Monday, November 10, 2008

Is atheism foolish or wise

In 2004, I participated in a debate with Rev. Timothy G. Muse: Is atheism foolish or wise?. Reading it over four years later, it's not half bad.

I'll be reposting here my contributions to the debate over the next month or so. The Internet Infidels and Rev. Muse own the copyright to his contribution, so I can't reprint it directly.

Rev. Muse's opening.

My response follows.

What are Theism's Answers?

Thank you all, the administration and staff of the Internet Infidels Discussion Board who make this debate possible and the readers who make it relevant. Thanks also to the members of the Peanut Gallery for their support and encouragement. Special thanks to Rev. Timothy G. Muse for devoting his time, energy, and considerable wit and intelligence to the education, edification and "sharpening" of my own mind and, hopefully, the minds of our readers. Thanks also to my spouse for support, advice, editing, and most importantly, forbearance for the time I have and will continue devote to this debate.

The question is whether atheism is foolish. Rev. Muse presents the case that atheism is foolish because it fails to answer many deep philosophical questions. But implicit in Rev. Muse's charges is the implied assertion that theism does reasonably, substantively and satisfactorily answer and explain the questions that atheism supposedly fails to answer. Atheism is thus foolish only if theism gives better answers. So the reasonableness, substance and satisfaction of theistic answers to these questions are equally at issue. Given that many of these questions are important, it would be folly indeed to abandon a position that gives reasonable, substantive and satisfying answers for one that does not. But Rev. Muse has not yet made the case that theism does indeed offer such answers.

Rev. Muse's charges go far beyond the mere position of atheism. Even so, Rev. Muse is correct in one sense: When one chooses atheism, one must necessarily abandon the epistemology of divine revelation, the teleology and eschatology of divine purpose, and the ethics of divine command. And indeed, one cannot merely leave a vacuum where theistic philosophy at least attempted answers. Although ancillary naturalistic philosophies such as scientific materialism, psychology, methodological naturalism and political secular humanism are compatible with some forms of theism, the atheist must turn to them, or something similar, and their reasonableness thus becomes directly at issue.

A full explanation of these philosophies would require more space than our debate allows; indeed, one would need to recapitulate at least five centuries of philosophy. Fortunately, the proposition at issue, "Atheism Is Foolish", can be rebutted by showing that the naturalistic philosophical alternatives have at least reasonable promise for answering the legitimate questions that Rev. Muse raises. For some questions, I will endeavor to show that naturalistic philosophy that atheism must turn to actually improves upon its theistic equivalent.

Therefore I will devote Part I primarily to asking the same questions of theism that Rev. Muse asks of atheism, and critiquing his answers. I will devote Part II to the answers from the atheistic, naturalistic, secular position.

I also wish to point out to our readers that Rev. Muse in his opening statement has added some rhetorical flourishes to the definitions of "atheism" and "foolishness". I will refer our readers to the definitions given in the parameters of this debate; I assume that we both are still adhering to the stipulated definitions.

Epistemological Issues

Rev. Muse states that there is no positive or unquestionable proof that there is no God. This is correct in some senses and incorrect in others. When one is talking about a god who is perfectly- or at least well-hidden by nature or by design, no, one cannot absolutely prove the non-existence of such a god. But these are precisely the gods towards whom, by definition, disbelief is justified by the very existence of such a deity and thus not foolish.

We can draw a similar conclusion regarding "a God (transcendent, omniscient, omnipotent, etc.) who either chose not to reveal himself to man, or chose to reveal himself to some but not to others, or chose to reveal himself progressively." Even under a epistemology of revelation, I cannot have knowledge of a god who does not reveal itself to me, and thus my disbelief is not only justified but compelled. Likewise, "inabilities or restrictions inherent to the present condition of man (such as his blindness, lack of understanding, powerlessness...)" (I'm sure that Rev. Muse includes "moral resistance" and "intentional rejection of the truth" only from pedantic completeness) would justify the belief in the nonexistence of god. To use his own metaphor, if a man keeps "his existence and supremacy known from an ant," one cannot justly call the ant a fool for disbelieving in the man. And what about a god who, like the author of a play or novel, wishes or requires the positive suspension of belief in itself? If we can posit a god who requires belief without proof, we can just as easily posit a god who requires disbelief without or even with proof.

