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Aug 04 2009

“But Is That It?” Religion, Death, and the Argument from Wishful Thinking

Folio_34v_-_Christ_in_GloryIf there’s no soul, no God, and no afterlife… then doesn’t that kind of suck? Isn’t it better to believe that death isn’t the end, and that there’s a greater purpose in life than just life itself?

I got an email recently from Allan of New Zealand, who writes:

Hi Greta. Read your site, Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do With God. Very interesting. I believe a life well lived is a comfort too because loved ones who are left. Have great memories to reflect on, and of course right living means a good model is left for future generations.

But as a Christian I also believe there is nothing that beats knowing one day you will see your loved ones again, that it’s not actually the end. After all we are are born… we grow… we marry… we work… we die… and have joy and sorrow along the way but is that it?? The same cycle for our children and our children’s children… if that’s it what’s the point. One of the reason I became a Christian is because I always believed, even as a near atheist, there to be a greater purpose in life.

I have two responses to this. One is more comforting, offering meaning and hope in a world with God or an afterlife. The other is a whole lot more hard-assed… but in some ways, I think it’s a lot more important.

Sunrise_apolloThe more comforting answer is: Yes, I believe that in a world without God or an afterlife, both life and death can have meaning and hope. I’ve written about this at length: not just in the Comforting Thoughts piece, but elsewhere. I’ve written that permanence isn’t a very good measure of meaning or importance, and that brief, transitory experiences can be every bit as valuable as stone monuments. I’ve written that sometimes the most seemingly silly and trivial experiences can create the greatest meaning and joy. I’ve written that the entirely physical nature of our being doesn’t make us drown or disappear in the vastness of the universe — it connects us intimately with it. I’ve written about how even death can be seen as connecting us intimately with the universe, part of the cycle of the physical and natural world. I’ve written that thinking of death as a deadline — a serious, non- negotiable, drop- dead deadline — can give our lives motivation and focus, inspiring us to do the things that matter to us now instead of putting them off indefinitely. I’ve written that there’s no reason to think that any particular scale of size or time is more important than any other, and that the human scale has every bit as much value as the universal scale.

That’s just a sampling. And other atheists have written similar things as well. A life without God or an afterlife can still have meaning, purpose, and an intimate connection with the arc of human history and with the vastness of time and space.

So that’s my “There is so comfort and purpose in an atheist life” answer.

Now here’s my hard-assed answer.

Since when is, “I really, really want X to be true” an argument for why X is true?

“Nothing beats knowing that X is true” is not an argument for why X is true. “If X isn’t true, then what’s the point?” is not an argument for why X is true. “X gives me a sense of a greater purpose in life” is not an argument for why X is true.

Or at least, it’s not a good argument.

IcecreamThis is what Ingrid calls “the argument from wishful thinking.” And if it were made about anything else in the world, our response would either be pity or an uncontrollable fit of the giggles. If I were to argue that ice cream doesn’t have any calories, that the California economy is flourishing, that I have a six-figure book contract, that I’m going to live for a thousand years, that the Middle East is a utopia of peace and harmony, that Alan Rickman and Rachel Maddow are waiting outside my front door right now to ravish me for hours — simply because I really, really want these things to be true — nobody would consider that a good argument. Nobody would take it seriously, even for a second.

So why do people consider it a valid argument when it comes to God and religion?

Let’s take a hypothetical. Let’s suppose, for a moment, that the most extreme version of this argument is true. Let’s suppose that a world without God or an afterlife really is a shallow, joyless, hopeless, isolated void. Let’s suppose that atheists really do have nothing to offer, no tidings of comfort and joy, and that the only way to view life as having meaning and purpose is to view it through the lens of religion. (I don’t think that, obviously; but hypothetically, let’s suppose.)

That’s still not an argument for why God and the afterlife are real. It’s just adding more “really”s to the “I really, really want X to be true” argument. It just turns the argument into, “I really, really, really, REALLY want X to be true. No, you don’t understand — really. If X isn’t true, that completely blows.” And that doesn’t make the argument any more convincing.

Earth_seen_from_Apollo_17The argument from wishful thinking is completely backwards. It picks a pleasant philosophy first… and then crams reality into it, whether it fits or not. And that’s backwards. Reality comes first. Reality is more important than our opinions or wishes. It makes much more sense to look at reality first… and then find a philosophy consistent with it that we find useful and meaningful. (And then, of course, to modify that philosophy as needed when our understanding of reality changes.)

And the reality is that a belief in God, the soul, and the afterlife are just not consistent with the evidence.

Believe it or not, despite my “WTF?” tone here, I’m more sympathetic to this argument than you might imagine. I held on to spiritual beliefs for a long time, not because I thought the best evidence supported them, but because I found the idea of permanent death to be dreadfully painful. I wasn’t doing this consciously… but I was definitely doing it.

But as I wrote in Atheism and the Argument from Comfort: This is not an argument.

Fraying ropeIt is a sign of desperation.

It is a last- ditch effort to hang on to an argument that the believer knows in their heart — and that they even know in their head — has already been lost.

