Sunday, May 20, 2012

New Atheist and Spiritual Atheist in Dialogue

New Atheist: What’s this I hear about you calling yourself a “spiritual atheist”? Are you a recent convert from some religion and can’t bring yourself all the way to a rational standpoint? Or maybe you’re a philosophical fellow who has to muddy all waters to leave work for academics of your ilk.

Spiritual Atheist: Neither. I grew up in a secular household and although I do read philosophy, I’m no partisan defender of its current academic form. On the contrary, for all the social good professional philosophers presently do, they might as well close up shop.

NA: Ah, then you must be a closet mystic, an accommodationist who thinks religion and science can live happily together, because there are some mysteries that science or reason more generally will never solve. In other words, you’re addicted to woo.

Spirituality as Woo

SA: Well, that’s a lot of loaded rhetoric. What do you mean by “woo,” for example?

NA: Just what I said: you want to preserve mysteries by using obscure notions that are supposed to build bridges between religion and science.

SA: More loaded rhetoric and ad hominem. Even if I were “addicted” to Mystery, shouldn’t you feel embarrassed as a so-called rationalist to stoop to such a postmodern fallacy, confusing the psychological origin of an idea with its epistemic merit?

NA: Fine, then, ditch the rhetoric! Sheesh! Who says the debate about atheism can’t be entertaining?

SA: Is that the purpose of New Atheism, to entertain theists so they’ll stop demonizing atheists? Is New Atheism just a media-driven shouting match that sells books for a handful of popular atheists, following the same rules of infotainment as postmodern American politics?

NA: Hardly, we’ve got logic and science on our side, as you should know.

SA: Then why not try defining “woo” again and this time without the personal attack? You’ll find that I’m entertained more by a thorough investigation of ideas than by a trumped-up partisan conflict.

NA: Fine, woo is the false mystical notion that human reason and sense experience are limited, but that we have other modes of empirical knowledge, such as intuition, self-consciousness (as in meditation), or--heaven help me!--divine revelation.

SA: That’s more constructive. First off, a quick semantic matter to avoid unnecessary confusion: you’re begging the question when you speak of “empirical” knowledge, since that sort’s defined as being scientific, relying on observation or experiment. So I assume the question is whether the woo practitioner has independent access to knowledge of some facts in general, not specifically to scientific knowledge such as knowledge of how things work.

NA: Fair enough, but woo is supposed to be a matter of ultimate Truth, not just mundane knowledge.

SA: Understood. So let’s take your definition’s first part. Do you really think human reason and observation, that is, logic and science, are unlimited? Are we potentially omniscient thanks to those cognitive powers?

NA: I suppose it’s possible the universe contains things we could never understand.

SA: Just possible and not probable? Sure, modern science has progressed tremendously, but science itself tells us how limited we are: our cognitive faculties serve humble evolutionary functions and so it would be miraculous were everything in the universe to be understandable by our mammalian brainpower.

NA: OK, so reason and observation are limited ways of understanding things. But that doesn’t mean we have some third kind of knowledge, whether limited or unlimited. Woo enters the picture when someone pretends to have genuine knowledge, whereas they’re merely employing fancy rhetoric that exploits people’s gullibility.

SA: I suspect that your point here reduces to a semantic one having to do with your definitions of “observation” and “reason.” Mystics claim to discover metaphysical truth through intense self-awareness. Does a mystic’s meditation count as observation? And does philosophical speculation count as a rational exercise? If so, many of those you’d call guilty of the egregious sin of woo--apart from some paranormal pseudoscientists and other charlatans--are actually fellow rationalists, given the extended definitions.

NA: Neither mystical experience nor philosophical speculation provides us with knowledge that’s anywhere near as reliable as scientific methods.

SA: Ah, but now you’ve moved the goalposts to your epistemic standard of reliability. Do you mean to say that all of our beliefs that can be true or false should be reliable, that if we’re not certain about something, because we lack a strict scientific theory or the ability to measure the phenomenon with great accuracy, we should remain agnostic about it?

NA: That would seem the most rational course of action.

SA: Maybe, but unfortunately we’re not so rational--again, as biology and the cognitive sciences themselves have shown. Have you forgotten that you’re only a mammal after all? That your brain has evolved to make snap decisions for the practical purpose of keeping you alive in tight spots? That our species has survived largely because of our boundless curiosity, which causes us to indulge in speculation, to comfort ourselves with guesses as to hidden meanings, to creatively posit values, to project our biases onto the nonhuman aspects of nature?

NA: Yes, we’re largely irrational animals, but rationality is my highest ideal.

