Contradictions Of A Well-Meaning Atheist

Following on from the school shootings in America recently, a woman named Susan Jacoby wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times.  As I am not a reader of the NY Times, I became aware of this article through a friend who is now an atheist but used to be a Christian.

What is on display in the article is the total lack of compelling arguments, genuine empathy and the presence of utter confusion.  You can read the whole article here.  I will quote some of it now with a little commentary thrown in.

“IN a recent conversation with a fellow journalist, I voiced my exasperation at the endless talk about faith in God as the only consolation for those devastated by the unfathomable murders in Newtown, Conn. Some of those grieving parents surely believe, as I do, that this is our one and only life. Atheists cannot find solace in the idea that dead children are now angels in heaven. “That only shows the limits of atheism,” my colleague replied. “It’s all about nonbelief and has nothing to offer when people are suffering.””

Her colleague is right!

Contradiction and confusion show up nearly right away though.  If this is genuinely our only life and there is no afterlife then why should we grieve when someone dies?  As an atheist, Ms. Jacoby must subscribe to evolution as an explanation of how people came to be here.  Evolution, taken logically, does not make a lot of time for grief.  Rather than grieving, the survivors should get on with making more babies in order to ensure the passage of their DNA onwards.  Skip the funeral and go get in the bed!  That is more true to the logic of evolution and is much closer to what can be observed in animals.

Why do atheists worry about finding solace?  Because it is precisely here that atheism rings most hollow.  When parents lose a child the most unthinkable thought is that the child is totally gone, forever.  Parents, and other people, naturally think the child must live on in some way.  Happily, this is indeed the case!  Ms. Jacoby feels the frustration of the atheistic viewpoint right here because this is its weakest point.  Empathy with human emotions and feelings is not found in atheism because atheism relies on evolution.  Evolution is blind to the wants and needs of any individual’s feelings.

“Now when students ask how I came to believe what I believe, I tell them that I trace my atheism to my first encounter, at age 7, with the scourge of polio. In 1952, a 9-year-old friend was stricken by the disease and clinging to life in an iron lung. After visiting him in the hospital, I asked my mother, “Why would God do that to a little boy?” She sighed in a way that telegraphed her lack of conviction and said: “I don’t know. The priest would say God must have his reasons, but I don’t know what they could be.””

Hopefully the priest could do far, far better than her mother!  If someone’s rejection of God springs only from the bitterness of suffering then their understanding of the Christian worldview and message has been severely limited.  Of course, at age seven, Ms. Jacoby can be forgiven for not understanding the bigger story of sin, death, redemption and restoration.  Surely her mother could have done better though?

If you struggle with this question, have a look at these articles for some answers:

God Why Is There Suffering?

God Why Are There Illnesses Like Cancer?

God How Can I Have My Sister Back?

God Why Is The World So Poor And Messed Up?

“IT is primarily in the face of suffering, whether the tragedy is individual or collective, that I am forcefully reminded of what atheism has to offer. When I try to help a loved one losing his mind to Alzheimer’s, when I see homeless people shivering in the wake of a deadly storm, when the news media bring me almost obscenely close to the raw grief of bereft parents, I do not have to ask, as all people of faith must, why an all-powerful, all-good God allows such things to happen.”

Here is were atheists lose their empathy.  You see, in the face of all of these kinds of tragedies, one can naively say “I don’t care why and I’m glad I don’t even have to ask the question.”  However, what you will find is this is the question people want to have answered.  People are desperate to know why things happen – especially tragic things.

As part of our church’s outreach we meet people on the street and invite them to ask us a question they would ask God.  Roughly one in three questions we receive is some variation of “Why is there suffering?”  For Ms. Jacoby to insist that she is truly empathetic while ignoring such a fundamental and common question is either blindly naive or intentionally deceptive.

“The atheist is free to concentrate on the fate of this world — whether that means visiting a friend in a hospital or advocating for tougher gun control laws — without trying to square things with an unseen overlord in the next. Atheists do not want to deny religious believers the comfort of their faith. We do want our fellow citizens to respect our deeply held conviction that the absence of an afterlife lends a greater, not a lesser, moral importance to our actions on earth.”

Can you see the next blaring contradiction?  If someone is an atheist then the fate of this world is a known thing and it cannot be altered.  Everyone will die, no one will live forever and eventually the whole planet will be obliterated in some catastrophe or swallowed up by the Sun.  To speak of the fate of the world is to talk as if the world has a purpose and a goal towards which it is moving.  Yet this is nonsense within the atheistic worldview.

The final sentence is also a poorly constructed contradiction.  In what possible way could the absence of an afterlife – and thus a moment of ultimate judgement by a totally Just and Fair Judge – lend a greater moral importance to our actions on earth?