I mean, if your big argument for religion is, “Sure, it doesn’t make sense, but wouldn’t it be nice if it were true? Doesn’t it make our lives easier to believe that it’s true?”… then you have essentially conceded the argument. It’s not an argument for why religion is correct. It’s not even trying to be an argument for why religion is correct. It’s an argument for why it’s okay to believe something that you know is almost certainly not true, but that you can’t imagine living without.

So try to imagine living without it. Other people have. And it works. Atheists around the world have found ways to see life — this life, just this short one that we have right now — as profoundly joyful and meaningful. Many of us even find it vastly preferable to a life with religion, offering more hope, more consistency, more empowerment, and more genuine meaning. And it offers the extra comfort of knowing that our life is built on the solid rock of reality… and not on the unstable sands of wishful thinking.

Related post:
Atheism and the Argument from Comfort

52 comments

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  1. 1
    Dale

    New reader and new poster here. Love your blog to death. Keep at it!
    This post couldn’t have come at a better time for me. I’ve only become an atheist in the last few months, and I’ve been absorbing as much atheist writing as I can in that time. But having come out of a strong Catholic background, I’ve discovered that I have no non-religious/atheist friends with whom I can talk about all the cool stuff I’m learning. So when thoughts of the finality of death start to creep in… well, old habits die hard: I want to believe in an afterlife again. And this conflict makes me slightly depressed, which leads to greater conflict, which leads to more depression, and so on.
    But anyway, you’re right. Wanting something to be true doesn’t make it true. Life being short relative to eternity doesn’t make it meaningless. Thanks for your message of hope, and yet another amazing piece of writing.

  2. 2
    Maria

    Well said!
    I’ve never believed in god, and wasn’t raised in a religious family. In my teens and my young adult years I was rather interested in different newage stuff though, and it was for the same reason – wishful thinking. I had problems, wasn’t always that happy, had a messy life, and feared death, wrestled with feelings of meaninglessness, and so on…
    But I was never satisfied with how the vague newage spiritual methods, that sounded so good at first sight and promised so much, were presented to me. I thought there must be something more “real” behind it all, and started to read all I could find about it. One after one things were debunked, and I finally realized that there was NOTHING behind it at all, that that silly, irrational bullshit was really all there was.
    But even during those rather confused years in my youth I never ever considered Christianty and god as something that could sooth my worried mind. I mean… what of all that is soothing? I remember thinking as a kid that it was damn fortunate that the Christian god was just a fictional figure because he was the creepiest character I’d ever heard of, stalking you everywhere! As a kid I was a rather private person who enjoyed spending hours alone in my room, writing and drawing, and it was mainly the stalking aspect of it all that got to me the most. It really creeped me out when people talked of how god could see you no matter where you were, and that you couldn’t even hide your most private innermost thoughts from him. To imagine I would go to heaven, and be even more under this being’s control, scared me more than dying.
    To summarize, I DO understand the ‘wanting to cram reality into your wishes’-thing, though I like my life so much better since I stopped doing it. But I’ve never understood how Christianity could fulfill this need. Seriously, if you really believed all that it would make the world ONE creepy place!

  3. 3
    Warren

    To me the idea that people die is actually a bit of a relief. While it’s true that the good ones are always missed, there are plenty of examples of people whom the world is better off without.
    The idea that there’s some kind of “perfected form” that humans become after death is anti-evolution … and more importantly, it’s anti-life. It makes us tolerate the intolerable while clinging to the insane idea that things will get better AFTER we die.
    Finally, “What is the purpose of life?” is the wrong question. The right question is, “What is the purpose of MY life?”

  4. 4
    Nurse Ingrid

    on accepting our mortal lives for what they are:
    “so we go inside
    and we gravely read the stones
    all those people, all those lives
    where are they now?
    with loves and hates
    and passions just like mine
    they were born and then they lived
    and then they died
    seems so unfair
    I want to cry”
    from “Cemetery Gates” by the Smiths, one of the most upbeat sad songs you’ll ever hear, and includes one of my favorite Tom Swifties! Morrissey is an underappreciated comic genius.
    And Maria: I can totally relate. When I was a kid I was deeply creeped out by the “Jesus died for your sins” story.

  5. 5
    Ebonmuse

    So when thoughts of the finality of death start to creep in… well, old habits die hard: I want to believe in an afterlife again.
    There’s certainly nothing wrong or blameworthy in that, Dale. Being afraid of your own death is a natural, hardwired human tendency. Intelligent, foresightful beings, shaped by billions of years of evolution to value survival, couldn’t possibly be otherwise. And I’ll likewise concede that religion, for all that it’s not true, can be an effective anesthetic.
    But I think there are other ways to cope, equally effective, that don’t require belief in supernatural fantasies. Something I occasionally tell myself is this: Hey, no one knows for sure what happens after death!
    Of course, I grant that all the available evidence seems to indicate that consciousness ceases with the death of the brain. But you never know, we could be wrong about that. It does no harm merely to hope; the harm only comes when simple, humble hope transforms into arrogant, dogmatic faith. If we are wrong, when we get to the next life, we’ll be all the more delighted for being surprised! And if we’re not wrong, we’ll never know it, so either way there’s nothing to lose.

