Archive for the ‘atheism’ Category

Meaning, suffering, idealism, atheism

November 19, 2012

We finish Philosophy Bites today in CoPhi with John Cottingham on the meaning of life, Stephen Law on the problem of suffering, Keith Ward on eastern idealism, and A.C. Grayling on atheism.

There’s a sequel, Philosophy Bites BackMaybe next year.

“What is the meaning of life? Does it, perhaps, have no meaning at all?” It may have no fixed, final, universal, or intrinsic meaning, but for an emergent and pluralistic species that’s no barrier to emergent meanings, in the plural. Why settle for just one, or even forty-two?  [MoL @dawn] But that’s not to say we can “create our own values,” a la Friedrich Nietzsche. “We have to find value within a given cosmos, a world that is not of our making.” Humility is called for, not arrogant “will to power.”

Cottingham on “Happiness, God, and the Meaning of Life”:

I do continue to think the Pythons pretty well nailed the answer to the meaning of life, if we take the question as asking how practically we should live:

Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.

I can confirm Cottingham’s statement about “meaning” in the largest sense being an embarrassing or illicit question amongst many professional academic philosophers. When I found the MoL course in Vandy’s catalog a few years ago it was dusty and moldering. I dusted it off and had a great semester with it. Last thing we read, as I recall, was Viktor Frankl on Man’s Search for Meaning. He rediscovered the wisdom of the Stoics, in the death camps. “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Is there a more profoundly human philosophical problem than how to live well, when life itself is tough and tenuous? And when is it not?

Evil or suffering is an existential problem for us all, but it’s a philosophical problem (or a logical one) for those who wish to assert the reconciliation of an omni-propertied God with the facts on the ground. [PoE/suffering @dawn] But let’s not get carried away in the opposite direction. “There’s just too much good stuff in the world”– like rainbows, laughter, sunshine, ice cream, Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, the Jupiter Symphony, Louis Armstrong— “for this to be plausibly the creation of a supremely powerful, supremely evil being.” Flipped either way, towards good OR evil, the idea of a Supreme Being becomes a joke. So “we should probably do without any gods at all.”

Speaking of “flip,” Bertrand Russell often was. But his rhetorical question about intelligent design is still devastating nonetheless, for the problem of evil and suffering: “Do you think that, if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years in which to perfect your world, you could produce nothing better than the Ku Klux Klan or the Fascists?”

And Simon Blackburn’s dorm analogy still hits close to home, even though they’ve leveled this one to make room for our new Science Building.

Law’s “evil god challenge,” and on Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked Into an Intellectual Black Hole:

“Is the ultimate nature of reality non-physical?” If kicking a stone won’t settle that question, it’s not clear why it should matter (pun partially intended) to most of us any more than it did to Dr. Johnson. But we might be more interested, today, in Keith Ward’s comments on atheists and why he’s not one anymore:

“Is belief in the existence of a God or gods the equivalent of believing that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden? Or can it be defended on the basis of reason or evidence?” Anthony Grayling says “the best and deepest thinking about ethics has come from non-religious traditions” that value reason and evidence over faith and fairies.

[atheism/Grayling @dawn… Meditations for the Humanist: Ethics for a Secular Age… The Good Book: A Humanist Bible]

In EEA we’re between texts, with Van Jones just behind us and the late Ernest Callenbach‘s Ecotopia just ahead. We wish. In the interim, we eagerly anticipate a visit with our esteemed university president Dr. Sidney McPhee, from whom we hope to get the green light on greening our campus. Stay tuned.

“Thank you Plato”

November 16, 2012

Thank you Shakespeare, thank you Jane Austen!

That’s what Alain de Botton imagines “religious atheists” exclaiming in “church,” instead of Thank you Jesus!

Well, no thank you. But it’s a good TED Talk anyway, a nice complement to Don Cupitt’s Jungian nonrealist God-talk (that we talked about yesterday in CoPhi). And, conveniently in time for the holidays and the latest “war on XMAS“!

