What the Atheist Might Say Back

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From Noel Oyango’s blog, I came across a couple posts [first, second] from the blog of Dr. Robert Gullberg suggesting what a Christian might say to an atheist to demonstrate the fact of God’s existence. The two suggestions are arguments by analogy. Noel responds to the second argument in his post. It is the classic argument from design. Responses can be found throughout the internet. Instead, I want to focus on the argument in his first post.

First, a Clarification

The post starts by attempting to show the difference between an agnostic and an atheist. Unfortunately, Gullberg simply says the same thing twice. Here are the quotes:

The agnostic says, “I don’t think there is a God.”
The atheist says, “I don’t believe that God exists.”

There has been a lot of digital ink spilled about the proper definition of an atheist versus an agnostic, and it will likely never be resolved. Gullberg appears to be referring to a difference between the weak atheistic claim (which some people call agnostic) and the strong atheistic claim. However, his two statements say the exact same thing. They are both the weak atheistic claim.

In short, the weak claim is simply a personal claim: I lack belief in a god or gods. So long as you are being truthful, this claim is irrefutable. It doesn’t rely on there being no gods. It simply relies on you truthfully not believing/not thinking that one exists.

Alternatively, one could make a strong claim, something like: I believe no gods exist. Whereas the weaker claim simply denotes a belief you do not possess, the stronger claim reflects a belief you do, actually, hold. Namely, you believe there are no gods. The truthfulness of this claim requires more than your being honest about holding it. It requires you to support it with evidence.

So, if I am understanding Gullberg correctly, the beginning of his post should read something like:

The agnostic/weak atheist says, “I lack belief in gods.”
The (strong) atheist says, “I believe no gods exist.”

With that out of the way, let’s move to the meat of his post.

What DO You Say to an Atheist?

Gullberg begins his post by suggesting that an atheist may ask a Christian (or any theist) what evidence they have for God’s existence. Gullberg’s two posts are the answer. However, he first notes that you could ask the question back to the atheist.

You might ask the atheist, “What evidence have you found that proves to you that there isn’t a God? Good question. They won’t be able to answer it. (emphasis in original)

First, I will assume he is asking this question of the strong atheist, as the weak atheist/agnostic isn’t really compelled to answer it. They can simply reply that they have not been shown evidence to believe a god exists; hence, they lack belief that one exists.

Now then, whether or not an atheist can answer the question depends on what Gullberg means by “evidence you have found.” Take a globyippy, for example. What evidence can be found that demonstrates globyippies do not exist? You cannot answer the question because you do not know what a globyippy is. If they don’t exist, you can’t find evidence of their nonexistence. ‘Find’ seems to be the wrong verb to use.

The evidence an atheist would “find” proving there isn’t a god would necessarily rely on how God is defined and conceptualized. For example, it would have to start from how God is being defined and show that (1) God’s qualities are self-refuting – e.g., can God create a burrito so hot even he cannot eat it?, or (2) that what follows from God’s qualities is incompatible with the actual world – e.g., the argument from evil or (3) argue that the definition of God is incoherent – e.g., Ignosticism. This may not exhaust all categories, but you get the idea.

It should come as no surprise that theists have offered responses to these kinds of arguments, and it is very likely that being convinced – one way or the other – depends on your prior commitments. To be completely honest, I suspect there just cannot be a slam dunk argument for/against God’s existence. Personally, I find that a strike against God, but I take my own point about prior commitments.

My point is, because of the kind of being God is (at least based on traditional definitions), any “evidence” an atheist can provide will be in the form of an argument. Although Gullberg may not be convinced by the arguments, it is quite the overstatement to suggest that an atheist would be unable to provide an argument. If you want to find some of these arguments, again, the internet is full of them.

You Should Tell Your Facts it is not Polite to Point

Gullberg moves into his discussion of what you should tell the atheist with a rather provocative statement: “All the facts point to a Supreme Being of infinite intelligence.” It is a statement that begs for further elucidation. There is none forthcoming from Gullberg. Instead, he quotes the following passage from the Bible: “Prove all things, hold fast that which is good.” Per this collection of commentaries on the passage in 1 Thessalonians 5:21, the passage is conveying a call to put claims to the test, either spiritual claims or claims in general. Keep those which are true and abandon those which are false. So, I should expect Gullberg to provide true facts that truly point to a Supreme Being of infinite intelligence. If the facts don’t point there, we should, presumably, abandon it.

What Does Gullberg Tell Me, the Atheist?

Gullberg suggests the Christian should tell the atheist two things. He may suggest other things can be told, but these are the two he has listed. I assume he considers them important or convincing.

The first thing he wants to say to the atheist is a sort of argument from artistry:

“Similarly, when you look around at a sunrise, or some incredible part of nature, what do you see? You see amazing art and imagery. Tell me, if art and beautiful photographs are created by mere human artists and photographers, would you not think that there is a Magnificent Designer or Grand Intelligent Artist of the universe around us who is behind the production of Nature? Of course!” (emphasis in original)

First, let me try to attack some of the intuitive pull this argument might have for a believer. Let’s start with the intuitive desire to consider beauty as evidence of God. Ask yourself, if the world wasn’t beautiful, would you consider that evidence against God’s existence? I don’t know why you would.

You might also suggest that a beautiful thing cannot arise by accident. However, I think that is quite easily falsified. Consider this exploration of flight paths as an example. The flight paths were not designed to be beautiful, but they turned out to have a beauty to them by chance. So, my first point is that God does not have to create a beautiful universe to maintain a reason to believe in God. Two, a beautiful thing can arise by accident.

