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.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Personal Remarks on Atheism

While this "atheism thread" seems like a diversion from the focus of this blog, Prof Rob has reminded me that it is an essential part of "recovering from fundamentalism". So let me take some time to reply to the Austin Cline rebuttal to my previous post.

In this post, I'll make more personal comments, and leave arguments and rebuttals to future posts:

First of all, all comments expressed in this blog are opinions, not facts or truths. (In fact, given that I am writing under a pseudonym, there is even some uncertainty as to whether they are even my own true opinions: See Brandon Watson's intriguing article on the subject, especially the section about Kierkegaard and Johannes de Silentio.) Cline complains:

His testimony about what he currently can and cannot imagine about himself should be treated as credible and accepted at face value. His error is in presuming that the same must apply to everyone else in the world, including me. The rest of us, though, are not limited in our possibilities by one person's lack of imagination. If he can't figure out how to ascribe meaning to something non-permanent, that's his problem — not mine.
My statements are of course just opinions, and subject to being informed by Cline or others. Below and continuing, I plan to examine the "information" Cline has provided. I hope that when I state an opinion Cline finds wrong, he (and others) can avoid feeling personally attacked and just enjoy the opportunity to provide an alternative point of view.

Monumental Arrogance
Cline describes me:
like oh-so-many I have encountered in the past, I really don't think that donalgrant has spent any time whatsoever talking to atheists about what they believe, asking them what they think, and then contemplating what that might mean. Instead, he seems to just launch into critiques on a few assumptions about them. I'm sure he's a nice guy and all, but this is why I used the phrase "monumental arrogance" above.
I hope the "personal content" here is not relevant to this discussion. In fact, I have spent a lot of time talking with my atheist friends, including my former-boss whom I described in the last article as one of the wisest and best people I know, and some of whom have been a big part of my leaving fundamentalism behind. My interest in atheism at all, and the opening offhand remark to this discussion about "completely self-consistent atheism not being livable", come from a serious consideration of atheism (and agnosticism) as a belief (or lack of belief) system. My continuation of this discussion, although coming from a theistic bias, represents continued contemplation of what atheists, including Cline, think and mean. It should not be interpreted as a personal assault on atheists when I assert (even without proof!) that it is difficult and perhaps impossible to find a basis for morality, rational thought, and meaning in life within a completely self-consistent materialist world-view. I certainly would not interpret it as a personal assault if Cline were to assert, for example, that physicists from Caltech (one of whom I am) have a poor basis for socialization.

Burden of Proof
Cline says it is my responsibility to prove that atheists do not have a basis for morality, rational thought and meaning in life. Though I've described some motivation behind my assertion (and I'll try to provide more later outside of the "personal comments section"), it is actually pretty hard to prove a negative. For example, I would imagine that Cline might find it impossible to prove that God doesn't exist, and I wouldn't ask him to do so. On the other hand, I think it would be fair for him to ask me if I have any reason to believe that God does exist. (My answer might surprise him!) Similarly, I think it is fair to ask an atheist to provide some basis for things such as "meaning in life", morality and rational thought, assuming that atheist believes he has such. Note that I have not addressed the many problems with theism, for example, the problem of evil and the problem of survival. (Survival in the sense of some continuity of personhood into an afterlife.)

"Not One Shred of Evidence" one of the complaints Cline has against me. It's true -- I did not produce any evidence in this discussion -- nor will I ever. This discussion is not about statistics or observational facts, but about philosophy and argument. There will never be any evidence. Even if I started quoting suicide rates (I have no idea what they are) between theists and atheists, that would only be of passing trivial interest. Anecdotes would be even worse, as would testimony taken under oath -- all things described as "evidence" but not particularly relevant to an argument about the basis of morality, rational thought and meaning in life in a purely material world.

"Not a single logical argument. Nothing."
Cline also complains that I haven't provide logical arguments in support of my assertions in the previous post. In a strict sense, this is true. I've been somewhat lazy -- describing arguments rather than constructing them, and leaving it to the reader to fill in details. That does not invalidate the arguments, and I expect most of the arguments are familiar to folks who read this and are especially familiar to Cline. Meanwhile, it doesn't appear to me that Cline has been any more rigorous than I have in his arguments. Compare his statements in the paragraph above with mine, and see whether his contain superior construction and rigor. This does not excuse me, of course. (But see the burden of proof paragraph above.)

I guess that's enough of the personal remarks. I hope to continue with some more topical discussions after this, including responding to Prof Rob's very interesting comments about "animal atheism".