Gods who reasonably engender agnosticism are irrelevant; the only gods for whom disbelief is at all relevant to questions of wisdom or foolishness are the gods to which "all the evidence points," if, of course, such evidence were to actually exist. In these cases lack of evidence, if indeed it is lacking, makes positive disbelief reasonable and justifiable. Since evil exists, I know with certainty that no god exists who has both the power and will to abolish evil as we presently understand it. Since I believe that no god exists, I know with certainty that no god exists who has the power and will to engender my belief. Furthermore, since no universal belief in any particular deity exists, I know with certainty that no god exists with the power and will to engender such universal belief.

The requirement of absolute proof is consistent only with Rev. Muse's rhetorical additions to the position of atheism. If atheism were indeed the dogmatic assertion of any god's nonexistence, if the atheistic belief were "absolute" and "utter" (in the sense of being unchangeable), if the atheist showed "absolute faith", then yes, with anything less than absolute proof, atheism would be foolish indeed. But atheism does not entail such dogmatic, absolute belief. To require absolute proof for any belief entails holding no beliefs, to descend into a paralyzed solipsism. The atheist such as myself, rather, has examined the evidence, and come to the belief to which the evidence points. If new evidence or a new argument comes to my attention--if, for instance, a god were to reveal itself to me--I would change my belief.

Indeed it is the theist who dogmatically believes in god, whose belief is absolute and utter, and from whom absolute faith is expected. By Rev. Muse's own argument, we expect from the theist not merely the preponderance of evidence, not merely one or some or even many subtle arguments, but absolute, unquestionable, undeniable proof of the existence of a god to refrain from calling foolish his absolute faith.

I am curious about Rev. Muse's claim that atheism "monopolizes on a method that doesn't make sense". While the idea that the scientific method does not entirely eliminate metaphysics (as the positivists would like to have done), does Rev. Muse actually ask us to believe that appealing to science, our experience and the evidence of our senses makes no sense? No sense at all? What does theism offer as an alternative? If the answer is divine revelation, to what degree should we rely on revelation? Which revelation? And where does that put those of us, such as myself, who have had no revelation at all?

Rev. Muse does get one thing correct about atheism: "The very idea or question of the existence of a transcendent, intervening, and wonder working God by definition departs from the idea of everything always working according to the subordinate laws governing the universe." It does indeed. I fail to understand only why Rev. Muse is so amazed that atheists use this argument.

The Origin, Existence, and Nature of the Universe

I will expound more on the atheistic and scientific nature of the origin and existence of the Universe in Part II, so that Rev. Muse will have a more specific and thorough position to critique.

Rev. Muse repeats Blanchard's claim that "Matter is either 'eternal, self-creative, or created by a self-existent God.'" What support can Rev. Muse offer for this trilemma? Has Rev. Muse considered the alternatives, such as Hawking's speculation that matter and energy exist in a finite but unbounded space-time[1]? That our universe arose from a fluctuation in a non-spatial/non-temporal vacuum? That matter might be, rather than self-created, self-existent, as the theist god is purported to be? To show that atheism is foolish, Rev. Muse must show not just that these alternatives are not absolutely proven, but logically impossible or empirically disproved.

Rev. Muse asserts that the claim that the universe "just is" is an “unreasonable and insensible approach�? towards the "enormous, detailed, intricate universe which displays such great depth of wisdom, purpose, intelligence, ingenuity, beauty, and function." I would certainly agree that the universe is enormous, detailed and intricate; I would also agree that I find it beautiful. And, of course, it does function. But there is no evidence that the universe displays intelligence, wisdom, purpose or ingenuity. And how does this position differ from the theistic position that God--who Himself is purportedly an "enormous, detailed, intricate" being who "displays such great depth of wisdom, purpose, intelligence, ingenuity, beauty, and function"--that such a God Himself "just exists"?