SA: Really? Pray tell me whether you’re fully rational when you’re making love to your wife.

NA: Excuse me?

SA: You heard me, and let’s not fall back now on politically correct conventions of allowable discourse. Your resort to modesty at this point would already indicate that you fall well short of being perfectly rational.

NA: I already conceded I’m not perfectly rational! And no, a rational frame of mind would utterly defeat the point of lovemaking. Happy now?

SA: So you don’t hound the bulk of sexually active humanity for engaging in woo with respect to its romantic endeavors, reserving that criticism for mystics and other spiritual folk. Sounds like cherry-picking, doesn’t it? The sort of double standard enjoyed by the Christian literalist who chooses which parts of the Bible to accept, confusing her personal preference with a God-given hermeneutic principle.

NA: I don’t cherry-pick anything. Sexuality is highly useful. Mystical gibberish isn’t.

SA: Nonsense! First of all, you rationalize sexuality when you pretend that people have sex because of its utility. Sex is often practiced because it’s fun, it comforts us, and so on. Second, it’s undeniable that for millennia the mystical core of religions has had comparable psychological benefits. Thus, I say again that you’re working with a double standard, cherry-picking like a fundamentalist; as an atheist, you’ll want to quit doing that.

NA: Even if there’s a double standard here, it’s hardly an arbitrary one. Sex is more conventional than mysticism, at least in modern societies.

SA: Again, errant nonsense! First, even in modern societies sex is usually acceptable only in the abstract and on the surface. You’ll note that most people, yourself included, are embarrassed to publicly deal with our sexuality. Sex itself is kept private. Deep down, then, we modernists are as ashamed of sex as are puritanical religious fundamentalists. Second, if so-called mystical woo were socially unacceptable, there would hardly be any sin here which the New Atheist feels the need to condemn. No, it’s surely because the New Age section of bookstores, for example, is often as large as the science section that the New Atheist is so ready to pounce on woo. But this means that what you call mystical gibberish is socially accepted even in sophisticated and wealthy modern societies. For pity’s sake, just look at Oprah’s popularity!

NA: Alright, then, you’ve made your point. Rationality may not be my ultimate, exclusive ideal.

SA: And perhaps you shouldn’t be so judgmental of how people achieve their peace of mind, as long as they don’t harm anyone in the process. Sex is fine despite its irrationality, and perhaps so is woo, that is, the deriving of some kind of psychological benefit from appreciating presumed grand mysteries. Again, as long as mystics don’t retard scientific progress, you might refrain from arbitrarily condemning one form of irrationality while indulging in your own form.

NA: I suppose that would be reasonable--although New Age mystics have indeed dulled people’s appreciation of science in places like the United States.

SA: Yes, I’m sure you’re right. Luckily, my form of spirituality--what you called woo--is a much more private and science-friendly affair.

NA: Well, now that we’re clear on the possibility of valuable forms of irrationality, what exactly is your brand of woo?

SA: Actually, before we discuss it I’m afraid I’ll have to insist that you refrain from using that word, “woo,” now that I’ve shown you the problem with your underlying double standard. You understand, I insist this for your benefit, not mine: I’m just trying to prevent someone from mistaking you for a type of religious zealot.

NA: Very gracious and condescending of you. Call it what you like then, but what on Earth is your spiritual atheism?

Secular Humanism vs Existential Cosmicism

SA: My spirituality begins with an appreciation of the likelihood that we’ll remain ignorant of important matters due to our mammalian nature. For me, this mysterianism, as philosophers call it, goes hand in hand with a sobering appraisal of our position in the natural universe. And so, in effect, I combine something like H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmicism with melancholy existentialism, which gives me a value system for dealing with philosophical questions, but also for coping psychologically with life’s travails.

NA: Why call any of that “spiritual”?

SA: We needn’t get hung up on words. Perhaps you’re right and my use of that word could be misleading in this context; indeed, “spirituality” has sloppy sentimental connotations that I’d disown. However, the definition I have in mind is actually just a standard one, according to which spirituality has to do with religion or with the sacred, that is, with ultimate values. I suspect that everyone holds something to be sacred rather than profane in that sense. For me, what’s sacred is the darkly comedic vision of our life’s absurdity, the horror of our tragedy. In a Nietzschean manner, I seek to transmute that horror into rapture, finding meaning even in our very worst-case scenario. (See Postmodern Religion.)

