Twin sons of different mothers

January 13, 2011

Musing on yesterday’s blog post about this guy’s effort to promote something he’s calling “One Day, No Religion,” I had an obvious thought: This whole “New Atheist” movement is a mirror image of a kind of evangelical Christianity that drives me nuts. The kind that’s glib, with its bumper-sticker sloganeering; that doesn’t try to listen to differing points of view; that is filled with righteous indignation; that feels constantly put upon by outsiders.

How different are these billboards, really?

This one is brought to you by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

This is one of the tamer billboards in this ad campaign.

Now, with these billboards and events like “One Day, No Religion,” the atheists have their own ticky-tacky marketing campaigns and protest movements. I assume they’ll soon sell atheist T-shirts and tchotchkes at their own bookstores—or at least an online equivalent. They probably already do. Just wait: soon the poor, put-upon atheist kids will gather round the flagpole before school!

It’s adorable, really…

But I also feel some pity. I mean, I’m sure there are atheists out there whose atheism is hard-won, intellectually rigorous, and properly nihilistic (as opposed to insufferably optimistic). These efforts demean and trivialize their faith.

I know how they feel!

10 Responses to “Twin sons of different mothers”


  1. “I assume they’ll soon sell atheist T-shirts and tchotchkes at their own bookstores—or at least an online equivalent.”

    Many organizations with an atheist bent already do.

    “Just wait: soon the poor, put-upon atheist high school students will gather round the flagpole before school!”

    If they’re actually being put-upon, I’m not sure why they would meet around the flagpole before school. Depending on what ‘put-upon’ means, they’d probably meet after school and then go to a school board meeting.

    “and properly nihilistic (as opposed to insufferably optimistic). ”

    ‘Properly’ according to whom? My atheism is hard-won, intellectually rigorous, and I’m pleasantly and cautiously optimistic about the world and my life.

    “These efforts demean and trivialize their faith.”

    ‘Faith’ is probably an inaccurate choice of word.

  2. brentwhite Says:

    NotAScientist,

    I figured you wouldn’t like my use of the word “faith,” but as you know from our previous thread, we differ on that. To be an atheist is to have faith—a scientifically unsupportable belief that beyond the realm of science lies nothing.

    You disagree that atheism, properly understood, is nihilistic? Nietzsche, among others, would take issue with you. To say that you’re “optimistic” about the future implies, to me at least, that you have a concept of “the good” toward which the future is heading. For an atheist, the good is nothing more than an arbitrary feeling—certainly not something you can prove scientifically. As we discussed earlier, evolution implies no “ought.” You agreed with me, right? Without an ought, the good is arbitrary—based on nothing, i.e., nihilistic.

    If these atheists feel put upon by a system that opposes them, as many in the New Atheist movement seem to think, then they might stage their little protests… like the day without religion thing. Or what those Christian kids do around the flagpole—a show of solidarity, or whatever.

    I believe you when you say that your atheism is hard-won and intellectually rigorous. Thanks for sharing!


  3. “To be an atheist is to have faith—a scientifically unsupportable belief that beyond the realm of science lies nothing.”

    Actually, it’s not that at all.

    It’s the understanding that the best way to determine truth is to look for evidence, and thus only believe things that have evidence backing them up. No faith needed whatsoever.

    “You disagree that atheism, properly understood, is nihilistic?”

    Correct.

    Atheism, as properly understood, is the lack of belief in a god or gods. And that’s it. Some atheists can be nihilists. But I’ve never seen any good reason to be.

    “Nietzsche, among others, would take issue with you.”

    So what?

    “For an atheist, the good is nothing more than an arbitrary feeling—certainly not something you can prove scientifically.”

    I can certainly prove it scientifically. All I need to do is define what I mean when I say ‘good’. Then I can scientifically demonstrate how to achieve what I view of as good.

    Granted, what ‘good’ means shouldn’t be a simple answer. So it would take quite a lot of discussion to determine what one means when they say ‘good’. Luckily for humanity, when those discussions happen, there is a surprisingly large amount of agreement on the subject. Most of the disagreement, in fact, seems less to do with ‘what is good’ than ‘whom should benefit from the good’.

    And please note, I’m not saying something is good because nearly everyone agrees on it. I’m just saying that nearly everyone agrees, for the most part, what good is. I’m describing it, not saying how it ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ be.

