The world as I see it
RSS icon Email icon Home icon
  • Atheism and the Virtue of Deceit; Musings on the Purpose and Meaning of Life

    Posted on December 12th, 2013 Helian 1 comment

    According to fellow atheist Bart Ehrman, whose books are an excellent tonic for the true believers, there are many clergymen who are no longer believers themselves.  I suppose they have many ways of rationalizing their behavior to themselves, one of which is the belief that by deceiving their flocks they are actually doing “good.”  Journalist David V. Johnson recently defended this point of view in an article he wrote for 3 Quarks Daily entitled, “A Refutation of the Undergraduate Atheists.”  “Undergraduate Atheists” is one of the many pejorative terms used by philosophers with delusions of grandeur in referring to the infidel triumvirate of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris.  An atheist himself, Johnson, takes issue with what he calls the “Undergraduate Atheist Thesis,” or UAT, which he states simply as the belief that, “Humanity would be better off without religious belief.”

    Johnson begins by giving a highly distilled version of “San Manuel Bueno, Martir (Saint Manuel the Good, Martyr),” a novella by Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno.  The action takes place in the village of Valverde de Lucerna, where the spiritual needs of the people are ministered to by Don Manuel, a saintly Catholic priest.  He has a run in with Lazaro, a local who has returned from a sojourn in America as a confirmed atheist.  The two spar for a while, until the scales finally fall from Lazaro’s eyes, and he concludes that Don Manuel is right when he advises, “Leave them alone, as long as it consoles them.  It is better for them to believe it all, even contradictory things, than not to believe in anything.”  But wait, there’s a twist.  It turns out that, like Lazaro, Don Manuel is also an atheist.  However, convinced that they must preserve the “happiness” of the villagers, they continue ministering to their spiritual needs, never revealing the truth about their own unbelief, until both die in the odor of sanctity.

    The story is a lot more complex than the dumbed down version given by Johnson.  For example, Don Manuel is himself very unhappy, tormented by what seems to him the meaninglessness of life and the knowledge that he will die with no hope of the hereafter.  He is not so blithely convinced of the rightness of what he is doing as Johnson suggests, and agonizes over whether he is really serving the villagers best interests by deceiving them.  He has half convinced himself that Christ himself was also an atheist, etc.  It’s actually a very interesting read, and there’s an English version at the above link.

    Be that as it may, Johnson embraces his simplified version as an antidote to UAT.  As he puts it,

    …demonstrating the truth of UAT would require an enormous calculation of the two competing scenarios. It demands that we add up all the good and bad consequent on human beings being religious, from the beginning to the end of human history, and all the good and bad consequent on human beings not being religious. We are then supposed to compare the two totals and see which version of human history winds up better.

    According to Johnson, such a calculation is hopelessly complicated, and we therefore “have reason to suspend judgment about UAT.”  In fact, what is hopeless is the notion that we shouldn’t make judgments until we know every fact that might have some bearing on the case.  Fortunately, Mother Nature knew better, and gave us the capacity to decide based on limited data as befits creatures with limited intelligence.  We would never make any decisions if we always waited until we were certain about their outcome.

    I might add that this familiar wrangling over whether religion is “good” or “bad” is really neither here nor there as far as the question of whether God actually exists is concerned.  After all, what does it matter if the argument is decided one way or the other if there actually is a God?  Is anyone really going to risk frying in hell for quadrillions and quintillions of years, just for starters, by defying God and explaining to Him that he is “immoral” because, on balance, belief in Him hasn’t made mankind’s lot “better?”  If there is no God to begin with, then one isn’t likely to suddenly pop into existence merely because we have determined that things would be “better” that way.  In other words, the bearing of this whole argument on whether there actually is a God or not is nil.

