Saturday, January 24, 2015

Au contraire

One of the things that has often struck me when contemplating religion is that I do not only disagree with several core claims made in its favour, but I feel that these claims are completely upside-down. In other words, not only are they wrong, but instead I feel that they are so much the opposite of what is really the case that one might start to suspect psychological projection to be at work.

I am not thinking of claims about actual evidence for the truth of religion - that is a different issue - but of second order claims about the benefits of religion. In particular, popular pronouncements along these lines:
  1. Life without god is totally pointless and meaningless; we need god and divine commands to give meaning to our lives.
  2. The conclusion that we are annihilated at death is depressing, and belief in an immortal soul, in our continued existence after death is much better.
  3. Atheists must be immoral because without gods and holy books they have nothing to base their morals on. Therefore, they should not be trusted.
One after the other...

The meaning of life

There are many possible answers to the religious claim that our lives can only be meaningful if we have been created by a god, with a divine purpose in mind. The most popular atheist reply seems to be yes, there is no divine purpose, but we make our own purposes. And that is a good reply, but I would go one step further back because I doubt that the religious position would make sense even if there was a god.

Think about it: If we were created by a super-powerful god, and the whole universe was just ticking along to their predetermined plan as worked out aeons ago, would that really be better than life in a universe without such a god? Because what, exactly, would in that case be the difference between us and machines? Created for the purposes of a higher intelligence, perhaps just to amuse it because it got bored after watching the void for a few gazillion years, where would be our agency, our dignity?

Note that this is completely distinct from the question of whether that is how the world is. If there was evidence that we were just the puppets of a super-being, I would have to accept that reality. But I wouldn't like it. To me, a world in which I am not the equivalent of a toy seems considerably less depressing than the theist world view. Mathematician Jason Rosenhouse recently wrote on the exact same issue, and I can only second every single one of his words.

Life after death

Nobody wants to die, that much is clear, and nobody wants to lose their loved ones. Often the latter actually seems to be the stronger motivation behind belief in an afterlife; faced with the loss of a friend or relative, the hope that they continue to exist somewhere, and that one will one day be reunited with them, is very understandable.

It only works as a hopeful belief, however, because people generally fail to think the implications of the standard religious ideas about an afterlife through. Take, for example, the case of a one year old toddler who has died and is now being envisioned as a little angel in heaven. Again, understandable. But wouldn't that child miss its parents rather terribly? Would it develop normally, would it be seriously traumatised, and who would be its step-parents in heaven? Suddenly this all sounds rather frightening.

Ah, might the believer reply, but in heaven the child will simply be made happy. But in that case it would then seem logical to point out that whatever is there in heaven would, if it doesn't miss its parents, clearly not be the little child. So what is the purpose of the existence of some perennially smiling dummy in heaven if the actual person is still gone?

The same or similar problems apply to other cases. What about people who married again after their previous partner died? What if you go to heaven but your son or mother goes to hell?

Perhaps the biggest problem is that heaven brings back the Problem of Evil with a vengeance. The Problem of Evil is basically the observation that the general rottenness and unfairness of the world is incompatible with any god worthy of worship - either he must be somewhere in the range of callous to evil or he must be incompetent. A standard religious defence is that the state of the world is our own fault because god created us with Free Will, or independent agency if you want.

That doesn't really work to explain earthquakes and cancer, but okay, let us grant for present purposes that it absolves the creator god from all manner of human unpleasantness. But if that is accepted it follows that either heaven will be just as rotten as the world is now or that people won't have independent agency in heaven, which again means that we won't really be in heaven, only a mindless puppet that looks kind of like us. Neither alternative is making an afterlife sound particularly attractive.

And finally there is of course the problem that people tend to underestimate the length of eternity. Again, I don't really want to die either, but would I want to sit on a cloud singing the praise of a cosmic dictator for ten trillion years and then realise that this was only a minuscule fraction of the time that I will still have to continue doing so? Such contemplation is the stuff of nightmares.

Atheist and religious bases of morality

Finally, morality. It really is a very popular idea that there cannot be any morality without religion. On a societal level, many religious people are afraid that a decidedly non-religious society would be terribly immoral. Strangely, they never seem to be impressed by examples such as Denmark or eastern Germany. (I suspect that some definitional Jiu-Jitsu is involved. It sounds as if they mean that atheist societies would be hell-holes of theft, murder and rape, but what they really mean is perhaps just this: an atheist society is immoral because it is atheist, because atheism is immoral. QED.)

On a personal level, many people especially from very religious communities cannot understand why individual atheists do not commit random atrocities, with no god looking over their shoulders.

But just as in the case of the other claims above (and here I must add once more that all this is just my opinion and not necessarily that of any other people associated with me), I cannot help but feel that the exact opposite is true. A religious believer does not have a firm base for their morality: By definition, they base their morality on a set of random beliefs for which there is no evidence.

That is what having faith means. That is what belonging to a specific religion means. If the believer believed only in things that made sense they would believe only that which all reasonable humans can easily agree on. But to be specifically Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus etc. on top of that they must necessarily hold some unreasonable beliefs, beliefs for which there is no good evidence. Because again, if there were such evidence then everybody could agree on them, and they would just be "common sense" or "scientific facts" as opposed to, say, Catholic doctrine.

