Atheists and Unavoidability of the Divine
I had hoped to spend most of the first several blog posts building a foundation for things. Laying the groundwork of my philosophy. But I’ve been thinking about an issue recently and I thought while the issue was fresh and my indignation was fired that
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I had hoped to spend most of the first several blog posts building a foundation for things. Laying the groundwork of my philosophy. But I’ve been thinking about an issue recently and I thought while the issue was fresh and my indignation was fired that I should say something. Which is not to say that this topic is something that has only recently occurred to me, I’ve actually been thinking about it on and off since the late 80’s, but it was triggered most recently by an answer to a question on Quora. The question was: What is the creepiest thing that society accepts as a cultural norm? I found one answer to be particularly objectionable, but frankly a lot of the answers were misguided and ignorant; as an example, the answer with the second most votes was that it was creepy to teach children to be patriotic. Getting into exactly why this answer is so ignorant is not the point of this post. But it is one of those things that has been an unquestioned positive value in cultures for thousands of years and only in the last few decades have people decided that it is a negative. The world is saturated with Chronological Snobbery and I probably shouldn’t get worked up over one more example of it.
That, however, was not the answer that triggered this post, but the two answers are related. Both are in the category of allegedly creepy things being taught to children. In the case that set me off it was the teaching of religious opinions. Specifically the author of the answer offered up “Religious Opinions Being Forced on Children” as the creepiest thing society accepts as a cultural norm. First I find it interesting that he uses the term “force”, how do you force someone to hold an opinion? Is there some brain modification going on here that I’m unaware of? I’m sure he would argue that by being in a dominant position that parents can effectively force their opinion on their children. Regardless I imagine that what he finds so objectionable is not force, but religion. I see no indication from this answer or any of his other answers that he’s a radical libertarian. He’s not opposed to compulsion in all of it’s forms, he’s opposed to religion, and finds it creepy that I should be allowed to bring up my children in my religion.
If that were not enough, he begins his piece by saying that he doesn’t want any comments on his answer. I understand his position is controversial (as it should be) and that he’s going to get a lot of negative feedback, but that’s just cowardly. He’s not saying that he thinks religious instruction is something which deserves more scrutiny, he’s saying that it’s creepy. That’s a pretty high standard. An extraordinary claim which deserves some extraordinary proof.
At this point you may be wondering what about this answer got my juices flowing. Sure it’s pathetic and intellectually vacant, but people post intellectually vacant stuff on the internet all the time. What I found interesting is that he still acknowledges that children need to be taught morals he just claims that “Morals can be taught separately from religion.” And this is where he gets into my pet peeve. I know atheists think that religion is a horrible, destructive force, responsible for all manner of misery and evil. But that’s only because haven’t really thought things through. This intellectual disconnect is not just the subject of the remainder of this post it’s in part the theme of this entire blog.
Let’s examine the options for arriving at a system of morals. We’ll start with the two obvious options:
Option 1- Morals are eternal, divine and originate from a supreme being, or at a minimum some non-materialistic force..
Option 2- Morals can be inferred logically. Pure reason and/or science provides a moral framework.
Obviously atheists don’t believe in option 1, but option 2 seems reasonable enough, right? The problem is that the system of morality described in option 2 doesn’t exist. The closest anyone has come is utilitarianism and frankly raw utilitarianism has a host of issues. Many of the issues are esoteric, but there is one that is insurmountable, no one has adopted it on a large scale. Thus, If we decided to teach utilitarianism in order to separate morals from religion, we would be instructing children in a system of morality which bears little resemblance to the cultural morality of the society that child lives in. Okay, one might retort, we’ll just teach that. We don’t have to add in religion, we can just instruct children in society’s morality. Now recall that he wasn’t objecting to religious instruction in schools he was objecting to all religious instruction everywhere, so you would have to teach this morality without recourse to any form of religion. How does this not end up as nothing but sterile instruction in the laws of the country. And I think teaching law devoid of ethics is one of the more dangerous things you can do, leading inevitably to a anything’s-fine-as-long-as-you-can-get-away-with-it mentality. Looking at it another way, where do you think cultural morality comes from? Imagine trying to teach morality as if Judaism, Christianity, Islam or even Buddhism never existed.
This takes us to the third option for arriving at a system of morals. Now I believe morals come from God, but let’s assume for the moment that they don’t. And further assume that option 2 is off the table. That Bertrand Russell didn’t sit down and created a foolproof logical system of morality that all people of good sense follow. Then option 3 is as I alluded to above, taking our morals from that system of morality which developed organically, in an evolutionary process of trial and error over thousands of years of civilization.
For our example atheist, this may initially seem like great news. Evolutionary process? Trial and error? Where do I sign up? There’s only one problem. This process is religion. If you’re going to deny the existence of God then religion is still the distilled essence of this evolutionary process of how civilization arrived at morals. Religion is what centuries of trial and error has produced. And tossing away religion would be equivalent to tossing Newton’s laws of motion and deciding that you’re going to start over with physics. Obviously that’s not what this guy thinks he’s suggesting. Newton’s laws are science, while religion is nothing but superstition he might sputter. Well it wasn’t science that proclaimed slavery wrong it was religion, and it wasn’t science that spelled the end of eugenics, it was judeo-christian morality. I could go on, but science has been on the wrong side of a lot of issues.