What do we make of the shooter who killed twenty children, six adults – including his own mother – and wounded two more people?  At some level, he was doing what he wanted to do, strange though that sounds to the rest of us.  If he is now dead and totally gone then how can any of these families feel any sense of justice for what has happened to their loved ones?  Why should any person, given atheism, not feel as if they could do a similar thing?

Within the Christian view, justice for Adam Lanza will come when he stands before God.  Without presuming upon God’s judgement, I think the punishment for Adam Lanza will be the justice for his crimes.

The atheist has no such concept of justice and judgement.  Rather, their morality is based solely upon how an individual determines what is right and what is wrong.  Sure, some will argue that society determines this.  However, relative morality is not acceptable to most people and is not livable by anyone.  This is where the atheist runs into confusion, contradiction and loses any real chance at empathy.

I should wrap up before I write my own book.  Ms. Jacoby undoubtedly means well.  Yet her worldview does not allow her to offer cogent answers to the questions people really want to ask.  She cannot explain why someone like Adam Lanza commits such a horrible crime.  She cannot offer the families any genuine hope for something better.  At best all she can offer is a replacement for their lost child, mother, sister, brother, father, son or friend.

What would I say at a funeral?  Have a look:

Good News At A Funeral

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14 thoughts on “Contradictions Of A Well-Meaning Atheist

Add yours

  1. I am sure you’re sincere, but you are wrong. Ultimately, yes, the universe will become entirely uninhabitable and we all will be dead. But that doesn’t devalue the opportunities and the experience we can have in our life. You misunderstand the implications of evolution, grief and other aspects of evolutionary psychology. I suspect you’ve confused an evolutionary origin with the depth of actual experience.
    I invite you over to my blog so you can see what I have already written about why sin entering the world simply doesn’t answer the question (I can offer links if you like).
    I assume you can see the difference between the questions “Why would God do this?” and “what uncaring process has lead to this?” and “What have people done for this to happen?”. If you ask the first question, you miss any opportunity to help fix a problem.

    Lastly, a quick lesson in economics: if the supply of a commodity is very low, that makes the commodity very valuable; if the supply of a commodity is very high, that makes it less valuable. If life is infinite it is devalued, if it is finite it is given more value.

    1. I am always happy to read opposing viewpoints so please feel free to post a link to your blog.

      Despite being accused often of not understanding evolution and its implications, I think I grasp it fairly well. In your reply, after stopping by to offer polite insults, you have failed to offer any valid criticism. Please demonstrate why I have failed to understand these things or offer some proof of my misunderstanding.

      To be specific about the problems with your reply, I should make a couple of points.

      First, sound Christians with a good grasp of the truth in the Bible are not asking “Why would God do this?” as we already have an answer. God did not do this and to claim He did is wrong. A person did this. Christians who understand the true mess in the world are nearly always among the first to help. Rather than missing opportunities to help fix problems, Christians have consistently led the way in addressing society’s gravest problems such as infanticide, slavery, human rights abuses and education.

      Your quick lesson in economics is not really valid. The principle of supply and demand is obvious. However, its application here is not valid nor is it always valid universally. For example, consider water. The supply of water is nearly infinitely renewable on the planet while the supply of petrol is not. So why does water often cost more than petrol? Think Evian bottled water… The difference is in the process by which it is produced and in the value the people who are buying it give to it.

      So please, before trying to help me understand more, demonstrate your understanding of my position and whatever you think its fallacies are.

      1. I don’t mean to be argumentative or accusing. But your post is attempting to tell me what my world view should be.
        I’m sure you have a reasonable understanding of evolution, but if you think it -must- produce selfish individuals then your understanding is incomplete. Social and societal creatures evolve as a community. Altruism and selflessness are a part of that. There are plenty of places on the internet where the evolutionary origin or morality and evolutionary psychology are explained. If you want to understand evolution more wholly, then this is something you need to research.
        I don’t what it means to be an omnipotent, loving God that doesn’t stop horrible things. I don’t understand what it means to be ‘just’ and still allow everyone to be mortally punished for the non-criminal actions of another long-lost relative. To say that we, in some way, deserve the child-rape and the suffering and the pain and the horror evident in this world is abhorrent. And why would we deserve it? Because someone ate fruit from the wrong tree. Else, we don’t deserve it and it is not just to let us endure it. Else, we occupy an world without the justice of a creator.
        What is the point of eternal life? It’s the opportunity to enjoy yourself and to be happy, isn’t it? Wellbeing is the very thing that is worthwhile. We know that’s true, according to both of us, because an eternal life in Hell would not be worthwhile. The whole point of Heaven is to safeguard your wellbeing forever.
        Well, actually, if I can’t safeguard my wellbeing forever (which I believe I can’t) this is my opportunity to experience it. This is when it’s worth something. And it is worth more to me because it will be over in 100 years than it is to you, who believes they can have it forever…

