A Fly in the “Human Flourishing” Soup: An Australian Data Point

One of the favorite hobbies of secular philosophers of late has been the fabrication of new and improved systems of morality.  Perhaps the best known example is outlined in Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape.  If conscientiously applied, we are promised, they will usher in nebulous utopias in which a common thread is some version of “human flourishing.”  We have already completed an experimental investigation of how these fancy theories work in practice.  It was called Communism.  Many eggs were broken to make that omelet, but the omelet never materialized.    That unfortunate experience alone should be enough to dissuade us from poking a stick into the same hornet’s nest again.

The Communists were at least realistic enough to realize that their system wouldn’t work without a radical transformation in human behavior.  For that to happen, it was necessary for our behavioral habits to be almost infinitely malleable, a requirement that spawned many of the 20th century versions of the Blank Slate, and perverted the behavioral sciences for more than half a decade.  Since it became clear, as Trotsky once put it rather euphemistically just before Stalin had him murdered, that Communism had “ended in a utopia,” most of the “not in our genes” crowd have either mercifully died or been dragged kicking and screaming back into the real world.  Practitioners of the behavioral “sciences” are now at least generally agreed as to the truth of the proposition, sufficiently obvious to any ten-year old, that there actually is such a thing as human nature.

That hasn’t deterred the inventers of sure-fire new universal moralities.  They seem to think that they can finesse the problem by persuading us that we should just ignore those aspects of our nature that stand in the way of “human flourishing.”  It won’t work for them any more than it worked for the Communists.  This stubborn fact was demonstrated yet again in rather amusing fashion on the occasion of the publication of a somewhat controversial book in Australia.

The title of the book was The Conservative Revolution by Cory Bernardi.  The particular aspect of human nature that its release highlighted was our predisposition to adopt dual systems of morality, in which radically different rules apply depending on whether one is dealing with one’s ingroup or one’s outgroup.  Robert Ardrey called the phenomenon the “Amity/Enmity Complex,” and it has played a profound and fundamental role in the endemic warfare our species has engaged in since time immemorial.  The philosophy outlined in The Conservative Revolution would be familiar to most southern Republicans in the US.  His ingroup is the Australian political right.  In other words, he is positioned firmly in the outgroup of the political left.  When he published the book, “warfare” was not long in coming.

The reaction of the leftist ingroup in Australia was furious.  To characterize it as hysterical frothing at the mouth would be putting it mildly.  The data demonstrating this enraged reaction has been kindly collected by the people at Amazon in the form of reader reviews of the book.  As I write this, there are 554 of them, and virtually all of them, whether “five star” or “one star,” are literary reflections of a two-year old’s temper tantrum.  Here are some excerpts from some of the 421 “one star” reviews:

It’s only 178 pages long, and at the current price of just under $27, it’s quite expensive as well. So already one’s expectations are for a good quality product, given that it costs over 15 cents per page (or 30 cents per sheet, in other words).  Just for comparison, my local Woolworths has toilet paper on sale for 20 cents per ONE HUNDRED sheets, or less than 1% the price per sheet of this book!!

It made an excellent liner for my bird cage. I love seeing my rainbow parakeets taking a dump on his head.

The Dark One hungers. In his pit of eternal hatred he squats in the darkness feeding on the screams of the weak. Soon, his blood tide reaches a peak and he will scourge the unbelievers.

…and so on.  Here are some of the 105 “five star” reviews:

Many of the rituals I frequently practice – mostly summonings of minor demons – require ‘hate’ as an active ingredient. Before this book, I never really knew what to do. When I attempted to provide the hate myself, I found it difficult to focus and the rituals often went wrong (I even ended up losing a hand once, that was a pain to deal with). After that, I tried kidnapping some of my particularly nasty neighbours, but while that worked considerably better, it certainly wasn’t perfect – often fear would override the hate I needed, and of course I had to kill them afterwards, and disposing of all of the bodies was starting to get really annoying.  Then this book came along, and all of the took away all of the hassle of finding hatred.

“Conservative Revolution” is the much-anticipated release by Cory Bestiality, after the success of his collaborative work on the ‘Real Solutions’ pamphlet. Effortlessly blending the Palaeofantasy, Historical Fiction and Political and Philosophical Satire genres, Bestiality creates a largely effective and revealing expose of the fallacies of Christian Fundamentalism and neoconservative ideology. Whilst lacking the insight and depth of ‘Real Solutions’, Bestiality’s new work is clearly inspired by similar writings, from Adolf Hitler’s stirring call to action, “Mein Kampf”, to Sarah Palin’s “Going Rogue”

Short and succinct! In just over 100 pages I learned that Adolf Hitler was a very moderate, balanced, caring and compassionate man in comparison to Corey Bernardi.

One wonders that there are so many people in Australia who trouble themselves to write such stuff.  It’s certainly a tribute to the power of Ardrey’s “Complex.”  The shear irrationality of it is demonstrated by the fact that Bernardi is laughing all the way to the bank.  The book has already gone to a second printing, and the publisher is rubbing his hands as copies fly off the book store shelves.  The affair is just another data point swimming in an ocean of others, all pointing to a very fundamental truth; the outgroup have ye always with you.

Consider the ingroup responsible for composing most of these furious anathemas.  It is the ingroup of the secular left, which lives in more or less the same ideological box in Australia as its analogs in Western Europe and North America.  In other words, this stuff is coming from the very ingroup most busily engaged in cobbling together spiffy new moralities which are to be characterized by universal human brotherhood!  Sorry my friends – no ingroup without an outgroup.  Even if you ushered in the Brave New World of “human flourishing” by exterminating the very significant proportion of the population that agrees with Cory Bernardi, another outgroup would inevitably crop up to take its place.  In the absence of an outgroup, it is our nature to simply create another one.

It’s hard to imagine a less promising ingroup to gladden the rest of us with “human flourishing” than the modern secular left.  As Catholic philosopher Joseph Bottum notes in his book, An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America, in the US these people are the direct descendants of the Puritans.  The overbearing self-righteousness evident in these “book reviews” seems to confirm that assessment.  They are saturated with a level of bile and hatred of the “other” that one normally expects to find only among religious fanatics.  And according to Bottum, that is basically what they are.  His take is summarized in a review of his book by David Goldman:

Joseph Bottum, by contrast, examines post-Protestant secular religion with empathy, and contends that it gained force and staying power by recasting the old Mainline Protestantism in the form of catechistic worldly categories: anti-racism, anti-gender discrimination, anti-inequality, and so forth. What sustains the heirs of the now-defunct Protestant consensus, he concludes, is a sense of the sacred, but one that seeks the security of personal salvation through assuming the right stance on social and political issues. Precisely because the new secular religion permeates into the pores of everyday life, it sustains the certitude of salvation and a self-perpetuating spiritual aura. Secularism has succeeded on religious terms. That is an uncommon way of understanding the issue, and a powerful one.

Perhaps “human flourishing” would be a bit more plausible if we were all Benjamin Franklins, or Abraham Lincolns, or even Neville Chamberlains.  As William Shakespeare put it in Twelfth Night, “Anything but a devil of a Puritan.”

What is the “Atheist Agenda?”

There is none.  An atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in a God or gods, period!  Somehow, that simple definition just never seems to register in the minds of large cohorts of atheists and believers alike.  Take, for example, Theo Hobson, who supplies us with his own, idiosyncratic definition in a piece entitled “Atheism is an Offshoot of Deism” that recently turned up in the Guardian:

Atheism is less distinct from deism than it thinks. It inherits the semi-Christian assumptions of this creed.

Atheism derives from religion? Surely it just says that no gods exist, that rationalism, or ‘scientific naturalism’, is to be preferred to any form of supernaturalism. Actually, no: in reality what we call atheism is a form of secular humanism; it presupposes a moral vision, of progressive humanitarianism, of trust that universal moral values will triumph. (Of course there is also the atheism of Nietzsche, which rejects humanism, but this is not what is normally meant by ‘atheism’).