  6. 6
    the chaplain

    I think the combination of wishful thinking and fear of hell keep a lot of people tethered to religion who might otherwise find it easier to let go of it.

  7. 7
    Ramel

    I don’t particulary like the thought of my own death, if I had the chance to add a few thousand years to my life I wouldn’t turn it down, but the concept of eternal life seems to me almost as bad as death. How long would it take for the most fantastic heaven to become boring? Imagine an eterity with your loved ones, how long before you just run out of things to talk about? A few christians that I’ve asked seem to have this idea that the afterlife is a place of total contentment, and that boredom is simply not an issue, but what would be the point of such an existance? I sometimes doubt many of them have thought this one through.

  8. 8
    Maria

    @ Ramel. Yeah, I’ve been thinking the same. It’s weird that people who talk about ‘a higher meaning to life’ and who are so desperate for a point to life, would invent such pointless and meaningless concepts as ‘heaven’, ‘eternal bliss’ and ‘eternal life’.

  9. 9
    Greta Christina

    Anyone who’s interested in what Ramel and Maria are talking about needs to read Ebonmuse’s definitive piece on this subject, Those Old Pearly Gates. Quick summary: There is no way for any afterlife to be perfectly blissful for eternity without altering the essential personalities and characters of its residents beyond recognition.

  10. 10
    sav

    Great post, Greta. I love how matter of fact you are.
    I think it comes down to the fact that on some level we all fear the unknown. And when we fear stuff, we stop asking questions and start to do things to make us feel better, to sooth ourselves, to comfort ourselves.
    That stuff–the wishful thinking stuff, as you and Ingrid say–may bring us calm for a little bit, but it doesn’t help us work through it and just accept the inevitable. It doesn’t settle the problem. It feeds it and never lets it die.
    When I decided to just accept the fact that I was going to die one day, that it didn’t matter if I knew everything in the world a person could know or do everything a person could do or be the best and most amazing human being that ever walked the earth, it was a relief. I mean, that’s a lot of pressure to put on oneself.
    It’s as though some of us keep the lie alive because if we let it die, we think we’ll die with it. I guess I can understand that a bit–we will die, eventually, but probably not at the exact moment we let go of foolish ideas. On the contrary, I think that is when we really start living.

  11. 11
    Susie Bright

    Alan and Rachel just texted me that they were pounding on your door for an hour, but no one came down to let them in!

  12. 12
    Janet Hardy

    I’m gonna have to disagree with you on this one. The fact is that *nobody knows.* My best guess is that when we’re not alive, we live outside space and time — a concept that is so alien to human brains as to be essentially meaningless — but I don’t know, and neither do you, and neither does Pat Buchanan.
    So, not knowing, I choose to live “as if” the idea that makes me most comfortable were true, because there’s no reason not to (assuming that my beliefs cause no harm to anyone else). Your sentence “thinking of death as a deadline — a serious, non- negotiable, drop- dead deadline — can give our lives motivation and focus…” is exactly why I prefer to live as though I’ll get another chance; if I don’t, I make myself so stressed out believing that I *have* to accomplish *everything* in the short time I have, that the short time is much less happy than it otherwise needs to be. (Maybe for someone less type-A than me, this would not be true… but I’ve learned the hard way that it’s true for me.)
    Atheists who claim to know for sure that there is no afterlife are, to me, as doctrinaire and inflexible as any born-again Christian. I think I’m just genetically agnostic, or something.

  13. 13
    Ramel

    @Greta: Thanks for that link it was a facinating piece, Ebon muse has clearly put quite a bit of thought into this. I’m kind of kicking myself for not seeing the sin/free will problem with heaven, though one other thing that comes to mind is the question of conflicting will for example unrequited love, so even if you get around the problem of sin disagreements and opposing desires can still exist taking you straight back to square one.
    @Janet: There is no reason at all not to hold such a belief, as long as you discount the fact that it’s “a concept that is so alien to human brains as to be essentially meaningless” that you just made up, and that it has zero supporting evidence. But whatever, if it makes you happy then go with it.

  14. 14
    Eclectic

    Hey, Janet! Wow, Greta gets good folks visiting. I don’t know for sure what’ll happen to my consciousness after my death, just as I don’t know for sure that I’m not living in The Matrix. Maybe I’ll wake up in am artificial womb full of slimy liquid.
    All I can say is that all evidence points to the fact that it just stops. And that resources spent preparing for any alternative are wasted. Any specific alternative is even more speculative than the already-negligible possibility that it’s something other than extinction.
    Anyway, getting back to Greta’s essay itself, there’s a subtly different issue which I’d like to point out: a case where the argument from wishful thinking is true.
    That’s when you’re saying that “I really really wish this were true, therefore I’m going to work to make it true.” I can, at the very least, act as I wish others would act and hope they’ll follow my example.
    It’s also sometimes useful, or morally justified, to act as if something were true, even if you know damn well it’s not.
    The hazard is that people tend to slip over the line into thinking that they can make anything true if they try hard enough. Even historical facts like what Iraq was up to before the U.S. invaded.
    This error can be seen in the initial arrogant dismissal of the “Rality-based commnity.”
    Acting as if you’re going to be reincarnated and have to live in the world you leave behind you seems like a generally good moral precept. Better yet, you don’t know who you’ll be reincarnated as, so if you’re a king, work ensure the next generation of peasants have a good life.
    Maybe not literally true, but an awfully good guide to how to conduct yourself.