The theistic answer to the origin of the universe, "God did it," just gives a different label to our ignorance. If the atheist does not know how or why the universe exists, the theist cannot tell us how or why god created the universe. Both the theist and atheist can speculate on why there is something (god/the universe) rather than nothing (no god/no universe), but neither can give a conclusive answer. Fundamentally something has to “just exist�?; at least we know the universe does indeed exist.

The theistic answers to the nature of the universe are even more unsatisfactory. Leaving the origin aside, why is the universe the way it is instead of somehow different? Why do we have stars, planets, galaxies, clusters, super-clusters? Why an enormous universe instead of a small one? I've seen the theist offer only the wholly unsatisfactory answer, "I guess that's how God must have wanted it."

Life and Humanity

Rev. Muse claims that "the essence of life itself cannot be explained by the tenets of atheism." What is the theistic alternative to the biological sciences? Animistic theories have been long since abandoned; however uncertain we are about the origin of terrestrial life, there is nothing mystical about its existence. Even Rev. Muse himself says that "Evidence suggests the world can simply continue, sustain, and propagate life."

Rev. Muse claims that "it is of utmost foolishness for man to put his absolute confidence and trust in a belief system or religion that cannot provide answers for its own basic existence and life." The only theistic answer that Rev. Muse offers is that, "A supernatural transcendent being who possesses life in himself and who has given and breathed life into his creation." A metaphor is not answers. Why are we mortal? Why do we so often die with such pain and indignity? Again, anyone can speculate; ideas about the "fall of man" and "original sin" are just that: speculation. Can Rev. Muse offer proof? Or even Evidence?

What are Rev. Muse's "satisfactory and sensibly pleasing arguments regarding, the purpose, and solutions or comforts of life"? What answer does theism provide for the purpose of terrestrial life other than to shamelessly flatter some deity? What is the purpose of our suffering? Why can an omnipotent god not simply create us directly in The Big Rock Candy Mountain the theist calls heaven?

Furthermore, I have lost count of the times that I've heard a theist call his god's purposes mysterious, unknown or even unknowable. Calling a purpose mysterious is the precise opposite of a "satisfactory and sensibly pleasing" argument, explanation or justification.

This lack of an answer is even more obvious when the theist moves away from the broadest generalizations. What's the purpose of a child dying painfully from cancer? What's the purpose of the millions killed in earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, famines and plagues? What is the purpose of Bubonic plague, Alzheimer's disease, cancer of the rectum? We ask not only why we so often die in pain and indignity but also what is the purpose of such apparently pointless suffering? What's the purpose of childhood diabetes, gout, arthritis, menstruation? Looking at the world, if there were a god, we might reasonably conclude that its purpose was the sadistic desire to inflict as much suffering on humanity as possible. I would rather believe in no god than the existence of such a malign thug.

What answer does theism offer (aside, that is, from the dubious promise of The Big Rock Candy Mountain) to suffering and pain other than to "deal with it or get over it"? What reasons, proofs or evidence support and justify the answers? For instance, I'm frankly astounded that even a single Christian accepts the "explanation" that Yahweh has inflicted or permitted his or her suffering for the purpose of punishing Adam's sin. Good grief, it's been 6000 years; Yahweh sure does hold a grudge!

The Future

Rev. Muse claims that atheism provides less that satisfactory and comforting answers concerning the future. Indeed, I must again ask about the theistic alternatives. The theist can speculate and spin fantasies about a Big Rock Candy Mountain, but can such speculation be more than empty promises? But neither atheism nor any materialistic science entails logically that there is no life after death. Life itself is an ordinary, naturalistic phenomenon; if there were indeed some "evidence [that] provides some hope of life after death," then ordinary naturalistic science could investigate it. Atheists who believe the finality of death do so because the evidence points to only that conclusion.

So where is the evidence that not only justifies the belief in some form of afterlife, but also justifies the idea of a god being necessarily responsible? Rev. Muse offers his analogy of the seed. But this analogy is inapt. What does it mean that a "seed must die that new life might come"? And even if this is true in some unusual sense, it seems obvious that people are not plants, our "seeds" never die, and the metaphor speaks to reproduction, not to any personal resurrection--not even of the plant itself. This is a slender reed indeed upon which to lay any hope of human resurrection.

