An honest atheist’s reply to Ted Wright – Part One


There’s a new Christian blogger in town; Ted Wright, founder of a group called Epic Archaeology, who has now set up a blog called Off The Map. He’s started off with a post titled Honest Atheism, of which the summary is basically ‘Excuse me, atheists, could I just point out to you that your worldview really sucks for you? Stay tuned to hear more about the comparative joys of Christianity.’

I thought I’d write a reply, which I’m splitting into two posts due to length. Content warning for talk of death and dying.

This is the first (real) post of my new personal blog, and it will be… to put it bluntly…disturbing and to some, depressing. This is intentional. My goal is simply to get people to really THINK about what it is that they believe, and to see the logical conclusions of what they believe about ultimate reality.

Why?

Let’s say for a moment that atheism really was as depressing a worldview as you believe. (I disagree, but set that aside for a moment.) What good do you feel it would do you to rub that in? Reality isn’t going to change for our benefit regardless of how depressing it is, and I assume (I hope correctly) that you wouldn’t advise anyone to choose their beliefs based on what feels good.

But, OK, let’s go for it – let’s both look at the logical conclusions of what we believe about ultimate reality. I’ll go first, since you wrote the blog post.

First, though, we have this:

Sproul taught that when all of the various worldviews are boiled down to their basic components, there are only two in the end for us to choose from – two views of reality in which all people must put their ultimate hope and trust: full orbed Classical Christian Theism or Atheistic-Nihilism.  I fully agree with this assessment. Like Sproul, I am also fully aware how how this understanding appears to commit either/or fallacy in logic. I don’t think it does. Either there is a God and all that Christian Theism implies (including miracles, the afterlife, and the resurrection of Christ from the dead); or there is NO GOD, no afterlife, and life is completely and utterly absurd.

Whoa, there. Are you planning a follow-up post to justify that claim? I hope so, because I think that anyone who’s going to dismiss polytheism, deism, agnosticism, Judaic theism, Islamic theism, and probably a few other -isms I’m not thinking of into the bargain as being so incorrect as to become somehow functionally nonexistent for purposes of consideration should darned well justify that attitude beyond a mere handwave.

(Also – yes, I have spotted you slipping in your opinion about atheism at the end of that as though it could be stated as objective fact. I get that you believe that if atheism is correct then ‘life is completely and utterly absurd’, and you’re welcome to that opinion, but do be aware that it is an opinion and that there are many people who don’t share it.)

Anyway, on to Ted’s thoughts on how awful atheism must be as a worldview and on how bizarre he finds it that atheists don’t seem to feel that way:

What I find quite interesting is that many atheists, as well as those who are a-religious, or hard agnostics, ACT as if life has meaning, significance & value

Because to us, it does.

They conduct their affairs and live their lives as if there REALLY IS ultimate meaning and significance.

No – just as though there’s meaning and significance. Because, as you point out a couple of sentences later, there is. Meaning and significance are not things which have to be ‘ultimate’ or eternal or God-ordained to exist.

Where does the meaning come from? What exactly gives it [sic] meaning?

Very likely from most of the same places yours does. I’d be surprised if the only thing you found meaningful in your life was your worship practices; it’s far more likely that your life contains at least some out of family, friends, some kind of meaningful work, enjoyable hobbies, and the chance to make a positive impact on others, all of which are very important potential sources of meaning.

Are they brutally honest with the implications of their atheism – of there being no God? Do they look down the road to see where it leads – so to speak?

I can only speak for myself here – and I’ll be interested to hear what any other atheists weighing in on this have to say – but, yes. I’ve always been well aware that, if there’s no god, then that means that a) there’s no higher power to help out in times of crisis, and b) it’s extremely unlikely that there is any form of afterlife.

(I put ‘extremely unlikely’ because it’s technically possible to believe in a godless universe where an afterlife still exists; after all, Buddhists manage it. It’s not what an atheist would typically believe, however, and it’s not what I believe.)

Unless I’m wrong about my beliefs, the ‘me’ part of me is going to wink out completely when I die. No reincarnation, no living on in a blissful afterlife, no nothing. And the same is going to happen to everyone else, meaning that, when I lose loved ones, I have no chance of ever meeting them again. Honestly, Ted… as much as these things might suck, they aren’t deep dark secrets about atheism, or obscure points that might have escaped our attention. They’re well-known, obvious facts. I’m going to be pretty surprised if you can find many atheists who, prior to you bringing this to their attention, were blithely unaware of the fact that no god = almost certainly no afterlife = when we’re dead, we’re gone with no do-overs.

Yes, I’d certainly have preferred it if all the searching I’d done on the matter (which was a lot, in case you’re wondering, and the posts at that link don’t even include all the considerable amount of investigating I did of Christianity specifically) had led me to the belief that the world was in the charge of some kind of benevolent higher power. I’d certainly have preferred to believe that I’d get the chance to live on in some pleasant and enjoyable type of existence after my death (my personal preference would be for reincarnation, but I’d have happily settled for some kind of merit-based afterlife). Concluding that neither of the above appeared to be the case wasn’t the sort of devastating abandon-all-hope experience you seem to think it would be, but it wasn’t something I was wildly thrilled about. But… that isn’t a good reason to choose a belief. I couldn’t in all honesty convince myself that the evidence supported belief in a god or an afterlife, and I didn’t want to be someone who based her beliefs on wishful thinking.