Why do I make these points? Gullberg asks if an artistic but natural landscape should cause us to suggest a Supreme Being of infinite intelligence, and his answer is “Of course!” My two points don’t demonstrate he is wrong, but they should demonstrate that the answer is not that obvious. God is not required to make things beautiful, and beautiful things could arise without intending them to arise.

Finally, before I directly address Gullberg’s argument, I want to mention something that could be brought up here. Gullberg could suggest that beauty is a sort of thing that requires God to exist. But he hasn’t. His argument isn’t that beauty requires God. His argument is that natural beauty is akin to art, and art requires an artist. As such, trying to suddenly bring in some argument about whether or not beauty can exist without a God would be changing the argument completely. He can write another blog post and make the argument, but he can’t slide it in here.

Two Responses to Gullberg

I want to provide two responses to Gullberg. The first will be pedantic but further undercut Gullberg’s claim. The second, I think, is more defeating.

To begin, I want to summarize Gullberg’s argument from artistry.

P1. Natural beauty inspires art.
P2. Natural beauty inspires art because art is copying the art of natural beauty.
P3. Art requires an artist.
P4. The only artist capable of creating the art of natural beauty is God.

Conclusion: God exists.

I said my first point is pedantic, and it truly is. However, it serves a purpose. Remember, Gullberg suggests the facts point to the existence of a Supreme Being of infinite intelligence. However, nothing about Gullberg’s argument suggests the existence of a Supreme Being of infinite intelligence. For example, if I grant the first three premises, we only need a being capable of creating natural beauty. This doesn’t seem to require being supreme nor infinite intelligence. These “facts” merely point to a good enough being with some artistic prowess. Per 1 Thessalonians, we are called to only hold the good. His argument isn’t good. At least, it is not good yet. He needs more facts. If they aren’t forthcoming, we can safely abandon his claims.

Now, I want to offer a more substantive response to his argument. At bottom, his argument makes a false analogy. I would even suggest it makes a category error. The issue arises in Premise 2. Gullberg argues that natural beauty is like pedestrian art, and art requires an artist. However, beauty is not art.

I don’t think it radical to suggest that the definition of art is contentious, but I feel safe in suggesting that art may be characterized in terms of …its representation of reality…, expression, communication of emotion, or other qualities.” At bottom, art attempts to do something. It is a creative activity in which humans engage toward some end. It attempts to represent reality. It attempts to communicate an emotion or retell an experience. It attempts to make a political or moral statement.

A beach, no matter how beautiful it my be, does not do these things. It was not made beautiful toward some end. At the very least, this end is far from self-evident. You might want to suggest the beach communicates emotion, but it would be more accurate to say it elicits emotion. You may feel emotions when you see the beach; however, child abuse likely makes you feel emotion too, and I suspect you don’t think child abuse is art. It isn’t enough for something to make you feel emotion for something to qualify as art.

Gullberg is already on weak ground in suggesting that natural beauty is like art. However, this false analogy can be made more striking. The real meat of Gullberg’s argument is found in this passage:

“You look at a Renoir, and you’d think you were there in the picture. Amazing. Looking at a painting, you’d know that there was a brilliant creator of the painting. We humans elevate the level of a famous painter to incredible levels. And really all the painter is doing is copying the nature around them. …[B]ut let’s be honest, pictures and paintings don’t do being there any justice. Ansel Adams did phenomenal black and white pictures in his day, but sorry, no comparison to the actual nature, right?” (emphasis in original)

Gullberg wants to emphasize that art is simply a copy of nature, and nature is better to look at. Nature is the true source of art, according to Gullberg. However, since art requires an artist, nature similarly requires an artist. The issue in Gullberg’s argument is that he is confusing beauty with art.

In the quote above, Gullberg references Ansel Adams. His post includes Adams’s famous photograph of Half Dome. When Gullberg suggests that Adams’s photograph of Half Dome cannot compare to seeing Half Dome in person, he may be correct about the beauty of Half Dome, but he is not obviously correct about Half Dome as art.

Consider the following two pictures. The first is Adams’s photograph, the second is a satellite photograph of Half Dome.

Ansel Adams’s Moon and Half Dome

GE Half Dome

Satellite photo from Google Earth. Half Dome at marker.

The latter picture is a more accurate representation of Half Dome. It provides a more complete picture of the rock structure; it situates it in more of its setting; it uses the correct colors. In short, the latter is a more accurate copy of the reality. Truthfully, even from such a high vantage point, the beauty of the region is clear. However, we would not call the satellite photo more artistic than Adams’s photograph. Quite the opposite.

What makes Adams’s photo ‘art’ is the ways in which he has deviated from the natural beauty. He has taken reality and composed it into art. Adams de-saturated the color to black and white. He cut out most of the context of the rock structure. He processed the photograph such that it would emphasize the contrast of hues. None of this would be present to the naked eye.

Yes, Adams captures the beauty of Half Dome. However, he makes no attempt to accurately recreate that natural beauty. He deviates from it and adjusts that natural beauty to compose a piece of art. This is the fundamental difference between beauty and art. Beauty is a quality something possesses. Art is an activity and the product of that activity. Art may be beautiful, but it is not a requirement of art.