        The contradictions you see are borne out of the fact that you think you know how atheists should feel. You are Nietzsche’s Mad Man–just with the comfort-blanket-God not dead. And that’s terrifying, because if one day you (or someone like you) stop believing then there is nothing stopping you becoming a murderer like the guy that shot-up a school in Newtown, Connecticut.
        This conversation could go on forever, it is a broad topic. But here is some related reading from my blog:

        http://allallt.wordpress.com/2012/12/18/i-am-born-drowning

        http://allallt.wordpress.com/2012/12/23/getting-meaning-from-atheism

        http://allallt.wordpress.com/2012/12/20/on-heaven-and-objective-purpose

        http://allallt.wordpress.com/2012/12/18/could-god-stop-human-caused-suffering

        http://allallt.wordpress.com/2012/12/15/epicurus-and-the-problem-of-evil/

        (This one is related to the morality thing. I just wanted to point that there is a different between the origin of a thing the the experiential value of it) http://allallt.wordpress.com/2012/11/27/what-is-love/

        I appreciate that is a lot of reading, but I hope you enjoy it.

  2. I agree with the basic analysis here.
    As much as I understand why those who have no belief in God would want to find comfort in any way they can, it does seem a rather bleak view once one follows the logic of it.

    In fact, that was what led me to seriously consider belief in God quite a few years ago.

    Thank you for the thoughts.

      1. I’ve been a Christian since then (In fact, I’ve been discussing some of my reasons for being on my own blog).

        In any case, I’ll take a look around at your other posts.

  3. Ok, firstly, maybe your friend isn’t ‘an athiest but used to be a Christian’ … maybe you friend is a post-theistic post-christian (which is very different to ex-) Bright http://the-brights.net (this may or may not include atheism, agnosticism, desim etc. etc.(I am BTW an atheist – but that’s the least important bit))

    Onto the article itself … (which is about what atheism can offer BTW, not about the recent shootings) I don’t know what you claim that Susan lacks genuine empathy, you may argue that she lacks genuine concern, but it’s enacting the judgement reserved in your worldview for God and in my worldview for the individual his/herself to say that the speaker lacks genuine empathy. but that’s beside the main issues.

    Rather than pointing out contradictions in the article what you actually do is point out a lack of appreciation with regards to what atheism actually is.

    You talk about how atheism relies on evolution – however, atheism does not rely on evolution, There were atheist long before the knowledge of evolution came to the fore, and vice versa evolution does not rely on atheism, there are many theists who have acknowledged the discovered facts of evolution – so lets’s put that one to bed there.

    Now, looking at evolution itself, you suggest what you think may be the necessary response to the deplorable events as cause loss for someone who acknowledges evolution (you mention jumping back into bed) in this instance you have lacked appreciation for what evolution is – evolution is a process which we have managed to discover is happening, it is not a philosophy of life and does not determine behaviour except in the the case of a certain Roman Catholic believer known as Hitler (and others who may wish to follow his example.) So the connection of evolution with the the philosophy of morality for atheists is way off course, especially as most atheists are humanists.

    You also ask ‘Why do atheists worry about finding solace?’ Which is weird, have you forgotten that atheist’s are animals & humans – both of which enjoy solace?

    You also suggest that Susan’s atheism is based solely on ‘the bitterness of suffering’ but she actually communicates is that suffering was the gate for her questioning. That’s all. Your hermeneutic of her article states much more hat she writes.

    You decry meaning within the atheistic worldview . Why? Of course there is meaning, we create the meaning, it’s actually more meaningful, it’s our meaning, not a deity’s meaning.

    Finally (I don’t want to go on&on, I don’t think I’ll have an audience for it here) you state that the atheists sense of morality is based on individual sense, you acknowledge society may be stated by some, and then you decry relative morality. Secular morality is actually BTW far from relative, We do not have religious texts on which we base our lived (we do have the religious texts, the same texts you have, but we don’t base our lives on them) to give multiple interpretations to, rather we have methods of determining morality (which isn’t full-proof, there is interpretation here also, but at least we have a method, the religious morality is based simply on what you FEEL the text is saying) see Sam Harris ‘The Moral Landscape’ for further enlightenment.

    oh, & lastly you say “The final sentence is also a poorly constructed contradiction. In what possible way could the absence of an afterlife – and thus a moment of ultimate judgement by a totally Just and Fair Judge – lend a greater moral importance to our actions on earth?”

    well, becuase we perceive that the only heaven will be the one we create here, so we’d like to try to build it please. Wanna build it with us?