  15. 15
    Greta Christina

    Janet: I’m sorry, but I’m not buying it. You’re making what I call the 100% fallacy: “We can’t know the answer to this question with 100% certainty — therefore, all answers are equally likely.” (With its corollary: “And therefore it’s reasonable for me to believe whatever makes me happy, regardless of whether it makes any sense.”)
    The fact that we can’t know with absolute 100% certainty what happens after we die doesn’t mean that we can’t come to a reasonable conclusion about what is and is not plausible, based on the best evidence we have so far. And the best evidence we have so far is that everything we think of as the soul is a product of the brain, and disappears when we die.
    I’ve made an argumentmore than one, actually — for why materialism is by far a more plausible hypothesis than supernaturalism. If you have an argument to make for why this is not the case, then please make it. But “You can’t absolutely prove me wrong beyond the shadow of any doubt” doesn’t qualify.

  16. 16
    Fastthumbs

    “But “You can’t absolutely prove me wrong beyond the shadow of any doubt” doesn’t qualify.”
    Why? Obviously this is your blog and you can raise (or lower) any bar you wish when challenging people to explain themselves… but I think an explaination (or link to one) why an absolute proof should be dismissed as unreasonable.

  17. 17
    efrique

    Since when is, “I really, really want X to be true” an argument for why X is true?
    Oh, yeah. I’ve had variants of the “I really really, no REALLY want it to be true” and “don’t you WANT an afterlife?” type argument a pile of times. What drives me completely up the wall is the inability of so many people to understand it is in no way an argument for something to be true.
    - – -
    Uh, in your last paragraph, (unless I misunderstood you, which is possible), I think you mistyped a word that changes the meaning… “Many of us even find it vastly preferable to a life with religion“.
    It looks to me like you meant “without” there.

  18. 18
    efrique

    Sorry, I see where I went wrong. The sentence was fine. My bad.

  19. 19
    valhar2000

    Fastthumbs: I don’t think Greta said anything that in even the most remotely vague way can come close to having a meaning that in some manner resembles what you wrote. Unless I have misunderstood you completely.
    Jannet wrote:
    Atheists who claim to know for sure that there is no afterlife are, to me, as doctrinaire and inflexible as any born-again Christian.
    Well, they probably are, but I have to ask: who says this? I’ve never heard anyone make this claim, and I haven’t made it myself (even though I actually believe it).
    Greta is right though, even though the question of the afterlife cannot be answered completely, some answers are more consistent with the available evidence than others, and are therefore more likely to be correct (even of we don’t know precisely what this likelyhood actually is).

  20. 20
    Angel Kaida

    Hey Greta. Great piece today, and the timing was good for me as well. While I agree, in a lot of my views on life and death, with those ideas you wrote about so beautifully in the Comforting Thoughts piece, I’ve been struggling a lot with what I call “bad universe days” lately (maybe you know the kind?). It’s good to be reminded of the essential wrongness of, as my boyfriend put it, “diamonds in my backyard” syndrome (because who would want to live in a universe where I *didn’t* have diamonds buried in my backyard?).

  21. 21
    Janet Hardy

    Greta: I’d argue that you’re making the same error that the Christians do: trying to conceive and define that which is inherently beyond the potential of human brains to conceive and define.
    If it is possible that our spirits exist outside space and time, but pay the occasional visit to the temporal world (aka “life”), there is no way for a time-bound brain to take that in. Any evidence exists, of necessity, in our world of time and space, and would not be perceptible without those dimensions.
    Perhaps we’re both right, and the idea of existence outside the temporal is so vastly different from anything we call “existence” as to be essentially nonexistence.
    Materialism is, indeed, the most plausible argument as regards the material plane: that’s self-evident. But to use the material plane to attempt to explain the non-material is extraordinarily presumptuous — presumptuous in very nearly the same way as conceiving an anthropomorphic God, which strikes me as the greatest possible blasphemy.

  22. 22
    Bruce Gorton

    Unusual work issue, seeking advice.
    One of our columnists has recently de-converted, she wrote an article about it and has been invited onto a TV show on Africa TV to discuss it.
    With a priest.
    I don’t know what denomination (it would influence my advice quite a bit if it was say, Rhema as opposed to a Catholic.)
    Now, with this being a relatively freshly minted atheist, I don’t think she has encountered all the BS that is going to be thrown at her, so I need advice on how to advise her (Mainly because she asked, so it isn’t like this is unsolicited.)
    She has got a week’s prep time.

  23. 23
    Maria

    But to use the material plane to attempt to explain the non-material is extraordinarily presumptuous
    Uh… isn’t that exactly what you are doing?

  24. 24
    Ramel

    Janet, postulating the existance of a none-material plane with out demonstrating any evidence for its existance is fairly presumptuous. I would say you are making the same error as those presumptuous theists who believe in an anthropomorphic god, you are trying to concieve and define something that is extremely unlikely to exist.

