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Aug 24 2013

“Investigating Atheism”

So, my aggregator is weird; I’ll completely miss stuff from here at FtB, but find something from halfway across the world on a user-generated news forum… this is one of those latter times. The News24 people in Cape Town, South Africa have such a user-generated section, and in it, a regular commenter is trying to understand atheism.

After posting similar questions on the comment section, I decided to take it a bit further. I just need to understand the atheist stand point more. I am looking for honest answers on the below questions. Also take time to really think of the answers before you start answering.
1. Where do you come from?
2. What is your purpose on earth?
3. Does life have a meaning?
4. What is just and fair for you?
5. God forbids, if your child is murdered and the person is never caught and brought to justice, how would you handle it, seeing that life has no meaning and we are just here on earht to live and die. Where would you get justice from?
6. An intelligent, thinking child brought up by atheist parents becomes a Christian how do you respond? Oh and becomes preacher and starts a new church, would you say your child has a problem?
7. What about all the injustice in the world that goes by unreported, where must everyone else get justice from?
8. How do you answer your own child that is searching for meaning and purpose in life?
9. Why does research, discovery, diplomacy, art, music, sacrifice, compassion, feelings of love, or affectionate and caring relationships mean anything if it all ultimately comes to naught anyway?
10. Is death the end of life?

Yes, some of the questions are insulting, but it’s possible this person is really actually trying to understand. Assuming that, then, honest answers might be the best way to replace insulting stereotypes with actual understanding. My own answers, after the jump:

1) A poorly-phrased question, this one is, with multiple answers. I come from unstable nothingness. I come from exploding stars. I come from an unfathomably long and improbable series of accidents. I come from my parents, my community, my culture, my history.

Every one of these answers can be supported with evidence that independent observers can agree on. Your answer was “created by God.” Even religious believers have a tough time agreeing on which god created what, how, and when.

2) Another bad question—if you mean “ultimate purpose”, there is none. If you mean my own purposes, it is to make the world a better place for those I love. The nice thing is, the best way to do this is to make the world a better place for everyone—and to choose long-term goodness whenever possible (which means, sometimes, tightening one’s belt and working a bit harder in the short term).

Your answer was “to glorify God and to serve God.” Does this mean you would choose your faith over your fellow humans, over your family, if it came to that? Do you know His purpose for you? (The restaurant industry gives livestock a purpose to serve; having a purpose imposed by some powerful outside interest is not always a good thing.)

3) Life has many meanings; we imbue life with meaning, and live our lives in accordance with the meanings we construct. To learn, to give pleasure, to receive pleasure, to create beauty, to continue the family line, or to serve some philosophical position, including a religion.

You answer “yes, life has a meaning”, but do not elaborate. Do you give your life meaning? Do you think that your life would be meaningless without your god? What sort of meaning does a god give your life?

4) Justice and fairness are both human constructs, based on the notion of repayment. If I break your window, I should replace it. If I steal your money, I should return it. If I kill your loved one, though, this is a debt I cannot repay—even the loss of my own life does not return your loved one. Even if there actually was a Hell, eternal damnation would not bring back your loved one. This is why it is imperative that we do our best to have peace and harmony in our world—because justice and fairness are, at times, impossible once an act has been committed.

You answer that you “will refer to God.” I don’t know whether you mean as a good example or a bad one, but the notion of eternal torment for a finite sin is hardly fair or just. Worse, the idea that “God will deliver justice” leaves humanity off the hook, and allows us to shirk our responsibility to one another. (Worse than hell? Yes—hell is fictional; our world is real.)

5) As I said before, there can be no justice when a child is murdered. There is no fairness. There will be no reunion in heaven; there will be no magic. Wishing for some sort of punishment after life is nothing but a revenge fantasy. There is no good news in your example, with or without a god. There is grief, and there is mourning… and there should be.

Your question includes a slander against atheists, by the way. You write “seeing that life has no meaning and we are just here on earht (sic) to live and die.” This presupposes quite a different view than my answers to your questions 2 and 3. Do you honestly think that your life would be meaningless without your god? If so, I honestly pity you.

