Sunday, April 20, 2008

Deal With It

One of the most frequent complaints or objections, if you can call it that, an atheist hears is something like this: “But if there’s no God then life has no meaning.” “How can you stand to live in a world like that?” “I need to believe because it fulfills me and makes me happy.” “Believing gives me a reason to get up in the morning.” “But your life (atheist) has no worth.”

This refrain has been repeated so many times, and the believer’s sense of indignation is usually so fierce that non-believers have come to feel like they must give an answer. Lots of atheists have devoted much time and energy to an atheistic replacement such as secular humanism, or some form of community that will soften the blow of letting God go. And lots of believers seem to think that until atheism has something to offer them in these regards, then they have legitimate reasons for rejecting it. Since the life of the atheist is meaningless, it’s reasonable to continue believing in God.

But there are several serious mistakes lurking here in all of this. First, the fact that some argument, or worse, its conclusion doesn’t give you the warm fuzzies is not a legitimate reason for rejecting or criticizing it. Your feelings about the truth are beside the point. How we happen to feel about it, and the sorts of psychological and personal reactions we have to it are completely independent issues from whether or not it is true and whether or not there is justifying evidence for believing it. It may be true that an 8 year old is crushed to learn that there is no Santa, but there it is. That’s just not a good reason for adults to persist in believing something that runs so clearly against the evidence. We don’t get to exempt ourselves from the demands of reason and argument because we’re not pleased with the outcome.

Second, the fact that some cherished belief does give you the warm fuzzies is not legitimate grounds for thinking it is true. Religious beliefs aren’t subjective, harmless, internal preferences like, “I like broccoli, but I can’t stand peppermint.” Religious beliefs are claims about the world, about what is the case, about what sorts of things exist, about where the world came from, about where we are going. Those are all things that matter, and they are not subject to individual preference. Religious beliefs feed into people’s votes, their political views, their ideas about social and public policy, and what they take to be valuable in the world. We are all accountable to each other for what we believe and we’re all accountable to each other to give some grounds for believing it. That religious beliefs satisfy some psychological and emotional longings you have may be some of the motives you have for wishing they were true and wanting to believe, but those feelings aren’t reasons for believing. Those are needs, not evidence.

Third, it’s just not the burden of someone who is presenting what they take to be good reasons for believing that there is no God to also provide some emotional compensation because that conclusion is unpalatable. The truth may or may not be comfortable. The evidence may or may not take us to those conclusions that we think we want to find. It would be perverse to allow our comfort to guide this decision. It’s narcissistic to think that the ultimate truths about the nature of reality must line up with our feelings. There either is a God or there isn’t, and our feelings about the matter are completely irrelevant. Instead of being so frequently criticized for robbing people of something they enjoy, the non-believer should be praised for having the courage to follow the evidence and be willing to face it even if the results aren’t popular. So, suck it up.


Anonymous said...

Absolutely! It's scary how many people think that their preferences somehow have an effect on reality. I usually respond that I'm grown up enough to prefer an uncomfortable truth over a comforting myth.

Anonymous said...

But Tony Woodlief says that, if the universe is devoid of ultimate purpose, we should wallow in self-delusion:

In that worldview, it is only the logic-wedded atheist who refuses the tonic, choosing to see the universe for what it is, an indifferent mass of elements in which by chance we have been situated. That’s a self-serving explanation of non-belief, of course, because if the atheist really does have only the here and now, the rational thing to do would be to take the tonic, and allow himself to be persuaded of a pleasant afterlife. Eating, drinking, and being merry, in other words, would logically include a self-delusion about the coming paradise.

I don't agree with him, because recognizing and dealing with reality has survival value.

Anonymous said...

I just got asked this today. I was told that if I didn't believe in God my life has no meaning. I said of course my life has meaning. Whatever meaning I want it to have. In fact I make the most out of it because I realize I only go around once. Whereas a religious person thinks life is a test, something to be endured, to be persecuted, to suffer. Sorry I'm not going to live a lie. My time is too precious.

David B. Ellis said...

Just recently I was flipping through the channels and saw a televangelist (thin, older, white-haired man; I don't know his name).

He was talking about how if he knew that christianity was false and atheism true he would prefer to cling to belief despite it.

It always amazes me when I see this sort of utter contempt for truth. Something I just can't relate to at all.

I guess that's why I deconverted.

Anonymous said...

I was told that if I didn't believe in God my life has no meaning. I said of course my life has meaning. Whatever meaning I want it to have.

Anonymous makes a good point. Some people think the meaning of life has to be handed to them; that it originates external. They seem baffled by the concept of creating your own purpose, and that it can be different from the next guy's purpose.

Matt McCormick said...

This is all very interesting. A couple of ideas: first, I don't think someone could bring themselves to simply believe something they take to be false through the force of will. If you really did think that there is no God on the basis of reasons, you couldn't just start believing because you don't find that conclusion pleasant or satisfying. People will say stuff like Ellis's televangelist, but they cant' really pull it off. I also don't think normal, functioning adults who aren't severely depressed are actually able to act, think, breathe, and live sustaining the view in their minds that the world is utterly devoid of meaning. You say this sort of thing in the philosophy classroom, but then you put your foot on the brake pedal at the stop lighton the way home from class. We are built to endow the world with meaning, like it or not. I also don't think you can simply create whatever meaning you want to in your life just by willing it. I can't just start beleiving that 49ers games are the most important events in human history, no matter how hard I try. And I don't find I can stop caring about my wife, my kids, or the people I am close to just by deciding to. So a lot of these attacks on nonbelievers by believers about robbing life of meaning are just ill-formed nonsense.