  25. 25
    Laura Antoniou

    “that Alan Rickman and Rachel Maddow are waiting outside my front door right now to ravish me for hours…”
    You have exceptional taste.

  26. 26
    Justin

    Janet,
    I think you’re making the mistake of thinking of life (personality, self, consciousness, etc.) as something we have, and not something we do.
    The activities that give us the characteristics of being alive are no less material than the orbit of the moon or the eruption of a volcano. Asking where we go when we die is like asking where the music goes when a piano is destroyed.

  27. 27
    Maria

    Asking where we go when we die is like asking where the music goes when a piano is destroyed.
    Oh, that was very nicely put. I’ll remember that!

  28. 28
    zdenny

    Do you really think that life can be meaningful without the Love of God? Meaning is a transcendent term and how can you have meaning when you deny transcendence. It seems a little strange to say that an atheist who denies transcendence can have meaning when the definition of meaning contains the reality of transcendence.
    I think your argument is flawed in that you see a goal for life and replace that with wishful thinking; however, a goal is not meaning since a goal can be anything.
    I think your argument rest on the fact that atheist can have goals to shoot for that gives them a reason for living; however, none of those goals create meaning.
    Meaning and Atheism exists in two different realities. Atheism denies meaning; however, atheism can contain goals because a goal can be material.
    Thanks for your thoughts!

  29. 29
    Sarah Hoffman

    A very interesting post. One point that I didn’t see in it relates to the assertion that an afterlife somehow confers meaning on our lives.
    Boiled down to question form my claim is this:
    If my life, my experiences, my relationships, my projects, the things I do etc. have no meaning themselves, how is it they come to have meaning just because after I die I continue existing in some way and continue or take up again (some of? all of?) my relationships, projects, activities, and so on? If they didn’t already matter or have meaning, why would their continuing magically confer meaning or import on them?
    I would have thought it more likely that our lives potentially have meaning only *because of* our finitude. Because we die, because we really end, while we are alive we have to make choices about to how to live, what to do, and how to interact with others. We don’t get infinite do-overs. So the choices we make have real un-do-able consequences: they matter. In other words, they have meaning (positive or negative).
    I am an atheist, though not in any way because of the reasoning I just presented. Nevertheless, when it comes to the meaning of life, or in particular the meaning of some individual’s life, parts of it, or things they did or accomplished, I think those of us who think death is simply the end have the upper hand: we have potential access to more comfort regarding having created meaning, and having ourselves meant something, and we possibly thus recognize more vividly the responsibility this puts on us in shaping and living our lives meaningfully. Theists who hold onto a fantasy about continuing to exist after death, and make the the mistake that this is necessary to give their lives meaning just get this part wrong. But perhaps I am confused about what others, esp. after-lifers, mean by meaning. Comments?

  30. 30
    Ramel

    “Do you really think that life can be meaningful without the Love of God?”
    Well, yes.
    “Meaning is a transcendent term and how can you have meaning when you deny transcendence.”
    You’re going to have to explain this one, did you just redefine a word without informing the dictionary writers?
    “It seems a little strange to say that an atheist who denies transcendence can have meaning when the definition of meaning contains the reality of transcendence.”
    Oh, you did. Perhaps you would also like to tell us exactly what you mean by transendance, just so we know.
    “however, a goal is not meaning since a goal can be anything.”
    And meaning must be one specific thing? Show your working.
    “I think your argument rest on the fact that atheist can have goals to shoot for that gives them a reason for living; however, none of those goals create meaning.”
    That sense of purpose and reason for living based on achievable goals? Looks alot like meaning to me.
    “Meaning and Atheism exists in two different realities. Atheism denies meaning; however, atheism can contain goals because a goal can be material.”
    Ok, now I’m just laughing. Meaning and this statement clearly exist in different realities. Atheism does not deny meaning, although it does leave open the possibility of any single meaning being less than totally universal.
    “Thanks for your thoughts!”
    You’re welcome.

  31. 31
    Leum

    zdenny: for me, meaning is assigning subjective value to a thing. That is, my life has meaning because I value it, because the goals I have are based on ideas and concepts that have value to me, because there are people I love and care about. To someone else, any of those might not have value to that person, and thus wouldn’t be meaningful to him or her.
    Meaning in an atheistic world is personal and subjective. Is it transcendent? Depends on your definition.

  32. 32
    8TrackMind

    The best argument against the “comfort” tack is this: Imagine that you have accept Jesus Christ as your saviour, and guess what? The trifecta came in and you put your money on the right religious horse out of all the 1000′s of other religious horses out there! You go to heaven. So, while I am lounging up there in heaven with my PS3 (automatically updated to the latest version when new ones come out), it starts to nag at me. All the people who never heard of Christ, who decided for whatever reason to not accept him, or the babies born without the chance of baptism, screaming and crying unknowingly at the abject pain being applied to them because they didn’t have the choice that I did; all these beings burning in Hell while I’m up in Heaven. This is eternal happiness? Unless they give you a Scientology-style brain-washing as you enter the pearly gates, that’s no way to live out eternity.

