"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Atheism, Belief, And Morality

Atheism has become a religion.  Its followers are as passionate about denying the existence of God as Christians, Muslims, and Jews are about affirming it.  Atheism has an anti-theology, a creed, and a moral code. Atheists define themselves by their denial of God and are comforted by belonging to a community of the like-minded. There are atheist conferences, atheist clubs, and online educational and support groups. Atheists are as loyal to doctrine as the most conservative Catholics; as anxious to evangelize as Christians and Muslims; and as committed to preserving the faith as any militant believer.

Atheist Conference

To an agnostic or one who would check ‘Indifferent’ if such a box existed on the national census form, this religious passion, proselytizing, and doctrinal belief is surprising. Disavowal of God should be a very individual matter, one concluded with a serious consideration of both logical argument and faith.  Tolstoy wrote about his lifelong search for God in A Confession.  For years he was a nihilist who believed that man existed in a meaningless, random universe; but he was unhappy with that conclusion. What if he were wrong? At the end of one’s life there would be no prize for resting on skeptical laurels. One should have either a conviction that the end of life was merely a beginning; or that life was simply extinguished, a secular passage and an exchange of matter.

Tolstoy A Confession

He studied logic, metaphysics, moral philosophy, epistemology, and science; but found no answers either to the meaning of life or the existence of God.  He studied religion, but found faith too illogical, too idealistic and presumptive.  His rationality and intellect would not permit a serious consideration of such whimsical belief.  At the same time he studied Christian rationalists like Augustine and Aquinas. He was much closer to their disciplined and ordered search for meaning and their exegesis of problems of good and evil; but in the end rejected their final arguments for belief based on faith.

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In the end as he describes in A Confession, he backs into faith.  Tired, weary, and frustrated because his years of investigation have come to naught, he suddenly realizes that hundreds of millions of people alive believe in God; and tens of billions before them have believed in him.  They must know something, Tolstoy reasons.  He gives a sigh of relief and believes.

Dostoevsky was a believer but a skeptic.  His Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov challenges the returned Christ and accuses him of selling out the human race. By responding as you did to the Devil in the desert, the Grand Inquisitor says, you offered Man the promise of eternal life but denied him what he wanted – a relief from pain, suffering, hunger, and misery.  Free will was only a ruse, for Man only wants miracles, mystery, and authority.

The Grand Inquisitor confronts Christ with his most telling accusation – not only do you permit suffering, but you permit the suffering of children.  I can understand, the Grand Inquisitor goes on, that you might have set suffering as a test for men to prove their faith and fidelity; but why have you consigned little children who have not yet reached the age of reason to such misery?  The Grand Inquisitor goes on with tales of parental brutality, unconscionable torture, and the horrible mutilation and murder of their own children.  How can you permit this? he asks.

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In other words skeptics and agnostics have struggled to answer the classic philosophical conundrums of life and either – as both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy did – to return to religious faith; or to deny the existence of God and be done with it.

Collective atheism, or atheism as a religion, seems illogical and unnecessary unless one looks at it as community, security, and conclusive answers to insoluble problems.  In other words to provide a place where doubts about the existence of God and the meaning of life are put to rest.

Michael Ruse, writing in the New York Times (3.24.15) suggests that atheists not only deny the existence of God, but contend that belief is immoral.

When asked in Ireland a few years ago about the abuse of children by priests, Richard Dawkins — who, along with Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens, is among the best known of the New Atheists — responded that he was more concerned about bringing a child up Catholic in the first place. You don’t say something like that seriously — and Dawkins is always serious — without a deep sense that something is dreadfully morally wrong. The whole system is rotten, this stance shouts, and corrupting to the core.

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Religion has been the cause of inhumanity, waste, and suffering these militant New Atheists say.  Belief in God and in the religions such faith inspires and creates is immoral because of the immorality of their actions.

It is hard to disagree that many have been killed in the name of religion – especially today – and that religious zeal has inflicted pain and suffering.  There is no excuse for the slave labor of Irish Catholic orphanages where unmarried girls were consigned to forced labor and then robbed of their children who were given to more worthy and wealthy childless patrons.  There is even less excuse for the recently discovered and widespread sexual abuse committed by Catholic priests in Europe and especially America. It is one thing to disregard the Church’s teaching on abstinence, another to sexually abuse innocent children who have been brought up with a complete faith in the Church and its representatives.

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The moral argument, however, is specious. While crusades and jihads have killed many, so did Genghis Khan, Pol Pot, Hitler, and Stalin all of whom acted out of secular motives. It is not religion which creates, incites, and foments violence.  It is human nature, human beings, and human society.

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The harshest criticism is reserved for both believers and non-believers who come to their conclusions illogically. Tolstoy was turned away from faith because he saw too much of the blind, unthinking version.  Rationalists are dismissive of atheists who similarly look at religion, see its worst expressions and conclude that God cannot possibly exist. Ruse goes on:

This is a pretty remarkable state of affairs that we have here — planets, suns, organisms, humans and so forth. Why is there any of it? Why is there something rather than nothing? This question is not about the Big Bang or if anything went before. It is about the very fact of existence. One doesn’t expect something like this, with its astounding interdependency and innumerable complex parts functioning in service of the whole, to just happen.

The existence of consciousness, or sentience, can be seen in the same way. Brain science has thrown a lot of light on the way we think, but the very fact of thinking is a puzzle. And the problem is that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of progress forward. We know a lot about how conscious states are correlated with brain states, but this tells us nothing about how consciousness as we experience it could be a brain state.

Can such a wonderful universe be entirely without point?

In other words, one should respect Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and the many moral philosophers who have questioned the existence of God because they have acknowledged that the question of belief is not a simple one.  The complexity of the universe alone requires consideration.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Ron,

    I enjoy your blog.
    For a simpler account of these vexing questions, try this:



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