In response to David Ellis' last post--I have the same shock and disgust at people who so openly scoff at truth. It's a sad indicator of how screwed up American cultural attitudes about religious belief have gotten that we have to actually mount a defense of the merits of believing things because they are true. Non-believers should not feel put upon or defensive about sustaining beliefs that they take to be best indicated by the available evidence. That there is value in truth and following reason shouldn't need justification. We should be prepared to openly ridicule anyone who suggests otherwise. It they are really willing to state in public that they they prefer to beleive things that make them feel good, I think they've just embarrassed themselves more than any argument from us could do.


MilkyWhite said...

anonymous said: "Whatever meaning I want it to have."

If your life is dictated by the whims of your own taste of the moment, then your life truly has no meaning because the meaning changes every time you change your mind. How could you possibly find truth in that?

Anonymous said...

I agree with most of your take here in regards to reasons to believe versus needs; however, atheists, in my opinion, should take more seriously the human desire for meaning and emotional fulfillment that religion, unfortunately, responds to.

That is, if we care about giving people a better alternative than religion, then we should pay attention to the needs that religion addresses.

These needs, as Carl Jung wrote about so often, are primordial and powerful, and as such, are fundamental to human existence.

There is a reason human beings desire ritual and communion; it helps keep us sane and healthy.

So, in my view, atheists have a responsibility that goes beyond merely arguing against the existence of god -- we also must take seriously the emotional and psychic holes we cleave open when we remove a key psychological sustenence.

I think Richard Dawkins intuits this human need for the "spiritual." He is always talking about the beauty and wonder of the universe, and how meaningful existence is.

So, when atheists are asked questions about meaning and existence, I think we have plenty of fullfilling things to say.

Why be reluctant to address the spiritual needs humanity has evolved when atheists have a much more authentic view of what it means to be human in the world?

This is a strength that we seem to too often toss aside.

Meanwhile, we allow preachers and churches to feebly explain the beauty of the world.

No thanks.

Matt McCormick said...

Welcome back Steve Owen. And thanks for the input. Sure, it would appear that people really do need the spiritual fulfillment that religion offers them. And it is true that science, or naturalism have something to offer, although I hesitate to equate it with what religion does. But my worry is that by taking on this burden and treating the complaint from believers ("What are you offering me as a replacement?") seriously, we open the door for believers to conclude that if they aren't satisfied by atheism in that regard, or if they aren't spiritually fulfilled without religion, then they've got some legitimate complaint against it and they are justified in being religious. Whether or not a view is spiritually fulfilling is just completely beside the point. And if it is not, that fact has zero weight in the evaluation of its truth, reasonableness, or justification. People are so confused about that, I'm really reluctant to even open that discussion about atheism.

Furthermore, I think all this creedence we give to people's spiritual needs and fulfillment is at least partly the product of all this mindless, emotive, irrational indulgence we tolerate concerning religion. If we didn't have such permissive attitude about this whole spiritual and emotional needs dimension of religiousness, I think that people would stop seeing it as such a central, necessary part of their lives. Religiousness itself is fostering more of those needs than we would have if we cultivated more mature and sensible cultural attitudes about ourselves. So when the atheist concedes the point and tries to present atheism as spiritually fulfilling, they are granting legitimacy to a lot of that silliness and they are trying to compete within a realm where their worldview is seriously outmatched, if only because atheism can be grounded on evidence and reason instead of all of that.


Anonymous said...

Hey Matt, hope your summer is going well.

If we want our view to become the majority discourse, we cannot just assign all emotional longing for meaning and fulfillment as "silly."

That's exactly the kind of attitude that drives away the "free minded" theists we want to reach out to.

There's no need to worry about opening the door to silliness, because what I'm advocating amounts to simply saying to theists, "Yes, of course my life is meaningful as an atheist; here's why:______."

(This is our burden.)

We need not advocate any univocal system, as atheists are diverse in what they find meaningful; in fact, it is exactly the diversity of "meaningfulness" amongst atheists that we should be calling to attention.

For example, it's not strange or silly to just answer straightforwardly: "My life is meaningful because of my children, my wife, my career, my goals, my ethical or political projects, my hobbies..."

These are exactly the kinds of things that bring meaning to the lives of atheists, just as they are in reality in the lives of agnostics or theists.

If we are talking about the yearning for transcendental meaning, however, or "Truth," then that is where we part company with the theists and embrace meaning on an entirely immanent level: we countenance science and psychology as methods for obtaining the objective and subjective truths in the world, not pretensions to absolutes.

Nevertheless, we atheists still yearn for meaning and truth in exactly the same way as theists -- we just look for it on a plane of immanence, the world, rather than impossibly elsewhere.

So, what I am suggesting really comes down to: we should see that all humans have the same emotional and psychological yearnings for meaning (science/god) and ritual (Sunday football/Sunday church) and communion (BBQs/Eucharist), and our atheist responsibility, our burden, is to inform theists that the transcendental elements they have been taught so long to be irreplaceable are actually entirely so (and necessarily so).

The alternative is to keep the door shut, allowing the church fathers to snatch up the yearning masses and to keep maintaining transcendental systems of thought without any serious challenge from atheists.

However, with the door shut, we eliminate from the outset the very possibility of ever becoming the majority discourse.

Anonymous said...

Conservative political stands can have nothing to do with religion. You need only go to the godless pro-lifers website to know that.
So, non-belief really provides no benefit to the world for those who do not believe in liberal political stands.
It is absurd to think wars would end if religious belief ended. The wars would then be about money or other political stands such as marxism vs. capitalism.

Anonymous said...

Dude, you could've just as easily written this essay to target yourself.

People are going to believe differently from you, even after they see the same evidence. They're going to care less about being "right" than they will about doing what's right for them. Deal with it.

And no, shaking your fists at them on your blog and ranting about how dumb they are is not a mature, respectful, life-affirming response.