  33. 33
    Maria

    Do you really think that life can be meaningful without the Love of God?
    If it’s the Christian god of the bible we are talking about, I can’t understand how life could be meaningful WITH his “love”.
    He’s like an abusing husband, assuring you of his “love” while he gives you another black eye. And some of his followers seems, to me, to be suffering from the Stockholm Syndrome.

  34. 34
    Greta Christina

    Janet: The argument you’re making is most commonly called “non-overlapping magisteria”: the argument that the physical and non-physical realms may both exist, but are completely separate types of existence, and the one cannot be explained by the other.
    And here’s the problem with it. (Apart from the problems other people have pointed out.)
    If there is a spiritual realm, it either has an effect on the physical one, or it doesn’t. Either the spiritual realm affects our personalities, our choices, our consciousness, our subjective experiences, what happens after we die, etc…. or it doesn’t.
    If it does, then we should be able to observe that effect. Even if we don’t fully understand the spiritual realm, we should be able to observe the effect it has on the physical world. (After all, we had no clue what gravity was until Einstein, and even now we don’t really grasp it… and yet we have been able to observe its effects and laws and make accurate predictions about it. We don’t have to understand something to see that it exists and observe its effects.)
    And when it comes to the spiritual realm, we have observed no such thing. Centuries of careful, rigorous observation of the physical world have turned up absolutely zero evidence suggesting that there is anything at work in it other than physical laws.
    And if there is a supernatural world but it has no effect on the physical world… well, so what? How would that be in any way distinguishable from there being no supernatural world at all?
    It seems like you want to have it both ways. You want to say that there is a supernatural realm that is an intimate part of who you are, some “self” that is not generated by your brain and your body and that will exist in some form after your body dies… and yet that has no effect on the world that can be observed or measured, and that is completely indistinguishable from physical cause and effect.
    Why do you think that’s a more plausible hypothesis than “there is only the physical world”? why do you think that hypothesis is even internally consistent with itself?
    (For a more through discussion of this idea, you can read my piece “A Different Way of Knowing”: The Uses of Irrationality… and its Limitations.)
    Again, I’m not saying that I can disprove the existence of the spiritual realm with 100% certainty. I’m saying that, given a choice between a hypothesis that is plausible, internally consistent, and consistent with all the available the evidence — and a hypothesis that is implausible, internally contradictory, and has no solid evidence whatsoever supporting it — I’m going to go with the first one, until some better evidence supporting it shows up.

  35. 35
    Greta Christina

    zdenny: First of all, I don’t deny transcendence. I’ve written about atheist transcendence, ad nauseum. (Here’s one place; here’s another.)
    And as others here have pointed out: You’re basically making up your own definitions of words – defining “meaning” as requiring religion — and then going “Aha!” as if you’d proven some point.
    I think you’re making a common mistake: you’re assuming that because (X) is what gives your life meaning, if someone else doesn’t have (X), therefore they can’t have meaning in their life. And that makes so sense.
    In fact, in your case, I might even call it willful ignorance. This piece discusses an atheist meaning of life at some length; if you can read that and still say “Atheism denies meaning,” then I can only assume that not only do you not understand, but that you don’t want to understand, and are actively refusing to do so.

  36. 36
    Berlzebub

    Don’t waist your breath (fingers?) Greta Christina. Zdenny is a troll who attempts to tear down secular/atheist writing. Also notice that no one can comment on anything he writes.

  37. 37
    Greta Christina

    Good to know, Berlzebub. But usually when I reply to theists in my comments, I’m not really replying for their benefit: I’m replying for the benefit of other people who might be reading the thread. Still, good to have the troll warning. Thanks.

  38. 38
    Donna Gore

    I think humans invented religion for two reasons. 1) they had this need to explain things, and they didn’t know about the scientific method, so they just made shit up, and 2) their fear of death. This is one reason new age woo takes hold when people become disillusioned with traditional religion – because people just can’t come to grips with the fact they’re gonna die. They just can’t face the inevitability of their own demise. Life after death, be it heaven, reincarnation, whatever, is that one thread they still hang on to and just can’t let go.

  39. 39
    Mike Patchen

    Janet,
    I think you are confusing faith and belief. Belief is what we think things are based on the evidence, faith is what we think things are without evidence. Most atheists believe there is no God because there is no compelling evidence that there is. They don’t have faith that there is no God, just as they don’t have faith that the world is round. They believe it based on the evidence. Here is the big difference. If evidence were provided (compelling proof, not “roses are beautiful, so there must be a God”)that God exists, most atheists, self included, would turn around and say,”My bad, I guess there is a God.” People of faith look at each piece of new evidence against the existence of God and retreat further into “it’s not possible to know God” or “well, maybe evolution exists, but God created evolution” or “God placed the evidence there to test our faith”.
    It’s not really a level playing field

  40. 40
    Maria

    But usually when I reply to theists in my comments, I’m not really replying for their benefit: I’m replying for the benefit of other people who might be reading the thread.
    I’ve seen this argument on many atheist/skeptic blogs and forums, and I agree with it.
    People like zdenny are probably beyond help (talk about a closed mind)and to expect them to participate in a real discussion is indeed wasted time. As Berlzebub mentioned, zdenny doesn’t even want people to comment on his blog posts.
    But replying anyway might be of great benefit to new atheists and to fencesitters, and all people whose minds are not closed. For example, I don’t know how many times a week I see people make the same weak arguments for a god, or who expresses a stereotypical view of atheists, or make very obvious fallacies… as if they have never seen the counter arguments, the corrections and the explanations! O_O
    To me who have spent around 8 years on the Internet reading about these things at least for a few moments almost every day, this seems almost inconceivable :-) Sometimes I feel like smacking them, or give myself a few days leave of the PC, or I might shoot myself in pure despair at seeing the same silly argument for the one millionth time.
    But now and then I make the same mistake myself. Now and then I run into something I didn’t know, and I stand corrected (and embarrassed) and have learnt something new. When it comes to things that I have still to learn, I am the same as them.
    For all people who are willing to learn more (no matter what stage they might be at when they “start their journey”) it is worth it to reply again and again even to the brains of the zdennys, as locked and bolted and protected from change as they might be.
    I confess I don’t usually have the patience for this though, but I do admire the Gretas of the world, who do have that patience. And isn’t it weird how you don’t get nearly as tired, nearly as fast, of reading a rational and well put counter argument to the zdennys for the one millionth time? :-)

  41. 41
    Maria

    Now and then I run into something I didn’t know
    Just to clarify. I realized I made it sound as if it’s a rare ocurrance that I don’t know something, which is of course not the case at all. I was still talking specifically about questions about atheism that I do know a bit about (though there’s always more to learn) so that it’s not that very often that I run into arguments from both sides that I’ve never seen before (often it is only new versions and variations of the same stuff I’ve read and heard before).
    When it comes to all other possible areas of knowledge in the world that is not in my usual areas of interest I, of course, do not know much, or nothing, at all!

  42. 42
    Ramel

    But usually when I reply to theists in my comments, I’m not really replying for their benefit: I’m replying for the benefit of other people who might be reading the thread.
    And some times its just fun.

  43. 43
    Eclectic

    But usually when I reply to theists in my comments, I’m not really replying for their benefit: I’m replying for the benefit of other people who might be reading the thread.

    This is very important to remember: there are two very different kinds of debate. One is when discussing something in private with a person you with to persuade.
    The second is when debating a subject in public with someone whose ego will not let them back down in public even if your arguments are persuasive.
    In the latter case, although you may address your remarks to your opponent, he is not the audience. The people you are trying to persuade is the audience of third-part onlookers. Your opponent’s position must be made to look ridiculous to them.
    In fact, an opponent who is refuses to concede anything can be a great benefit; you can force him into stating obvious absurdities, thereby impeaching every other assertion he has made. You can dress him in the uniform of the Iraqui information minister.
    The purpose of responding to a troll is not to persuade the troll; he is instead gratified to have provoked a response. The purpose is to make the difference between yourself and the troll apparent to third parties.

  44. 44
    Janet Hardy

    Greta:
    You write “You want to say that there is a supernatural realm that is an intimate part of who you are, some ‘self’ that is not generated by your brain and your body and that will exist in some form after your body dies… and yet that has no effect on the world that can be observed or measured, and that is completely indistinguishable from physical cause and effect.
    “Why do you think that’s a more plausible hypothesis than ‘there is only the physical world’? why do you think that hypothesis is even internally consistent with itself?”
    I don’t think it’s “more plausible”; neither do I think it’s less plausible. In fact, I have no idea what plausibility means in this regard; you can’t make odds on the ineffable. I simply choose to live my life as though that were true, because I like to and because it makes intuitive sense to me.
    It seems clear, though, that the hypothetical “nonmaterial plane” would be so completely different from our temporal lives as to render questions like “existence” irrelevant. When we say that life after death “exists,” that *implies* space and time; that’s what we mean when we talk about “existence.” The phrase “life after death” means that after you die, you go on living, either in another body or in another mode of existence (heaven, hell, etc.) — it’s mired in time. I can’t begin to conceive of what something outside space and time might be, and I doubt that anyone can.
    Human brains are excellent at comprehending physical realities; they’re simply not designed to comprehend things that exist outside that plane. So when I talk about this hypothesis, all I can basically say is that we’re trying to use a line to define a cube — or it might be useful to compare it to what an amoeba might make of the New York Times.
    *It is possible* that our consciousness, when freed from our bodies, moves into a non-physical dimension that our physical brains cannot begin to conceive. Obviously, there would be no evidence of such a phenomenon, since any evidence would clearly be physical.
    (And, in answer to Maria above: there’s a big difference between my saying “It is possible that there are phenomena beyond my ability to perceive and conceive,” and someone saying “There is no evidence for such phenomena and thus they do not exist.”)
    Again, where I think we agree is that this hypothetical nontemporal “existence” is so completely alien to anything we call “life” as to be beyond a reasonable definition of “life after death.” However, I’m not egotistical enough to think that my few pounds of gray matter can begin to understand the full dimensionality of existence (if for no other reason than that I’m stuck with inherently physical concepts like “dimensionality” and “existence.”
    Janet

  45. 45
    Maria

    “there’s a big difference between my saying “It is possible that there are phenomena beyond my ability to perceive and conceive,”
    You said a lot more than that.
    “and someone saying “There is no evidence for such phenomena and thus they do not exist.”)”
    And no one said that.

