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Nov 21 2008

Progress Report: Down the Mountain

26,486

Good thing we’re past the halfway point, considering there’s only nine days left, eh?

I think I’ve mostly finished with the confusions. The only one I haven’t really deconstructed is “Theology is Philosophy,” which I need to scare up some resources for. If any of you have thoughts on that, now would be an excellent time to share them. Theology, of course, is a subset of philosophy, but the point I’m trying to get across here is that it’s still religious, and therefore not likely to overwhelm an atheist with its rigor and validity.

I promised you my treatise on nihilism, and thee shall have it:

CONFUSION #6: ATHEISM IS NIHILISM

What I just said before should be more than enough to prove otherwise, but just in case, let’s talk about that.

First, let’s have a definition. I’ll filch it from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Nihilism is the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. It is often associated with extreme pessimism and a radical skepticism that condemns existence. A true nihilist would believe in nothing, have no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy.

Sounds pretty awful, doesn’t it? We think so, too.

Some atheists can be nihilistic, but atheism itself isn’t nihilism: it’s just non-belief in supernatural stuff. We don’t believe in gods, fairies, ghosts, gremlins, or anything else that is, by definition, not part of the natural world. But that lack of belief doesn’t lead automatically to nihilism at all.

Let’s break this down piece by piece.

“All values are baseless.” Of course they’re not. Your values might be based on the Bible, and mine on science and humanistic philosophy, but both of us have values that are based very firmly on their respective foundations. Ask an atheist what they base their values on, and they’ll be happy to tell you. At length, most likely, to the point where you may regret asking. What you’re not likely to hear is a glum, “all values are baseless.”

“Nothing can be known or communicated.” You know what? If we believed that, we atheists wouldn’t have the appreciation for science and argument that we do. Of course things can be known – just because we don’t claim to know with absolute certainty doesn’t mean we think nothing can be known. As far as communicating what we know, we have strong tools for that: experiment, logic, reason, and demonstration. So there’s another tenent of nihilism atheists have gone and chucked right out the window.

“Extreme pessimism.” I don’t know that many pessimistic atheists, myself, and I know a lot of atheists. We get cantankerous at times, yes, but we’re a pretty optimistic bunch. We think we can make a difference. We work to improve the world, and enjoy it. Maybe there’s a wee touch of pessimism when it comes to human kind’s infatuation with religion, but a drop of pessimism does not a nihilist make.

“A radical skepticism that condemns existence.” Skeptics we are. Incorrigible skeptics. Radical? I wouldn’t go quite that far. The majority of us are what I’d call “healthy skeptics.” We doubt things that aren’t backed up by good, solid evidence, but we don’t go overboard with the skepticism. And unless you run into a really depressed atheist, you aren’t likely to find many who take skepticism to such extremes that they condemn existence.

“Believe in nothing.” We believe in plenty of things. We believe human beings are good enough and smart enough to make the world a little better. We believe in the scientific method. Most of us believe in good food, good friends, and a good beer. Just because we don’t believe in gods, and just because we don’t believe blindly, doesn’t mean we don’t believe a single thing.

“Have no loyalties.” We’ve got the usual run. We’re loyal to friends, family, organizations, ideas, all sorts of things. I’m loyal to my cat – probably to a fault, considering how homicidal she is. An atheist without loyalties is a remarkably rare creature. If you find one, let me know.

“An impulse to destroy.” The atheists I’ve talked to want to build. They want to build understanding, knowledge, a better world. They may want to destroy superstition’s ability to harm in bulk, and they may have an impulse to destroy diseases, poverty, and really stupid ideas, but as far as an overall impulse to destroy indiscriminately – yeah, no. Look, we live here too. As the Tick once said, “You can’t destroy Earth! It’s where I keep all my stuff!”

I think one thing’s missing from this definition: nihilists have utterly no sense of humor. You’ve probably noticed by now that this atheist has one. So do the rest of us.

That, I have to admit, was fun to write.

From here on out, we’re going to be headed into more positive shores. I’ll be exploring how we can engage in a constructive dialogue, and explore some of the very positive things that have come about when atheists and believers work side-by-side. I’m thinking about Americans United for the Separation of Church and State as a prime example. What I want to show is that, just as people of different faiths have learned how to respect and appreciate each other, and thus work toward a better world, believers and non-believers can do the same thing.

End on a high note, so to speak. Which is why I’ll be headed into town this afternoon to partake in some very excellent Beaujolais. Nothing’s likely to make me feel happier with the world than some lovely red wine. If Happy Hour’s late, it’s because I’m busy getting happy.

In answer to a question from yesterday, I related the bit with the missal in the Welsh story because, quite simply, it’s part of the Welsh story. It’s what the old woman had with her. I’m not going to cut a religious artifact out of the tale just because I’m an atheist.

I like to think that she would, indeed, have used it as a primitive version of the Smack-o-Matic if the demon hadn’t had the good sense to clear out when she blew out that candle and stared it down.

Coherent sentences. Becoming difficult. Must. Stop. Writing….

2 comments

  1. 1
    stevec

    If, for the sake of argument, you were to assume that atheism invariably did lead to nihilism, what would that posited fact say about whether or not any gods existed? Nothing, that’s what. To whine that atheism leads to nihilism does not amount to an argumetn against atheism, it is merely another instance of an appeal to consequences, a logical fallacy. “Atheism leads to nihilism, and I don’t like nihilism! Wah wah wah!” It’s not an argument, it’s just whining.

  2. 2
    Cujo359

    I’ve always wondered why I never appreciated The Tick. It certainly had a sense of humor I can relate to.On the question of whether religion is philosophy, I can’t read things like that without quoting Richard Dawkins quoting an old professor of his “Theology? I’m not sure that’s even a subject.” Can’t find the place I read that right now, but I’ll try to look later.

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