So what we know as atheism should really be understood as an offshoot of deism. For it sees rationalism as a benign force that can liberate our natural goodness. It has a vision of rationalism saving us, uniting us.

Sorry, but I beg to differ with you Theo.  There certainly are many delusional atheists who embrace such a “moral vision,” but the notion that all of them do is nonsense.  For example, I reject any such “moral vision,” which Michael Rosen accurately described as “Religion Lite.”  If you’ll trouble yourself to read the comments after your article, you’ll see I’m not alone.  For example, from commenter Whiterthanwhite,

So is my Afairyism an offshoot of my five-year-old’s belief in fairies?  Is my Afatherchristmasism an offshoot of her belief in Father Christmas?

Topher chimes in,

Indeed.  Certain (rather more arrogant) religious people insist on seeing atheism as a reflection of theism rather than a rejection of it. It makes them feel better I guess, but of course is absolutely misguided.

Dogfondler adds,

Yes what a bag of bollocks this is. Atheism is an ‘offshoot’ of deism the way that absence is an offshoot of presence.  It seems that what theists can’t stand about atheism is the sheer absence of belief. Get over it.

Ituae concurs,

Can you, and others like you, please stop talking about atheism as if it were a belief system? I don’t believe in God. Doesn’t mean a subscribe to whatever incoherent, ill-thought-out Humanism you’re passing off as philosophy.

There are many similar comments, but as noted above, it never seems to register, even among some atheists.  Follow an atheist website long enough, and you’re sure to run across commenters who insist on associating atheism with veganism, progressivism, schemes for gladdening us with assorted visions of “human flourishing,” and miscellaneous secular Puritans of all stripes.  No.  I don’t think so!  Atheism doesn’t even come pre-packaged with “scientific rationalism.”  It is merely the absence of a belief in a God or gods – Period! Aus!  Schluss!  Basta!

If any word is long overdue for a re-definition, it’s “religion,” not “atheism.”  Instead of being rigidly associated with theism, it should embrace all forms of belief in imaginary, supernatural entities, or at least those with normative powers.  In particular, in addition to a God or gods, it should include belief in such things as Rights, Good, and Evil as things-in-themselves, independent of the subjective impressions of them that exist in the minds of individuals.

Among other things, such a re-definition would add a certain coherence to theories according to which the predisposition to embrace “religion” is an evolved behavior.  I rather doubt that we’ll eventually find something quite so specific as “You shall believe in supernatural beings!” hard-wired in our brains.  On the other hand, there may be predispositions that make it substantially more likely that belief in such beings will follow once a certain level of intelligence is reached.  I suspect that the origins of secular religions such as Communism will eventually be found by rummaging about in the very same behavioral baggage.  I’m not the only one who’s seen the affinity.  Many others have spoken of the “popes,” “bishops,” and “priesthood” of Communism and its antecedents, for almost as long as they’ve been around.

In any case, not all atheists are secular Puritans who embrace these various versions of “religion lite.”  I personally hope our species will eventually grow up enough to jettison them along with the older editions.  Darwin immediately grasped the truth, as did many others since him.  It follows immediately from his theory.  Evolved behavioral traits are the ultimate cause for the existence of morality and the perception of such subjective entities as Good and Evil that go with it.  That is the simple truth, and it follows that belief in the existence of Good and Evil as objective things with some kind of a legitimate, independent normative power, whether ones tastes run to the versions preferred by the “heavy” or “lite” versions of religion, is a chimera.

Does that mean it’s time to jettison morality?  No, sorry, our species doesn’t have that option.  We will continue to act morally in spite of the vociferous objections of legions of philosophers, because it is our nature to act morally.  It’s a “good” thing, too, because even if morality isn’t “real,” we would have a very hard time getting along without it.  On the other hand, we do have the option of recognizing the pathologically self-righteous among us for the charlatans they are.

Elmer Gantry

Morality and the Lament of the Liberal Atheists

Atheists of the ideological type that might be described as “progressive” or “liberal” have a problem.  In general, they are extremely moralistic and self-righteous.  Read their articles, visit their blogs, or just follow one of them on Twitter for a while, and you’ll see what I mean.  Take New Atheist kingpin Richard Dawkins, for example.  In the last week alone he has tweeted anathemas against sexists, racists, animal abusers, and female genital mutilators.  The problem with this is that atheists lack any legitimate basis for applying their moral judgments to anyone.  As political philosopher Michael Rosen puts it, their tacit assumption of such legitimacy amounts to “religion lite.”

Rosen’s comment appeared in a review of American philosopher, legal scholar, and liberal atheist Ronald Dworkin’s book, Religion Without God, that recently appeared in The Nation.  Noting that Dworkin accepted “the full, independent reality of value,” Rosen, himself a liberal atheist, points out that there is a problem with this claim.  There is no more evidence for it than there is for the existence of God.  He sums up the implications in the final paragraph of his review:

I cannot see that describing the target of our disagreements about value as existing in a fully independent, objective realm is anything other than religion lite:  the religious idea of eternal goodness without the miraculous elements of omnipotent divine will and personal immortality.  Yet I am one with Dworkin in thinking that even a fully secular individual should contemplate the universe not just with curiosity and wonder but with reverence and gratitude.  Still, behind me I hear a voice – a Nietzschean one, perhaps – that tells me that what Dworkin and I are looking at is no more than a penumbra, the few rays that remain in the sky after the sun of revealed religion has set.  If that is so, then the coming night may be dark indeed.

This sums up the dilemma of the liberal atheist very nicely.  They want to continue sitting comfortably on a branch they have just sawed off.  Religious believers notice this immediately and laugh, with good reason.  the world view of the modern liberal may well turn out to be as dangerous as that of any religious fanatic, but at the same time it’s a joke.  It is as moralistic as that of the most self-righteous Pharisee, or the most pious Puritan, utterly dependent on the existence in an “independent, objective realm” of Good, Evil, and Rights to have any semblance of rationality, but lacking any evidence or rational basis for belief in such mirages.  The continuing stream of news from the realm of science, which good liberals must at least pretend to respect, to the effect that the ultimate basis for morality may be found in the evolved behavioral predispositions of an animal species with a particularly large brain has done nothing to help matters.  All this is happening at a time when the modern incarnation of the liberal can hardly engage in a rational debate without constantly falling back on the illusion of moral superiority as his inevitable ultima ratio.  No wonder Rosen senses the approach of darkness for liberal atheists.  What happens when the very basis of the ultima ratio disappears?

But what of the rest of us?  Are dark times approaching for us as well?  There might be a nuclear holocaust tomorrow for all I know.  However, no matter what the future brings, I like our chances of survival better if we base our decisions on what is true rather than on what is false.  It may be you think that a chaotic world of moral relativism is inevitable if there is no objective Good and Evil.  It may be you think human beings will lose their dignity if there is no God.  It may be that you think that tyranny and oppression will be our lot if there are no objective Rights.  True or not, one thing is certain.  None of these fears will cause Good, Evil, God, or Rights to magically pop into existence, independent of the minds that dream them up.  You may not be happy about reality, but it will stubbornly persist in being real in spite of you.

Such fears are also unrealistic.  Moral relativism is the ground state of living things.  It doesn’t work for a social species like ours.  If every one of us tried to monopolize all the available resources within his grasp at the cost of everyone else, the chances that any given individual would survive and reproduce would be drastically reduced.  Therefore, morality.  It exists because, from an evolutionary perspective, it works.  It will continue to function just as it always has, even if 100,000 philosophers shout at the top of their lungs that it’s irrational.  Of course it is, but it doesn’t matter.  We will continue to perceive the good and evil that seem so real to our imaginations as absolutes.  It is our nature to do so, and it will only be possible for us to override that nature by an act of will.  When it comes to regulating our social interactions, morality is the only game in town.  There is no viable substitute.  Within certain limits, of course, there is a great deal of flexibility in exactly what these “absolutes” will be.  Assuming we value the survival of our species, we would do well to choose them wisely, and limit their scope to the bare necessities.