I must agree with Rev. Muse: "All reasonable men desire life and more of it, while at the same time death is clearly an enemy, bringing separation and destruction." But where does theism claim death came from? Given an omnipotent god, it could come only from that god. And what has theism done to defeat and ameliorate death? When will god's revelation provide us with a cure for cancer or for aging?

What about the future of terrestrial life? What does religion have to say about this? Buddhism offers nothing; Judaism offers nothing; Islam and Christianity offer only Armageddon; Hinduism offers an endless cycle of suffering at the hands of their gods. If we wish answers to the future of Earth and humanity, what advice does theism offers us besides the vague reassurance that, "Daddy will make it all right in the end"?


Rev. Muse claims that, "Atheism offers no real answer for the historical evidence concerning the religious nature of man." I will address the position of atheism and natural science on this point in Part II, but for now I wish to examine the position of theism. What answer does theism offer for the variety and lack of agreement among mankind’s religions? If a god were truly to exist, we would instead expect to see widespread agreement. All people, regardless of culture, agree on what is blue, what is one foot long, what weighs ten pounds--all of these are objectively true. Why do they then disagree so completely, violently and passionately about their religion? Sure, the theist might speculate and fantasize about an all-good, all-just, all-powerful god who completely misleads and fools its creation about such an important issue, but such speculation seems entirely implausible.

Ethics, Justice and Morality

Rev. Muse makes one good point: As Stalinism and Maoism show, atheism is no panacea when tyrannically imposed. I will explore this point more thoroughly in Part II of this debate when I discuss political secularism. In this part, though, I will ask Rev. Muse to address explicitly religious governments. Rev. Muse claims that, "When God is removed from government and society, it opens the door in varying degrees according to the situation to abuse of power, to oppression of the beliefs of others, and in some cases to brutality." But when God is explicitly part of government, the record is no better; oppression, intolerance and brutality appear, sadly, to be part of the human condition.

What does Rev. Muse have to say about the European Middle Ages, a thousand years of tyranny, ignorance, death and disease, ruled and directed by Christianity? What does Rev. Muse have to say about present-day Islam in the Middle East? If democracy is so theistic, why did it require a group of naturalistic deists, atheists and Unitarians to establish the first modern democracy in 18th Century America? Rev. Muse quotes Bourne's charges: "'Modern Atheism' is a mass phenomenon, and its stern tolerance means to rule over the whole future of mankind." Has not this been true of many, if not most, religions?

There are other issues with theistic politics. Why is revelation disallowed as testimony in court? Why does no body of religious writing give us in whole our modern legal system? What happened to the divine right of kings? Why must we bother with legislatures, elections, courts and trials? All of which we've had to work out for ourselves using natural reason with no consistent, explicit guidance from any deity.

I will discuss naturalistic morality in more depth in Part II. My question for this part is, where is this "transcendent authority"? Where is the "absolute truth"? Where are the laws that transcend time and experience"? Every sect of every religion seems to have a different idea about what constitutes the absolute truth from the transcendent deity. Slavery was condoned by good, sincere Christians up to the Civil War[2] and has extensive support in the Christian bible[3]. How can a transcendent authority providing the absolute truth about laws that transcend time and space get such a big issue as slavery so wrong for so long? And slavery is not the only issue; Theodore Drange offers a list of Christian laws that supposedly transcend time and experience.[4]:

We no longer execute people for having the wrong religion or for working on the Sabbath or for a few dozen other (at best) minor offenses. The Bible discriminates against women. We now believe in women's rights, children's rights, and animal rights, all of which are ideas totally foreign to the Bible. God is supposed to have ordered female virgins to be taken as war plunder (Num. 31:18-40) and to marry their attackers if they are seduced or raped (Exod. 22:16, Deut. 22:28-29). Such ideas are totally foreign to modern morality. Even the Sermon on the Mount presents us with impossible standards. Jesus tells us there to not resist evil, not defend ourselves against violence, and give away everything that anyone might ask of us (Matt. 5:38-42), but really if people were to follow such advice then they would not survive long in our world. Maybe among the extinct tribes of the world there are some who actually tried to live by the Sermon on the Mount. Anyway, our current conceptions of morality have very little to do with what is written in the Bible. I think that most people who advocate Biblical ethics are simply ignorant about the Bible and unaware of what that ethics amounts to.
Rev. Muse claims that, “Atheism provides no acceptable answer to the victim of one [who] suffers at the hands of an evil perpetrator who for all practical purposes seems 'to get away' with their crimes here on earth." But what comfort does theism give? Perhaps it might comfort the victims to fantasize that the perpetrators suffer eternal punishment, but even an atheist can fantasize. Such abstract comfort does nothing to restore their loved ones nor prevent a future disaster. And the comforting theist would of course not be so tasteless as to mention that, according to many theologies, the victims will be right there in hell next to the perpetrators, having adhered to the wrong religion, died in a state of sin, or just because God's grace had been arbitrarily withheld. And what about those who die of natural disasters? The victims are just as dead, the families are just as bereft, but who precisely is getting away with what?

Rev. Muse charges that "The atheist does not deal thoroughly either with the acknowledged experience and evidence of guilt." But Rev. Muse offers a perfectly reasonable naturalistic response: "It is enough to apologize and ask forgiveness from the person you have done wrong." It is indeed "simply on the basis that you determined (or both of you agreed) that it was wrong." One might speculate further, but why, and on what basis?

Rev. Muse asks if atheism has "an acceptable answer for why man acts against what his conscience tells him is wrong, or why man fails 'to do what he wants to do' but 'does what he hates.'" What evidence is there that people typically or usually act this way? It's been my experience that most people act in concert with their conscience, they do what they want, and they refrain from doing what they hate. It seems that it is, in the main, it is only theists who have such a struggle; and what more explanation is required than that the conflicted theist has needlessly adopted a moral code in conflict with his nature and reason?

Other Issues

I don't understand Etienne Borne's comment that atheism "cannot escape another most serious and most significant ambiguity." Bourne seems to confuse worship with desire. This comment is entirely opaque to me.

I also don't understand what Rev. Muse means when he claims that atheism "does not substantively and reasonably provide answers to the paradoxes in life." What paradoxes? In life, we usually find that the lowly are born lowly, live lowly and die lowly; the weak are exploited by the strong; when we give something away we don't have it any more; when we die, we die; we live by satisfying our self and our desires, and a person who possesses nothing has nothing.

Rev. Muse charges that atheism "chooses to deny the implications that... point to a future judgment." What implications are these?

Conclusion: Reasons for Adopting a Philosophy

Rev. Muse argues that, "Atheism as a belief system fails historically and socially to provide an incentive for embracing it." It must be admitted that historically and socially, theism has indeed found many adherents. Some incentives no doubt exist, but we are justified in considering the nature of these incentives. What does theism appeal to (when it has not been imposed by naked oppression and threat), if not only our fear and ignorance? Why does theism place its inducements, its promises and threats, beyond rational or sensible inquiry?

Before science, it is arguable that theism's supernatural promises had some value as comfort. But now that we have the means to alleviate suffering here and now, theism's anachronistic supernatural fairy tales only retard our progress. What are the reasons for embracing theism today? Today, we have science, technology, philosophies and political systems that seem to be improving the lot of mankind in this world. And these philosophies ignore, deny, marginalize, or give only lip service to revelation and supernaturalism; all of them are entirely compatible with atheism.

I charge that, although theism does attempt to answer the questions posed by Rev. Muse, Rev. Muse has not shown that these answers are reasonable, substantive or satisfactory. Absent such answers it is wise to turn to atheism and naturalistic philosophy if only from desperation.



[1] Stephen Hawking, "A Brief History of Time"

[2] Edward T. Babinski, "The Uniqueness of the Christian Experience"

[3] Skeptic’s Annotated Dictionary, "Slavery and the Bible"

[4] Theodore Drange, "Why Be Moral?"

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