Thursday, October 24, 2013

On Being A Fulfilled Atheist

I am an atheist and yet I have some problems with the so-called “new atheism”
(mostly that it isn’t new at all, and that it has a tendency to be unnecessarily obnoxious). Indeed, when asked, I prefer to use the term secular humanist to succinctly describe my philosophical position.

But from time to time I have to remind myself of the importance of being an atheist and of actually saying so out loud. For instance, after I read the introduction to a recent episode of the Philosophy Talk podcast, hosted by philosophers John Perry and Ken Taylor (both at Stanford University). Philosophy Talk’s teasers are usually good and thought provoking, this one not so much.

The teaser was written by Perry as an introduction to a chat — during the podcast — with guests Ken and Louise Anthony. The trouble starts right off the bat, when Perry defines atheism: “An atheist is someone who not only doesn't believe in God, but believes, with some confidence, that there isn’t a God.” Oh no, it ain’t! That certainly describes some atheists, but not others. I, for instance, tend to stick to the etymology of the term, a-theism, meaning without a positive belief in god(s), so I consider myself an a-theist in pretty much the same manner in which most people are a-unicornists: they don’t believe in unicorns, not because they know that there aren’t any, but simply because they see neither evidence nor reason to hold that particular belief. As Hume put it, “A wise man ... proportions his belief to the evidence,” and when the evidence approaches zero...

Perry then continues: “At first glance, it seems odd to find inspiration in the non-existence of something.” Normally, I would agree, but considering that human beings have always lived in societies where irrationalism, obscurantism and magical thinking reigned supreme, to become “converted” (Perry’s term) to atheism is, indeed, inspiring. It’s extremely liberating to realize that there is no Big Guy in the sky watching over your every move (particularly, for reasons that are not at all clear, the moves you make in the privacy of your own bedroom).

“When you’re converted to atheism, the world goes from meaningful to meaningless, from caring to uncaring, from hopeful to hopeless.” Bullshit on stilts. Meaning doesn’t come from without, it is constructed by us through our reflections on the world and our interactions with fellow human beings. That, of course, is true also for religious people, except they don’t seem to realize it. As for caring, well, if we are talking about the Christian god, particularly the Old Testament nut job, I’d much rather not be cared for, lest I be forced to slaughter innocents and rape women just to please His Nuttiness and pander to His cosmic narcissism. And hopeless? Says who? I have always been, and continue to be, very hopeful, both in terms of my personal life (the next exciting thing is likely just around the corner, if I keep looking!) and about humanity in general. While it is demonstrably true that we have a penchant for fucking things up royally, there is also no question in my mind that we have done, ahem, miracles in terms of human flourishing since the time of the Tower of Babel — and certainly with no thanks due to imaginary deities.

Perry again: “[to the newly converted atheist] it becomes clear ... that there’s no evidence whatsoever for God, and considerable evidence against anything like the Christian God, or any lesser version of God. That can be depressing, we all must admit.” No, we don’t. I was so ecstatic after reading Bertrand Russell’s Why I am Not a Christian (I was about 20 or so), that I could hardly contain my exuberance. Depressing my ass. (Though Perry thankfully goes on to acknowledge that even atheists continue to have fun and have friends...)

The podcast teaser then becomes a bit more positive toward atheists. After raising the question of the afterlife, Perry mentions Hume’s famous observation (itself a reminder of Epicurus), that all the years before our birth weren’t so bad after all, so why worry about those after our death? (Or, as Monty Python famously put it: “I mean — what have you got to lose? / You know, you come from nothing — you're going back to nothing. / What have you lost? Nothing!)

The next topic, inevitably, is morality, and the starting point is Dostoyevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, who famously asked why isn’t everything permitted to an atheist? To which the simple response would be: just read Plato’s Euthyphro, dude. Equally reasonably, Perry notes that the Divine Command theory of morality is shaky on its own grounds, and that there are plenty of secular alternatives, from ethical “facts” thought of as similar to mathematical ones (i.e., immaterial, and yet objective), to one flavor or another of consequentialism or virtue ethics, to a naturalistic view of ethics as the result of evolution within a lineage of social primates.

Still, Perry insists: “Granted all of that, doesn’t it still seem strange to define one’s life by a negative claim, by the non-existence of something. You can become the village atheist, and make it your mission in life to tell religious people what idiots they are. But that doesn’t seem very fulfilling,” all the while admitting that he nonetheless finds atheism “hard to resist.”

Don’t resist it, then, embrace the negative claim that frees your mind from the shackles of superstition; the negative claim that allows you to make choices in life using reason and empathy; the negative claim that opens up all those doors to human flourishing that religion so quickly and persistently shuts tight. And of course, (most) atheists don’t make it their mission to tell religious people that they are idiots (yes, some do, and those are the ones that expel people like me from their non-church). Instead, what we do is try, to the best of our ability, to live the good life by example, and help those who are willing to listen to leave the Dark Ages and come out to enjoy a bit of Enlightenment — Hume style.

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