And here is my problem: If the basis for somebody's morality is just some random, irrational belief, then what guarantees that they will not lose that belief and pick up a different one three days from now? Yes, today they luckily happen to believe that their god told them to be nice, but there is really no evidence that that god exists and no way of knowing its will, so one could just as easily justify the belief that their god told them to stone all unbelievers and to mutilate their own children. Once you have thrown reason and evidence out of the window, every conclusion becomes equally valid.

In reality, of course, most believers would not suddenly turn evil because their real reason for being nice is that they are fundamentally decent people. But that is besides the point when considering whether one needs religion to have a basis for morality. It seems to me at least that those who have reasoned about ethical behaviour instead of randomly grabbing some religious dogma have a much sounder foundation to guide themselves through life.


  1. Hi Alex.

    As I recently said to another person who made a similar objection, I think you’re right that if we are talking about basically the same conception of reality, and tacking on a “magic man”, then it’s hard to see how that has profound personal implications for us. If it’s true that some being exists who is “super-powerful” compared to us, then I agree that doesn’t cash out to much.

    With the conception of God defended by classical Western Christianity, we are dealing with a Being which is radically different to, say, a version of Kim Jong Il who resides in a different dimension, and whose reign is extended into eternity.

    While I understand that you are a professional and your time is limited, I think you’d find it fruitful to read the following blog posts:

    On the topic of the meaning of life and the nature of man, I recommend the following:
    You also might like to listen to the following lectures by Dr. Lawrence Feingold from his series “Man Called to Share in the Divine Life”

  2. My time is indeed going to be so limited until about mid-March that I do not see myself reading all these posts with the attention necessary to do them justice. Hopefully after that moment I will be able to do so.

    I do not quite understand, however, what you are trying to say with your second paragraph. Whether the god of Christianity is good or evil is just the question, and it cannot simply be answered by saying that Christianity sees him as good. If that god is said to do things that would reasonably be considered bad if anybody else did them - such as punishing people cruelly for rather minor offences, causing unnecessary suffering, failing to alleviate suffering where they could easily do so, etc. - then the Christian has a bit more work to do.

    And of course he would be a dictator in the commonly accepted sense of the word merely for making decisions without allowing his subjects any input into them, even if all those decisions were good. (Just like a democracy is a democracy even if the electorate always makes bad decisions.) In that sense, I did not mean dictator to sound as bad as the worst dictator you can think of, I merely wanted to describe the decision processes god is said to favour.

  3. What I meant in the second paragraph will become very clear if you read those first four links.

    1. Hi Cale,

      I read your articles. You spend a lot of time making a good case that all sorts of different God beliefs are wrong - congratulations. But you don't spend *ANY* time supporting your own belief (simple assertions or defining things into existence don't count, of course!).
      Please start with explaining exactly what this "God" is, and more importantly, how you know this to be true. Then you won't have to waste all this time knocking down other people's incorrect perceptions!

      I have lots to say about your articles, but all my niggles shrink to insignificance against the above point - everything stands or falls on your answer to the above.
      I recommend this brief article to you:

    2. Hi Anonymous.
      I am not the author of that blog. I thought that this post focused more on attempting to show how, apart from whether God exists or not, belief in God is unattractive. So I deliberately selected materials which I thought would refute, for example, the accusation of moral arbitrariness.

      As for your claim that the author relies on bald assertion and defining things into existence, see my latest reply to Alex.

      “Please start with explaining exactly what this "God" is, and more importantly, how you know this to be true.”

      I guess the shortest answer to your question is that I am a classical theist. As for supporting this belief, Feser gave a talk entitled “An Aristotelian Proof of The Existence of God” which is available on YouTube. There are many more reasons that I have to believe in God besides this line of argumentation, but you might like to start there.

      Regarding your LessWrong link, the God referred to by Yudkowsky is “an intelligent agent” or a “mental entity” i.e. something like us, but REALLY REALLY smart and without a body. Surely you would have picked up that construing God in these terms is precisely what is being argued against in those blog posts I linked to? Thus, Yudkowsky’s critique fails.

  4. I still have not found the time to read all of them properly but went over two of the Feser posts. What I find astonishing is the logic underlying his argumentation:

    1. Lots of people believe A.
    2. But traditional theism and Aquinas say B.
    3. Therefore, B is correct.

    As far as I can tell, evidence does not enter the equation anywhere, it is just appeal to authority.

    Note also that Feser's definition of 'traditional theism' is that of a rarefied form of theology that applies to somewhere south of 0.05% of all religious believers and is certainly not very traditional. In other words, there is also a lot of No True Scotsman going on in Feser's posts, especially when he complains about atheist criticism of religion.

    1. I think that statements like “given the doctrine of divine simplicity, objection X fails” aren’t meant to imply that the doctrine of divine simplicity is solely accepted on authority: rather that only so much can be said in one post.

      The “evidence” you ask about is contained in his books, which defend the Thomistic arguments for the existence of God and the underlying metaphysics.