NA: Well, then, if I understand what you mean by your “spiritual atheism,” your spirituality conflicts with what you’d call mine, namely with my secular humanistic philosophy. For me, we find value in life through the liberal institutions of democracy and capitalism which raise the standard of living, thanks to the engine of modern science. Freedom of thought and action and the secular pursuit of happiness dignify human life. And wallowing in existential misery can only be counterproductive, not to mention immature, that is, juvenile and romantic. Frankly, you should grow up, work hard, and find ultimate value in your friends, family, work, and material rewards. Atheists should be humanists in that sense. Indeed, existential or cosmicist atheism would be politically disastrous in our war with the worst of religions. Were atheism such a bummer, our ranks would dwindle.

SA: Lots to chew on there. You’re saying, I think, that our highest purpose is to be happy, and that happiness is achieved by participating productively in society, by maintaining social connections, and by enjoying the material benefits of scientific progress.

NA: Roughly, yes.

SA: In that case, while I agree that most atheists likely think that way, and also that for strategic purposes, the dark, existential and cosmicist implications of philosophical naturalism should be kept hidden from some people, I deny that secular humanism is as respectable as the spiritual atheism I espouse. Indeed, I’d distinguish between what are typically the exoteric and esoteric forms of value systems that separate the sacred from the profane. Your secular humanism is for exoteric consumption, while existential cosmicism is atheism’s higher, esoteric form.

NA: What do you mean by “higher, esoteric form”?

SA: I mean that even secular humanists should understand, if only subliminally, that wrestling with the revolutionary consequences of what Nietzsche called the death of God, instead of falling for a substitute, secular religion that’s just as delusive as any ancient theistic tradition, is nobler, more heroic.

NA: Oh dear, you’re going to equate secular humanism with religion? And I suppose you’ll declare that scientific rationality is just a form of religious faith. Postmodern drivel!

SA: No, like I said, I appreciate the strength of scientific methods, since it’s those very methods that burst so many of our bubbles, and what’s sacred for me is the prospect of coping in an aesthetically pleasing way with our humiliation at the hands of scientists. Again, we needn’t get hung up on the use of words. But if we use Durkheim’s broad theory of religion, as a social structure for implementing a distinction between the sacred and the profane, or for upholding the group’s ultimate values, then yes, secular humanism surely counts as a (nontheistic) religion. (See Mourning God's Death.)

NA: Fine, call it what you like. And so you’re saying that secular humanism is a cheap substitute for Christianity or Islam, a delusion that’s more compatible with modern science than are those anachronistic ideologies?

SA: There’s nothing cheap about it. The modern values that emerged from the Scientific Revolution--the Renaissance values of genius and originality and the Enlightenment celebration of reason and individual liberty--were themselves products of genius: the greatest European minds rose to the challenge of replacing God-centered culture with an explicitly anthropocentric one. They could hardly have done otherwise once the Church lost the political power to control what Europeans believed. As wealth shifted from the Church to merchants, and as the elites came to admire artistic creativity and reason more than tradition and faith, a value system was needed to accommodate the fact that the sacred could no longer be considered supernatural. Modernists developed just such a convenient worldview with myths of our great freedom and rationality.

NA: You can call them myths, but the superiority of capitalism and democracy to other social systems is obvious. By harnessing scientific methods in the research and development phases of satisfying our desires with material products, businesses tangibly elevate our standard of living by building on well-established facts of how the world actually works. Just compare the average economic power of the stifling dictatorships in the Middle East or North Korea with that of the more modern G8 countries. Do you really think that for all our social ills, modern secular nations are as deluded as theocracies?

SA: There’s no denying the greater wealth and power of modern societies compared to premodern ones, but you’re assuming that economic success precludes delusion. That’s dubious. Marx was likely closer to the truth when he said that all societies embrace ideologies that serve the interests of the members who have the most economic power, whether those members be dictators or free-thinking capitalists. Hapless theocrats revere their Leader for his divine wisdom or his inheritance of power from God, while modernists celebrate individual liberty and material wealth because those are the values of the vicious, willful competitors who rise to the top of the modern, social Darwinian free-for-all.

NA: But you’re missing the point: everyone would embrace the values of personal liberty and material wealth if given the chance, because those values generate more stable, secure and peaceful societies. People immigrate from dictatorships to democracies, not the other way around.

SA: You might be right that everyone wants to be happy in the primordial sense of living in peace and security with those in their personal social network. This raises two questions. First, does modernism most effectively achieve that end? Second, should happiness be our highest goal? Let’s start with the first question. You say that capitalism and democracy, the organs of modernism, raise the standard of living. However, this assumes a materialistic measure of success. Even if we adopt that measure, there’s the possibility of severe blowback, whether from terrorist uprisings from the have-not parts of the world or from the destruction of the ecosystem, which may threaten everyone’s chance for prosperity. But put that aside. It’s possible to enjoy everything that money can buy and still be miserable, suffering ennui and spiritual emptiness, holding nothing sacred because modern society surrounds you with transparently false idols that are rendered such by modern freedom of thought itself. Modernists may be prosperous, but they’re cursed with uniquely modern afflictions, including even mental disorders like anxiety and depression. 