    Of course, all this is irrelevant to Johnson.  After all, he’s an atheist himself.  His “Anti-Undergraduate Atheist Thesis” is not that Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris are wrong about the non-existence of God.  Rather, it is that a self-appointed elite of atheists should bamboozle the rest of us into believing in God in spite of that “for our own good.”  Plunging ahead with his indictment of these “New Atheists” he writes,

    Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, and their followers have something remarkably in common with religionists: they claim to know something (UAT) that cannot, in fact, be known and must be accepted on faith. The truth is that we cannot know what humanity would be like without religious belief, because humanity in that scenario would be so much unlike us that it would be impossible to determine what it would be like in that alternate universe. Their inability to acknowledge the immense calculation that would be required is unscientific. Their conclusion is as intolerant and inimical to the liberal tradition as the ranting of any superstitious windbag.

    Of course, based on his own logic, those who embrace Johnson’s Anti-UAT are also “claiming to know something that cannot be known,” and must hang their heads and join the ranks of the “ranting, superstitious windbags.”  However, he spares that faction such harsh judgment, apparently because he happens to belong to it himself.  As he puts it,

    I suspect the scales might tip the other way.  Why? For the same reasons as San Manuel Bueno’s. The psychological consequences of religious faith — the deep satisfaction, reduction of existential anxiety and feeling of security and meaning it provides — would represent an enormous and underappreciated part of the calculation. Imagine the billions of believers that have lived, live now, or will live, and consider what life is like for them from the inside. Consider the tremendous boon in happiness for all of them in knowing, in the way a believer knows, that their lives and the universe are imbued with meaning, that there is a cosmic destiny in which they play a part, that they do not suffer in vain, that their death is not final but merely a transition to a better existence.

    This the triumphant vindication of life in The Matrix.  Far be it from me to attempt any judgment of which of these two competing atheist world views is “better,” or whether either of them is even “good.”  As my readers know, I don’t admit the possibility of making an objective judgment one way or the other.  However, I certainly do have some thoughts concerning my own subjective opinion of what’s “good” for me.  I might add in passing that the Spanish “villagers” did as well, because they expressed their fury at those who were “enlightening” them by destroying churches in Barcelona and other parts of Spain at the start of the Spanish Civil War.  I don’t care to have anyone feeding me a pack of lies based on their conclusion that it’s for my own good.  I’ve found that most of us, regardless of how ignorant we might appear to those who imagine themselves our intellectual betters, are very astute at deciding for ourselves what’s “for our own good,” and certainly better at it than any self-appointed intellectual elite.  Furthermore, it seems to me that, regardless of what ends we happen to have in mind, we are a great deal more likely to achieve them if the actions we take in pursuing them are based on the truth rather than on pleasant lies.  Indeed, the very ends we seek will vary strongly depending on whether we choose them based on facts or illusions.  That will be the case regardless of how good we are as a species at ascertaining the truth, and regardless of whether we can ever have a certain knowledge of the truth or not.  Certainly, the truth is illusive, but we are more likely to approach it by actually seeking it than by promoting illusions that are supposed by the self-anointed guardians of our spiritual well-being to be “for our own good.”

    As for the notion that our fundamental goal in life should be the pursuit of some kind of illusory and drugged happiness, I consider it absurd.  Why is it that we are capable of being happy to begin with?  Like almost everything else of any real significance about us, we can be happy because, and only because, that capacity happened to increase the probability that we would survive and reproduce.  It follows that, to the extent that we can even speak of an “objective” end, happiness is purely secondary.

    What, then, of the purpose and meaning of life?  I can only speak for myself, but as an atheist I find a purpose and meaning and grandeur in life that seems to me incomparably preferable to the tinsel paradises of the true believers.  All it takes to come to that conclusion is to stop taking life for granted.  Look at yourself in the mirror!  It’s incredibly, wonderfully improbable that a creature like you, with hands, and eyes, and a heart, and a brain, not to mention all this “stuff” around us are even here.  As a “purpose” and a “meaning of life” it may only be my subjective whim, but I have a passionate desire that this little flicker of life in the middle of a vast universe, a flicker that may very well be unique, will continue.  For it to continue, it is not necessary for me to be happy.  It is necessary for me to survive and reproduce.  Beyond that it is necessary for me to seek to insure the survival of my species, and beyond that to seek to insure the survival of life itself.  Are these things objectively necessary?  In short, no.  In the end, they are just personal whims, but I’m still passionate about them for all that.  Why?  Perhaps because virtually everything about me exists because it happened to promote those goals.  If I failed to pursue those goals, I would be a sick and dysfunctional biological entity, and it displeases me to think of myself in those terms.  Hence, my, admittedly subjective and personal, purpose in life.