    1. Here are only more contradictions.

      I think I understand precisely what atheism is. Atheism is a belief in the lack of a God. Atheism, as defined by dictionary.com, is “the doctrine or belief that there is no God.” A second definition is “disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings.” I have heard you before try to spin atheism into some kind of soft agnosticism but this is simply not the case. Atheism is not a negation of belief but a belief in a specific way of looking at the world. This way of looking at the world excludes anything which is not part of the natural universe.

      Of course, it is very easy to say that atheism does not rely on evolution. This might be true. So, please go ahead and explain to me the origin of the universe and life without resorting to either a Supreme Being or to the theories of the Big Bang and Evolution. Without a Being external to the universe, all that is left is to find the explanation for the creation of the universe, and life inside of it, within the universe itself. I do not approve of either the Big Bang or Evolution but they do seem to be the only naturalistic explanations on offer.

      Evolution is most certainly not a process which we have managed to discover is happening. Evolution – and by this I mean the whole idea of primordial soup to speaking primates – is not something which has ever been observed. In fact, the opposite is true. Observations of data consistently point in the opposite direction. As an example, consider the post I wrote a few days ago querying the lack of people. Or look up some more information at creation.com.

      To claim that evolution does not determine behavior is to go against the actual teaching of evolution. Evolution has, as its core driver, the desire of every organism to propagate its genes and so to produce offspring. Surely this is a determined behavior?

      Again, to claim Hitler was any kind of Christian is simply disregarding Hitler himself. Please read http://www.bede.org.uk/hitler.htm for a more thorough explanation.

      Having a method to produce a morality makes this morality totally subjective. A method does not guarantee a good morality. Rather, if all morality is relative then on what basis does Susan Jacoby condemn this murderer? He also had a process which produced his moral values which allowed him to kill these people. Sam Harris has been roundly refuted by both William Lane Craig and by Ravi Zacharias. Ravi’s refutation, in the form of the book “The End Of Reason” is particularly good.

      Within Ravi’s refutation of Sam Harris the problem with your last sentence is fully exposed. When atheists have been in power and tried to construct their heaven here the result has been Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot. The result is Richard Dawkins making the absurd claim that raising a child as a Roman Catholic is worse than child abuse. These are the absurdities of atheistic morality.

  4. OK, let’s narrow this down and deal directly with the main points of contention which have arisen in our conversation … atheism, evolution and morality.

    Atheism – you say atheism is “a belief in the lack of a God” when it is in-fact simply a label meaning without-gods. That’s it. One may be without a god due to admission of agnosticism (the inability to scientifically verify) the existence of a supernatural being, or thee may be without gods because one mistakenly believes that you know for a fact that there are no gods. However, you go on to say “Atheism is not a negation of belief but a belief in a specific way of looking at the world. This way of looking at the world excludes anything which is not part of the natural universe.” This is a point which I have partially argued before, we are in partial agreement here, but only in the sense that this is the pop-culture definition of atheism (not the technical definition) and reason that I disagree with Sam Harris when he argues that we should dispel with the label. in common parlance ‘atheist’ has become synonymous with ‘secular humanist’ and we humanists should embrace that (it’s better that Bright to be honest) However, atheism does not exclude anything not part of the natural sphere, it simply denies that anything not part of the natural sphere can be known (as a fact that is)

    Evolution – I don’t really need to go into too much detail here. You appear to think that when one acknowledges that evolutionary processes are a fact that one is then a slave to those processes. We have discovered the fact of evolution, we have discovered that this is how life developed (you are mistaken when you think evolution has anything to say about how life began, that’s abiogenesis, we can discuss that separately if you wish) Here’s the beauty, evolution and the processes of natural selection have caused us to develop to a level where we can subvert the natural processes of evolution itself. WOW! (A side note on Hitler, he can be found to make pro-Christian comments and anti-Christian comments, I have discussed this much before in other venues, and the fact remains that the RC Church was a chosen and co-operative (at the highest levels) vehicle for Hitler; so ‘believer’ remains in regard to Hitler, but we’ll put it in inverted comas as I accept that Hitler was no real Roman Catholic beleiver in the purest sense, but he was a real religious person that is for sure. Hitler believed in religion!) Your denial of the discovered facts of evolution means that you think that 98% of the scientific community is in denial and telling itself that evolution is true despite the fact that they know it’s not, you’re a conspiracy theorist, and that’s usually not a good position to work from according to how conspiracy theories traditionally ends.