NA: Alright, for the sake of argument I’ll grant that modernism generates a form of suffering that’s left out of the economist’s measurement of success. Is your criticism of secular humanists, then, that they’re less happy than they think?

SA: That would be slightly paradoxical. No, my criticism is that the modern ideology of secular humanism makes for an admirable substitute religion that relocates the sacred from heaven to somewhere on Earth or at least in nature, but that this religion is psychologically unsustainable for those who resort to shaky myths instead of grappling with the existential consequences of worshipping nature.

NA: I hardly worship nature.

SA: Oh no? You refrain from killing even those people you despise, because you hold human nature--our intelligence, freedom, consciousness--to be precious and indeed sacred. You no doubt regard the cosmos that’s investigated by scientists as beautiful. Secular humanists may not take up the trappings and ceremonies of religious worship--although some of them do--but they do revere things in nature. Indeed, assuming we all hold something to be sacred, naturalists could hardly do otherwise than satisfy their desire to meet something worthy of intense love, respect, and awe, by turning to the only domain they think exists.

NA: Fine, have it your way, but where’s the delusion in secular humanism? Surely the belief that murder is wrong isn’t as wildly mistaken as the belief that a person created the universe in six days.

SA: Tell me again why murder is wrong.

NA: Humans have rights that other animals don’t have, because we have special abilities. Not only do we feel pain, but we’re sentient and self-guiding; we’re aware of ourselves and can intelligently act to further our interests. So interfering with someone’s attempt to work out her own life, especially by killing her and thus irrevocably eliminating that capacity for self-direction, is wrong.

SA: Unfortunately, cognitive science is showing that we’re not as self-determining as was preached in the screeds of Enlightenment individualists. There’s no room for the commonsense kind of freewill in a natural, ultimately physical universe. But even if we were able to govern ourselves, albeit to some limited and likely illusory extent, why should that process be allowed to continue? Why respect every individual’s ability to direct her life?

NA: Why respect it? Well, for one thing, it’s highly rare and thus special and valuable.

SA: But surely no sooner than you finished uttering that statement, you saw its fallacy. Why should something’s rarity make it valuable? The rarity of diamonds makes them economically valuable, but that means only that there aren’t enough diamonds to satisfy everyone’s actual demand for them, which discrepancy raises their price. But the deeper questions would be why everyone wants a diamond in the first place and whether that desire is justifiable. Economic value is neutral regarding the merit of our desires. Diamonds are rare, but that rarity alone doesn’t justify everyone’s interest in owning them. Likewise, everyone wants to decide for themselves what they should do with their lives, as opposed to having someone else decide for them, and that autonomy is rare in nature. But that rarity doesn’t justify our respect and indeed our reverence for autonomy. As it happens, diamonds have other qualities that make them desirable, such as their physical hardness. Do we have some intrinsic qualities that justify our respect for each other’s existence?

NA: Obviously, yes. For example, heterosexual men and women find each other sexually attractive, so naturally we’d prefer to have each other around if only to look at and use once in awhile for our pleasure.

SA: Stumbled right into my trap, didn’t you? Once you tie the right to life to some objective feature or other, you make that right doubly conditional. First, if people have a variety of features, which we clearly do, then only people with the desirable ones would have the right to live. Thus, following up on your example, we’d have a license to shoot ugly men and women in the streets. Second, you make the right to life an instrumental one that depends on our goals. An asexual person, for example, who isn’t interested in physical beauty, would have the right to kill beautiful and ugly people alike, just as someone who isn’t interested in cutting anything would be justified in doing away with diamonds. Likewise, you might say that respecting each other’s life is an efficient way to get what we want in society, since people are more successful in such a peaceful arrangement than in the wild. But again, that makes the right to life an instrumental rather than an unconditional one and dependent on the usefulness of society. Do rich people with their own security force, food supply, and so on, have the right to kill the poor, because the rich can take care of themselves and so don’t have to respect others as a means of ensuring their welfare?

NA: No, I suppose not. Fine, then, we deserve to live not because our freedom is rare or because we’re useful in certain ways, but because...well, I can’t think of the reason offhand. 