    But why should “I” have a purpose in life?  Don’t “I” blink into existence, and then back out of it in a moment?  What could possibly be the point if I’m only going to be here for a moment, and then cease to exist forever?  I think that question is motivated by a fundamental confusion over who “I” am.  After all, what is really essential about “me”?  It can’t be my conscious mind.  I am quite confident that it really has just popped into existence for a moment, and will soon die forever.  It follows that my consciousness can only be ancillary and secondary to what is really essential about “me”.  It would be absurd, and quite unparsimonious of Nature, if everything about me were to suffer the same fate.

    So the question becomes, what is it about me that won’t necessarily suffer that fate?  It is, of course, my genes.  In three and a half billion years, they, and the precursors that gave rise to them, have never died.  That have all been links in an unbroken chain of life stretching back over an almost inconceivably long time, and that can potentially stretch on an inconceivably long time into the future.  “I” am the link in the chain that exists in the here and now, and that will determine whether the chain will continue, or be snuffed out.  I know what my choice is.  It is a choice that, as far as I am concerned, gives an abiding meaning and purpose to my life.  It is also, of course, a “selfish” choice, and I have nothing to say about what others “should” do, because there is no objective answer to that question.  You must decide for yourself.

    UPDATE:  Jerry Coyne’s reaction to Johnson’s article may be found here.

  • George Orwell and the Pacifists

    Posted on November 12th, 2011 Helian No comments

    Orwell despised pacifism, and wrote some very interesting critiques of pacifist ideology during World War II.  On reading them, one notes a striking similarity between the pacifist ideology of Orwell’s time and the different variants thereof that existed in the United States during the Vietnam era and thereafter.  A particularly interesting example appeared in the US literary and political journal Partisan Review entitled A Controversy.  The piece included an attack on Orwell and elaboration of their own ideas by several pacifists, and Orwell’s reply.  The bit by the pacifists actually amounts to an excellent piece of self-analysis.  The reply exposes the gross self-deception that has always been inherent in pacifist thought, and points out the equally obvious fact that pacifists during wartime are, objectively, enemy collaborators in whatever country they happen to be active.

    A remarkable similarity between the Vietnam-era pacifists and those of Orwell’s day is their tendency, against all odds, to perceive their own side as the moral equivalent of the enemy.  Occasionally their own side is recognized as an outgroup, as for example by Jane Fonda who struck a heroic pose on a Communist anti-aircraft gun as her countrymen fought them further south.  By that time Gulag Archipelago had been published, and a torrent of details was available about the mass slaughter, misery and torture that was a common feature of Communist regimes.  As for Orwell’s British pacifists, the murderous nature of Hitler’s regime was already abundantly clear by 1940.  It didn’t matter.  In both cases, the facts were simply ignored.   D.S. Savage, one of the pacifists writing against Orwell in the Partisan Review, provides us with what could well be described as a self-caricature:

    It is fashionable nowadays to equate Fascism with Germany. We must fight Fascism, therefore we must fight Germany. Answer: Fascism is not a force confined to any one nation. We can just as soon get it here as anywhere else. The characteristic markings of Fascism are: curtailment of individual and minority liberties; abolition of private life and private values and substitution of State life and public values (patriotism); external imposition of discipline (militarism); prevalence of mass-values and mass-mentality; falsification of intellectual activity under State pressure. These are all tendencies of present-day Britain. The pacifist opposes every one of these, and might therefore be called the only genuine opponent of Fascism.

    Don’t let us be misled by names. Fascism is quite capable of calling itself democracy or even Socialism. It’s the reality under the name that matters. War demands totalitarian organisation of society. Germany organised herself on that basis prior to embarking on war. Britain now finds herself compelled to take the same measures after involvement in war. Germans call it National Socialism. We call it democracy. The result is the same.

    …we regard the war as a disaster to humanity. Who is to say that a British victory will be less disastrous than a German one?