    “As we discussed earlier, evolution implies no “ought.” You agreed with me, right? Without an ought, the good is arbitrary—based on nothing, i.e., nihilistic.”

    Evolution implies no ought. But I do. I’m not a scientific theory. I’m a person. And I desire, rationally or irrationally, to remain alive, healthy and happy for as long as I possibly can. With that being said, I can logically and scientifically study what would most likely keep me that way.

    The good is based on my values. My values are formed from a combination of biological evolution, cultural evolution, my individual education (both from my family and from school) and my unique human brain.

    My values, while perhaps not as solid as “This is what God wants” (assuming a god existed), are not nothing. And thus, my definition of good is not based on nothing, and I am not nihilistic.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Eh… We’ve been through all this before.

      If you’re feeling open-minded, I invite you to read this previous post, especially the David Bentley Hart essay to which it points. That essay responds to the points you make better than I can (https://brentwhite.wordpress.com/2010/10/15/a-blindingly-obvious-point/).

      The reason you should care about Nietzsche is because he has nicely mapped the terrain on which you’re traveling. He shows you where your path leads.

      If I read you correctly, you say that you’re not a nihilist because you believe that you have value. By all means, I agree strongly that you have value! The universe, I’m afraid, disagrees with us. That’s my point.


      • “The universe, I’m afraid, disagrees with us. That’s my point.”

        And I agree with you.

        I suppose I’m just not arrogant enough to thank that the universe should care about me or give me a value. I’m fine with the value I have for myself and others have for me. I don’t need any more than that.

  4. brentwhite Says:

    Right… Maybe we need to revisit the meaning of “nihilism”? Own the term! Stare into the abyss and be proud that you can fearlessly do so! Just don’t think for a moment what you believe about your “value” has any meaning. You say, “I’m not a nihilist because I’m not nothing. I’m not nothing because I have value.” How do you define what’s valuable? Your argument amounts to this: “What’s valuable to me is valuable, and that suits me fine.” In other words, what’s valuable to me is what’s valuable to me.” That is a tautology. You’re not saying anything.

    There is no scientific evidence for your belief in your value. According to what you write above, you agree with that. Which is fine. But you’re not adhering to your strict principles about “just the evidence.”


    • “Just don’t think for a moment what you believe about your “value” has any meaning.”

      According to whom?

      • brentwhite Says:

        It would be more fun to argue with you if you would engage the actual argument. I know what your response is: “My value has meaning to me and my loved ones, and that’s good enough for me.” And I’m sure that you feel very valuable to you! I’m not denying that.

        In fact, your persistence in seeing “meaning” and “value” where, according to your own rigorous scientific principles, there is none, might even count for evidence of God’s existence. But that’s not my point.

        My point is that your argument boils down to this: “What I value is what’s valuable.” Logically, this is not an argument. It’s a tautology. You’re saying, to make it clear: “What’s valuable to me is what’s valuable to me.” You haven’t proven anything. And you were the one that started this thread by saying that you only believe in “the evidence.” You follow where the evidence leads and nowhere else, and you don’t have faith, etc.

        How is the belief in your “value” consistent with your rigid, I-only-follow-the-evidence principle, with which you began this thread? If you say, “In spite of the fact that I cannot prove my value or self-worth, I am going to persist in believing that I am nonetheless valuable,” will you please concede that that belief is not based on any known evidence in the universe? And it’s not a big stretch to call that “faith.”


  5. “You haven’t proven anything. And you were the one that started this thread by saying that you only believe in “the evidence.””

    When dealing with things like facts, I only believe in the evidence. When dealing with things like emotions, values, meanings…things that are either irrational, non-rational or have more to do with opinion than anything else…I am more than capable of being irrational or simply going with my opinion. Whether or not I have ‘value’ is not a question of fact. It’s a question of opinion. Which is why the question “according to whom?” is so important. ‘Value’ and ‘meaning’ doesn’t mean anything unless you are talking about some sort of being that has that value or gives that meaning.

    You happen to believe that the being giving meaning and value is some sort of deity. I see no good reason to believe that a deity exists, and thus accept that the only ones giving value or meaning are humans. That’s why it doesn’t matter that I have no greater meaning in the universe or to the universe, because I don’t think there’s a great deity out there to give it in the first place.