SA: Do you see the problem now? What you’re looking for is a secular justification for the monotheistic presumption that human life is unconditionally, inalienably, absolutely good. There’s no such justification, and that’s evidence of the startling historical transition that troubled Nietzsche. So where’s the delusion, you ask? The delusion is in presuming that business can continue as usual in secular societies despite the fact that something as fundamental as the human right to life is at the very least no longer obvious once we bury God. The delusion is in paying lip service to politically correct myths and memes about our preciousness despite the fact that scientists have shown we’re just less-hairy mammals with peculiar linguistic tools. Where is the call for sanctimonious praise of ourselves, given the scientific point of view? Sure, we’re the smartest, most powerful known animals. But in our recent cultured form, we’ve been around for only fifty thousand years. Dinosaur and insect species have thrived for millions, and yet we’d hunt dinosaurs for food or sport if they were still around, just as we actually hunt or domesticate their reptilian and avian relatives, and we swat insects without thinking twice. Even if we reigned for billions of years--and not just over the Earth but the whole galaxy--would that great power show that human life is good? Would might make right?

NA: You’re really starting to pontificate now, aren’t you? I’m trying to understand what bothers you so much about secular humanism. Alright, so philosophy gets more complicated once we dispense with theology, and naturally most people are too busy to dwell on these disturbing questions, relying on pat answers to get by. Is your point, then, that carefree rather than melancholy or anxious atheists tend to be secular humanists rather than existential cosmicists and that the former are somehow inferior to the latter?

SA: Ethically and aesthetically inferior, yes. Once again, we can define these terms in different ways, but in so far as a secular humanist or a New Atheist opposes spirituality as superstition or as otherwise misplaced in a functional modern society, in which democratic and capitalistic business hums along, there’s something very wrongheaded about that kind of atheism, I think. It’s not just that certain vices are involved in resting content with delusions and conventional happy-talk, including cowardice, gullibility, and incuriosity, nor is it just the feeling that the hypocrisy of condemning theism while unconsciously assimilating a host of pragmatic modern myths, which perpetuate stealth oligarchies, is aesthetically off-putting.

There’s also a non-normative problem with modern, allegedly nonreligious atheism, which is, as I said, that this kind seems unsustainable. As we speak--and for decades now--the modern has seemed to give way to the postmodern. This is complicated, to be sure, but what seems to have happened is that we’ve become too rational for our own good. We’ve become hyper-skeptical, like The Simpsons cartoon or The Daily Show, which satirize everything under the sun. We’ve been burned so many times, we think, but we won’t get fooled again. Certainly, we won’t be so foolish as to fool ourselves, by pretending that someone’s opinions are true for anyone else. We’re suspicious of all metanarratives, holding all truth and value to be highly subjective and relative. We reduce theories to biases of gender, class, or of some clique. Everyone’s partisan, no one should be trusted to speak for another, and each ego reigns supreme in its own fragmentary world. Even the messianic Obama triumphed over McCain by pretending to empower everyone but himself, encouraging his supporters to shout “Yes, we can!” like the 2006 Time Magazine cover which featured a mirror, proclaiming that everyone was Person of the Year.

How long can this so-called postmodern state of affairs endure? Will the strain of being hyper-skeptical finally fatigue us so that we Westerners will fall prey to demagogues and impose secular dictatorships on ourselves? The radicalization of the right-wing in the United States isn’t encouraging on that front. My point, though, is that if allegedly nonreligious atheism is unstable, because those atheists replace comforting theistic myths with flimsy secular ones about the glories of democracy, capitalism, and human nature, we should have something at the ready in case the whole secular edifice crumbles. Again, my spirituality is an attempt to salvage meaning from the very worst-case scenario. Thus, I push scientific and naturalistic conclusions to their philosophical extremes, as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Lovecraft, and Thomas Ligotti do, and I search for an honourable way to live under those dire circumstances. This makes for spiritual and not just philosophical atheism, because this search is sacred to me; it’s what matters most.

NA: I don’t have time now to ask you about the details of your existentialism and cosmicism. Instead, I wonder whether you should simply get real. The threat of extreme theism far outweighs the danger that modern societies might implode. Mainstream religion is bad for women and fundamentalism is more dangerous than ever before since the invention of weapons of mass destruction. So while your spiritual atheism may not be as harmful as antiscientific New Age obscurantism, your doom and gloom message could only hinder the New Atheist’s efforts against the worst foe. Strategically, indeed, your so-called spirituality plays into the worst stereotypes about atheism, that atheism implies that life is meaningless, that everything’s permitted, that our situation’s hopeless, and so on.