And really, while I can understand your desire to see the perpetrator punished, that is revenge, not justice. That does not repay the debt taken from you, whether the state or your god metes out the punishment. And while I, myself, might well want to punish the person who took my child from me, I have no illusion that there is any justice in this. It’s too late for anything to be fair about it. If this person’s punishment prevents that person or another from similar actions, that punishment is worthwhile… but it is not justice.

I honestly do not understand your answer; an omnipotent god could return your child to you, but you consider “just” the faith that your god will judge your child’s murderer? Again, this is revenge; you are hurting, and you want the murderer to hurt, too—none of this repays your loss.

6) I would not put my child to death, Old Testament style, if that’s what you are asking. I happen to have a great relationship with my grown kids; we are perfectly comfortable debating things we have differences of opinion on. While your scenario is vanishingly unlikely, I respect my kids enough to listen to them (and vice versa).

I have no idea whether my child would return from god or not, but this is my kid you’re talking about, and my kid is always welcome at home.

Your answer is strange—the question was not about your child answering to god, but rather about your own reaction. It sounds rather unnervingly like you don’t love your child as unconditionally as you love your god.

7) See answer 5. There is no justice after death, and so it is imperative that we make the world as good a place as we can, to prevent the sort of things that make us long for the comforting illusion of “god’s justice.”

Your answer illustrates this perfectly. What reason would you have to improve society? As the t-shirt says, “kill ‘em all; let God sort ‘em out.”

8) See questions 2 and 3. As I said, my children are adults now, and are wonderful, productive, compassionate, intelligent people.

Your answer is incomplete. You see, they will find out that people disagree about what God says. This is why there are thousands (or tens of thousands, depending on how you define them) of religious sects in today’s world, and many more that have gone extinct. If your children “turn to God” for answers, they will find that God approves and disapproves of same sex marriage; that God approves and disapproves of war; that God approves and disapproves of abortion; that God approves and disapproves of pork, or shrimp, or beef, or mermaid; that God approves and disapproves of pretty much any issue of any importance, so they might find themselves in the position of having to think for themselves. If they turn to God and get a bad answer, what then?

And if you, yourself, turn to God, and He tells you to kill your child (hey, it’s happened before), would you obey?

9) This is less a question than a thinly veiled insult. You presuppose your (wrong) answers to my ideas (see above) of life, and (once again, wrongly) assume that “research, discovery, diplomacy, art, music, sacrifice, compassion, feelings of love, or affectionate and caring relationships” are meaningless if done for any reason other than to glorify your god. You do not explain why it is that those things are meaningful under your worldview but not under mine. You neglect to consider the fact that each of those things impacts the real world—the one we live in—and that even if your god exists, those things over the course of all of human history would amount to the blink of an eye in his eternal view. Are those things, which are so important to our mortal world, nothing more than passing, trivial amusements for your god?

You answer (wrongly) that this question can only be answered by an atheist. But, you see, I’ve never met any atheist who agreed with your presuppositions about the atheist view of life, and I have spoken with more than a handful of religious believers who are adamant that it simply must be our view. I’d argue that this question can only be answered by someone who agrees with the presupposition… So, would love really mean nothing to you if it were not somehow ultimately for the benefit of your god? If so, I pity you again, but not as much as I pity your family.

10) Yes and no. In the sense of “my individual life”, yes, my death is the end of my life. Mind you, I will still influence others for a while, so long as my words stick around, so long as my friends, family, and students continue to work for notions I gave them. My brother is dead; I will never see him again. But I speak about him every semester, and my students—who have never met him—continue to be influenced by his good work (which he did, in part, because he was an atheist, and knew that there was no god to do the hard work for us).

In another sense, life does not so much begin and end as it continues. The cells that united to form us were themselves alive; the bacteria which will consume us are alive. Life began on this planet over three and a half billion years ago, and all of current life on Earth that we know of is related. That’s an unbroken chain, or series of interconnected chains, leading to each of us, with innumerable dead ends as well.

My life, in one sense, has already been passed to another generation; when I die, that’s it for me, but not for my life.

But no, there is no heaven nor hell, no afterlife in any sense but metaphor. All the wishing in the world won’t make them real.

So there they are. I’ll be trying to link this post to his thread… if you have your own answers, I’d love to see them both here and there.