Gullberg’s analogy doesn’t follow. A naturally beautiful scene is not analogous to a piece of art, even a piece of art recreating that naturally beautiful scene. There is an intention to art that is not present in natural beauty. As I noted above, beauty can arise without intention. As such, whereas a work of art requires an artist, a naturally beautiful scene does not. The “facts” just don’t point to that Supreme Being of infinite intelligence.

Taking Off the Gloves for a Moment

Thus far, I have tried to treat this argument with respect. Having responded to it, I want to be a little more blunt about my feelings toward it. Frankly, it is infantile and borderline demeaning.  I’ve tried to construct a credible argument from his post, but Gullberg does little more then assert his point and use exclamation points as evidence.

In his second post, Gullberg recaps his argument from artistry as follows:

“The painter paints a landscape. The observer “oohs and aahs” about the beauty of the painting, complimenting the painter on his or her creativity. The landscape itself should be the center of the adulation. After all, an incredibly intelligent and inventive Creator allows the painter to be able to copy His work.  A fool would say that there is no Creator of the actual landscape (nature or human) that the gifted painter paints!” (emphasis in original)

This is obviously false. We can “ooh and aah” about the craft of painting without having to praise the source of what was painted. Consider fruit in a bowl. An artist could paint that fruit in the bowl, and we could praise the artist for their work. However, Gullberg’s argument would suggest that the fruit in the bowl truly deserves the praise because it is the source of the art. Really? Am I supposed to believe that? Furthermore, if someone else set up the fruit in the bowl, would we suggest that the person doing the setting up is the person who actually deserves the praise? This would be the conclusion of Gullberg’s argument. Personally, I find that silly, but remember, according to Gullberg, I am the fool.

Thoughts on Living in a Godless Universe

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My existence is a gift.

I have been given my existence in the most literal way possible. My parents gave of themselves, physically, that I may grow. They gave of their bodies that I may have a body of my own. In this same way am I indebted to my grandparents, as they gave of themselves so my parents may exist. Back and back I must go, through ancestors human and not, until I reach that moment when whatever we qualify as life became living. All of them have literally given of themselves that I may exist. I am, in parts great and small, all of them. It is of their bodies that I am composed–patchwork.

Let me not forget those who have nourished me. While developing in my mother’s womb, she ate of animals, fruits, vegetables. It was from this nourishment that I found the energy necessary to become the body I am today. Furthermore, now born, I continue to nourish my body. I consume. Again, I receive a gift of the bodies of the animals and plants that feed me. I receive a gift of the labor of those who tend my food and take part in it being available for my consumption. This gift goes back to the plants that feed my food and to the minerals that fertilize those plants. It goes back to the chemicals that give structure to the world and to the stars in which those chemicals form. It goes back to the supernovae that spread those chemicals across the vastness of this universe. Just as my ancestors have given a little of themselves that I may have the material needed to have a body, so has the entire universe given a little of itself that I may have the energy to open my eyes, breathe in the morning air, and begin the day.

My life is indebted.

This gift that is my existence, it does not come free. Payment comes due when my life ends. I must give my body back to the universe that it may nourish others. My composition will be repurposed. It will be broken down and used to form new structures. I will be consumed. Just as I have fed, on me will others feed. With the decomposition of my body, my debt is repaid.

I leave the ranks of the indebted and become a giver. I cannot see where my body will go. I cannot know what will become of me. Though I secretly hope that my parts will find themselves spread to the far corners of this universe, I know that I will never experience this. I will cease. That’s fine. I can content myself with the knowledge that I will give back.

My debt has value.

Close your eyes and imagine a penny. One hundred pennies equal one dollar. These dollars can be used to buy a potted plant and a desk on which that plant can rest. Similarly, that desk and potted plant can be sold for dollars. Those dollars can be converted to pennies. Imagine everything in the universe expressed as a monetary value. Convert that to dollars and convert those dollars to pennies. Now lay those pennies out on a flat surface such that they form a square. Try to envision all of these pennies. If you’re like me, you cannot. What you envision is an approximation, only. Such is the limit of our imagination. But the collection of pennies is not infinite. It has an end. Its shape is defined. Our universe is vast beyond our imagination, but it is not infinite. It is contained.

Reach out and grab the nearest penny. This is you. You are but one penny in a collection so large it is unimaginable. How worthless you must be, and yet, without you the whole becomes less valuable. Without you, the whole becomes impoverished. I am composed of matter and energy. This is nothing special. Much is composed of matter and energy. But matter and energy are finite. Though I am one of an unimaginable number of pennies, there can still only be so many pennies, and I am one of them. The value isn’t found in the fact that I am composed of matter and energy, but that matter and energy are finite resources that have come to compose me. The value is found in the fact that I exist at all. This is my debt. Moreover, this invites a question: how should I spend my debt? Considering I am spending a finite resource, my purchases matter.

I spend my debt virtuously.

Just as my body is a patchwork composition of my ancestors, so is my character similarly constructed. I am the lessons they’ve learned and the stories they’ve told. I am their hopes and dreams and aspirations. Within me, they clash with each other. They clash with my neighbors and friends. They clash with the thinkers of my time and times past. They clash with me, with my hopes and dreams and aspirations.

In all of this, wisdom is gained. Insight is drawn from the rational and the experiential. Truths are uncovered. In these clashes of ideas and aspirations we find the virtues, the qualities to which we align our characters. It is here that we find our right and wrong, our good and bad. These clashes have long existed, and they will likely persist forever more.