    It’s like if I asked you “aren’t you depressed that, because you don’t believe in Klingons, you don’t think you have their respect?”. You don’t believe in Klingons, so why should you care?

    “I am going to persist in believing that I am nonetheless valuable,””

    Again, and I’m sorry to keep bringing this back around, but the question ‘valuable to whom?’ has to be asked. I don’t have to believe that I’m valuable to myself, because I am. I know I am. I know I am because I enjoy life and prefer it to what I presume not-life would be.

    I may not be valuable to you, but so what? (No offense.) Clearly I’m valuable enough to bother talking to. I’m valuable enough according to my friends, which they demonstrate by being friends and spending time with me. I’m valuable enough to my parents and family, which they demonstrate by having raised me.

    And it doesn’t have to be rational or ‘evidence’ based because it’s all a matter of opinion. Which, as I said, I’m fine with.

  6. brentwhite Says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful response. This will be my last post in this thread. I’ll give you the last word if you wish.

    You seem to concede that there are rather large and imposing limits in the ability of science and reason to “explain” our world. I find that very encouraging. After all, these non-rational things—”things like emotions, values, meanings,” “matters of opinion,” things that give our lives meaning—are among the most profoundly interesting experiences human beings have. Falling in love, for example, is far more exciting than studying physics. No one writes poems about special relativity.

    I hate to put it in terms of “explanation,” because I reject the “God of the gaps” concept (I’m perfectly happy to accept that the world has evolved, etc., since there’s no contradiction whatsoever with Christian faith), but inasmuch as we can comprehend it, the Christian faith explains all of reality. We get to keep these things like facts but also those far more interesting non-rational things, too.

    You haven’t, in my view, begun to wrestle enough with the question of nihilism. Based on your own beliefs, your values are empty, insubstantial, and arbitrary. They are happy accidents.

    Your view of morality as “something we human beings mostly agree on” seems incredibly simplistic. In Christianity, we believe that justice has teeth. Thank God! When we see this horrible tragedy in Arizona last week and say, “That’s wrong,” we are appealing to something beyond accidental, arbitrary biological and cultural encoding. (While we’re on the subject, words like “horrible” and “tragedy” also have content and meaning.) There is a foundation for justice. Indeed, there is a judge.

    Justice, like love, is one of those incredibly interesting irrational things that we believers get to hold onto.

    This is, in my view, a rather substantial problem for your individually derived values. You feel happy and optimistic about your life in part because you happen to live in a place where the vast majority of people share your values. If you were transported back in time to Stalinist Russia or Pol Pot’s Cambodia, say, or made to live today in a Taliban-dominated part of Afghanistan, and your values were disrespected—indeed, if your life was endangered because you lived among people who didn’t share those values, who didn’t believe that your life had value—the best you could do is shrug your shoulders and say, “Too bad for me.”

    The Stalinists or Pol Pot or the Taliban are not more or less “wrong” to deprive you of your life, because they are acting in accord with their own irrational consciences, values, feelings, and by your principles there’s nothing wrong with that. They are, in a sense, completely in the “right,” because it’s right to them. It’s “wrong” to you, of course, but you know that’s only an irrational feeling that’s not based on anything beyond you.

    There are no “human rights.” There’s no higher court that says, “This is wrong.” Of course a court may say it’s wrong—lucky you—but it’s just that some people accidentally agree with you. Other people disagree, and that’s all just fine. We’re all living according to our individually derived, objectively meaningless values.

    Again, I do wish you’d read the David Bentley Hart piece I mentioned above. He at least helps us appreciate how high the stakes are in abandoning faith in God. And his essay responds to an atheist ethicist and philosopher on these very issues.

    And—from our last thread from a couple of months ago—bear in mind that there’s a rather large chasm that science can never cross. Why do we exist? Philosophically, nothing within the realm of time, space, and matter can explain the existence of time, space, and matter. This isn’t even a controversial statement.

    The question of whether or not something is beyond time, space, and matter is, by all means, another one of those incredibly interesting “non-rational” opinions. Please don’t imagine that science can answer that.

    So that’s all. Have the last word, if you wish. We’d just be re-hashing old arguments if we continue. No one, I strongly believe, arrives at faith, or a lack of faith, through a well-developed argument, anyway. We human beings are far less rational than that!


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