  46. 46
    Bruce Gorton

    “It is possible that there are phenomena beyond my ability to perceive and conceive,”
    That is a desperate gambit. To get to the crux of this, possibility does not imply respectability.
    You have to venture further than “it is possible” and present real arguments to have it considered a respectable possibility.

  47. 47
    Ramel

    So Janet, lets see if I’ve got this straight. What you believe in is something that you are only aware of by intuition and has no other supporting evidence, and even if it did exist it would have no relevence to anyone ever.
    The bit I really don’t get is why would a consciousness freed from the material world (here we come back to wishful thinking) be able to interpret something it could not when it was a function of a brain? You are aware that if consciousness was seperable from the body that it would in fact be testable?
    I’m afraid that until you can demonstrate even the potential possibility of plausibilty that any of this is true then this is just meaningless hand waving.

  48. 48
    Greta Christina

    Janet: I’m finding it interesting that you didn’t respond to the single most important point I made. My question: If there is a spiritual realm, then does it affect the physical realm, or doesn’t it? Does it affect our thoughts, our choices, our consciousness, our sense of self… or doesn’t it?
    If it does, then even if we don’t understand it, we should be able to observe its effects. (Again, I make the gravity argument: we had no clue what gravity was for the hundreds of years between Newton and Einstein, we still have a poor understanding of it today… and yet we can observe its effects and make accurate predictions about it.) If the soul exists, then why have centuries of attempts to observe its effects on the human mind come up completely empty?
    And if it doesn’t have any noticeable effect on our lives and selves… then why should we care? How would its existence be in any way distinguishable from its non-existence?
    You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say that the soul is utterly ineffable, and still say that it has a powerful effect on our minds and consciousness and our most basic selves. (And you can’t say that it’s ineffable, and still say that you intuitively perceive it.) If it has an effect, we should be able to observe that effect, like the trails of quarks in a cloud chamber… even if we can’t observe the thing itself.
    Now, if you want to believe something that has no basis whatsoever in either logic or evidence, simply because you like to and because of your “biased by this wishful thinking” intuition, you’re perfectly free to do so. If you want to believe that two hypotheses are equally plausible simply because neither can be proven or disproven with absolute 100% certainty, you’re perfectly free to do so.
    But I’m puzzled as to how you can do that… and then accuse atheists of being “inflexible” and “presumptuous.” We’re the ones saying, “Hey, show us the evidence, show us the argument, and we’ll change our mind.” You’re the one who’s saying, in essence, “No evidence or argument you could possibly make could ever persuade me that I’m mistaken.” You’re the one who’s saying that your own intuition, which you admit is biased by what you want to believe, is still somehow more accurate than decades and indeed centuries of careful, rigorous study by thousands of people dedicated to the task.

  49. 49
    Eclectic

    To continue Greta’s point:
    If you have two theories about how the world works, then you find a set of conditions where they disagree and test that to see which is right and which is wrong.
    The important thing to note is that if two theories make identical predictions in all circumstances, then they are the same theory. Like Newton’s and Leibnitz’s versions of calculus, you may use either one and get the same results.
    Generally, one of the two is found to be easier to work with, and the other version falls into disuse. Again, like Isaac Newton’s more awkward notation for calculus.
    Does objective reality exist? Or am I just software in an incredibly good simulation of reality? Is the universe 13.72 billion years old, or was it all created last Thursday with just the appearance of age?
    In both cases, the answer is it doesn’t matter, because unless there is some observable difference, they are actually the same theory. I might as well take the simpler one.
    So, Janet, I’d like to ask you to clarify your position. Are you suggesting something which makes a difference to the observable world? when you say you “choose to live my life as though that were true”, that implies that there is in fact some difference.
    Or are you suggesting something which makes no difference at all? In that case, we don’t actually disagree, I just think your theory about how the world works is unnecessarily complicated.

  50. 50
    Fatpie42

    The way I see it, this just shows how watered down religious belief has become. It’s becoming more of a cultural remnant that people feel they ought to hang onto rather than a strongly relevant tradition that shapes their lives.
    Stewart Guthrie explains that wishful thinking does not explain the presence of religion. Religion might well involve an awful lot of wishful thing, but it doesn’t explain the existence and/or prevalence of religion. Religions do not only consist in beliefs which are comforting, but quite often consist in beliefs which are disturbing and/or frightening.
    That the wishful thinking side is now the only reason why some people carry on with their particular faith just goes to show how outmoded it really is.

  51. 51
    Bruce Gorton

    Funny thing with fat positivism and skepticism:
    When I was small I had a teacher who used to tell us that “Your body is your temple.”
    This was evidently in order to get us to believe that we should excercise and maintain a reasonable weight.
    Instead it got me thinking I need an extra wing.

  52. 52
    Bruce Gorton

    Wrong thread, sorry.

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