Alain de Botton is of course a humanist, like Don Cupitt. “Commitment to co-humanity has become my religion,” says former Father Cupitt. Humanists aren’t in it for merely-personal salvation, they seek more and better life here and now. If you don’t believe in heaven or hell or god, as Edrell said in class yesterday, you’re going to want to make life on earth as beautiful as can be. It’ll never be “perfect” by Plato’s standards or even by ours, but surely we can make it better.

So on that note: please sign our petition. Thanks. “God” bless.


August 8, 2012

Two more provocative questions from Dale McGowan @MemingOfLife, researching a new book by soliciting the input of atheists.

I do still prefer humanist and naturalist, but in a world where some theists “cure cancer” with a kick in the teeth and others blame my worldview for enabling the sociopathy of murderers, the splitting of terminological hairs is an unaffordable luxury. So,

1. What was the first realization that got you questioning religious assumptions?

2. What was the biggest AHA! moment on your path to atheism?

Dale asked for tweet-length responses, so mine were:

1.  Belief mirrors locale: few S.Baptists abroad…

2.  I’m surrounded by unreflective S.Baptists!

My larger implicit observation is that unreflective people everywhere, not just around here, tend to embrace the tribal thinking at hand. Thinking about the contingencies of birth and geography got me past that hump, onto the “path” of freedom.

It freed me from the clutches of tent revivalists and bigots, for sure, though I admit I never encountered a teeth-kicker among them; but also from the more benign but misplaced intentions of the casually-but-unshakably religious midwesterners who sent me to Sunday School “for your own good.” Their interest in religion had as much to do with tribal identity as with metaphysics. Religious training was just part of my civics curriculum.

But I wanted to be a citizen of the planet and the cosmos, even (I think) before I heard Carl Sagan articulate that possibility. There were no cosmopolitan churches for freethought in our community then, not even Unitarians or Congregationalists.  One member of our congregation was marked as that exotic beast known as an “intellectual,” apparently because he read extensively (though not enough, evidently). My Dad, to his credit, expressed admiration for this man.

And so, to cut a longer story short, aha! A philosopher was born.

“Best Spiritual Writing 2012”

December 26, 2011

Spent some time yesterday with the latest annual installment of the alleged Best Spiritual Writing. The series  editor Philip Zaleski is a convert to Catholicism but usually fair-minded and ecumenical. Last year’s edition was introduced and selected by lapsed Catholic Billy Collins. This year it’s Philip Yancey, who casually tosses off this grating aside in his introduction: “The New Atheists do not strive for objectivity.”

Some do, some don’t. Same goes for many new theists.

But the real problem is not an absence of good will in search of demonstrable objectivity, by conscientious religionists, humanists, naturalists, theists, and atheists. They can search all they want without finding that.

No, the real problem is a failure of empathy and an appreciation for the subjectivity of those who experience the world differently. It’s James’s perennial blindness in human beings who insist on treating the spectrum of belief and nonbelief as a catalogue of others’ errors… except, of course, for one’s own privileged experiences and inerrant beliefs.

Zaleski again has issued a volume focused provocatively on “original thought, fluent expression, and vivid personal experiences” that bring light to many subjective corners. For that I can tolerate his and his guest editors’ occasional grating asides, and maybe even begin to understand something of the sensibilities behind them.

Eric Weiner seeks God and open minds

December 12, 2011

Thanks to the magic of Kindle I found time this weekend for Eric Weiner’s newest travelogue, Man Seeks God. Downloaded a free sample of the first chapter, then (through the magic of Twitter) was able to tell him what I thought of it.

@Eric_Weiner Atheists aren’t “certain,” agnostics aren’t smug & indifferent. But like your 1st chapter anyway (& loved “Geography of Bliss”)

He then told me what he thought of what I thought.

@OSOPHER fair enough. Thanks for the open mind.

And, he told the rest of the Twitterverse he was

Heartened by the many positive responses to my NYT piece today, calling for a new way to talk about religion.

But also

Surprised by the many nasty responses to my NYT piece calling for less nastiness when it comes to how we talk about religion.

The book’s epigraph from Miguel de Unamuno mirrors one of my favorite cryptic James quotes, which contends that religion would still be among our “most important functions” even if all its doctrines and dogmas turned out to be patently absurd.

Faith is indeed quixotic. It is absurd. Let us admit it. Let us concede everything!

Concessions bring out the nastiness in some, but I look forward to reading the rest of the book in the same spirit of tolerant exploration in which it was written. It’ll be a good set-up for the Atheism class, set to begin in exactly one month.

ethics and the religion of humanity

November 1, 2011

November? How’d it get to be November already? October really flies when you’re in the World Series.

But it’s time to turn the page and think ahead. Not too far ahead, Spring Training doesn’t start for another three and a half months. Since weaning myself from football, on ethical grounds, I’m down to one spectator sport. (I like basketball well enough, I just don’t like being indoors.)  In theory that should mean more time and attention for reality.

Reality. What a concept.

Yesterday I turned my attention to next semester and the reprised Atheism & Philosophy course we begin in January. Two years ago it was Atheism & Spirituality. This time the focus is on ethics, and an attempt to think through William James’s claim in “Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” that we can be good (or bad, or indifferent) without any external support.

Whether a God exist, or whether no God exist… we form at any rate an ethical republic here below. And the first reflection which this leads to is that ethics have as genuine and real a foothold in a universe where the highest consciousness is human, as in a universe where there is a God as well. “The religion of humanity” affords a basis for ethics as well as theism does.

That rings so true to me that I’ve never really challenged it. Dostoevsky was just wrong, I’ve insisted: if a God doesn’t exist there are still plenty of things not “permitted.” Sartre was wrong too: you don’t have to embody a God-given essence in order to exist as an ethically-bound individual, and community standards are not arbitrary for being sui generis. We are social animals, we possess a capacity for compassion and mutual concern, our goodness (and badness and indifference) are natural. This I believe.

But it’s not enough merely to believe, if you call yourself a philosopher. So we’ll see. Should be a good course.

Now, though, back to present reality. We’re taking a breather in SOL, if you can call an exam that, but will get back shortly to JMH and her “Bodies” chapters. “You are not in your body. You are your body.” That’s why my morning coffee can pack such an existential punch, and that about wraps it up for Cartesian dualism. Right?

Now that’s a “reality” question. But, did you catch Letterman and Leno last night?

One more thing: how about novel writing as sport? Or endurance test? It’s time for NaNoWriMo

“What if there’s no Hell?”

May 18, 2011

Went for my annual check-up yesterday. No bad news, and in this season of life that’s good. Even better were the results of the “Partners for Health” questionnaire they made me fill out, with its implication that my exercise habit– the mere fact that I have a “weekly” habit of  exercise at all– places me in the upper tier of Americans. Large numbers of us apparently never exercise, and never intend to. The fact that I do it as much for soul as for body makes the health benefit a bonus. I don’t even call it exercise, I just call it walking and breathing. Living.

By “soul,” of course, I mean nothing metaphysically distinct from body and nothing eligible for either eternal life or torment. That also places me in a statistically shrunken category, apparently, in the U.S.A.

Last month’s “Hell” feature in Time greeted me in the doctor’s exam room. “What if there’s no Hell?” What a question. What if there’s no Easter Bunny?

Adults who take such questions seriously began, typically, as children who were encouraged to fear for their souls. (“If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take” etc.) Some of them then eventually show up in my classes, insisting on many of their peers’ impending eternal doom (and mine, obviously). So sad, to have been “nurtured” by trusted adults to build one’s life on baseless fear and self-loathing. More than sad, it’s abusive. It’s wrong. It has me thinking again of Dale McGowan’s Raising Freethinkers and the “meming of life“…

“Humanists believe in life before death”

April 22, 2011

“What’s the difference between a Humanist and a New Atheist?”

That question came up in class the other day. I suggested the opening line of the Humanist Manifesto, as a beginning:

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

Here’s another good source: Greg Epstein’s Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do BelieveEpstein mentions an impressive roster of Humanists including Thomas Jefferson, John Lennon, Churchill, Sartre, Voltaire, Hume, Rushdie, Confucius, Vonnegut, Twain, Bil Gates, Warren Buffett, Darwin, & Einstein. Humanism is the fourth largest “lifestance” in the world today, nestling just behind Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism… and without really trying. Epstein writes:

We humanists take one look at a world in which the lives of thousands of innocent children are ripped away every year by hurricanes, earthquakes, and other “acts of God,” not to mention the thousand other fundamental injustices of life, and we conclude that if the universe we live in does not have competent moral management, then so be it: we must become the superintendents of our own lives. Humanism means taking charge of the often lousy world around us and working to shape it into a better place…

Humanists believe in life before death.

Amen. Most so-called New Atheists believe all that too, they just don’t say it enough. They should spend at least as much time and energy articulating their affinities as their aversions, and should be as clear about their own good intentions.

Anthony Grayling has taken a stab at that with his new Good Book: A Humanist Bible, “a powerful secular alternative to the Bible.”

The Good Book consciously takes its design and presentation from the Bible, in its beauty of language and arrangement into short chapters and verses for ease of reading and quotability, offering to the non-religious seeker all the wisdom, insight, solace, inspiration, and perspective of secular humanist traditions that are older, far richer and more various than Christianity. Organized in 12 main sections—-Genesis, Histories, Widsom, The Sages, Parables, Consolations, Lamentations, Proverbs, Songs, Epistles, Acts, and the Good—-The Good Book opens with meditations on the origin and progress of the world and human life in it, then devotes attention to the question of how life should be lived, how we relate to one another, and how vicissitudes are to be faced and joys appreciated. Incorporating the writing of Herodotus and Lucretius, Confucius and Mencius, Seneca and Cicero, Montaigne, Bacon…

And so the next rendition of my Atheism class begins to resolve itself. Last time the theme was “Atheism and Spirituality.” Next, it’ll be “Atheism and Ethics.” Stay tuned.

And happy Earth Day!

force for good?

December 21, 2010

Happy Solstice!

My independent study student has been wrestling with what I’ve come to think of (at Rebecca Goldstein’s instigation in 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction) as the “atheist with a soul” challenge. I wrestle with it too.

The challenge, put succinctly, is to decide whether non-believers ought to concede the rational right of believers to believe. Goldstein draws heavily on William James’s famous essay “Will to Believe,” in which James rejects the standard of W.K. Clifford that it’s always wrong to believe anything on “insufficient evidence.” (That has to be scare-quoted, because the question of what constitutes sufficiency is itself a point of serious contention here.)

James may go too far in his defense of “belief,” and I’m personally very sympathetic in my own habits of belief-formation to the Clifford line. It’s finally a question, though, of how humbly ecumenical and “friendly” an atheist should be towards theists.

James said this debate is not mostly about God. Most of what humans have said and thought about God may even be “absurd” without tarnishing the religious impulse. It’s about life.
It’s about individuals coming to terms with their existence, and finding ways of living constructive, engaged lives.
With the semester at last concluded, I finally got around to watching the Hitchens-Blair debate in Toronto last month. Of course Hitch wiped the floor, forensically speaking, with his Right Honourable opponent.  But…
Blair’s humility and solicitude on behalf of those whose lives have been enriched by their peculiar personal religiosity still rings true to me. Or rather, not “true” but somehow “right.”
Yes, much harm has been done historically, hysterically, in the name of religion. Much harm has been done, period. I wish everyone found, in our shared natural and humanistic legacy, the sufficient ground for good that I and my fellow humanists find.
But when we come across good people doing good work and crediting faith with supplying their fuel, let’s look pragmatically to the fruits – not the roots. And let’s keep encouraging them to consider the inspiration under our feet,  in the stars, in the natural universe.
That said, though, I have to say too: Damn! Hitch is magnificent.

cosmic connection

September 27, 2010

Time for our last Clock of the Long Now installment. (Next up: What Will Change Everything?)