“[…]Yes, for the thoughtful atheist death must loom as a crushing catastrophe. Everything good, noble, beautiful experienced throughout life is about to vanish…

not simply for a week or two,

not for a century,

…but forever.

On the atheist’s premise death is a nightmare unbroken by a dawn” [Quoted from Thomas Dubay, The Evidential Power of Beauty: Science and Theology Meet]

Now, that strikes me as hyperbole. Yes, it sucks to know that we may well not get to do everything we want before we die. It sucks worse to know that, if a loved one dies before us, that’s it – we will never see them again outside our memories and imaginations. But‘crushing catastrophe’? ‘[N]ightmare unbroken by a dawn’? Death, from our perspective, is nonexistence. What Dubay seems to be saying here is that death itself will be a terrible experience to be endured, when, in fact, the very nature of it means that we won’t experience it (beyond, possibly, the seconds of actually slipping into death) at all. It’s not as though we’re going to be spending eternity lamenting the loss of all those good and noble and beautiful things we wanted to experience; we won’t be experiencing anything at all, and that’s that.

I also have to say that what you’re saying does seem to me to be a bit contradictory here. You’re saying (via Dubay’s quote) that the loss of existence is ‘a crushing catastrophe’ and ‘a nightmare unbroken by a dawn’. Surely, the implication of that is that existence is a good thing that is worth having. I’m… puzzled as to how someone can feel that way, value existence that way, and yet only feel able to enjoy existence if it’s going to be permanent rather than temporary.

Ted, you seem to be just as puzzled about the fact that I, and others, do feel able to enjoy existence even in the expectation that it’s temporary. (To the point where, in the comments, you’re accusing everyone who feels this way of not being ‘honest’. That, seriously, is out of order. There are people in the world who don’t share your views. That doesn’t make them dishonest; it makes them people who feel differently from you.) So, maybe, try this; think about things that we all know are temporary, but that we enjoy anyway.

What about the experience of bringing up children? While I’ll always be a parent to my two children, their time as children is not going to be permanent. The baby cuddles and the early words and the school days and all those wonderful stages of growth and development they go through… some of those have already passed forever, and all of the rest will as well. And I knew that would happen when I chose to have children. Do you find it absurd or incomprehensible that I and millions of other people choose to have children, knowing the experience of parenting children will, although wonderful and fulfilling, be temporary?

What about careers? I love my work as a doctor with a passion, to the point where I plan to go back part-time even after I retire; but, eventually, either death or sheer decrepitude will put an end to it. (And that’s true even on your worldview, by the way; I’m assuming you don’t believe that people who get into heaven or hell go on working at their careers there.) From what I’ve seen, I believe you feel the same way about your work in archaeology, which is also something you’re probably not expecting to keep doing in heaven. Do you find it strange that we both love and enjoy our work even in the knowledge that it will someday come to an end for us?

I hope that helps to give you some insight into why people who don’t believe in an afterlife can still find their lives purposeful, meaningful and enjoyable. If not… well, I’m afraid it’s simply a case of ‘agree to differ’. (In which case, I repeat; the fact that some people feel differently from you on this subject does not make them dishonest. It makes them people who feel differently from you. I hope you will, in future, be able to do others the courtesy of respecting this fact.)

I think that exhausts the logical conclusions of what I believe about ultimate reality. I’ll therefore end the post here and move on to a second post to discuss the logical conclusions of Christian beliefs about the afterlife.

Comments

  1. suttkus says

    Back when I was regularly taking part in evolution/creationism debate forums, we had particularly belligerent creationist who, in a moment that shocked me with it’s seeming honesty, asked, “If all you atheists,” he regularly equated anyone in suport of evolution with atheists, despite frequent correction, “really believe that there’s no such thing as heaven or hell, no such thing as sin, why haven’t you all killed yourselves? If suicide isn’t a sin, why avoid it?”

    I simply cannot imagine the life he must lead to make that a question. To belief that life itself is so completely joyless that anyone who wasn’t in fear of eternal damnation would simply kill themselves immediately baffles me. I can understand hating one’s own life, I can understand being so depressed that one could commit suicide, but to belief that nobody anywhere had any reason to live life at all other than fear of God’s wrath? How utterly desperate, how empty must his life be?

    • Dr Sarah says

      I wonder if, for some people, it’s the equivalent of loving one person so much that you can’t picture life without them? I mean, picture someone who’s just lost a dearly-loved spouse to death or divorce; even if that person did have a lot of other things in their life that gave it meaning or purpose, it’s easy to picture that they might be temporarily so utterly blindsided by grief that they can’t face going on. Of course, people who are in that position usually do eventually find meaning in other things and manage to go on; that grief reaction, while overwhelming and probably prolonged, is ultimately not permanent.