If I sound like I am tarnishing the good name of the ethical, let me be clear, I intend no such thing. My point is merely this: though I strive to be the best person I can be and to leave the world as best a place as I can, I both expect and hope that my progeny can be better people and leave the world an even better place than upon my end. It is a simple acknowledgement that I do not have all of the answers, even to the ethical questions.

The meaning is found in my debt.

So what? It is a fair question. All of this talk about pennies and patchworks seems meaningless in light of the fact that it ends. It all ends. It is a realization that troubles many; however, it is a point that should arise no concern. What worry is to be found in the fact that it all ends? None. It all ends.

But what of meaning? It is to give. I give my time and energy to doing good work. I give it to being kind and spreading love. I give it producing material wealth, intellectual wealth, creative wealth, and emotional wealth. Then, I give that wealth. When it is all done, of course, I give my physical body. I repay my debt.

Do not be mistaken, this giving is not selflessness. It requires a lot of personal attention to how I live and what I do. It is the task of cultivating myself into a virtuous person that I may lead a good life. It is far from a lack of concern for oneself. Quite the opposite, I am diligent in considering my actions. I reflect on what I have done and why. I meditate on the person I want to be in order to prepare myself for when I have to be that person. It is the selfish task of dedication to being a good person.

Why dedicate myself to being good? That is the best way to spend my debt. There is no better way I can honor and thank those to whom I am indebted than to use the gift of my existence to be a source of good in the world. As far as we can tell, much of what exists is indifferent. It is neither good nor bad. However, the nature of my existence is not indifferent. I have moral agency.

Through our actions, collectively, we write our story. Yes, the story will end. The universe will end. Humanity will end. I will end. But in my time and with the funds of my debt, I told a good story. There lies the meaning of life. In the vastness of the universe, no matter my relative insignificance, I still took the debt of my existence and purchased a life worth living. May those who nourish upon me live similarly well.

On ‘Gone Girl’ the Movie

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First, this will have spoilers about Gone Girl.

Second, I have not read the book. I don’t know anything about the book. I honestly didn’t really know anything about the story except that it involved the disappearance of a woman. I knew this because I had seen a trailer for the movie. This is an unspoiled review of the film, only.

I am going to defer my five word review to the woman who was sitting in front me in the theater. Her five word review as the credits began to roll sums up my feelings about the film: “What? Nah. Fuck this shit.”

Continue reading

On Yesterday’s Tears

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Yesterday, somewhere in the world, a mother and father cried tears of joy, love, and happiness while watching their daughter get married. Just the same, yesterday, there were parents crying tears of sorrow, pain, and loss because their daughter died of cancer before her 16th birthday. Something else happened yesterday. My favorite soccer team gave up a two-goal lead in an important game. They lost 3-2 and, as a result, are sitting outside the playoff positions with only a small number of games remaining. There were no tears, but it was a punch to the gut.

Ask a group of people in what order would they wish these events upon another person, and the answer would likely be unanimous: daughter’s marriage, soccer team’s loss, then daughter’s death. Each option seems genuinely better than the one that follows it. If we’re being particularly callous, we may well wish these events upon our greatest enemy, just in reverse. Likewise, each option seems genuinely worse than its predecessor.

Today, we wake up to news that it has been unquestionably determined that there are no gods. What are we to make of yesterday’s events? Were yesterday’s tears cried for nothing? What of the order in which we’d wish yesterday’s events upon others?

The answer, according to many theists, is that those tears become meaningless. What we would or would not wish upon others becomes arbitrary. Consider Rick Henderson’s comment from his HuffPost piece I discussed previously:

“Anything and everything that happens in …a [godless] universe is meaningless. A tree falls. A young girl is rescued from sexual slavery. A dog barks. A man is killed for not espousing the national religion. These are all actions that can be known and explained but never given any meaning or value.”

Henderson insists, in no uncertain terms, that goodness, meaning, and value cannot exist if there is no god. This is an interesting situation. In a godless universe, we have wildly different reactions and responses to different events, and we hold strong views about which events we prefer, but we don’t do this by referencing goodness, meaning, or value.

Well, obviously Henderson isn’t entirely correct. If we can assign a preference to things, then those things have value. Of course, noting this doesn’t establish much for a godless universe, as this value may be of a purely arbitrary sort. Love may only be more valuable than an untimely death because I think so or because the culture in which I live holds it to be so. There may be value, but Henderson would be within his rights to argue that it is not a meaningful value.

In his piece, Henderson contends that “[a]ny atheist who recognizes objective meaning and morality defies the atheism that he contends is true.” This leads straightforwardly to Henderson’s conclusion: “If your worldview can’t makes [sic] sense of the things that make most sense to you (like objective morality), then it’s not worth your allegiance.” In other words, we should accept that there is a god. We know there are goodness, meaning, and value. Atheism cannot account for these. Therefore, theism. Well, there is a question we can ask: how does God account for goodness, meaning, and value?

God’s Omnipotence

For God to account for goodness, meaning, and value, he must be sovereign over them; otherwise, God is not that which accounts for them. Well, that’s easy. God is omnipotent. God can just make it such that something is good, meaningful, or valuable. So, God can make love good. That is why parents cry joyful tears when their daughter celebrates love in the form of a wedding. Similarly, God can make an untimely death bad. This is why parents cry sorrowful tears when their young daughter succumbs to cancer.