The clock’s progenitor Danny Hillis hasn’t been letting time stand still. Lately he’s been concerned with developments in cancer research and proteomics. A good reminder that long-term thinking is no substitute for problem-solving in the present.

The present. What else do we have? The past is dead, the future’s not yet living. Right? Not quite. Past and future are virtually alive in us, for those of us who think there’s something in them we can use. Something we must respond to, and connect with.

Like ancient footprints.  When we walk a mile in their ash we extend their range and deepen our connection to cosmic time, “ancient and vast.” We speak for the earth of things.

We humans have set foot on another world in a place called the Sea of Tranquility, an astonishing achievement for creatures such as we, whose earliest footsteps three and one-half million years old are preserved in the volcanic ash of east Africa. We have walked far.

It’s important to recall and retain the past. George Santayana‘s famous “01905” warning about the hazards of forgetting is still right, though  overquoted. Churchill was right too, to lump the reading and writing of history with its creation.

I’m with Brand on this point: if we wait to solve our planet’s problems before looking beyond it & them (as ’60s environmentalists used to urge), we’ll never look again. And we’ll probably never solve them, either. Boldly going shouldn’t mean giving up on the homeworld. Not going, though, just might.

We can learn from those traditional native Americans who defined “now” as seven generations in each direction: 175 years. That may not be now enough, but it’s way better than the CNN news cycle.

So should we be packing for Mars, then? Maybe. But is it really true that “we can’t undo our power” – or at least temporize our will to power? We’d better, if we’re coming in peace for all humankind.

And is it true that “better technology and more affluence leads to less environmental harm”? Is the burgeoning infosphere really no threat to the biosphere?

As for nanotech: we do need to hear more about the potential good effects. Gray goo is a real downer.

Inconvenient Truth wasn’t the first to publicize Keeling and Revelle’s long-term studies of global warming. But Stewart Brand is not nearly so charismatic a speaker as Al Gore.

I definitely vote for more time-lapse film, to stretch the frame of the present. And for more slow art. That’s one way to frame the clock project: a big “Hi there” from us to whomever. But I still think the clock should be useful from the moment it begins to run. The ADD of our time is getting worse with every new gadget rollout, and “looking to the mountain” may be good medicine. (And more solid indigenous wisdom.)

Brand asks a question we all ought to ask ourselves: “Reader, what was the occasion of your longest view?” I’m thinking…

He also notes the “sudden overwhelm in the last seconds” of spiking population. Is that problem on your radar?

How about the institutional relevance of universities, in transmitting an intellectual heritage to the “ever-new  generations passing through”? Does Lt. Gov. Ramsey get that, do you think?

“The long view looks right through death.” The trans-end-dance, again. Do you know the steps? Have you read your Plato Papers? Or do you take false comfort from the paradoxical Zeno, “always never more than halfway to death”? Will technology buy us some kairos-time? If we start living much longer lives, will we be that much more responsible? Will we think like John Adams, freeing our “sons” for philosphy and poetry? Would you be disappointed to think that your great-great…grandchildren may share none of your interest in the meaning of life? Would you still want to keep their options open?

I hope you would. We’re playing an infinite game here, and though the main point of such games is not to win, losing would be very sad. Forget about waiting ’til next year.

As for the clock: I’m with that tough old rancher. “Why not?” Who knows? It just might change everything.


On an unrelated matter: will the real John Shook please stand up? He has atheists all riled up with his Huffington Post essay (“For Atheists and Believers, Ignorance Is No Excuse”) calling out strident Know Nothing (about theology) atheists. But his latest Center For Inquiry post (“God Fails a Simple Rationality Test”) will strike some as plenty strident.

I know John, have dined pleasantly with him, and know him to be a straight shooter who more often than not targets Know Nothing theists. (He did it again in August at the James centenary symposium, at my “Will to Believe” session in New Hampshire.) His larger point, I’m sure, is that there’s ignorance and smugness all around. We should decry it all. He’s right.