Why “The Universe Is Perfectly Set Up For Life” Is a Terrible Justification for God’s Existence

Radio_control_knobs “But the Universe is so perfectly fine-tuned for life. What are the chances that this happened by accident? Doesn’t it seem like the Universe had to have been created this way on purpose?”

As I’ve written before: Many arguments for religion and against atheism are so bad, they can’t even be considered arguments. They’re not serious attempts to offer evidence or reason supporting the existence of God. They’re simply attempts to deflect legitimate questions, or ad-hominem insults of atheists, or the baffling notion that “I want to believe” is a good argument, or attempts to just make the questions go away. Or similar nonsense.

But some arguments for religion do sincerely offer evidence and reason for the existence of God. They’re still not very good arguments, and the evidence and reason being offered still don’t hold water…. but they’re sincere arguments, so I’m doing them the honor of addressing them.

Today’s argument: the argument from fine-tuning.

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Thus begins my latest piece on AlterNet: Why “The Universe Is Perfectly Set Up For Life” Is a Terrible Justification for God’s Existence. To read more, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Atheist Meme of the Day: Atheism Offers Comfort In the Face of Suffering

Scarlet letter Today’s Atheist Meme of the Day, from my Facebook page. Pass this on; or don’t; or edit it as you see fit; or make up your own. Enjoy!

Atheism does have comfort to offer, not only in the face of death, but in the face of suffering. Among other things, it offers the idea that suffering comes from natural cause and effect. We don’t have to worry about what we did to make God angry, or wonder why a God who supposedly loves us is making us suffer. Pass it on: if we say it enough times to enough people, it may get across.

Secular Buddhism, and the Difference Between Attachment and Engagement

Is there a difference between being attached to the world, and being engaged with it?

Smiling_buddha I’ve been talking with a friend who is, for lack of a better term, a secular Buddhist. He’s an atheist and a materialist, but he engages in a meditation practice, and he applies aspects of a Buddhist philosophy to his life.

So we’ve been talking about the Buddhist philosophy of life. Specifically, we’ve been talking about the philosophy that’s summed up in the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism:

Life is suffering.
The origin of suffering is attachment.
The cessation of suffering is attainable.
The path to the cessation of suffering is the eightfold path.

Whenever I’ve heard about this philosophy in the past, it always bugged me. I was always like, “What do you mean, life and attachment are suffering? Screw that. I love life. I don’t want to be detached from it. Especially since I’m an atheist and a materialist. It’s not like I’m going to purify my soul or win some cosmic prize in the afterlife if I can just detach myself from life. There is no soul, and there is no afterlife, This life, this physical world, is all there is — so I want to participate in it, as richly and as fully as I possibly can.”

But I’ve been thinking about this more carefully of late. And it’s occurring to me that there’s a difference between being attached to the world… and being engaged with it.

I have no idea if this philosophy is consistent with Buddhism, secular or otherwise. But here’s the way I’ve been thinking of it lately.

Hands_in_action_-_fist_1 Attachment to the world means being unwilling to let the world change. It means being attached to certain specific aspects and iterations of the world — objects, places, moments, people — exactly as they are right now. It’s like a sense of entitlement: the idea that I have the right to keep things exactly the way I like them, forever. (Tangent: It occurs to me that the traditional Christian view of Heaven is a very attached view. It’s a desire to have all the good things you ever had in your life, all the people you ever loved, all with you at once, forever… only, mysteriously, without any of the conflict or striving that made these people and your relationships with them what they were. But I digress.)

Hand reach Engagement with the world, on the other hand, means accepting that the world changes. It means participating in the world, loving it, letting it in, letting myself out into it. But it also means accepting that some aspects and iterations of the world that I love are going to change, or even disappear. Sometimes temporarily — sometimes forever. It means understanding that change is inherent in the nature of the world, and that loving the world means loving and accepting the ways that it changes. It means letting the world flow through me, instead of trying to hang onto it and keep the good bits in a jar.

Engagement is sort of the opposite of attachment. But it’s not the opposite of attachment in the same way that detachment is. It doesn’t deal with the problem of attachment in a changing world by setting myself apart from the world so I won’t get hurt by it. It deals with the problem of attachment in a changing world by accepting that the world changes, by accepting that change is one of the few real constants in the world… and by not fighting against that.

But I think that engagement also means accepting that these changes are going to affect me… and it means not fighting against that, either.