It will never be possible to ignore human moral emotions with impunity.  They aren’t going anywhere, and “rational” arguments will never really be rational unless they are taken into account.  That said, it seems obvious that decisions regarding the optimum minimum wage, how we should react to the situation in Ukraine, and what the law should be regarding corporations were not contemplated by Mother Nature when she devised morality.  Perhaps it would behoove us to at least attempt to apply our limited powers of reason to deciding such matters, rather than just allowing ourselves to be carried along on a tide of moral emotions.  Those among us who invariably react to those whose opinions differ from their own in such matters with outrage and virtuous indignation are not only tiresome, but irrational.  The liberal atheists may sense the darkness as the façade of their cherished righteousness collapses around them.  The rest of us, however, can breathe a sigh of relief.

Christians, Comic Books, and the Happy and Sad Atheists

If the world you imagine resembles a comic book, it could be there are some flaws in your fundamental assumptions.  So it is with Catholic apologist Ross Douthat, whose fantasies would not be out of place in the literary productions of Dell or Marvel.  However, they’re actually more likely to turn up on the opinion pages of the New York Times.  That’s where  I found his latest, entitled The Return of the Happy Atheist.  It’s actually the second of a pair of replies to another collection of musings about atheism and the decline of belief by Adam Gopnik entitled Bigger than Phil, which recently appeared in The New Yorker.

For Douthat and many others like him, it’s impossible to conceive of atheism as simply a lack of belief in God or gods.  He conceives of atheists as a monolithic outgroup, whose atheism implies all sorts of other ideological connections.  He declares himself in broad agreement with Leszek Kolakowski, according to whom there was once a “cozy world”  for our “movement” back in the days of the Enlightenment, under leaders such as Diderot, Feuerbach, and Helvetius, the latter of whom actually happened to be a deist.  Then, Nietzsche announced the death of God, and since that day, “there have been no more happy atheists… that world was transformed into a place of endless anxiety and suffering.  The absence of God became a permanently festering wound in the European spirit.”

No need to despair, fellow atheists!  Douthat is pleased to announce that “we” have swung from “glad” to “sad” back to “glad” once again.  In his words,

Among polemicists and philosophers alike, there’s what feels like a renewed confidence that all of the issues – moral, political, existential – that made the death of God seem like a kind of “wound” to so many 20th century writers have somehow been neatly wrapped up and resolved and can now be safely put aside.

And why have “we” all suddenly become so happy?  Douthat notes that in the piece by Gopnik that he’s supposed to be writing about, the author claims that, at least in part, it’s because of “the broad prestige, in the past twenty years, of evolutionary biology.”  And here is where things get really interesting.  Douthat continues,

But he doesn’t pursue this idea quite far enough, writing that “the details of the new evolutionary theory are fairly irrelevant to the New Atheism.” which strikes me as quite wrong:  It’s precisely the specifics of sociobiology, of evolutionary psychology, that have helped give atheism its swagger back, because ev-psych promises a theory of human culture in a way that other evolutionary theories don’t.  And with that promise has come a sense, visible throughout atheist commentaries nowadays, that by explaining human culture in scientific terms they can also justify the parts of that culture that they find congenial, ground their liberal cosmopolitanism firmly in capital-S Science, and avoid the abysses that seemed to yawn beneath the 20th century’s feet.  This reading of evolutionary psychology hasn’t quite made Nature itself seem completely “friendly” again, but it has ;made a kind of contemporary scientism seem friendlier to moral visions in general and the progressive moral vision in particular, in a way that has made “if there is no God, all is permitted” feel (to many writers, at least) like a less troubling point against atheism after all.

Amazing!  Apparently David Bentley Hart, who included a fact-free diatribe against evolutionary psychology in his The Experience of God, the latest redoubt of Sophisticated Christians, isn’t just an outlier.  It would seem the unfortunate evolutionary psychologists are doomed to be the whipping boys of ideological zealots of all stripes.  The fact that conservative Christians are now piling on with the rest really stands things on their head.

Evolutionary psychology, referred to in the vernacular as “sociobiology” after E. O. Wilson coined the term, and even earlier, in the heyday of Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz, as “ethology,” although all three terms now have separate “academic” definitions, has long been, and to a large extent still is, the bête noire of the very leftist atheist “progressives” who Douthat claims now embrace it.  Quick, someone run and tell John Horgan and Marshall Sahlins!  Where on earth is this fable about New Atheists enthusiastically embracing evolutionary psychology coming from?  Certainly not from Richard Dawkins, who declared in The Selfish Gene that Ur-evolutionary psychologist Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz were “totally and utterly wrong.”  Jerry Coyne, who also spilled some ink over Douthat’s latest? I don’t think so!  The latest I’ve seen emanating from that realm, Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes, embraces not EP, but John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism.  His only interest in evolutionary psychology is in thinking up clever ways to circumvent its findings.

None of these Christian gentry seem to have the faintest clue that that basis of evolutionary psychology is merely the recognition that there actually is such a thing as human nature.  The fact that it is now supposed to be “in fashion” is really nothing more than that recognition, following decades in which the so-called behavioral “sciences” were in thrall to the ludicrous ideological orthodoxies of the Blank Slate.  Douthat is much more likely to hit pay dirt in his hunt for atheists whose tastes run to leftist progressivism among the flotsam and jetsam left over from the demise of that orthodoxy than in the EP journals.

None of that matters to the Douthats of the world, though.  EP is too useful to their narrative to pay any attention to the truth.  And it turns out that the narrative in question is nothing more sophisticated than the hoary old naturalistic fallacy.  Quoting once again from the above passage, “…by explaining human culture in scientific terms they can also justify the parts of that culture that they find congenial.”  In other words, hidden in some dark cranny of academia, New Atheists, who are not otherwise identified, are supposed to be busily cobbling the “is” of evolutionary psychology into the “ought” of their nefarious, godless philosophy.  Whatever.  I suppose it’s not much of a stretch if you actually believe the rest of Catholic dogma.

In any case, “we” the monolithic atheist “movement” of today, are now “glad” again, thanks to the crutch of evolutionary psychology combined with a generally benign and prosperous world.  “We” are also no longer embarrassed by Communism, which, of course, “we” foisted on the world.  That revelation came as news to me, an atheist who volunteered to fight Communism in Vietnam at a time when to do so was not considered fashionable.

No time for the “movement” to relax, though, fellow atheists!  The far-seeing Douthat, after scrutinizing related articles in the opinion columns of the New York Times and running across some other articles in popular magazines that clearly reveal that we face “problems that should be obvious to those with eyes to see,” is convinced that the pendulum will soon swing back from “glad” to “sad” once again.  “Dark forces,” he writes, are driving “secular liberalism toward the kind of intellectual crisis that seems to me to lurk, iceberg-like, somewhere out ahead.”

Well, to tell you the truth, as a conservative atheist I wouldn’t mind having a front row seat to watch that ship slip beneath the waves, either.  The only problem is that, according to the Douthats of the world, people like me can’t exist.

“The Experience of God”: An “Adult Christian” vs. the New Atheists

The latest gambit among the spiritually inclined opponents of such “New Atheists” as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris has been to deprecate them as “undergraduate atheists.”  Their unseemly and childish squabbles with equally unenlightened  religious fundamentalists are supposedly just the predictable outcome of their mutual confusion about the real nature of God.   They are in dire need of adult supervision from more sophisticated believers who have troubled themselves to acquire this knowledge.  One such self-appointed guardian of the divine wisdom is David Bentley Hart, whose latest effort to set the New Atheists straight is entitled The Experience of God.  As Hart puts it,

…any attempt to confirm or disprove the reality of God can be meaningfully undertaken only in a way appropriate to what God is purported to be.  If one imagines that God is some discrete object visible to physics or some finite aspect of nature, rather than the transcendent actuality of all things and all knowing, the logically inevitable Absolute upon which the contingent depends, then one simply has misunderstood what the content of the concept of God truly is, and has nothing to contribute to the debate.

