Back of the North Wind

Discussions of theology, philosophy, religion and life inspired by the writings of George MacDonald (and perhaps others such as CS Lewis) posted by "recovering fundamentalists".

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I am a "recovering fundamentalist". The trick is to figure out how not to throw out the Baby with the bathwater. I learn through dialogue, and so invite commentary on my posts to Back of the North Wind.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Is Atheism Livable?

I seem to have caught the attention of an atheist website (not really my target audience...) which quibbled with an offhand comment I made at the end of Meta Post #2:

I'm sympathetic to healthy skepticism, but while atheism can be made self-consistent, I don't think a completely consistent atheistic world view will be found to be livable.

The complaint is that I misunderstand and misrepresent atheism (actually, I don't think I represented atheism at all in that post). Austin Cline writes:

Guess what? There are millions and millions of people who manage to find those world views to be quite livable. They don't go moping around, wonder what is wrong with themselves and seeking out religious theists to help them out of their "unlivable" conundrum.

Why? Because there is absolutely nothing about atheism that makes a world view unlivable. You don't need a god to have morality or ethics. You don't need a god to have a reason to live. You don't need a god to have a reason to love or enjoy yourself. You don't need a god to be a good citizen, neighbor, husband, mother, or third cousin twice removed.

Believers may find that their theism plays an important role in such things, but it requires monumental arrogance to assume that their god (or some god) is necessary for everyone — and, therefore, atheists must have some difficulty living or constructing a "livable world view." It's a common mental virus: "Everyone who isn't pretty much like me must have something pathologically wrong with them." It's a dismissal of the very conception that people can be different on fundamental issues and yet still manage their lives just fine.

So I guess I'd better respond, lest I propagate the appearance of being "monumentally arrogant". (Well, a little humiliation now and then is good for us all.)

I do not deny that atheists (or buddhists or secular / religious humanists / objectivists) live fine lives, make good neighbors and are happy. In fact, my former boss, an atheist, is probably one of the wisest, kindest, best people I know. And I know plenty of theists who fall into the opposite category.

But my claim in my remarks is that these atheists are not living a "completely consistent atheistic world view". I'm focused especially here on materialism -- the idea that there is nothing outside of the physical world. That all rational thought and morality are merely the expression of electrons in some probabilistic pattern in our brains.

I note that Austin Cline, in his critique, while claiming that "You don't need a god to have a reason to live" does not actually provide a "reason to live". In fact, it is difficult to find a root basis for morality, rational thought (how does an electronic event come to represent an external objective reality?), or even just a "reason to live" in a purely materialistic world. We come from supernova dust, we end up as dissipated heat in the entropy death of the universe. What happens between is temporary and has no impact and no possible final consequence. There is nothing more unique about the organization of matter in a human or animal than in a star or snowflake -- no reason to treat one more carefully than the other.

Wherefore, then should one care about what happens to neighbor, spouse or children? Perhaps we want to avoid pain, so we behave in a way which minimizes pain. But the ultimate escape from pain is suicide. Why not hasten the return to dust, the escape from pain, which is inevitable? After all, as the "dread pirate Roberts" once said, "Life is pain, Princess. Anyone who tells you different is selling something."

No one tries to live this way -- I do not believe that anyone could live this way. But that was precisely the point of my original remark: a completely self-consistent atheist (read, "materialist") world-view is not livable. Atheists live good lives by avoiding the full implications of their own world-view. This shouldn't be surprising: the vast majority of atheists and theists never follow the implications of their own world views. One might argue that the theist's world-view implies an even more difficult -- more painful -- life than the atheists. But it will at least provide a basis for rational thought, for morality, and for the value of life itself.

The atheist/materialist who claims there is nothing outside of the physical world finds herself in a situation illustrated by Mark Tansey, in "Triumph over Mastery II", where the painter is white-washing the Sistine Chapel, and finds that he is painting over his own shadow -- erasing himself from existence. Tansey was focused on art, but the principle he illustrates is more general: the atheist in making an argument for materialism undermines the credibility not only of her own argument, but her ability to make any rational argument at all.