      I think that’s the sort of reaction that some believers get when they picture life without their God. Their lives are so wrapped up in their belief that they can’t see anything past that (or picture anyone feeling differently from them) but it doesn’t actually mean that they have nothing else meaningful in their lives, just that, for them, it’s overshadowed by the importance of their belief. That, at any rate, makes more sense to me than thinking that someone would literally have nothing else at all in their life giving them hope or meaning besides their belief; anyone whose life was that empty, that dependent on one one-sided thing, would surely notice that life wasn’t exactly great for them anyway.

  2. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    If you will permit me, let me post my thoughts. I’ve done a lot of these debates. Basically, the Christians who make such arguments are just really bad at epistemology. It’s the classic “is-ought” problem.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Is%E2%80%93ought_problem
    In short, they’re adding a hidden premise, which is “only a god can give (objective) meaning and value to life”. The only “logical” response to any naked moral assertion like this is simply to say “I do not accept this unsubstantiated moral premise”. Then begins the many pages of back-and-forth; me attempting persuasion that their premises suck by appealing to what I believe are actual common shared values, and them doing logic and epistemology really, really badly where they keep asserting premises as undeniably true when they’re not.

    I usually start my persuasion with:

    So, why did you get out of bed this morning? Why did you do anything at all? The answers that you have to your questions are very roughly the same sort of answers that I, the atheist, have. Loosely, it all comes down to “because I wanted to”. I wanted to get out of bed for many reasons (which I’ll spare you for now, but they’re obvious). By your own reasoning, you got out of bed because you wanted to please god, or something. However, that’s still a choice that you made. You could have choice differently. You could have different values. You could choose to go against god’s plan for your life. Ultimately, it comes to my assertion that god’s beliefs and values are no more special than yours, or mine. If your god creature exists, its beliefs and values are just as subjective as anyone else’s. There’s no reason that the god creature’s beliefs are special.

    In particular, “might does not make right” is a principle that I hope we can agree to. For example, let me cite the goa’uld and the Ori of Stargate SG-1. They’re evil aliens claiming to be gods, ruling through force, and they generally they abuse their loyal servants whose lives are really shitty as a result. This is a concrete example of the “evil god” hypothesis. If there was an evil god, I’d like to know, because I’d do exactly what the heroes of SG-1 did: do research, attempt negotiations, with the fallback position of violence in self defense. If the god creature persists in being evil, then it is necessary to restrain it or blow it up. Nuke god!

    What’s this you say? I’m silly, and gods cannot be nuked, because they’re not physical creatures? Well, neither were the Ori. The heroes required additional research and additional technology to make a special kind of bomb to kill non-physical creatures, but they did, and they got that bomb, and with that bomb they eventually killed the Ori and triumphed (but only after attempts at negotiation failed). At least, we won’t know if it’s possible or not to blow up the god creature until we try, and I’m all for trying.

    In related news, the original source material of your Bible doesn’t actually say it’s omnipotent nor omniscient. In fact, if you take the source material at face value, reasonable arguments can be made that the world’s militaries would utterly curb-stomp the demons and angels if it came to a fight. In particular, Paul is rather adamant that humans, demons, angels, etc., in heaven are made out of physical bodies – better (“perfect”), but still physical bodies, and presumably you can still just shoot them. We’ve made a lot of technological progress since the bronze age, and we are very, very good at killing compared to bronze age tech, and seemingly the demons and angels are not good at technological advancements. This is the idea of one of my favorite series of novels: The Salvation War.
    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Literature/TheSalvationWar

    http://www.tboverse.us/HPCAFORUM/phpBB3/viewforum.php?f=29

    The story even has a FAQ, and it addresses many of the questions and counter-arguments that you might have already thought up:
    http://www.tboverse.us/HPCAFORUM/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?f=29&t=4555&sid=2a385bfa25c388498eb509722eac4ded

    • Dr Sarah says

      ‘ In fact, if you take the source material at face value, reasonable arguments can be made that the world’s militaries would utterly curb-stomp the demons and angels if it came to a fight.’

      Just wanted to say that I love this idea.

      • EnlightenmentLiberal says

        http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Literature/TheSalvationWar

        Deconstruction:

        * Of the Demonic Invaders. In real life, they would had been curbstomped by humanity’s modern weaponry just the same way as in the story.

        * Of Biblical tropes in general, really. Take the supernatural elements of The Bible and Word of Dante, make them conform to the laws of physics enough to interact with the real world but otherwise play them as straight as possible, put them in the modern world, and what do you get? A joke. God Is Evil, the Demonic Invaders are ugly but no real threat to a modern army, the only really bad thing about Hell is the torture, and Heaven is supernaturally clean but still basically a Third World country. It would all be awe-inspiring to a Bronze Age culture but not to anyone who has ever driven a car.

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