Well, that’s not entirely true.  I rather suspect that Dawkins and the rest aren’t quite as ignorant as Hart suggests of the Eastern Philosophy 101 version of God he portrays in his book.  As he claims, it’s a version that’s common to the mystics of Christianity, Islam, and many other religious traditions.  However, the New Atheists have quite reasonably chosen to focus their attention on the God that most people actually believe in rather than the one favored by Hart and the rest of the metaphysicians.  According to Hart, all this amounts to is a pitiful spectacle of equally ignorant atheists and religious fundamentalists chasing each others tails.  Supposedly, by focusing on what most of the faithful actually believe about the nature of God, the New Atheists have removed themselves from the debate.  In reality, Hart is the one who’s not really in the “debate,” because he artificially attempts to lift himself out of it.  He does this by fragmenting God into a “philosophical” God and a “dogmatic” God, as if the latter were irrelevant to the former.  This is supposedly done in order to achieve “clarity,” and to spare the reader “boring arguments.”  In fact, this taking a meat ax to God to chop off the inconvenient bits achieves the very opposite of “clarity.”  What it does do is obfuscate the very real and very sharp incompatibilities between the different religious traditions that Dawkins was referring to when he wrote in the God Delusion,

We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in.  Some of us just go one god further.

We can assume that, as Hart claims, all the great religious traditions are in broad agreement about the “philosophical” God that he describes at length in his book.  What about the “dogmatic” God that is distinguished in the different religions and sects by how many wills He has, how many natures He has, what His “substance” is, whether or not he is “begotten,” whether he comes in one person or three, etc.  These distinctions are very real, important, and can’t just be dismissed with a wave of the hand to achieve “clarity.”

For example, most Christians believe in the Trinity, and virtually all of them believe that the term “begotten” is associated with God in one way or another.  Moslems beg to differ.  Muhammad said quite plainly that, not only is this Christian version of God wrong, but those who believe in the Trinity, or that Christ was “begotten” as one of God’s persons, will burn in hell forever.  “Forever,” of course, is a very long time, compared to which the supposed 13 plus billion year age of the universe is but the blink of an eye.  Muhammad was also quite explicit about what burning in hell means.  One’s physical body will be immersed in fire, and a new skin will immediately replace each old one as it is consumed by the flames.  One might say that if, as Hart insists, there really is a God, he might be a great deal less “bored” by the distinction between the Trinitarian and Unitarian versions of God after he dies than he is now.  He might end up in a rather more tropical climate than he expected.

It is one of Hart’s favorite conceits, practiced, he assures us, since the days of the earliest fathers of the church, to dismiss all the contradictions and physical absurdities in the Bible as “allegories.”  Unfortunately, one does not have this luxury with the Quran.  Muhammad said quite plainly that he hadn’t written any riddles or allegories, and he meant everything he said.  In fact, the different versions of God are the same only if we allow Hart to perform his “dogmatic” lobotomy on them.  Thus, to the extent that they make any sense at all, such statements in the book as,

…if one is content merely to devise images of God that are self-evidently nonsensical, and then proceed triumphantly to demonstrate just how infuriatingly nonsensical they are, one is not going to accomplish anything interesting.

can make sense only after Hart has carefully denatured God by excising all his “dogmatic” bits.  But what of Hart’s “philosophical” God, this denatured God of the mystics and metaphysicians, about whose nature Christian priests, Moslem mullahs, and Hindu sadhus are supposed to be in such loving agreement?  Predictably, it turns out that He exists up on an intellectual shelf, free from the prying rationality of the atheists.  As Hart puts it,

All the great theistic traditions agree that God, understood in this proper sense, is essentially beyond finite comprehension, hence, much of the language used of Him is negative in form and has been reached only by a logical process of abstraction from those qualities of finite reality that make it insufficient to account for its own existence.  All agree as well, however, that he can genuinely be known:  that is, reasoned toward, intimately encountered, directly experienced with fullness surpassing mere conceptual comprehension.

He then goes on to present us with the terms that, later in the book, are to figure prominently both in his definition of God and the proof of his existence:

The terms in which I have chosen to speak of God, as the title page of the volume announces, are “being,” “consciousness,” and “bliss.”  This is a traditional ternion that I have borrowed from Indian tradition… they are ideal descriptions not only of how various traditions understand the nature of God, but also of how the reality of God can, according to those traditions, be experienced and known by us.  For to say that God is being, consciousness, and bliss is also to say that he is the one reality in which all our existence, knowledge, and love subsist, from which they come and to which they go, and that therefore he is somehow present in even our simplest experience of the world, and is approachable by way of a contemplative and moral refinement of experience.

I invite those interested in a further explication of these terms to consult Hart’s book, as he devotes a chapter to each of them.  However, for the purposes of this post, I will cut to the chase.  These terms are supposed to constitute a bulletproof rejoinder to the “undergraduate atheists.”  According to Hart, we cannot explain how there is something rather than nothing without a God (being), we cannot explain consciousness without a God, and we cannot explain such things as beauty or the “moral law within” without God (bliss).  I must say that I am in  full agreement with Hart to the extent that I don’t know why there is something rather than nothing.  I have no clue how I can be conscious, and I haven’t the faintest inkling of exactly how my consciousness experiences beauty.  However, the hoary conceit that we are somehow forced to supply a God to explain the things we don’t understand strikes me as rather weak, especially for someone like Hart, who writes in the style of a high school prima donna who people have made such a fuss over that she imagines she’s Meryl Streep.

In reality, Hart’s “proofs” of God’s existence amount to nothing more than the classic non sequitur of supplying something more complicated to explain something less complicated, regardless of whether he chooses to describe God as an object, a subject, a Ground of Being, an Absolute Reality, or whatever.  In the end, that’s really all he’s got.  These three words supply his whole rationalization to himself of why he’s infinitely smarter and wiser than the “undergraduate atheists.”  He would have been better off just stating these “proofs” and leaving it at that, but he couldn’t resist pondering the implications of these three “incontrovertible” truths for science itself, and lecturing the scientists accordingly.  We learn in the process that he’s not only way, way smarter than just the New Atheists, but also such worthies as the physicists Weinberg, Feynman and Hawking, to whom he delivers a stern lecture for daring to violate his metaphysical territory.  Needless to say, he also imagines himself far above such intellectual “lightweights” as Dawkins,

As for Dawkins’ own attempt at an argument against the likelihood of God’s existence, it is so crude and embarrassingly confused as to be germane to nothing at all, perhaps not even to itself.

as for the rest of the New Atheists,

Even the stridency, bigotry, childishness and ignorance with which the current atheist vogue typically expresses itself should perhaps be excused as no more than an effervescence of primitive fervor on the part of those who, finding themselves poised upon a precipice overlooking the abyss of ultimate absurdity, have made a madly valiant leap of faith.

Hart presents us with such bluster repeatedly, without accompanying it with a serious attempt to specifically address so much as one of Dawkins’ actual arguments against the existence of God.  In fact, one might say he is the perfect platonic “form” of a Pharisee.  One can just imagine him in the temple, praying to his God,

I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this New Atheist. (Luke 18:11)

One wonders how he squares this flamboyant intellectual hubris with such teachings of Jesus as,

Verily I say unto you, except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.  (Matthew 18:3)

Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3)


Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth. (Matthew 5:5)

No doubt, like Noah’s ark and the Garden of Eden they are just another lot of “allegories.”  For all his hubris, the self-assurance with which Hart lectures the likes of Hawking and Feynman is based on a level of scientific understanding that is, shall we say, idiosyncratic.  For example,

As a species, we have been shaped evolutionarily, in large part at least, by transcendental ecstasies whose orientation exceeds the whole of nature.  Instead of speaking vacuously of genetic selfishness, then, it would be immeasurably more accurate to say that compassion, generosity, love, and conscience have a unique claim on life.