    …and so on from one of Hitlers most valuable “useful idiots.”  The striking similarity between these puerile arguments, as transparently specious to Orwell then as they are to us now, and those of the Vietnam-era pacifists must be apparent to anyone who lived through those times.  Orwell points out the disconnect with reality, seemingly obvious to any child, in his rebuttal:

    Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist. This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side you automatically help that of the other. Nor is there any real way of remaining outside such a war as the present one. In practice, “he that is not with me is against me”. The idea that you can somehow remain aloof from and superior to the struggle, while living on food which British sailors have to risk their lives to bring you, is a bourgeois illusion bred of money and security. Mr. Savage remarks that “according to this type of reasoning, a German or Japanese pacifist would be ‘objectively pro-British’.” But of course he would be! That is why pacifist activities are not permitted in those countries (in both of them the penalty is, or can be, beheading) while both the Germans and the Japanese do all they can to encourage the spread of pacifism in British and American territories. They would stimulate pacifism in Russia as well if they could, but in that case they have tougher babies to deal with. In so far as it takes effect at all, pacifist propaganda can only be effective against those countries where a certain amount of feedom of speech is still permitted; in other words it is helpful to totalitarianism.

    If Mr. Savage and others imagine that one can somehow “overcome” the German army by lying on one’s back, let them go on imagining it, but let them also wonder occasionally whether this is not an illusion due to security, too much money and a simple ignorance of the way in which things actually happen.

    I am interested in the psychological processes by which pacifists who have started out with an alleged horror of violence end up with a marked tendency to be fascinated by the success and power of Nazism. Even pacifists who wouldn’t own to any such fascination are beginning to claim that a Nazi victory is desirable in itself.

    As one who listened to the chants of “Ho, Ho, Ho chi Minh, NLF is going to win” back in the Vietnam era, I know exactly what Orwell is talking about. As students of the Civil War will know, there were pacifists in those days with precisely similar arguments. Just as Orwell’s pacifists were objectively pro-Nazi and tended to sympathize with the Nazis, and the Vietnam-era pacifists were objectively pro-Communist, and tended to sympathize with the Communists, the Civil War pacifists were objectively pro-slavery, and tended to sympathize with the slavers.

    In a word, when it comes to pacifism, we have left the realm of rational argument. As Orwell points out, we are dealing with a psychological type, very similar across populations and across long stretches of time. The pacifist equates peace with “the Good,” and war with “evil.” Identification of “the Good” represents, not a logical, but an emotional process. If peace is “the Good,” one becomes “good” and defends “the Good” by supporting “peace,” regardless of any real situation or consequences, no matter how obvious to anyone whose mind has not been artificially closed in the same fashion.

    One should not become too smug in judging the pacifists. After all, we are all human, and we all have a similar tendency to form emotional attachments to “the Good,” whether it be pacifism or any other ideological tendency. As a Monday morning quarterback, it seems to me I can detect similar phenomena, associated with other “Goods,” going on in Orwell’s own mind. For him, socialism was “the Good,” so, for a long time, he had the fixed idea that Britain must try the highly dubious experiment of attempting a socialist revolution if she was to win the war. For him, the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War was “the Good,” as well. After all, he had nearly been killed fighting for that side. As a result, one finds highly exaggerated predictions of the disastrous results that would “inevitably” follow because the Allies had allowed Franco to win. In retrospect, with Franco safely in the grave and Spain a democratic state, Orwell’s prediction that she would remain a totalitarian dictatorship until the fascists were overthrown by force didn’t exactly pan out.

    I have any number of similar emotional attachments of my own. Perhaps the example of a man as brilliant as Orwell will help me to detect and compensate for some of them. It would seem to me that it would behoove us all to make the attempt, assuming we really value the truth.

  • Moral Relativism and Modern Times

    Posted on January 2nd, 2011 Helian No comments

    Trying to learn some history but the relentless political correctness of leftist authors makes you nauseous?  You need a change of pace. Try Modern Times by Paul Johnson.  It’s still politically correct, but it’s the masculine, almost Rhodesian political correctness of the right instead of the pecksniffing, pathologically pious political correctness of the left.  In accordance with the rules of modern historiography, all the important players are sorted into bad guys and good guys, but the roles are reversed:  Harding and Coolidge and good guys and Roosevelt and the New Dealers are bad guys. 