But God could also reverse the above. Untimely death could be good and love could be bad. The reason for yesterday’s tears would swap. The parents who lost their teenage daughter to cancer would be crying tears of joy, and those parents seeing their daughter get married for love would cry tears of sorrow. Moreover, God could deem a Portland Timbers victory the greatest good and a Timbers loss the greatest evil. None of yesterday’s tears would matter in comparison to the evil brought upon the world by Toronto FC’s comeback win over the Timbers. If goodness, meaning, and value come from God’s omnipotence, then that which is good or meaningful or valuable is so simply because God made it so. There is no reason God should make love good. Likewise, there is no reason God should make love bad. This is clearly not correct, as it is just as arbitrary as something being valuable because a culture says it is. As such, it is not God’s omnipotence that accounts for goodness, meaning, and value.

In fact, this basic recognition eliminates a lot of the ways we might think God could account for goodness, meaning, and value. God’s will, desires, passions, and beliefs all suffer from the same concern of arbitrariness. God may will for, desire, be passionate for, and believe in the goodness of love. However, it is not clear why he should. For God to account for goodness, meaning, and value, he must be sovereign over them without being able to actively choose which things are ultimately good, meaningful, and valuable. This appears paradoxical, but there may be an explanation: God’s nature.

God’s Nature

If God is to account for goodness, meaning, and value, he cannot have a say over those things which are good, meaningful, and valuable. Presumably, we cry tears of happiness at a wedding because love is good. God is loving. Perhaps love’s goodness has to do with it being a part of God’s nature. Let us presume that God’s ultimate nature is good. We may argue that God’s good nature makes love good. At bottom, God is good. God has other qualities: loving, merciful, and so on. God’s at-bottom good nature can cause goodness to supervene on his other qualities, making those qualities good.

This frees us from arbitrariness. Love isn’t good because God chooses love to be good. Likewise, love isn’t good because God is loving. Love is good because goodness supervenes on love via God’s ultimate nature. Moreover, love cannot cease to be good, for God’s nature is eternal and non-contingent. Lastly, this makes God’s commands reliable, for God does not choose his good nature, but his good nature will always inform his commands. It appears that God can account for goodness. We are left with one last question: Considering goodness is God’s at-bottom nature, what is goodness?

Yes, those are crickets you hear. To maintain God’s non-arbitrary sovereignty over goodness, we have to strip goodness of all its content. However, in doing so, we’ve rendered goodness a completely vacuous concept. Anything you say is the content of goodness will strip God of his sovereignty over goodness, as it would be a constraint on God’s nature that is external to God. That concept must get its goodness via God’s at-bottom nature supervening upon that concept. So, the theist can claim that God’s existence accounts for goodness, but this has added nothing to the universe for God’s sovereign accounting of goodness means goodness is a vacuous term. That’s a Pyrrhic victory if ever there was one.

In the Wake of Yesterday’s Tears

Henderson asks an important question:

“How do we explain objective meaning and morality that we know are true?” 

He insists that such things cannot robustly exist in an atheistic universe. However, as we’ve just seen, they cannot exist in a theistic universe; at least, they cannot exist without being completely vacuous and unintelligible. Henderson informs us that “[i]f a worldview can’t answer this question, it doesn’t deserve you.” Hence, Henderson wants us to abandon atheism. Well, we must now abandon theism as well. But this is impossible. Atheism is the logical opposite of theism. Atheism and theism account for 100% of the options. What are we to do?

One thing we can do is acknowledge that robust, objective versions of goodness, meaning, and value do not exist. If we’re following Henderson’s suggestion, this is not an option. As he says, robust, objective versions of goodness, meaning, and value are things “that we know are true[.]” All we’re left with is to acknowledge that, whatever accounts for the existence of goodness, meaning, and value, it has nothing to do with God. Thankfully, this is untroubling for everyone. We get goodness, meaning, and value in a godless universe as well as a universe with god. We may not know what accounts for their existence. We may have to admit that goodness, meaning, and value just exist. But we can rest assured that yesterday’s tears were not cried for nothing.

On Not Not Wanting to Believe

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In my WordPress reader, I follow the tag ‘atheism’. I check it on occasion to find new blogs to follow. Unsurprisingly, there are posts tagged ‘atheism’ that are written by believers of various stripes. Giving the feed a quick skim, I noticed a number of recent posts about or mentioning that the reason atheists don’t believe in God is because they don’t want to believe in God. Setting aside the way this suggestion can reinforce belief, I’ve always found it an interesting suggestion. It is obviously false. Most atheists want to believe. More accurately, they wanted to believe. Most atheists are former believers and wanting to believe is a common thread of most deconversion stories.

But, I was never a believer, so I did not deconvert. Acknowledging this, I got to wondering, is it true that I don’t want to believe?

Well, if you consider this blog, the answer may well be yes. I mean, I go out of my way to comment when people besmirch the good name of godlessness. This includes the occasional post about arguments for/against God. However, I engage the for/against arguments because I find the puzzle of them interesting. I don’t engage them to resist belief. Heck, I was defending a William Lane Craig argument in a comment thread a while back. The other posts are more focused on defending/espousing the positive aspects of my worldview, which happens to be godless. Anthropologically, atheists tend to be defensive, and this is understandable considering they are generally in the position of social outsider. I am no different. However, any defensiveness is borne out of commitments to my positive beliefs, not a resistance to believing in God.

There’s also something weird about the suggestion. Do I want to believe in God? Well, no. But, do I not want to believe in God? No, that’s not the case either. I just don’t believe in any gods. The suggestion that I don’t want to believe embeds a motivation that is not present. It would be more accurate to say I am unmotivated to believe in God.

Considering I do not believe in any gods, I want to understand and define the things I do believe: how to be good, how to live well, enjoying life, helping/supporting others, and so on. In other words, I want to focus on being a good person, on living a good life. The snarky believer may scoff at these aspirations, and have at it. May your eyes roll like the raging river. But feel free to put to bed the notion that I don’t want to believe. Wants just don’t enter into the equation.

On No Good Atheists

Yes, I am going to respond to the polemical HuffPost article going around about why there is no such thing as a good atheist. Yes, I’m pretty sure it speaks poorly of my character that I feel compelled to reply to this post. This isn’t to say that the post doesn’t deserve a reply. It certainly does. My reply is simply superfluous, but I can’t help myself. To ease some of my self-imposed shame, I am going to start with a snarky response.

Here is THE Good Atheist. He’s Canadian. QED, Pastor Henderson.

Also, if you haven’t read it, I want to direct you to the response at Amusing Nonsense.

Finally, I love how smug this article is considering it makes no attempt to address the scope of the literature out there on the topic. Perhaps Pastor Henderson would like to read Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe, for starters.

My Response

1. Thank you, Pastor Henderson, for telling me what my atheist worldview must entail. I really appreciate your clarifying that for me. Unfortunately, you are not the arbiter of atheistic worldviews. That right belongs to Ricky Gervais, alone. Because of his accent. And The Office.

2. Atheism does not equal materialism. However, even a fully material universe can exist with other, non-material objects. The question is whether or not those other objects are natural. Remember, just because something is non-material does not mean it is supernatural. So, just because an atheist thinks the universe is material does not mean the atheist cannot think there are other, non-material but natural objects. It is in this realm where we might find our goods, bads, virtues, and vices.

3. The universe is scientific. Yup. Until science started to disagree with their religion, many Christians thought the universe was scientific too. In fact, many still do think the universe is scientific. So, what’s your point?

4. “Anything and everything that happens in such a universe is meaningless.”

Somehow, in his 1255 words (yes, I counted), Pastor Henderson doesn’t feel the need to defend this statement. He quote mines from a few authors and then claims those quotes represent “the nonnegotiable premises of atheism.” However, he offers no actual argument in support of his claim. The quick bio-blurb under Pastor Henderson’s name says he is a “grace addict.” I suppose this juicy tidbit of intellectual honesty is the kind of grace Pastor Henderson’s God peddles.

5. It’s weird to read an article critiquing atheism without seeing mention of relativism. Unfortunately for Pastor Henderson, relativism is a perfectly acceptable response to his claims. As such, I can be good because I say so. :P

6.  Pastor Henderson’s whole article falls apart in his final section where he claims that atheists try to establish a ground for objective morality through logical argumentation. You see, since Pastor Henderson knows that objective morality is not a part of the nonnegotiable premises of atheism, he makes no attempt to understand how an atheist might ground objective morality. To be fair, he did quote mine Richard Dawkins. That’s roughly the atheist equivalent of a commandment from God.

You see, Pastor Henderson, try as you might, you can’t just declare objective morality and atheism are incompatible. You have to demonstrate that. Just as an atheist would need to demonstrate how there can be objective morality without a god. Many atheists have. Pastor Henderson does not refer or respond to any of them. Not a single one. He doesn’t have to. He’s already decided that atheism can’t have objective morality. Why should Pastor Henderson spend any time responding to something he already decided can’t be the case? That’s right, I can’t think of a reason either.

But, hey, look on the bright side. There is no bad atheist, either. There are only bad Christians. And bad arguments. Of that last category, Pastor Henderson’s argument is a good example.

On Hayes’s Response at the Friendly Atheist

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I recently posted my thoughts on Shane Hayes’s Agnostic Argument for Faith, as excerpted from Hayes’s new book and posted at the Friendly Atheist. Hayes’s initial post received a lot of feedback in the comments of Mehta’s blog, and he has offered a response to some of that feedback.

I suspect he did not read my post nor is there any reason he should have read my post. However, one of the points he makes is relevant to my response, and I want to review it here.

The Supposed Pragmatism of Hayes’s Argument

Here is the section of Hayes’s response that seems relevant to my response (emphasis in original):

If one hypothesis (either God — or No God) will make you happier, stronger, more resilient, more at home in this brutal universe, more able to cope with life’s setbacks, tragedies, and the inevitable decline or plunge toward death, it is prudent, pragmatically sound, and entirely rational to embrace that view. Agnosticism assures us there is no rational barrier to either view. Neither can be known. Either may be true.

Many of Hemant’s commenters say it’s irrational to even weigh such factors as what makes us happier, stronger, more hopeful, more serene. It’s not. Others say that when they weigh them, atheism wins. Fine. I admit that atheism can be a rational choice, and as an agnostic I can’t argue with it. But be sure that you weigh all the benefits of belief that I mention — including those you’re most inclined to scoff at — because they all matter. In his book Pragmatism, William James said: “The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to anyone if this notion rather than that notion were true?” The practical consequences are huge!

In my response, I made two basic points: (1) that Hayes’s account of a godless universe was myopic and (2) that his conciliatory stance is pretense to a basic threat of hell. Hayes more or less concedes my first point. He does this in greater detail in a different part of his response, but you get the gist when he says, “Others say that when they weigh them, atheism wins. Fine. I admit that atheism can be a rational choice, and as an agnostic I can’t argue with it.”

Regarding my second point, his response only seems to reinforce how patronizing the argument is. He starts by noting that what he is arguing for is the prudent pragmatism of believing in a worldview that allows one to deal with “this brutal universe.” If this were the extent of his argument, we could just agree to disagree while holding the same conclusion: that we both, individually, adhere to the worldview that allows us both to deal with this brutal universe.

However, Hayes brought heaven and hell into the equation. In fact, he called them unavoidable. This changes everything. There is no amount of love, joy, happiness, brutality, or suffering in this life that could ever be significant in relation to the eternity of joy and suffering proposed in the existence of heaven and hell. We are no longer talking about the prudent pragmatism of believing in a worldview that allows one to cope with this brutal universe. That doesn’t matter. What matters is which belief gets you into heaven and which belief gets you into hell.

That’s why the whole argument about pragmatic belief for this universe is patronizing. Hayes’s argument isn’t really about this universe. This universe is irrelevant to the threat he levels by warning us about hell. I just wish he’d be honest about this. His “Agnostic Argument for Faith” is nothing more than “believe or you’re going to hell.”

He doesn’t want to come right out and say, “believe or you’re going to hell” because it completely undermines the whole set up of his book. He wants to argue that one can move from atheism, to Pure Theism, to Christianity. However, in his first damn chapter he’s already threatening us with hell. Sorry, I don’t find his threats all that, well, threatening. Also, if he has to conceal his threats in the pretense of conciliation, I find him careless at best and dishonest at worst.

As I noted in my initial response, what I’ve read is a small portion of his book. It is quite possible this is a poor first step, only. The rest of the book may even out into a straightforwardly honest argument for belief in Christianity. Captain Cassidy, at Roll to Disbelieve, is blogging a review of the book, so you can find out how the rest of Hayes’s book fairs (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).

On Gratitude to No One

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It is a sort of atheist right of passage: the first time you’re told that, without a god, you have no one to thank. It’s said as if to make you feel bad about yourself or, perhaps, to make you jealous. To be fair, the sentiment motivating the comment is quite understandable. We experience moments that elicit a genuine sense of appreciation, but there is no one to whom we can direct our thanks. Well, for the atheist, at least.

The blogger at Teal Tomato recounts just such an occasion. She shares the story of an amazing day that compels her to say, “Thank you.” She is clearly grateful, but as the title of her post asks: grateful to whom?

For me, I’ve never felt an urge to say thank you. Instead, I laugh. Be it a quick moment or the culmination of a full day, when events conspire to swell within me a great appreciation, I get a huge smile across my face and I laugh.

The thing is, until someone suggested otherwise, it never occurred to me that my undirected gratitude should be odd. It never struck me that I would need a “thankful to” if I wanted to express a “thankful for.” Quite frankly, I still don’t think it odd. Moments and memories don’t have to be gifts to qualify as treasures. Perhaps our appreciation makes them gifts, in a sense, but they are gifts without a giver. Or, in the acceptance of our appreciation, we give them to ourselves. We permit ourselves to acknowledge the joy in our lives.

The same works in reverse. When uncontrolled events conspire to harm me, I don’t find my anger, frustration, or tears to be unwarranted just because there is no one to blame. Surely, if I should feel bad about lacking someone to thank, I should feel equally bad without someone to blame. But it doesn’t work that way, does it? Somehow, we’re comfortable with a series of unfortunate events, but the fortunate ones must be by design.

Certainly, when there is no one to blame for harm I experience, I can use this realization in the healing process. Again, the same works in reverse. If there is no one to thank, then I am not special. I am not protected. So it is.

To tealtomato, do not hesitate to say thank you. Have no shame in the appreciation you feel. Appreciation is the right response to the moments you treasure. A lack of someone to thank in no way diminishes their luster.

And thank you for sharing your story.

On Hayes’s Agnostic Argument for Faith

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Hemant Mehta, at Friendly Atheist, posted an excerpt from a new book by Shane Hayes. The book is titled The End of Unbelief: A New Approach to the Question of God. The book discusses Hayes’s conversion from atheist to Christian and why other nonbelievers should consider belief in God. The excerpt is brief, probably 2-3 pages of a 200+ page book, but it covers what Hayes calls an agnostic argument for faith.

I would summarize Hayes’s argument as: Considering we lack certainty of knowledge, we should believe in God because believing in a universe with God is transformatively better than a universe without God. To be less kind, I would summarize my understanding of his thesis as: believing in a universe with God gives you warm fuzzies more so than believing in a universe without God, so believe in God.

The whole excerpt reads a bit pollyannaish. It reads like Hayes doesn’t think atheists have ever really thought about the social, political, and ethical implications of living in a godless universe. Mehta notes, “Shane Hayes is an [sic] Christian who believes he can reach out to atheists in a way that’s far more effective than the usual breed of apologists…in part because he used to be an atheist, too.” With full recognition that I have an incredibly small sample size, this excerpt suggests Hayes has a patronizingly myopic notion of the worldviews held by atheists.

Overviewing the Excerpt

Hayes situates the human condition when he notes, “We all grope in existential darkness.” He provides some detail of this darkness, explaining, “We’re in this mess together — we’re all human, vulnerable to illness, crushing accidents, the carnage of war, calamities of every kind. We’re aging, and we’re mortal.” It is in this setting that we find the question of belief in God.