The mystery remains:  the transcendent good, which is invisible to the forces of natural selection, has made a dwelling for itself within the consciousness of rational animals.  A capacity has appeared within nature that, in its very form, is supernatural:  it cannot be accounted for entirely in terms of the economy of advantageous cooperation because it continually and exorbitantly exceeds any sane calculation of evolutionary benefits.  Yet, in the effectual order of evolution, it is precisely this irrepressible excessiveness that, operating as a higher cause, inscribes its logic upon the largely inert substrate of genetic materials, and guides the evolution of rational nature toward an openness to ends that cannot be enclosed within mere physical processes.

No doubt this will inspire some serious rewriting of the mathematical models of the geneticists and evolutionary biologists.  It grieved me to see that, of all the scientific tribes, the evolutionary psychologists were singled out for a double helping of Hart’s disapprobation.  Those ubiquitous whipping boys for ideological and religious zealots of all stripes came in for his particular ire for suggesting that morality might not come from God.  In other words, they sinned against the “bliss” part of his “ternion.”  As Hart somewhat flamboyantly explains,

In the end, the incongruity speaks for itself.  No explanation of ethical desire entirely in terms of evolutionary benefit can ever really account for the sheer exorbitance of the moral passion of which rational minds are capable, or for the transcendentally “ecstatic” structure of moral longing.

In other words, Hart believes in “hard-wired” morality.  He just thinks that God did the wiring.  However, furious at the pretensions of the evolutionary psychologists, he seizes on the nearest rock to throw at them.  As it happens, this is the very same rock that leftist ideologues once fashioned for themselves:

There are now even whole academic disciplines, like evolutionary psychology, that promote themselves as forms of science but that are little more than morasses of metaphor.  (Evolutionary psychologists often become quite indignant when one says this, but a “science” that can explain every possible form of human behavior and organization, however universal or idiosyncratic, and no matter how contradictory of other behaviors, as some kind of practical evolutionary adaptation of the modular brain, clearly has nothing to offer but fabulous narratives – Just So Stories, as it were – disguised as scientific propositions.)

Ludicrously, Hart doesn’t realize that the “Just So Story” gambit makes no sense whatsoever if there really is a “moral law within.”  It was invented by the Blank Slaters to bolster their arguments that all human behavior is a product of culture and experience.  Presumably, if there really is a “moral law within,” the experiments of the evolutionary psychologists would detect it.  If Hart’s God-given version of morality is true, than the notion that what they’re seeing are “Just So Stories” is out of the question.  The poor, dumb boobs just don’t realize who put the morality there to begin with.

Apparently Hart has read so many books of metaphysics that, like Cervantes’ Don Quixote with his books of knight-errantry, his brain has dried up.  It is no longer possible for him to imagine that anyone who doesn’t swallow the ancient conceit that, because there are things that we don’t understand, there must be a God, could possibly be arguing in good faith.  Indeed, they must be evil!  And so, in the spirit of that venerable Christian teaching,

Judge not, that ye be not judged.  For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.  (Matthew 7:1-2)

Hart gives us a glance at his religious zealot’s teeth, now sadly rotted and dulled since the days of Torquemada and the Inquisition.  For example, anyone who doesn’t believe in God is a collaborator with the Communists and Nazis:

Hence certain distinctively modern contributions to the history of human cruelty:  “scientific” racism, Social Darwinism, the eugenics movement, criminological theories about inherited degeneracy, “curative” lobotomies, mandatory sterilizations, and so on – and, in the fullness of time, the racial ideology of the Third Reich (which regarded human nature as a biological technology to be perfected) and the collectivist ideology of the communist totalitarianisms (which regarded human nature as a social and economic technology to be reconstructed)… This is why it is silly to assert (as I have heard two of the famous New Atheists do of late) that the atheism of many of those responsible for the worst atrocities of the twentieth century was something entirely incidental to their crimes, or that there is no logical connection between the cultural decline of religious belief at the end of the nineteenth century and the political and social horrors of the first half of the twentieth.

This in spite of the fact that, as Hitler wrote and said repeatedly, he was a firm Christian believer.  For example, from one of his speeches,

My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter.  In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the    scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders.    How terrific was His fight for the world against the Jewish poison.

As for Communism, countless pundits have pointed out that socialist ideology was a religion, the essential difference between it and, for example, Christianity and Islam, lying merely in the fact that its devotees worshipped a secular rather than a spiritual God.  Indeed, the great Scotch intellectual Sir James Mackintosh, writing long before the heyday of Marx, correctly predicted its eventual demise because, unlike the traditional spiritual gods, its god could be fact-checked.

Undeterred, and probably innocent of any knowledge of such inconvenient truths, and with the briefest of mentions of the war, slaughter, and oppression that actually have been the direct result of religious belief through the centuries, Hart goes on to explain that atheists are guilty, not only of the sins of the Communists, but of the bourgeoisie as well!

Late modern society is principally concerned with purchasing things, in ever greater abundance and variety, and so has to strive to fabricate an ever greater number of desires to gratify, and to abolish as many limits and prohibitions upon desire as it can.  Such a society is already implicitly atheist and so must slowly but relentlessly apply itself to the dissolution of transcendent values… In our time, to strike a lapidary phrase, irreligion is the opiate of the bourgeoisie, the sigh of the oppressed ego, the heart of a world filled with tantalizing toys.

So much for the notion of a “dialogue” between atheists and believers.  In closing, I cannot refrain from quoting a bit from Edward Fitzgerald’s wonderful critique of organized religion in general and Islam in particular, disguised as a “translation” of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat.

Would you that spangle of Existence spend

About the Secret–Quick about it, Friend!

A Hair perhaps divides the False and True–

And upon what, prithee, may life depend?

A Hair perhaps divides the False and True;

Yes; and a single Alif were the clue–

Could you but find it–to the Treasure-house,

And peradventure to The Master too;

Whose secret Presence, through Creation’s veins

Running Quicksilver-like eludes your pains;

Taking all shapes from Mah to Mahi; and

They change and perish all–but He remains;

A moment guess’d–then back behind the Fold

Immerst of Darkness round the Drama roll’d

Which, for the Pastime of Eternity,

He doth Himself contrive, enact, behold.

Obviously, Fitzgerald knew all about Hart’s metaphysical God and his “quicksilver-like” presence.  There’s a lot more to his poem than “a loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou.”

David Gelernter and the Angst of the Philosophers

One can understand the anxiety of the spiritually inclined.  Whether their tastes run to traditional religions or belief in some kind of a teleological life force, their world views have always depended on exploitation of the things we don’t understand.  As the quantity of such things declines, the credibility of their beliefs tends to decline in direct proportion.  Computer scientist David Gelernter, who happens to be a believer of the Jewish persuasion, recently delivered himself of an interesting cri de Coeur in response to this unsettling state of affairs.

In a piece that appeared in Commentary entitled The Closing of the Scientific Mind, Gelernter cuts right to the chase, singling out as the enemy a strawman outgroup known as “scientists.”  These scientists, it would seem, “…have forgotten their obligation to approach with due respect the scholarly, artistic, religious, humanistic work that has always been mankind’s main spiritual support.”  Furthermore, these same scientists use their “…locker room braggadocio to belittle the spiritual, and religious discoveries, which is all we human beings possess or ever will.”  In that case I must be poor indeed, as I am familiar with no such discovery that is credible to anyone who believes that claims of truth should be based on actual evidence.  Apparently the braggadocio of the scientists is based, at least in part, on their ignorance, for, as Gelernter assures us, “Scientists are (on average) no more likely to understand this work than the man in the street is to understand quantum physics.”

Where to begin?  At the risk of sounding barrenly scientific, one might ask what Gelernter means by “spirit” when he speaks of “spiritual support.”  Where is the evidence that such an entity even exists, or the proof that the scholarly, artistic, religious, and humanistic work he refers to actually does support it if, in fact, it does exist?  What on earth does he mean by “humanism?”

