9
    Al Dente

    Shorter Linker: Religion makes me think my life has a meaning and Jebus is the bestest religion evah! Atheists are big meanies for not letting Jebus give meaning to their lives.

  10. 10
    kcrady

    Where would a monotheistic god get an ability to love, or sacrifice itself for another? By definition, such an entity is inherently, metaphysically solitary. Perhaps it could create lesser beings to interact with, but it cannot ever create or find one of its own kind. Where would it get an ability or need to interact with other beings? In its “natural” state (prior to any creative acts), there are no other beings, and nowhere for it to get a concept of “other beings.” If the mono-god is “metaphysically necessary” or some such, then it is invulnerable by nature. It could not genuinely risk or give its life for another even if it wanted to. In its “natural” state, it could have no concept of “danger” or “pain,” so whence would come a desire or willingness to endure such things on anyone else’s behalf? Where would it get a concept of morality or ethics? Nothing can be “good” or “bad” for an entity that has no needs and cannot be harmed or diminished in any way. The virtues Linker wants to credit his god with are not even applicable to such an entity. If it ever wanted to acquire them, it would have to acquire them from beings to whom they are applicable, even necessary: it would have to learn them from us, or creatures like us.

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