Hayes describes his experience of atheism as “…like Antarctica — glacially cold and wind-lashed, an ice-bound waste devoid of tree, shrub, or flower, no hint of blossoming life visible to the horizon, and beyond the horizon . . . nothing.” It was something he “endured for more than a decade.” Most notable about this description is that there seems to be nothing in atheism to address our existential darkness.

Now we have the groundwork for the argument. It may be that Hayes cannot prove God exists, but if God did exist, as Hayes notes, “…if there is a God, that reality makes a huge difference in the character of the universe and of human life.” Life does not have to be the bleak, barren wasteland as was Hayes’s experience of atheism. Instead, as he explains, “…faith can enrich people’s lives and its rejection can impoverish them. Since we can’t know whether the world is Godless or God-filled, why not embrace the radiant view and enjoy its benefits?”

The Myopic

Lacking certainty of knowledge, Hayes suggests we should believe in God because a universe with a personal, loving God offers joy, love, and radiance. On the other hand, atheism is cold, devoid, and offering of nothing. However, Hayes’s account of a godless universe is myopic, and he makes this very point himself. Consider, again, his description of our condition:

“We’re in this mess together — we’re all human, vulnerable to illness, crushing accidents, the carnage of war, calamities of every kind. We’re aging, and we’re mortal.”

Those first words, “we’re in this mess together….” We are together. Together means we are connected. We share. We co-own. We relate, sympathize, empathize. We join with each other. This simple acknowledgement of our togetherness has planted seeds of love, caring, connection, culture, and art in our godless universe. Far from Hayes’s barren wasteland, our togetherness means our landscape teems with joy, love, and radiance.

But, what about that horizon, beyond which is “…nothing“? Well, there isn’t nothing. There are my children, grandchildren, and so on. The kin of my friends. Since we are in this together, there are our children. There are us. We lay the foundations on which they build. We take in the wisdom of those before us, build from it, and pass it on to our children. We are in this with them, as well.

We may not know if God exists, but we can know that a godless universe is not a barren wasteland. Hayes’s myopia does not strip the universe of the existence of joy, love, and radiance. It simply means he was too short-sighted to see it.

The Patronizing

“But, wait,” you might say. “That’s not what Hayes meant of there being nothing beyond the horizon.” And you would be correct. When Hayes discusses the nothingness beyond the atheist horizon, he means the lack of an afterlife. So what if you experience love, joy, and radiance? Once you die, that’s it. It is permanently and completely over.

That’s true. But my response is just the same. So what? In fact, it is this finitude that makes our lives and how they’re lived so precious. An afterlife that is exceedingly more grand, more important, and better than this life renders this life insignificant. At most, this life is a utility for determining one’s fate in the afterlife. Contrary to Hayes’s comments above, it is the God-filled universe that makes this life cold. This life becomes a mere tool: functional, narrow, and subservient. Certainly, a personal, loving God may share his love and beauty with you in this life. But would it matter if he didn’t? Wouldn’t the afterlife still be what’s important? A universe filled with a loving God is certainly preferable to that of an indifferent or hateful God. However, all make this life an impoverished landscape when compared to life in a godless universe.

Which brings me to why I find Hayes’s account patronizing. He asks three questions he claims that “we can’t escape”:

“1. When faced with problems or troubles that seem overwhelming, is supernatural help available or not?

2. Are we ephemeral creatures who expire utterly with our last breath, or is there a spirit in us that survives physical death?

3. If death is not the end of human consciousness, if there is a whole realm of being beyond that, is it good or bad — or might it be either, depending on how we relate to each other and how we relate to God . . . while we’re here?”

It is the final question that tips Hayes’s hand. The conciliatory tone and appeal to agnosticism are mere pretense. Hayes reminds us that we don’t certainly know if a god exists, yet he expects us to be concerned that we may suffer in hell for the eternity of our afterlives. That’s not what he says, directly, but that’s what he means. He could have had the decency to be direct about it; however, it is hard to sell your loving God’s joy and radiance with threats of how that God will punish you with eternal suffering.

No, I do not like that I will die. I don’t like that the universe will cease being capable of supporting life. But I certainly don’t fear these things. Unfortunate as they may be, they do not erase the value of my life. They do not diminish the love and joy that I experience. They only serve as reminders that said love and joy must be cherished, for they are not forever. They are not taken from me, mind you. I cease.

Being godless, the universe isn’t going to provide me with love and joy. Remember, we’re in this together. I bring love and joy. I share love and joy. I may cease, but I can live in a manner that sustains and grows the garden of radiance that is our togetherness. In a godless universe, we plant the seeds that blossom into a valuable and fulfilling existence. We do this by the manner in which we live our lives.

To be fair, I can live my life just the same in a God-filled universe. However, it is not clear that I should. What I should do is live a life that gets me into heaven. At least, that seems to be where Hayes is directing my concern with his final question. In both universes, we can plant seeds of love, joy, and radiance. In the godless universe, we do so because it makes the universe better, because it is the right thing to do. In Hayes’s God-filled universe, we do so to garner future rewards.

So, remind me again, which universe is impoverished?

On the Cutting Room Floor

I have 25 unfinished posts sitting in my Drafts. Some of these have been there since late 2012. It’s time I bite the bullet and delete them. For posterity’s sake, I’ve decided to give some of them a moment in the spotlight. Below are excerpts from 9 posts that will never see the full light of day. They appear, roughly, in reverse chronological order.

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