Of course, the problem here may well be that, like Gelernter’s scientists, I simply don’t understand this work.  I would be the first to agree that it can be highly complex.  For example, my understanding of the detailed and intricate theological arguments in favor of the Trinity are vague indeed, as is my understanding of the reasons the followers of Father Arius reject these arguments.  I know no more than a babe about why one is supposed to risk eternal damnation by either embracing the iconoclast’s rejection of religious images, or the iconodule’s insistence that they remain.  I have no clue about the sophisticated arguments used by Jan Hus to demonstrate the need for Communication in both kinds, nor the equally involved arguments contrived by the Popes to justify decades of warfare in order to restore Communion in one kind only.  However, it is entirely clear to me that all these arguments are vain and senseless if the great Santa Claus in the sky that all these learned debaters appealed to doesn’t actually exist.  In fact, I have concluded as much, and so have not taken the trouble to waste much effort on “understanding this work.”

For such “spiritual and religious discoveries” to be plausible, they must exist in a sphere inaccessible to the prying eyes of mere scientists.  Of course, as mentioned above, Gelernter is a believing Jew, so he has that sphere for starters.  However, he has another one up his sleeve, in the form of the “subjective world.”  As he puts it, nowhere is the bullying of the scientists “…more outrageous than in its assault on the phenomenon known as subjectivity.”  As my readers know, I have had much to say about the difference between subjective and objective phenomena, particularly as they relate to morality.  I do not believe in the objective existence of categories such as good, evil, rights, etc., independent of their subjective perception in the mind.  The Darwinian explanation of these subjective phenomena as owing their existence to the fact that the predispositions that are their ultimate cause promoted the survival and procreation of our ancestors at some point in time, with its caveat that they are ultimately explainable in terms of physical phenomena that we don’t currently understand, but that are hardly beyond our very powers of understanding, seems entirely plausible to me.  Of course, as immediately realized by the clerical worthies, both of Darwin’s time and our own, such an explanation has a very corrosive effect on “spiritual and religious discoveries.”  As a result, just as they did and do, Gelernter must reject it as well.

And so he does.  In the article at hand, he bases his rejection of Darwin almost entirely on the work of philosopher Thomas Nagel, with emphasis on his book, Mind & Cosmos, as if Nagel’s opinion on the subject silenced all further debate.  It would seem we must jettison Darwin merely because, in Nagel’s opinion, “Darwinian evolution is insufficient to explain the emergence of consciousness – the capacity to feel or experience the world.”  I would be the first to admit that we don’t yet understand consciousness.  However, clearly no such conclusion as “Darwinian evolution is insufficient to explain it” is warranted until we do.  No matter, Gelernter elevates Nagel to the status of a martyr of truth, who has been cruelly persecuted by the “killer hyenas” of science.  As evidence for the existence of the scientific “lynch mob,” he cites a review of Mind & Cosmos that appeared in the May 2013 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Where Thomas Nagel Went Wrong.”

On actually reading the article, I kept wondering what on earth Gelernter meant by his dark references to a “lynch mob.”  By all means, read it yourself.  It’s meager stuff on which to anchor Nagel’s martyrdom.  To all appearances it’s a vanilla book review that actually praises Nagel in places, but concludes that he “went wrong” merely by doing a poor job of marshaling the potentially good arguments in favor of what the reviewer, Michael Chorost, to all appearances considered an entirely plausible point of view.  As Chorost put it,

But Nagel’s goal was valid:  to point out that fundamental questions of origins, evolution, and intelligence remain unanswered, and to question whether current ways of thinking are up to the task.  A really good book on this subject would need to be both scientific and philosophical:  scientific to show what is known, philosophical to show how to go beyond what is known.  (A better term might be “metascientific,” that is, talking about the science and how to make new sciences.)

That doesn’t exactly strike me as the criticism of a “killer hyena.”  Gelernter goes on to cite Ray Kurzweil’s singularity” mumbo-jumbo as an example of how the “scientists,” with their “roboticist” interpretation of the mind and their denial of his “subjective world,” have gone wrong.  In fact, the idea that all “scientists” embrace either Kurzweil’s transhumanist utopia or “roboticist” interpretations of the mind is nonsense.  I certainly don’t.

The rest of Gelernter’s arguments in favor of a “subjective” never-never land, inaccessible to mere scientists and forever inexplicable in terms of crude explanations based on anything as naïve as physics and chemistry, are similarly implausible.  This subjective world is supposed to be capable of spawning “the best and deepest moral laws we know,” although Gelernter never supplies a metric by which we are to measure such quantities as “best” and “deepest,” nor, for that matter, any basis for the existence of such things as “moral laws.”  Presumably they would be beyond the understanding of mere scientists.  Again, the subjective world is to prevent us from becoming “morally wobbly,” and “inhumane.”  It is to supply us with a common appreciation of “scholarship (presumably of the non-scientific kind), art, and spiritual life.”  It will somehow affirm the “sanctity of life,” and will rationalize “all our striving for what is good and just and beautiful and sacred, for what gives meaning to human life, and makes us (as Scripture says) ‘just a little lower than the angels,’ and a little better than the rats and cats,” all of which is “invisible to the roboticist worldview.”

For all this to happen, of course, it is necessary for the “subjective world” to be universal.  I can certainly understand the term “subjective,” but it seems to me to refer to phenomena that go on in the minds of individuals.  Gelernter never supplies us with an explanation of how these phenomena in the minds of individuals, whether scientifically explainable or not, acquire the magical power to leap out of those individual skulls and become independent things with independent normative powers, or, in a word, objects.  Perhaps a good Marxist could interpret it as an instance of the Law of the Transformation of Quantity into Quality.

It all reminds me of a quirk of one of my favorite novelists, Stendhal, who couldn’t bear to describe on paper, even in his personal diaries, the consummation of one of his “sublime” love affairs for fear any such crude description would shatter its “beauty.”  I would be the first to admit that those affairs represented a “subjective world” to Stendhal.  For all that, I still have a sneaking suspicion that Darwin might have had something useful to say about them after all.

Atheism and the Virtue of Deceit; Musings on the Purpose and Meaning of Life

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.

Morality and the Perspicuity of the True Believers

We are a social species.  It stands to reason that natural selection has equipped us with a suite of behavioral predispositions suitable for such a species.  A subset of those predispositions is the ultimate cause of what we know and experience as morality.  One might say that Mother Nature wasn’t too finicky about such irrelevancies as rational consistency in designing the necessary mental equipment.  She created the compelling illusion in our minds that such imaginary objects as Good, Evil, and Rights actually exist, and then hedged them about with powerful emotions that inclined us to reward Good and punish Evil.  The fact that we’re here demonstrates that the system has worked well enough so far, although it has shown distinct signs of becoming dysfunctional of late.

I don’t know whether it ever occurred to Mother Nature that we might someday become clever and nosey enough to wonder where these objects came from.  I never asked her. I rather suspect that she assumed the problem would be patched over via the invention of imaginary super beings.  In that case, the objects would exist just because that’s the way the imaginary super being(s) wanted it, end of story.  She probably never bothered about the possibility that some of us might realize that the imaginary super beings weren’t really all that plausible.  After all, no one could accuse her of pussy footing around when it came to moral illusions.  Good and Evil would appear as real things in the imaginations of believers and infidels alike.  If the infidels couldn’t trace their existence to a God, well, they would just have to be creative and come up with something else.

And creative the infidels have certainly been.  They’ve come up with all kinds of systems and rationalizations in the hope of saving the Good and Evil objects from vanishing into thin air.  They are similar in that all of them are even more implausible than belief in imaginary super beings.  The amusing thing is that the true believers can see through the charade without the least difficulty, whereas the “rational” infidels persist in floundering about in the darkness.

Consider, for example, a piece Dennis Prager just wrote for National Review Online, packaged as “A Response to Richard Dawkins.”  Prager cuts to the chase with the following:

If there is no God, the labels “good” and “evil” are merely opinions. They are substitutes for “I like it” and “I don’t like it.” They are not objective realities.

Thank you, Mr. Prager.  I couldn’t have said it better myself.  That is a perfectly clear and straightforward statement of a simple truth that so many of my fellow “rational” atheists seem completely unable to grasp.  There is simply no mechanism whereby the moral emotions in the mind of one individual can stroll over, smack another individual up alongside the head, and acquire the legitimacy to apply to that other individual as well.  Atheist moralists are like so many zombies, still wandering aimlessly about in their imaginary world of good and evil even though they’ve just been shot between the eyes.  The bullet that hit them is the realization that evolved behavioral predispositions are the ultimate cause of moral behavior.  As Mr. Prager says, they do, indeed, have very pronounced opinions about the precise nature of Good and Evil.  The problem is that such opinions are analogous to having opinions about the color of a unicorns horn.  They are opinions about objects that don’t exist.

Unfortunately, belief in imaginary super beings is just as ineffectual as the fantasies of the atheists when it comes to conjuring up Good and Evil Things and endowing them with objective reality.  Consider, for example, the rest of Mr. Prager’s article.  It’s basically a statement of the familiar fallacy that, because (Judeo-Christian) God-based morality results in Good (as imagined by Mr. Prager), and atheist morality results in Evil (as imagined by Mr. Prager), therefore God must exist.  In fact, there is no logical mechanism whereby the mind of Mr. Prager can force God from non-existence into existence by virtue of the fact that a God is required to transmute his Good and his Evil into objective realities.  The truth of God’s existence or non-existence does not depend on Mr. Prager’s opinion touching on how his presence might affect the moral climate.

No matter, Prager stumbles on with his version of the now familiar “proof” that (Judeo-Christian) God-based moral systems result in Good, but secular ones result in Evil, and that the (Judeo-Christian) God must therefore exist.  Apparently he knows enough history to realize that to believe this “proof” it is necessary to stand reality on its head.  The slaughter of countless Jews through the ages, the murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent women as “witches,” the extermination of the Albigensians, the decades of bloody warfare conducted by “good” Christians to stamp out the Hussite heresy, the slaughter of the French Huguenots, and countless other similar events are the real legacy of Christianity.  Prager is aware of this, and so would have us believe that Christianity has been successfully “tamed” in the 20th century.  As he puts it,

But if that isn’t enough, how about the record of the godless 20th century, the cruelest, bloodiest, most murderous century on record? Every genocide of the last century — except for the Turkish mass murder of the Armenians and the Pakistani mass murder of Hindus in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) — was committed by a secular anti-Jewish and anti-Christian regime. And as the two exceptions were Muslim, they are not relevant to my argument. I am arguing for the God and Bible of Judeo-Christian religions.

In fact, the God and Bible of the Judeo-Christian religions weren’t as spotless as all that, even in the 20th century.  Consider, for example, the bloody history of the “Black Hundreds” in Russia just before the Bolshevik Revolution.  They murdered tens of thousands of Jews in the bloody pogroms that were one of their favorite pastimes.  The degree to which they were inspired by Christianity should be evident from the image of one of their marches I’ve posted below.  No, I’m sorry, but I put little faith in Mr. Prager’s assertion that, while Christianity may have been responsible for inspiring astounding levels of bloody mayhem over the centuries, the Christians promise to be good from now on.

We are moral beings.  We will act morally regardless of whether we believe in imaginary supermen or not, because it is our nature to act morally.  As is obvious from the many variations in the details of moral rules among human societies, our moralities are not rigidly programmed by our genes.  Within the limits imposed by our innate moral predispositions, we can shape our moral systems to suit our needs.  It seems to me that our efforts in that direction are more likely to be successful if we leave religious fantasies, whether of the spiritual or secular variety, out of the process.



Morality and Gay Marriage

As I was walking through the lobby at work the other day, I overheard a dispute about gay marriage.  It ended when the “pro” person called the “anti” person a bigot, turned on her heel, and walked away in a fog of virtuous indignation.  “Bigot” is a pejorative term.  In other words, it expresses moral emotions.  It is our nature to perceive others in terms of “good” ingroups and “evil” outgroups.  In this case, the moral judgment of the “pro” person was a response to the, perhaps inaccurate, perception that one of the “con” person’s apparent outgroup categories, namely gays, was inappropriate.  Inappropriate outgroup identification is one of the most common reasons that individuals are considered “evil.”  Examples include outgroup identification by virtue of sex (“sexism” unless directed at older males or directed at women by a Moslem), race (“racism” unless directed at whites), and Jews (“antisemitism” unless directed at Jews who believe that the state of Israel has a right to exist).

The culturally moderated rules may actually be quite complex.  Paradoxically, as I write this, one may refer to “old, white males” in a pejorative sense, thereby apparently committing the sins of racism, sexism, and age discrimination in a single breath, without the least fear that one’s listener will strike a pious pose and begin delivering himself of a string of moral denunciations.  Such anomalies are what one might expect of a species which has recognized the destructiveness of racism, religious bigotry, xenophobia, and other particular variants of a behavioral trait, namely, the predisposition to categorize others into ingroups and outgroups, or what Robert Ardrey called with a Freudian twist the “amity/enmity complex,” but is not yet generally conscious of the general trait that is the “root cause” of them all.  We will continue to play this sisyphean game of “bop the mole” until we learn to understand ourselves better.  Until then, we will continue to hate our outgroups with the same gusto as before, merely taking care to choose them carefully so as to insure that they conform to the approved outgroups of our ingroup.

As for the heated conversation at work, was there an objective basis for calling the “con” person a bigot?  Of course not!  There never is.  Moral judgments are subjective by their very nature, in spite of all the thousands of systems concocted to prove the contrary.  There is no way in which the “pro” person’s moral emotions can jump out of his/her skull, become things in themselves independent of the physical processes that gave rise to them in the “pro” person’s brain, and thereby acquire the ability to render the “con” person “truly evil.”

The same applies to the moral emotions of the “con” person.  For example, he/she could just as easily have concluded that the “pro” person was a bigot.  In this case, the inappropriate choice of outgroup would be Christians.  While one may quibble endlessly about the Bible, it does not seem irrational to conclude that it specifies that marriage should be between a man and a woman, and that gay sexual activity is immoral.  Of course, as an atheist, I don’t specialize in Biblical exegesis, but that seems to be a fair reading.  Indeed, the moral judgment of the “con” person would seem to be the least flimsy of the two.  At least the “con” person can point out that an omnipotent and vengeful Super Being agrees with him, and might take exception to the arguments of the “pro” person, going so far as to burn them in unquenchable fire for billions and trillions of years, just for starters.  It is, of course, absurd that such a Super Being would have moral emotions to begin with.  Why would it need them?

In a word, both “pro” and “con” may have a point based on the generally accepted rules of the game.  However, no moral judgment is rational.  Moral judgments are, by their nature, emotional and subjective.  They would not exist in the absence of evolved behavioral predispositions, which, in turn, only exist because they promoted the survival and procreation of individuals.  In view of these facts about what they are and why they exist, the idea that they could somehow acquire an independent and collective legitimacy is absurd.

What to do in the case of gay marriage?  My personal inclination would be to handle the matter in a way that leaves the society I have to live in as harmonious as possible, while, to the extent possible, removing any grounds for the pathologically pious among us to inconvenience the rest of us with their moralistic posing.  What is marriage?  One can argue that, originally, it was a religious sacrament before it was co-opted by the modern state.  It does not seem reasonable to me that the state should take over a religious sacrament, arbitrarily redefine it, and then denounce religious believers as bigots because they do not accept the new definition.  That violates my personal sense of fairness which, I freely admit, has no normative powers over others whatsoever.  On the other hand, the state now applies the term “marriage” to determine whether one can or cannot receive any number of important social benefits.  It also violates my personal sense of fairness to deny these benefits to a whole class of individuals because of their sexual orientation.  Under the circumstances, I would prefer that the state get out of the “marriage” business entirely, restricting itself to the recognition of civil unions as determinants of who should or should not receive benefits.  Unfortunately, such a radical redefinition of what is commonly understood as “marriage” is not likely to happen any time soon.