For more or less the same thing, but with answers in verse, here ya go.

15 comments

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  1. 1
    DLC

    With no afterlife, there is no “there” to go to. It’s not immortality except being remembered by your friends and family after you’re gone.

  2. 2
    Sandy Small

    1. I generally would say Oakland, as I grew up there and live there presently; of course I could just as easily respond Berkeley, as I was born there, lived there as a very young child, and t’was where my parents’ gametes met. In a broader scope, the United States of America, planet earth, and bits of dead stars.

    2. This question presupposes I have a specific purpose, which I reject. One could make a case that it is to pass on a good chunk of my genes, which I think I’d like to do at some point, but it’s not something I devote much thought to. More pressing—and fulfilling—matters involve hanging out with people I love, watching, playing, and/or mixing live music, and working enough to live more or less comfortably.

    3. It has the meaning I give to it.

    4. Justice and fairness.
    I don’t mean to be terse, but that’s a huge metaethical question that doesn’t have a simple answer; unless of course you’re deliberately fishing for a soundbite along the lines of “whatever god says”.

    5. I reject those last few assertions. Anyway, hypothetically, as I have no children…I don’t know how I’d handle it. I could not believe that a magical man in the sky will punish the killer after death, and I think such beliefs serve somewhat to minimize the severity of the crime. Furthermore, as the child is simply dead and not “in a better place”, I would be entitled to the full scope of my grief without guilt about being “selfish”.

    6. I know that happens sometimes, for many reasons—plain contrarianism, unfamiliarity with the bullshit arguments made in support of theism (I’m looking at you, Pascal’s wager…), the enormous social pressure in the US and elsewhere to “get right with God”, and so forth. My response usually ranges from curiosity to eyerolling, but I don’t pathologize religion as the last part of the question suggests—I just think that they happen to believe things for terribly unsound reasons.

    7. It sucks. Sucks, sucks, sucks, sucks, sucks. I’m against it.

    8. It depends on what she or he is approaching me about specifically. In general, I would say that living well is entirely divorced from the dictates of millenia-old holy books, that monsters aren’t real, and that there are no magic men who get a say in what you eat, how you dress, who you love, what you do in bed (or in the shower, for that matter), when you work, or what you think.

    9. I’ll counter with another question, if I may: why are research, discovery, diplomacy, art, music, sacrifice, compassion, feelings of love, or affectionate and caring relationships meaningless if they don’t last forever?

    10. Yes.

  3. 3
    Al Dente

    1. Where do you come from?

    From my mommy and daddy. If you want to go further back we can discuss the Big Bang, the origin of the Solar System, abiogensis, evolution, and my grandparents.

    2. What is your purpose on earth?

    I don’t have a purpose other than that (or those) which I give myself.

    3. Does life have a meaning?

    Whichever meanings I give to it.

    4. What is just and fair for you?

    These are two separate concepts. Justice is having transgressions against me or others corrected and rectified. Fairness is equality in law and social opportunity. At this point I could get into a discussion of deontology (the ethics of judging the morality of action based on the adherence to rules, laws and mores) but I don’t feel like it.

    5. God forbids, if your child is murdered and the person is never caught and brought to justice, how would you handle it, seeing that life has no meaning and we are just here on earht to live and die. Where would you get justice from?

    I personally would be angry if my child’s murderer went unpunished but nature and nurture have given me the idea that crimes should be punished. I also know that many, many crimes go unpunished and society often doesn’t seem to care.

    6. An intelligent, thinking child brought up by atheist parents becomes a Christian how do you respond? Oh and becomes preacher and starts a new church, would you say your child has a problem?

    All of us have the moral and legal right to make decisions concerning our views on religion. I disagree with the religious views held by many in Western culture but then many in Western culture disagree with my views. I would not disown my child for rejecting my views.

    7. What about all the injustice in the world that goes by unreported, where must everyone else get justice from?

    As I said previously, the world is full of injustice. However I do not expect justice from an imaginary deity who, according to the Christian propaganda, is a thoroughly unjust creature. According to your own Bible, your god kills people just because he can. So if you, as a Christian, are looking for justice, don’t bother to expect any from your god because he doesn’t do justice. Instead, like me, you need to look to your society for justice.

    8. How do you answer your own child that is searching for meaning and purpose in life?

    I discuss my ideas and listen to my child’s ideas. That’s the whole concept of discussion. I don’t dictate my ideas to my child, unlike most religious leaders who insist they know what “God” wants from humanity. I’ve noticed that when God talks to people (or rather, when people claim God talks to them) that God has exactly the same opinions and prejudices as his mouthpiece. Do you think that’s a coincidence?

    9. Why does research, discovery, diplomacy, art, music, sacrifice, compassion, feelings of love, or affectionate and caring relationships mean anything if it all ultimately comes to naught anyway?

    Atheists are not nihilists. We have exactly the same hopes, fears, and concerns as the rest of humanity. The only difference between atheists and you is we don’t hope for an afterlife. As a result, we try to get the most out of the life we do have. For that matter, why do you care about research, discovery, etc.? You have the hope of sitting at the feet of a megalomaniac singing endless hymns of praise to him? Why don’t you kill yourself now so you’ll get to Heaven sooner?

    #9 is one of the rudest questions you can ask an atheist. You’re doubting my humanity just because I don’t share your delusion about a magical sky pixie.

    10. Is death the end of life?

    Yes. However we remain in the memories of those who knew us when we were alive. “Fame is fleeting, obscurity is forever.” -Napoleon Bonaparte

  4. 4
    machintelligence

    So many of the questions involve justice that I’ll answer this way: There is no justice — just us.

  5. 5
    Quodlibet

    Dear Dr. Cuttlefish,

    Thank you, a thousand times thank you, for this cogent essay. It is, simply put, one of the best arguments I’ve ever read for the rational, humanist, atheist perspective. Bookmarked. Whenever I’m challenged to explain how I can live without gods, I’ll just direct people here. And what a great read for anyone who might be struggling to lose religion; your essay shows the joy in choosing to live a rational, free, loving, all-embracing life.

    Atheism is often misconstrued as being an inwardly-focused perspective. But when atheism is elevated by a humanist approach, it’s just the opposite, as you said in your response to the “ultimate purpose” question: “…there is none. If you mean my own purposes, it is to make the world a better place for those I love. The nice thing is, the best way to do this is to make the world a better place for everyone—and to choose long-term goodness whenever possible.” The outlook you have presented embraces everyone and seeks to do good simply for the purpose of doing good and improving life for all. It is noble and right.

    I’m reading this on a Sunday morning….and I’m enjoying the small but pleasant irony of having experienced your essay rather like a sermon. :-) Would that it could be preached from every pulpit in the world!

    This essay was the first thing I read this morning. What a great start to my day!

    If I have time later, perhaps I’ll come back and share my own responses to those questions. Right now,
    I’m off to do some good and see what I can do about improving my little corner of the world. :-)

    thanks, good sir

    Q

  6. 6
    Michael Brew

    My answers were as follows:

    1. Two Harbors, Minnesota, USA, Earth, Sol System, Milky Way, Local Group, Universe.

    2. Depends on what you mean. I create my own purposes when I decide on my career, my hobbies, and my family choices. A major underlying purpose is to ensure that I am happy, which also necessitates making the people around me happy because when people around you aren’t happy, you are very unlikely to be happy, either. Other people also give me purpose. My boss wants me to finish all my work to keep the company running smoothly, my wife wants me to do the dishes, my parents want me to make something of myself. What I wonder is why you think having one more guy with designs on me adds anything more significant just because he has superpowers? Especially since this being never communicates directly with anyone, and I would have to intuit what this purpose is based on vague feelings and intuition that could come from anywhere.

    3. This is really the same as the above. My life has meaning because of the purpose I give it. One more or less being giving it meaning doesn’t really affect anything that much.

    4. If a debt is incurred it should be paid.

    5. Justice wouldn’t occur even if the murderer were caught. It wouldn’t occur if the murderer were sent to Hell, either. Sometimes injustice happens and it will never be repaid. Don’t just accept it, thinking some invisible force will handle it for you. Do something about it.