SA: And you prefer to whitewash naturalistic atheism, pretending that now that God’s dead, we can cheerfully get on with enjoying our lives, like the atheistic billboards say. (See Cosmicism and Pragmatism.) I don’t know how many potential converts to atheism would retreat to their churches and mosques were they to suspect that atheism has a dark side. Anyway, both exoteric and esoteric levels of a value system tend to be needed to suit people’s differences. The atheism of anyone who would retreat to theism were they to hear of existential cosmicism surely wouldn’t have been worthy in the first place. But this is all idle chatter, because deluded folks lack the interest or the intelligence to discover the unsettling truth. Even were existential cosmicism shouted from the rooftops, most people either wouldn’t care enough to be shaken or would lack the philosophical discipline to understand the implications. The separation between the exoteric and esoteric levels of a value system happens organically in that respect.

And to return to the question of whether atheists ought to be happy, I suppose the answer depends on whether they’re ready to confront our tragic existential predicament, as entailed by naturalistic atheism (that there’s no afterlife, no guarantee of justice or fairness from the cosmos, no absolute morality, no reason not to feel alienated from nature). Those who are ready tend to view happiness, in the sense of being content and well-adjusted to life as an absurdly smart and doomed primate, as ludicrously extravagant.

Sure, theists like William Lane Craig portray atheism in the worst light to keep their fellow sheep in line. Those theistic fear-mongers go wrong not in pointing out that naturalistic atheism has troubling implications, but in assuming that we have no constructive options for dealing with them. Centuries before Christianity even began, Buddhists gave the lie to that pessimism, inventing naturalistic psychotherapy and pursuing atheistic enlightenment.

As for your earlier charge that existential cosmicism is juvenile, it’s hard to take that seriously. Even were teenagers to tend to go through a melancholy, angst-ridden phase, to say that all forms of such worry in adults are therefore naive would be a straightforward case of the genetic fallacy. After all, there remains the possibility that teenagers are in a unique position to appreciate some dark truths, as they occupy a twilight period in which they acquire greater cognitive skills while yet lacking adult responsibilities and thus the pressure to accept uplifting conventional wisdom.

NA: Well, I’m still not sure that secular humanism is a religion except in a uselessly stretched sense, but I’m glad to hear that there seems a kind of spirituality that’s friendly to science, atheism, and naturalism--besides Buddhism, I mean. By the way, what reason would you give for the wrongness of murder? Or is existential cosmicism compatible with Nazism or with some other hideous slaughter of millions in the name of a utopian ideal?

SA: That’s a good question. The New Atheist’s dismissal of the connection between Nazism and atheism is often pitifully weak, as though Hitler’s alleged Christianity would speak to the whole of Nazism. Even had Hitler been the Pope of Rome, the fact is that Nazism was an original, eclectic cult of personality that upheld the modern ideal of the creative genius, not to mention a thoroughly Darwinian and instrumentalistic perspective according to which people aren’t intrinsically valuable, a perspective shared by most powerful people throughout history, who tend to be educated and thus skeptical of commonplace religion. As we’ve gone through, it remains difficult for naturalistic atheists to justify the UN’s platitudes about the universality of human rights--not that the theist is in any superior position, of course, but an atheist ought to have higher standards.

Anyway, as for how I deal with this question, I affirm with the Buddhist that all human life is valuable and ought to be protected, and I ground this value in boundless pity for those who suffer just by living in our accursed condition. This pity, in turn, develops just from confronting the harsh truths that make for existential cosmicism. Once you look in horror at nature, abandoning all comforting myths--including the secular humanistic ones--as mere moves in an inhumane cosmic process, it’s hard to retain the ego to dominate fellow forlorn creatures. On the contrary, the more natural response to that quasi-mystical enlightenment is a feeling of alienation--literally of being thrown in an alien prison, surrounded by fellow prisoners most of whom live in a fantasy world like the hallucinating victims in the Matrix or like the shackled captives of Plato’s Cave. Aesthetically, the notion of exploiting anyone as pitiful and doomed as yourself, of murdering them and so on, is just grotesque. Of course, this raises the question of suicide. Again, were there nothing constructive to be done about our plight, as some theists like to misrepresent the dark side of atheism, perhaps murder or suicide would be appropriate. But that is a misrepresentation which egregiously understates our heroic power to creatively cope with natural affronts to our modest dignity.


  1. Using a dialog for this one really works well, and I think helps clarify more your critique of the new atheists. However, I ended up appreciating the last paragraph the most, as I share a similar view. 

    Semi-related question here. In regards to determining moral ways someone might act given the knowledge of cosmicism, would it be beneficial to apply a modified version of something like Rawls' theory of Justice? 