    According to Johnson, the bad guys became evil because they abandoned Judeo-Christian morality, source of such uplifting triumphs of the objective good as the hanging and burning of several hundred thousand “witches,” centuries of genocidal attacks on the Jews, and religious wars beyond counting.  The bad guys, on the other hand, are all “moral relativists.”  In case you’re wondering what a “moral relativist” is, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a very good article about it.  In short, a “moral relativist” is anyone who differs with you touching matters of morality.  As the Stanford Encyclopedia puts it:

    Moral relativism has the unusual distinction—both within philosophy and outside it—of being attributed to others, almost always as a criticism, far more often than it is explicitly professed by anyone.

    Johnson’s own version of “objective morality” at least has the virtue of being idiosyncratic.  Where academic leftists would use the phrase, “You have to break some eggs to make an omelet” to rationalize the crimes of Stalin, Johnson would be more likely to use it to rationalize Franco’s shooting of more than 150,000 helpless victims after his victory in the Spanish Civil War.  He speaks of the matter as if it were a mere bagatelle, and, after all, Franco was an upholder of “Judeo-Christian morality.” 

    Be that as it may, Modern Times is no hack journalist’s history.  Johnson has a profound knowledge of the events he describes, and has much of interest to say about the intellectual currents and personalities of the 20th century.  Any history with such a broad scope is bound to transmute complex human beings into wooden dummies.  That’s not Johnson’s fault.  Given the nature of his book, he’s done his job if he at least points them out to you.  Finding the human being beneath the wooden shell is always something you’ll have to do on your own.

  • Hugh Thomas’ “The Spanish Civil War”

    Posted on January 17th, 2010 Helian 13 comments

    Spanish WarI just reread Hugh Thomas’ “The Spanish Civil War” after a lapse of many years. Thomas has the ability, rare in our times, to write histories peopled by human beings, rather than good guys and bad guys. In this book he portrays an event that is still well within living memory, but seems as remote as the middle ages. It is well worth reading, if only to recall what human beings are capable of. It was a war marked by furious ideological passions, a version in miniature of the titanic struggle between fascism and Communism that was to follow it. Especially in the beginning, but throughout the war, both sides systematically hunted down and shot any person of talent they had any reason to believe might favor the other side. Many tens of thousands of Spain’s best and brightest were squandered in this national decapitation that is such a trademark of the 20th century, mimicking the even more devastating self-immolation that reached its peak of fury in the Soviet Union at the same time, and decades later in Cambodia. Imagine what it would be like if people in a town 20 or 30 miles from yours grabbed weapons, climbed onto trucks and drove to where you live, and then began systematically going door to door, shooting down 100’s of your neighbors for the flimsiest of reasons, including pure malice and personal revenge. That’s what it was like. We forget such events at our peril. They are still quite recent, and could easily happen again.

    One wonders how many of the later dictators of central and South America were “inspired” by Franco and his fascists. After all, in the end, he “won,” in the sense that his will prevailed. How many of the organizers of death squads, the “revolutionaries” who murdered and still murder whole villages, and the military thugs responsible for the “disappeared ones” learned their lessons from him? It’s ironic to consider what has become of his “victory,” paid for with the blood of so many of Spain’s most talented children.  Today she is ruled by a socialist he certainly would have shot back in July or August of ’36.  Franco posed as the defender of outraged Christianity.  Recently, I saw the Spanish film “Talk to Her,” in which one of the characters claims that those priests who don’t rape nuns are pedophiles.  The wheel of Nemesis rolls on.

    There is a fine sentence in Thomas’ Epilogue that epitomizes both the war and the century:

    The Spanish Civil War was the Spanish share in the tragic European breakdown of the twentieth century, in which the liberal heritage of the nineteenth century, and the sense of optimism which had lasted since the renaissance, were shattered.

    Wars arouse passions, and passions spawn music. The Spanish Civil War was no exception. Here are examples from the right:

    and the left: