Sunday, July 27, 2014

How to live: reflections on Michael Robbins

Jerry Coyne collects the sharp critiques (Maggie Clark's is especially perspicacious) of Michael Robbins' latest excrescence on the atheist/religious debate. (Coyne also makes a good case that Robbins is a whiny little crybaby who will neither stand behind his opinions nor shut up about them).

Robbins is at least obliquely correct: the project of every human being, individually and collectively, is to figure out how to live. But, contra Robbins, this is not a specifically religious project; it is a universal project, undertaken by everyone, religious and non-religious alike. Religion is just one specific approach among many to this problem. I am always irritated when religious people implicitly or explicitly claim that figuring out how to live (or any other common human endeavor) "obviously" and automatically requires reference to the divine or the transcendent. On this account, anyone who rejects the divine or the transcendent is therefore not trying to figure out how to live. But this claim is nonsense.

Every atheist, just like everyone else, is trying to figure out "a particular way of life, practices oriented toward a conception of how one should live." And, of course, we do not object to religious people figuring out their own practices and conceptions per se. No atheist (that I know of) ever says that we should not try to figure out how to live. (If you can find an example, point me to it, so I can give the jerk a piece of my mind.)

I might (or might not) be nice if everyone could figure out their own ways of life with absolute autonomy. Regardless of what might be desirable, human beings cannot have absolute autonomy. We live in a highly interdependent society. Figuring out how to live is as much a social project as an individual project. All religions are social in this regard: religious people want to persuade others that their specific way of life, their practices, their "conception of how one should live," is better. For long periods of time, religious people considered their ways of life so much better, and the alternatives so much worse, that violence was necessary to force people to live their way. Although it might be the "last resort of the incompetent," there's nothing wrong with violence per se; assuming that violence was necessary, for example, to end slavery in the United States, I find such violence justified. And of course we routinely legitimize the use of violence to prevent (proactively or retroactively) murder, rape, assault, etc.

But it's important to actually get it right, to really know what better and worse ways of living actually are. And fundamentally, atheists are part of the social process of figuring out these better and worse ways of living. We think we have a

Atheists tend to focus on religion-as-truth rather than religion-as-a-way-of-life because the notion of the truth of religion is central to the religious project of figuring out how to live. It must be true that God exists, and it must be true that God wants people to live a certain way. Without these claims, the project of how to live collapses as a specifically religious project; at best, it becomes the "Church of God Who Makes No Difference."* And it is precisely these claims that "evangelical" atheists seek to undermine: it is not true that any God exists; there is no divine plan for how we should live. We have to figure it out for ourselves. And in fact we all, religious people included, are figuring it out for ourselves; religious people just use what we atheists see as a weird, delusional, and deeply flawed method of doing so.

*Egan, Greg, Permutation City, and if you want to claim that God makes no difference, you're just as much an atheist as I am.

I think it's really not fundamentally important, for example, that everyone understand and believe evolution. Sure, it's not that hard to grasp the basics (much easier than quantum mechanics), and it should be a part of everyone's basic education, but, frankly, society would not collapse if evolution wasn't part of general knowledge. Of course, atheists do criticize all aspects of religion, but many atheists specialize in creation/evolution. Some specialize because they think evolution by itself really is fundamentally important. Many, myself included, also oppose creationism because it is authoritarianism at its worst: the authority to decree objective truth. I think, however, that the truth of evolution is important precisely because it undermines the truth claims of many religious people. Without creation or theistic "evolution", human beings are no longer exceptional, no longer metaphysically special. We are just another mammalian species with relatively big brains and opposable thumbs. And, whether we like it or not, it's true that we're just another kind of animal. This truth undermines many (perhaps not all) people's religious beliefs: how they live depends on human beings being not only metaphysically but physically special. There's no other reason so many religious people fight evolution and not quantum mechanics, especially when the latter is far more subversive to our intuition.

I want to make a few side points.

First, Nick Spencer (whom Robbins quotes in his review) is mostly correct: "[M]odern atheism was primarily a political and social cause, its development in Europe having rather more to do with the (ab)use of theologically legitimized political authority than it does with developments in science or philosophy." The point that Spencer misses is that politics, science, and philosophy are not separable; they are all in dialectical relationships with each other. It is precisely claims about science and philosophy that not only legitimize theological authority, but also encourage its abuse; to undermine that authority requires that we undermine the scientific and philosophical claims that legitimize theological authority.

Second, I want to talk briefly again about the existential angst atheists are supposed to feel. Robbins quotes Nietzsche, but his quotations are unhelpful, and I'm not a scholar of Nietzsche to have a firm enough grasp on just what he says, much less what he means. Perhaps he's just noting the immense social consequences of atheism in his own religion-drenched world. But I would more-or-less admit that, as Robbins quotes Nietzsche, we are left "with only the uncertain resources of our will with which to combat the infinity of meaninglessness that the universe now threatens to become." I honestly don't understand why Nietzsche's idea is such an emotionally big deal. It's either true or false that the universe has meaning; the evidence overwhelmingly supports the idea that the universe is meaningless, and I don't see anything to be gained by pretending that it is meaningful, however desperately I might prefer meaning. But I just don't care that the universe is meaningless. I'm still alive, I still enjoy life, and that I myself have to choose how to live, without any divine guidance, doesn't bother me in the least. It is perhaps noteworthy that I was raised to respect only justice, never authority, so I'm unconcerned by the lack of a divine authority to guide my choices. I've never heard any good reason that I should care, that an infinity of meaninglessness should scare me. It seems like the most egregious narcissism and infantilism to pretend the universe exists for oneself, and dread the loss of meaning like children dread separation from their parents.

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