    6. I want my children to think for themselves and come to their own conclusions. If that’s what happened, then it’s fine. If they were taken in by emotional manipulation, false evidence, or some kind of bias (which has always been the case in all the cases I’ve seen) I would point it out and provide evidence for why their conclusion was wrong. If they still insisted on believing in a fantasy, it still wouldn’t change our relationship except that I would roll my eyes if they started talking about it and think they were silly.

    7. This is the same question as #5, really. It can only come from people. Sometimes justice is never done and you can’t get it from anywhere. Deal with it like an adult.

    8. I would tell my child that they should make their own meaning and purpose to the best of their ability and not let anyone or anything decide what they should do with their lives for them.

    9. It makes our lives better while we’re here. They advance society, they make relationships with the other humans we have to share our world with easier, they make our lives easier in general. Even if there’s no cosmic, universal importance to these things, it’s enough that it’s important to us.

    10. My death is the end of my life, anyway. Others will remember me and my actions in this life will continue to affect the world after I die. My body will probably provide good nutrition to some plants and bugs. But, yeah, my consciousness will be gone and so will yours when you die. Deal with it.

    I really don’t understand the importance this person places on his or her god’s POV. I suppose it’s just evidence that this person’s questions come with a lot of presuppositions that are not shared by most, if any, atheists. Seriously, why should I care if there’s one more person with plans for me just because this person is some kind of superman? I mean, if this superman existed I might care if it were in the habit of killing off people who didn’t do what it wanted, but as far as I can tell there’s no religious group that’s significantly less prone to “acts of God.” If this superman doesn’t exist… well, that’s just one less person telling me what to do. Sounds like a bonus.

  7. 7
    grumpyoldfart

    Question #2: What is your purpose on earth?

    My Answer: To provide a safe haven for tapeworms.

  8. 8
    gillyc

    Grumpyoldfart @ 7 – you may be unwittingly doing god’s will there. Every species of bird, mammal and fish on the planet has it’s own set of parasites, and some (all?) of *those* parasites have their own parasites. I’ve always reckoned, if there is a god, (s)he *really* likes parasites. Perhaps everything else is only here to provide homes for them?

  9. 9
    Pliny the in Between

    Cuttlefish, thanks for the morning fodder. Lacking your skill w rhyme, I’ve taken a shot w a panel.

    http://pictoraltheology.blogspot.com/2013/08/an-atheist-morning.html

    This christian obsession w meaning could be the title of a great C+W song – Looking for life in all the wrong places.

  10. 10
    Cuttlefish

    Brevity is the soul of wit! You have managed, in three sentences in one panel, to do what it took me a wall of text to attempt.

  11. 11
    beelzebubba

    #5 You work to try to prevent other people losing their children

  12. 12
    Randomfactor

    Life’s meaning is to find life’s meaning.

  13. 13
    HFM

    1. Where do you come from?
    A long series of improbable events. My parents chose the same university at roughly the same time, my grandfathers all survived WWII and returned home to make babies, and so on, back to the primordial ooze.

    2. What is your purpose on earth?
    To leave it better than I found it. But that’s my empathy talking, more than my atheism. I have benefitted greatly from the people who came before me. People fought and died so that I could be born a free and equal citizen of a democratic country. People worked to invent the technology that saved my life when I was born with severe health problems. I didn’t earn that; I inherited it. Now it’s my turn to give, and I do think it’s my moral obligation to not mess that up.

    3. Does life have a meaning?
    Yes. And we get to decide what it is. How depressing it would be if this were all simply a test – if all the suffering in the world, all of the kindness, and literally everything else about this world was put here simply to determine if your soul was worthy of the next life. Nothing in this world would have meaning, except as a mark on your exam sheet. That’s horrifying to me.

    Instead, I get to do things that matter. I make sure my family knows they are secure and loved, because their happiness matters to me. I work hard at my science, because advancing knowledge matters to me, and the people that might someday be helped by that knowledge matter to me. None of this glorifies God. All of it stays on Earth, and that’s quite fine by me.

    4. What is just and fair for you?
    I’ll push this one back. If you think justice and fairness are dictated by the will of God, are you prepared to defend everything in the holy books as fair and just? Including, for instance, the story of Job – he was a blameless, faithful follower, and God systematically destroyed everything the poor guy cared about, for no reason except to settle a bet with Satan. What would you think of a human who behaved that way?