    It would be modified to say "no one knows his place in the world" instead of "no one knows his place in in society". We don't know if we will be delusional right-wing theists in America, or if we will be born as a starving child in Africa whose parents believe she has a demon. If we all had knowledge that the universe was indifferent, and that there was no personal God, but didn't know what we would believe once born, could we use this as a possible foundation for deciding what acts would be moral or immoral?

    I ask because often wonder how to properly engage theists. I do believe it is important to criticize and even at times mock their views. I know some would argue that they will just entrench themselves further, but in my personal experience, eventually enough criticism can lead a person to question what they believe.

  2. Thanks, as always, for reading, jkx. I've got some more dialogues
    planned. They're fun to write, but they also test a writer's
    understanding of his opponent's viewpoint.

    I'm not sure that Rawls' thought experiment is improved if it's
    construed as having a domain of the world rather than of a society. The
    point remains the same, as does a problem with it, which is that
    parasitic persons are free to prefer a wild, antisocial environment in
    which they can try their luck.

    If you're asking me, though, how I'd respond to a theist who trots out
    the moral argument for God, or at least the objection that there can be
    no atheistic morality, I'd say that the theist's interest in "objective"
    or "absolute" morality is confused. The theist makes morality dependent
    on a person, just as many atheists do. If the theist says morality is
    based on God's nature rather than on his will, or his subjectivity, that
    leads to the naturalistic fallacy. Likewise, many atheists say morality
    derives from our interests, so the difference is just that theistic
    morality is nonhuman, in which case we have to trust in God's plan for

    Here, the theist's comforting metaphors of God should be challenged and
    contrasted with the much more plausible, science-informed and
    Lovecraftian ones. If God exists and created the universe, the
    anthropomorphic notion of God is ludicrous and comically feeble.
    Instead, given that God would had to have created the whole, crazy
    universe, God's evident inhumanity makes him much more like a terrifying
    monster or alien, in which case theistic morality is no longer so
    obviously trustworthy. Granted, we'd have a reason to fear divine
    punishment, but we'd have little understanding of God's plan and thus
    little reason to trust that his interests are best for us. Maybe God's
    using us for a horrifying purpose. Once we dispense with the childish
    anthropomorphism, all bets are off.

    Theistic morality at least gives an omnipotent overseer as a deterrent,
    while atheistic morality supplies only the human justice system (police,
    judges, the law, etc) plus a scientific appreciation of natural
    constraints (our social instincts, mode of raising children and
    instilling a conscience, etc). The difference is that the latter are
    tangible but fallible, while the former is ideal but imaginary.

    Some years ago, I used to debate Christians on the internet much more
    frequently. I stopped because it becomes addictive and I had other
    things to do, but I also found that minds are seldom changed in internet
    debates. My main goal wasn't to change minds, but to improve my
    debating and writing skills and my understanding of opposing viewpoints.
    Certainly, many theistic beliefs deserve to be mocked and not just
    refuted. (I'd say the same is true regarding some nontheistic beliefs.)
    It's hard to know strategically, though, how an atheist should interact
    with theists. I'm sure you're familiar with the disagreement between
    "accommodationist" nontheists and more zealous New Atheists. Should the
    atheist put the friendliest face on nontheism or bring down the hammer
    on nonsense to shock the theist out of dangerous folly? The answer's not
    obvious, but it's also likely irrelevant since people seldom change
    their minds on such fundamental issues.

  3. Interesting point about morality still being based on a person, even if that person is a deity. I never really thought about it that way before... Dr. Craig does say that morals are based on God's nature, and I agree, I think that is pretty clearly a case of naturalistic fallacy.

    I suppose you are right that people seldom change their minds about these things. For me, I am more thinking about a way within my own moral framework to deal with the question of how I should treat people of faith, or rather I am interested in what the best way to treat them is. Would it be best to challenge their faith and ideas, or to generally not make an issue of it? As you said it's not a question easily answered, and people rarely do change their minds on these types of things, so perhaps the time and effort are best spent on other things.
    Anyways, I continue to look forward to future entries :)

  4. Theologians like to say that morality's based on God's nature and not on his will, to escape the inference that morality is arbitrary, that God could have willed for the killing of infants to be good. But there's a dilemma here, since if morality derives from God's nature, we've got the naturalistic fallacy.

    We shouldn't generalize about treating all theists the same way. Some theists are surely lost causes, meaning not just that they'll never change their minds and that they lack the intelligence or the curiosity to learn where they err, but that we've got nothing to learn from them, which is to say that talking to them would be boring. I think we should decide what sort of person we're dealing with and direct most of our energy to dealing with the more interesting theists. But I suppose that rule applies to which people we should interact with in general. Still, with online debates between theists and atheists, there's the chance of neutral onlookers who each side wants to impress. Once again, though, we should be realistic and humble in thinking about the results of these debates. Look at John Loftus at Debunking Christianity, who recently gave up in despair.

    By the way, the next time I write about religion here, I'll be blasting Christianity again rather than forms of atheism that disappoint me.

  5. I saw the post over at Debunking Christianity, and the Christians commenting on it just furthered the point. In fact I think some of my interactions on that post were what got me wondering if there is any point at all. I mean a number of Christians basically took it as a sign of victory instead of realizing that they were hopelessly deluded... :\

    The only reason I consider even engaging them at all, is that I was once as firm a believer as they were, and at least as fundamentalist. I don't assume my story is necessarily the norm, or that I am somehow special for overcoming it. I still am not sure what to learn from it other than the fact that I am apparently capable of believing things that are obviously not true, and I have limited power for discerning what is in fact true.

    I definitely agree with your assessment of getting morality from a deity. It really seems like a no win situation to me now that I understand what the naturalistic fallacy is (I have looked it up a few times since I started reading your blog, but I feel like I firmly understand it now :) ).

    I am not sure if you have ever listened to William Lane Craig try and defend things like infanticide, but his only defense is to literally redefine words. It is highly obnoxious.

    Anyways, I do definitely look forward to the post on Christianity. I probably shouldn't enjoy criticism towards Christian theism as much as I do, but I can't help it.

  6. I've watched many interviews and debates with William Lane Craig on the internet. He's probably the most effective Christian debater. What I've heard him say about why there's nothing wrong with God killing babies is that our morality comes from divine commandments, but that since God doesn't command himself, he's not subject to our morality; hence, God can create and destroy as he chooses. The most obvious and decisive problem with this argument is that it undermines the Christian's metaphor of God as a loving parent. Once you grant that God's unknown to us, and that our metaphors are at best limited, you're led from exoteric religion to esoteric mysticism, and most Christian doctrines then go by the wayside as flawed metaphors, including Jesus' resurrection.

    Put simply, if God's not bound by anything like human morality, he must be dissimilar to a human parent, who is bound by such morality, in which case there's no reason to believe that God's loving, merciful, just, etc. The whole exoteric picture of God goes out the window. But instead of acknowledging this, Craig equivocates, cherry-picking Christian metaphors. That is indeed very weak stuff.  

  7. I understand the rhetorical reasoning behind having the popular stereotype of a "New Atheist" (though Sam Harris is a very prominent "New Atheist" who also calls himself spiritual) up against a "Spiritual Atheist" in a mock debate, but neither of them are arguing anything to do with atheism.

    This debate would be better representative of spiritualist and skeptic, and a skewed one at that. There's a lot of straw-person and non-sequitur argumentation being implemented.

    The "New Athiest", or "Skeptic", in this scenario brings up terrible points which serves only to deny the reader what would be an otherwise fruitful conversation. :(

    I guess it really just depends on your target audience.

    1. You say they're not arguing about atheism. Well, they're not arguing about whether God exists, since they're both atheists. But they're arguing about a question of atheistic lifestyle. Should the atheist be spiritual or should she live like Data from Star Trek, as a hyper-rationalist? As I put it in another article, should the atheist mourn the death of God? And is there a form of spirituality--which I call existential cosmicism--that's consistent with atheism? That's what this dialogue's about.

      As for the objection that the new atheist character in this dialogue is a strawman, I responded to this at length in the Reddit TrueAtheism forum where I posted a link to this dialogue. Here's a link to that discussion:

      To summarize what I say there, I agree the dialogue is one-sided, especially with respect to its structure but also perhaps to the style of how the debaters talk; at any rate, the SA talks more than the NA. But I deny that I oversimplify the content of new atheism, or that even if I do so, this somehow affects the new atheist's best response to the main points made by the SA. In other words, even if the NA's response to the SA sounds weak, I tried my best to come up with that response and I'm unaware of a better one. Nor did any of the atheists at the Reddit forum back up their objection by actually providing the superior NA response to the spiritual atheism defended in the dialogue.

      Instead, their responses were much like yours. For example, what is the NA's "terrible response" which goes to the dialogue's main point? Granted, sometimes the NA's responses on some details may be weak, to keep the dialogue moving. But what is the superior NA response to the dialogue's main point, that there's a form of spirituality, mysticism, and pantheism, called existential cosmicism, which is consistent with atheism and which shouldn't be dismissed along with religious fundamentalism or New Age, pseudo-scientific claptrap? Perhaps the reader is deprived of a more fruitful conversation in this respect because such a conversation is impossible, the superior new atheist response being nonexistent.