Sad_face One of the things I’ve been doing for my mental and emotional health in recent years has been to let myself just feel my emotions. Instead of constantly trying to manage them or ignore them or over-analyze them or shove them on the back burner, I’ve been trying to just let myself… well, feel what I feel already. At least sometimes. (It’s a technique taught to me by a therapist who I’m pretty sure was a Buddhist, although we never talked about it.)

All of that ignoring/ managing/ back-burner shoving I tend to do with my emotions is obviously an attempt to not suffer. But it’s not a very effective attempt in the long run, or indeed in the medium run. In an odd way, it’s a form of attachment: an attachment to not suffering, to not feeling bad. If I can let go of my attachment to not experiencing grief or fear or anger or disappointment or what have you, and simply let myself feel it, it becomes easier to move on from it. My feelings of suffering about loss have been hard-wired into me by millions of years of evolution, and denying them makes no more sense than denying any other fundamental reality. My feelings about the world are part of the world… and thus they’re part of what I’m trying to accept, part of what I’m learning to just let flow through me.

In the world of clinical psychology and social work, among attachment theorists and clinicians who study crying and grief, there are some who make a distinction between “sad crying” and “protest crying.” “Protest crying” expresses the refusal to accept loss. It treats the fact of loss as a terrible injustice, and demands an immediate return of whatever it is that’s been lost. It says, “I don’t want this, and I don’t accept it.” (Not coincidentally, “protest crying” is more likely to elicit a hostile or irritated reaction from others, since it’s out of proportion, disconnected from reality, and makes people feel manipulated.)

“Sad crying,” on the other hand, expresses despair over loss. It expresses our recognition that whatever’s been lost is really gone, and expresses our feelings of grief about it. It says, “I don’t want this, but I understand that this is how it is.” (And it’s more likely to elicit sympathy and compassion and attachment from other people… the good kind of attachment, the clinical- psychology “connecting with others” definition of attachment, not the bad Buddhist definition.)

I think this theory gets to the heart of this difference between attachment and engagement. Protesting against the world as it is, protesting against the very fact of change and loss? That’s attachment. Experiencing sadness at the fact that things or people you love are gone? That’s engagement. That’s part of the process of accepting change. And I’m okay with that.

Morphine Maybe the Buddhists are right. Maybe the cessation of suffering is attainable. But I don’t think I want to attain it. If I really wanted to attain the cessation of suffering, I’d just hook myself up to a morphine drip and call it a day. I don’t want to do that. (To be fair, that’s not what Buddhism advocates, either. It’s not like “hook yourself up to a morphine drip until you die” is one of the steps on the Eightfold Path.)

Jump for joy Maybe life is suffering. But I don’t see my goal in life as minimizing suffering. I see my goal in life as maximizing joy. For other people, as well as for myself. Caring about life, and being connected and engaged with it, is how I get that joy. And feeling grief or anger or disappointment or whatnot when the things I’m connected with disappear… well, that’s a fair price to pay for that joy. More than fair. For me, being engaged with the world involves accepting that the world changes, and letting that be… but it also involves accepting that I’m going to have my feelings about the world changing, and letting that be as well.

Related post:
The Meaning of Death, Part 3 of Many: Fear, Grief, and Actually Experiencing Your Emotions

Brief Blog Semi-Break

I’m taking a brief semi- break from the blog this week. Ingrid hurt her back, so I’m in caretaker mode, and don’t have a lot of extra time or energy. I have some pieces I’ve already written that I’ll be putting up, but I won’t be blogging as much as I usually do, and I’m taking a break from the Atheist Memes of the Day. I’ll be back as soon as I can.

Closeted Politicians and Bi Invisibility

Roy-ashburn Does outing closeted gay politicians contribute to bisexual invisibility?

It occurs to me that the way I put that question is sort of answering itself. Let me re-phrase: Does outing closeted politicians who have sex with same-sex partners contribute to bisexual invisibility?

There’s been yet another story in the news lately, about yet another rabidly homophobic right-wing politician who was discovered to be gay. (Roy Ashburn’s the joker in this round of the game: he’s the one who was arrested for drunk driving after leaving a gay nightclub with another man, and who finally acknowledged that he was gay — after the story had been broken for days. Tangent: This kind of story is becoming so common, it’s starting to be flat-out silly. It’s getting to the point where, when a politician is rabidly homophobic, I just assume now that they’re gay. It’s become a standard item on my gaydar: Does he have unusually good fashion sense? Is he a little more aware of the works of Lady Gaga than is strictly necessary? Is he a right-wing politician who foams at the mouth about how disgusting homosexuals are and consistently votes against gay rights? Yup — probably gay. I think we need to start a PR campaign about this: if “rabid anti-gay political activism” becomes a standard marker for “probable homosexuality,” maybe fewer right-wing politicians will run with it.)