Under the circumstances, the least disruptive policy would probably be for the state to recognize gay marriage as a purely and explicitly secular institution, while at the same time recognizing the right of Christians and other religious believers to reject the validity of such marriages as religious sacraments should their idiosyncratic version of the faith so require.  It would take some attitude adjustment, but that’s all to the “good.”  In any case, I would prefer that we at least attempt to resolve the matter rationally, rather than by the usual method of trial by combat between conflicting moralities, with the last morality standing declared the “winner.”

The “Socialist Realism” of Victor Serge

I can think of no episode of human history more important to study and understand than the history of Communism.  History is a vast compendium of data on human behavior.  From the history of Communism we can learn how people like us acted, responded, and coped during a time that was historically unprecedented; the rise of the first great secular religion, Marxism.  It’s not a pretty picture.  In its wake, it left 100 million dead and two nations that had decapitated themselves – Russia and Cambodia.  One of its most remarkable features was the fact that the very period at which the misery and suffering it inflicted on its victims reached a climax coincided with the time of its greatest success in gathering converts to the new faith.  It was one of the most convincing demonstrations ever of the fallacy that, even if religions aren’t true, they are “good.”

Victor Serge, a socialist true believer and one-time Bolshevik, left some of the most poignant vignettes of individual human suffering among the many thousands that have been published.  These stories, recorded in his memoirs and other books bring cold statistics to life in the words of a man who was one of the victims, yet remained a true believer to the very end.  A member of the so-called “left opposition” that Stalin liquidated in the late 20’s and early 30’s, and an admirer of the “arch traitor” Trotsky, Serge only survived the Gulag and the execution cellars because his books had been published in the West, and he was known and admired by many fellow socialists.  As a result he was treated “gently.”  He only had to endure 80 days of solitary confinement, exile to the Central Asian city of Orenburg, and, finally deportation.  The following are a few of the hundreds of similar dark anecdotes he has left us, collected under the eyes of the GPU (secret police) during his three years in Orenburg.  The first occurred just after he and a fellow exile named Bobrov had arrived.  They had been fortunate enough to receive bread ration cards for an entire month from the GPU.  Serge recalls,

I heard shouting from the street, and then a shower of vigorous knocks on the door.  “Quick, Victor Lvovich, open up!”  Bobrov was coming back from the bakery, with two huge four-kilo loaves of black bread on his shoulders.  He was surrounded by a swarm of hungry children, hopping after the bread like sparrows (Serge records seeing these hoards of abandoned, starving children wherever he went), clinging on his clothes, beseeching:  “A little bit, uncle, just a little bit!”  They were almost naked.  We threw them some morsels, over which a pitched battle promptly began.  The next moment, our barefooted maidservant brought boiling water, unasked, for us to make tea.  When she was alone with me for a moment, she said to me, her eyes smiling, “Give me a pound of bread and I’ll give you the signal in a minute… And mark my words, citizen, I can assure you that I don’t have the syphilis, no, not me…”

The maidservants story was hardly unique.  Tens of thousands of young girls, starving and desperate, could find no other way to survive than by selling themselves.  Periodically, they were rounded up and shot, or disappeared into the camps.  Serge describes many other such scenes.  Here are some more instances of “socialist realism” from his time in Orenburg:

One ruble got you a bowl of greasy soup in the restaurant where little girls waited for you to finish eating so as to lick your plate and glean your bread crumbs.

Among the ruins of churches, in abandoned porches, on the edge of the steppe, or under the crags by the Ural, we could see Khirgiz families lying heaped together, dying of hunger.  One evening I gathered up from the ground of the deserted marketplace a child burning with fever; he was moaning, but the folk who stood around did not dare to touch him, for fear of contagion.  I diagnosed a simple case of hunger and took him off to the militia post, holding him by his frail, boiling wrist.  I fetched him a glass of water and a morsel of bread from my place; the effect on the lad was that of a small but instantaneous miracle.

My wife witnessed the following piece of thievery; a housewife had just bought a pound of butter costing fifteen rubles (three days wages for a skilled worker) when an Asiatic nipped it from her hands and made off.  He was pursued and caught easily enough, but he curled up on the earth like a ball and, for all the blows from fists or stones that rained on him from above, ate the butter.  They left him lying there, bloody but full.

At the rationing office a poster announced:  “Grandparents have no right to food cards.”  All the same, people managed to keep those “useless mouths” alive.

These incidents were repeated countless times in all the cities of the Soviet Union.  Serge describes them for us, resolving terms like “mass famine” and “widespread starvation” to the level of individuals, as if under a microscope.  He wasn’t the only one reporting them at the time.  Hundreds of others who had experienced the camps and seen similar things were publishing substantially the same things in the West in a continuous flow of books throughout the 20’s and 30’s.  The western intellectuals averted their eyes.  Those who bothered to visit the Soviet Union looked no further than Stalin’s Potemkin villages, and then returned to report in glowing terms that they had “seen the future, and it works!”  A typical example of the genre appeared in a letter written in 1927 by the famous American journalist, Dorothy Thompson, to her fiancee, Sinclair Lewis, published in the book Dorothy and Red, by journalist and left wing intellectual Vincent Sheean.  Thompson was on her way to Moscow to witness the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.

We’ve just passed the Russian border – marked by a huge, glowing red star over the railroad track – my companions say “Now thank God we are safe in our own country,” and all are singing the Internationale at the top of their lungs as I write this note.

and, a bit later, from her comfortable hotel in Moscow,

As far as I can see, everybody in Russia is writing something, when he isn’t talking, and everything written is published; a sort of literary diarrhoea which may or may not be the beginning of a renaissance.  I feel as though there were a book inflation.

This giddy nonsense was already miles from reality long before Thompson wrote it.  Serge knew better.  He wrote,

All legal means of expression were now closed to us.  From 1926 onward, when the last tiny sheets put out by anarchists, syndicalists, and Maximalists had disappeared, the Central Committee had enjoyed an absolute monopoloy of printed matter.

In fact, any serious opposition to the Bolsheviks in the form of printed matter had been “liquidated” as early as 1918, as chronicled in the pages of Maxim Gorky’s paper, Novaya Zhizn, before it, too, was suppressed in mid-1918 (see Untimely Thoughts: Essays on Revolution, Culture, and the Bolsheviks, 1917-1918, available at Amazon and elsewhere).  The truth was out there, and obvious, for anyone who cared to look.  Thompson and thousands of other starry-eyed western intellectuals chose not to look.  Apparently none of them ever tried the rather simple experiment of attempting to publish a piece critical of Stalin in a Soviet journal.  After all, if “everything written was published,” it should have been easy. Meanwhile, vast numbers of those who were ignoring the misery, degradation and starvation in the Soviet Union somehow managed to convince themselves that the Great Depression, was incontrovertible proof that capitalism was finished.  It was certainly bad enough as far as its victims were concerned, but represented a state of earthly bliss compared to what was going on in the Soviet Union at the same time.  Apparently Serge himself believed it to the end, never able to face the fact that Stalinism did not represent a mere ephemeral phase of “reaction” inherent in all revolutions, and that his God had failed.

If Communism proved anything, it is that human beings are only “intelligent” in comparison to the rest of the animal species on the planet.  Our vaunted rationality was utterly subverted by a bunch of half-baked and untested theories promising a Brave New World and the end of exploitation of man by man.  We believed what we wanted to believe, and didn’t wake up from the rosy dream until we were submerged under ocean’s of blood.  That, if anything, is the great advantage of secular religions compared to the more traditional kind.  In the fullness of time, the fact that their false Gods don’t exist can be demonstrated in the here and now.  The old religions put their Gods safely out of reach in the hereafter, where they couldn’t be so easily fact checked.

It would be very risky to forget about Communism.  It will be a useful episode of our history to remember should we feel inclined to embrace the next great secular religion to come along.


Victor Serge
Victor Serge