    5. God forbids, if your child is murdered and the person is never caught and brought to justice, how would you handle it, seeing that life has no meaning and we are just here on earht to live and die. Where would you get justice from?
    Sometimes terrible things happen. I’d want to see the murderer taken off the streets, if for no other reason than to protect other children, but neither seeing the person rot in jail nor imagining them burning in Hell would actually bring back what was taken. I lost a relative to cancer recently, and his killer will never be brought to justice either – but I at least don’t have the anger at whatever was working this into some grand plan. It was bad luck, nothing more.

    6. An intelligent, thinking child brought up by atheist parents becomes a Christian how do you respond? Oh and becomes preacher and starts a new church, would you say your child has a problem?
    I can’t say I’d love it, but family is family. My kid doesn’t have to make the same choices I have. Assuming we aren’t talking about the “I am the second coming” sort of starting a new church, then I might have to have them dragged in for a psych consult.

    7. What about all the injustice in the world that goes by unreported, where must everyone else get justice from?
    We make the justice. In the ideal case, we fund a society that can enforce justice – cops, jails, etc to deter criminals, schools and social programs to help people who are disadvantaged, and laws to ensure the strong can’t exploit the weak. Where those don’t work well enough, we advocate to make them better, donate to charities, boycott, complain, etc.

    Something I’ve seen in a lot of religious folk is the belief the world is just – so if something unjust happens, you must have deserved it somehow. Got cancer? Didn’t pray hard enough. You’re poor and never got a chance at an education? If God liked you better, he’d steer some money your way. We believe the world is only as just as we can make it be. That’s why atheists are, as a tribe, fairly loud about social justice issues.

    8. How do you answer your own child that is searching for meaning and purpose in life?
    See #2 and #3.

    9. Why does research, discovery, diplomacy, art, music, sacrifice, compassion, feelings of love, or affectionate and caring relationships mean anything if it all ultimately comes to naught anyway?
    It doesn’t come to naught. Everything I do becomes a tiny part of history, for better or worse. If we want our hypothetical grandkids to have a history of stable families, functional governments, inspiring art and music, etc…that history doesn’t make itself.

    10. Is death the end of life?
    Yes. I’m not especially looking forward to it, but I accept it.

  14. 14
    sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d

    1. Where do you come from?
    2. What is your purpose on earth?
    3. Does life have a meaning?

    A few months ago I was in a lift at Russell Square underground station, near where many colleges of London University are, when a young woman came in through the “Way Out” doors and said “How did I get here?”
    An elderly man immediately asked: “Is your question biological, geographical or philosophical?”

    Disappointingly, it turned out the young woman had merely gone down a different corridor to the one she wanted and didn’t know where she was.

  15. 15
    neleabels

    BornAgain_Believer:

    Very interestting answers. It is mostly what I expected from atheist, acting all intelligent but not taking the time to give real honest answers.

    If we are not responsible and accountable to someone higher then ourselves what is the point of human existence.

    Judging from the answers, it seems that there is no point to life. We can all go crazy and do what we want. We can hurt others without any true consequences. It’s like we are accountable to ourselves only. A bit selfish.

    I just hope that atheist can also see the world from a different view point.

    Really? REALLY?! :(

    Here my answer:

    “Very interestting answers. It is mostly what I expected from atheist, acting all intelligent but not taking the time to give real honest answers.”

    Thou shalt not bear false witness… My answers towards you were completely honest. If you think to see dishonesty point it out or remain silent.

    “If we are not responsible and accountable to someone higher then ourselves what is the point of human existence. Judging from the answers, it seems that there is no point to life. ”

    You were pointed out many many ways to find a meaningful existence without assuming the existence of a metyphysical entity. Why are you telling otherwise?

    “We can all go crazy and do what we want. We can hurt others without any true consequences. It’s like we are accountable to ourselves only. A bit selfish.”

    I am very sorry, but now you are simply telling lies about what has been said by the atheist side. You have been pointed out a numerous times why people DO NOT WHAT THEY WANT, even if there is no vengeful god. And you also have been told several reasons why also atheists care for others.

    Why are you doing this? Your attitude has very little to do with what christians present as ethical behaviour.

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