Given that and the lack of some universally recognized logical system of morality you have two choices. You can rely on God for morality or you can rely on culture for morality, but in both cases you’re relying on religion. You’re just arguing about the source of it. Atheists want to toss religion out the window with God. I don’t want to toss out either, and if atheists thought about it they wouldn’t want to throw out religion either. But when it comes down to it it’s strangely easier for atheists to get rid of religion than it is for them to get rid of the concept of God. Which takes me to my final point. Frequently when you read what atheists have written you find that they can’t help but introduce God into their works. I’m sure they don’t think of it that way, but I notice over and over again that they bring God into the picture but disagree on what God is. It’s as if they agree with the Ontological Argument and their only disagreement is what the supreme being is.
I first encountered this when reading the book Contact by Carl Sagan. Carl Sagan avoided the label atheist, but he was certainly agnostic, and many atheists point to him as a major inspiration, and he certainly didn’t believe in an afterlife. The book, Contact, has a section where the atheist hero humiliates a believer in an argument. This isn’t the only time he finds occasion to deride believers, in particular I remember his off-hand comment that the Mormons viewed the alien signal, the “contact”, as another message from the Angel Moroni. Now don’t get me wrong I actually liked Carl Sagan. I watched all the episodes of Cosmos, and read the accompanying book. I read Broca’s Brain and of course I read Contact. So what did Sagan include in Contact that set me off? At the end of the book, we discover that some aliens, more advanced even than the aliens we end up communicating with have encoded a message in the value of PI. If you can encode a message in PI you’re a god! So why does Sagan include this bit? Is it because he can’t help himself? Is it because he believes in a God (perhaps he’s a deist) but thinks he’s the only one to understand god’s true nature? If it were just Sagan I might think nothing of if.
But, in fact Sagan is not the only atheist who has made a comment like that. Richard Dawkins, widely regarded as the poster child for aggressive atheism said the following:
Whether we ever get to know them or not, there are very probably alien civilizations that are superhuman, to the point of being god-like in ways that exceed anything a theologian could possibly imagine.
This is a very interesting quote and it touches on something we’re going to spend a lot of time on in this space. But if he’s just admitted that there are god-like aliens out there why is he an atheist? Continuing the quote:
In what sense, then, would the most advanced SETI aliens not be gods? In what sense would they be superhuman but not supernatural? In a very important sense, which goes to the heart of this book. The crucial difference between gods and god-like extraterrestrials lies not in their properties but in their provenance. Entities that are complex enough to be intelligent are products of an evolutionary process. No matter how god-like they may seem when we encounter them, they didn't start that way.
Hmm… does that sound like any religion you might have heard of? This is in fact in all essential respects what Mormon’s believe. Does this mean that Dawkins is on the verge of converting? I very much doubt it. In other words both of these atheists can imagine the existence of God. They just can’t imagine that he behaves like the God that all those creepy religious people believe in.
My final example is from Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (HPMOR). It’s written by Eliezer Yudowsky who also self-identifies as an atheist, and is a major force on Lesswrong.com, the well known website of pure rationality. The book is Harry Potter fan-fiction. Meaning that Yudowsky takes the world of Harry Potter makes a few changes before retelling the story in his own fashion. In this case Harry is a relentless, I would say even say, Machiavellian rationalist, on top of being a poster child for humanism. He thinks of death as the ultimate evil. (See my last post on this topic.) Lest it be unclear, I actually thoroughly enjoyed HPMOR, and not just because of the really clever way he deals with the time travel from the original.
The interesting bit in the story comes when Harry has to summon a Patronus. As with the original, Patronuses become a major plot point in HPMOR. Initially Harry can’t summon a Patronus, and it’s only after he recognizes that the Dementors represent death (the ultimate evil in his view) that he is able to draw on the pure force of humanism and summon forth a Patronus who comes in the form of a being of pure white light, the avatar of humanism.
In a sense this is how we know that Harry’s beliefs are correct, because they’re confirmed in a supernatural manner when he summons, what is later called, the True Patronus. Yudowsky might argue with me calling it supernatural, but it’s hard to see how you could call it anything else. Harry’s belief is greater than anyone else’s, consequently he is the only person ever to be able to summon the True Patronus. Despite this it seems clear that this True Patronus has been there all along, an unchangeable source of truth external to humanity as a whole.
Once again we arrive with a situation similar to Dawkins where there are some bizarre parallels with Mormon Theology. In this case, Harry receives the confirmation of his beliefs in the forest, from a being of pure white light after overcoming a dark force which threatened to overwhelm him. Yes, you probably guessed correctly. There is a very strong resemblance between Harry’s experience and Joseph Smith’s First Vision. Yet again we’ve uncovered a budding Mormon among the ranks of the unbelievers.
After all of this where do we end up? I think the moral of the story is that pure atheism is more difficult than people expect. So difficult that God comes back into things the minute they start to really think deeply. As the examples show, once you dig into things enough running into the divine seems hard to avoid. It’s easy for atheists to paint believers as ignorant and superstitious, but it appears that despite all the progress that has been made, there’s more to the idea of God and the practice of Religion than they want to admit.