Anyway. Rabidly homophobic right-wing politician; secretly gay. But Amanda Mennis recently wrote me with an interesting question: Does this story of a secretly gay public figure — and the absurdly long parade of stories like it — contribute in some way to bisexual invisibility?

After all, most of the guys in these scandals (and it has just been guys so far) are married, or have some sort of sexual/ romantic relationship with women. Many of them have children. They’re clearly capable of having sex with women. Doesn’t that make them bisexual, not gay? Or at least, doesn’t it suggest the possibility that some of them are bisexual and not gay?

An interesting question. And one that I’m finding tricky to answer.

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Thus begins my new piece on the Blowfish Blog, Closeted Politicians and Bi Invisibility. To read more about how reporting on closeted politicians does or does not contribute to bisexual invisibility — and how closeting screws up the ways we define sexual orientation — read the rest of the piece. (And if you feel inspired to comment here, please consider cross-posting your comment to the Blowfish Blog — they like comments there, too.) Enjoy!

An Open Letter to Concerned Believers

Writing_hand Dear Believer:

Thank you for your concern about the well-being of the atheist movement, and for your advice on how to run it. I appreciate your concern for the image of the atheist movement, and I appreciate you taking the time to give us advice on how to get our message across more effectively.

In particular, I have received your observation that attempts to persuade people out of their religious beliefs are often seen as rude or offensive — along with your suggestion that we therefore should stop making our case altogether. I have also received your suggestion that, if we do feel it necessary to point out the flaws in religion, we do so gently and diplomatically, making the avoidance of any possible offense or hurt feelings our absolute top priority. I have received your observation that attempts to persuade people out of religious beliefs can be divisive, possibly alienating the progressive ecumenical religious community — and I have received your suggestion that we should therefore concentrate entirely on anti-discrimination and separation of church and state issues that we have in common with progressive believers, and abandon any focus on pointing out the flaws in religion or the harm done by it. And I have received your suggestion that we avoid any use of anger, humor, mockery, passion, and other traditional methods of drawing attention to controversial ideas, and that in the future we make our case soberly, moderately, and with little fanfare. These suggestions are certainly interesting, and I will give them all due consideration.

However, while your concern for the well-being of the atheist movement is certainly appreciated, I can assure you that it is unwarranted.

God Delusion The atheist movement is doing extraordinarily well — especially for a movement that has only become seriously mobilized in the last few years. Atheists have gone from being on virtually nobody’s radar, to being a major topic of conversation at water- coolers and in op-ed pieces, in a matter of a few years. We have made astonishing strides in visibility, for our issues and for our very existence, in an extremely short period of time. Many of our books are best-sellers. Our lobbyists have met with White House officials, and we have even been openly acknowledged in positive ways by the President of the United States — something that, to my knowledge, has never before happened in the history of this country.

And rates of religious non-belief are going up at a substantial rate — a rate that even surprises many of us — all over the United States and all over the world. This trend is especially true among young people… arguably the most important demographic for any social change movement. What’s more, I personally have been told by several people that they left their religion and became atheists, in part, because of things I’ve written. And I know that I left my own religious beliefs, in large part, because of things that were written by people in the atheist movement.

Clearly, we are doing something right.

Hand over mouth silence means security It is difficult to avoid the observation that, whenever believers give advice to atheists on how to run our movement, it is always in the direction of telling us to be more quiet, to tone it down, to be less confrontational and less visible. I have yet to see a believer advise the atheist movement to speak up more loudly and more passionately; to make our arguments more compelling and more unanswerable; to get in people’s faces more about delicate and thorny issues that they don’t want to think about; to not be afraid of offending people if we think we’re right. I have received a great deal of advice from believers on how atheists should run our movement… and it is always, always, always in the direction of politely suggesting that we shut up.

You’ll have to forgive me if I question the motivation behind this advice, and take it with a grain of salt.

You’ll have to forgive me if I think your suggestions on making our movement more effective would, in fact, have the exact opposite effect. What’s more, you’ll have to forgive me for suspecting that this, however unconsciously, is the true intention behind your very kind and no doubt sincerely- meant advice.

And you’ll have to forgive me if I am less than enthusiastic about taking advice on how to run the atheist movement from the very people our movement is trying to change.

Your concern is duly noted. Thank you for sharing.