    Morality- your statement on morality above rejects the position of having method on morality without investigating what the method is. Please actually read Sam Harris ‘The Moral Landscape’ for a humanistic methodology of morality. As secular humanists (or religious humanists, I personally bridge the gap between those 2 varieties of humanist, more on that some other time maybe) morality is primarily based on reducing suffering, the methodology works towards increasing happiness. We can go into this further separately if you wish, BUT religious morality on the other hand is about sticking to traditional attitudes, whether or not those attitudes decrease or increase suffering (see the traditional religious perspective on gay marriage) … and that is the glaring difference – that glaring difference is in itself the Bright elevation of naturalistic morality (somewhat similar to core Buddhist morality you will note – and with much affinity to Quakeristic tendencies) – ASIDE: Stalin & Paul Pot did not base their decisions on atheism, they did not base their decisions on what they did not believe, they based their decisions on what they did believe. They may have been atheists, but they were not humanists (or Buddhists for that matter) … they were otherwise (and corruptly) ideologically inclined, and there’s your problem, not their atheism.

    1. Great! We seem to agree on something! It seems as if we agree that atheists believe there is no God. Well, maybe you would not like it phrased this way. Yet this is precisely the point. Someone who lives as if there is no God views the world in a specific way. They think – they are forced to think by this one assumption – that nothing exists outside the natural sphere. You try to soften this somehow by stating that nothing outside the natural sphere can be known. Yet this is a problem. What if something existed outside of the natural sphere? What would the atheist say about such a thing? If it made its presence known in some way then how could the atheist explain its existence? The atheist, believing in the absence of a God, also rejects the existence of anything outside of the physical universe. Why is this so difficult for you to accept?

      You say, “We have discovered the fact of evolution, we have discovered that this is how life began…” Nothing could be further from the truth. Well, perhaps that is a slight exaggeration – any number of things could be even more ridiculous. Still, the fact remains that evolution is an unproven theory. It is not a scientifically established fact regardless of how many times people want to claim that it is. It has not been observed, it has not been repeated and it has certainly not been replicated. These are the things which would establish it as a fact. Evolution has not been established as a fact. Actually, I think observable data points in a totally different direction, as I pointed out in a recent post. To read more about this from a proper scientist, have a look at http://creation.com/prize-winning-professor-rejects-evolution#r2 So I am not a conspiracy theorist. I do not think your 98% figure is accurate nor do I think the slur promotes the discussion.

      Your paragraph on morality is simply echoing Sam Harris and other humanists. The position is hopelessly bankrupt. The question which reveals its poverty is simple:

      From whence comes your definition of suffering?

      I have heard Harris speak and find his logic illogical and his rhetoric rude. He talks about grounding morality in the pursuit of the greatest possible good for the greatest number of people. This borrows an idea of good without ever working out why this ‘good’ should be good in the first place. A quote from Ravi Zacharias will show the real repugnance of the idea:

      “In a recent interview Bethany Saltman suggested that Harris may have gone too far in some of the things he has said. But [Sam Harris] responded by saying that if he had a magic wand with which to eradicate either religion or rape, he wold choose to eradicate religion.” (From “End Of Reason” by Ravi Zacharias, p. 15-16)

      What is readily apparent is that something is wrong with Sam Harris’ moral compass. We should not believe the pronouncements about morality by someone whose own views are this confused. The equation is simple. Religion has sometimes done harm. Rape has always done harm. Which is worse? Surely it is rape.

      If a humanistic method of morality brings someone to this point then I think it should be roundly rejected.

  5. Josh … I’m first and foremost a campaigner for honesty, so please do not presume to tell me what I actually think or feel – I will at all times be 100% truthful and do not avoid my personal truths in the name of point scoring. That’s in response to statements such as this “Someone who lives as if there is no God views the world in a specific way. They think – they are forced to think by this one assumption – that nothing exists outside the natural sphere.”

    You: “Great! We seem to agree on something! It seems as if we agree that atheists believe there is no God” Response: Not exactly, atheists do not believe that there is a god. We, (well I, I’ll speak for me) don’t actively believe that there isn’t god, I just don’t believe that there is a god based on current evidences and reasoning (not in the traditional theistic sense anyway, we can do all sorts when we get on my poetical side). This actually does not force one to think that there is nothing outside the natural sphere because the atheism arises secondly to becoming a naturalist, not before it (for me anyway) I am atheistic because I’m a naturalist, not the other way around, I chose to accept only that which I found evidence for as that’s the only way to be sure of truth (and acknowledging those areas on which there is no surety instead of bridging doubt with faith, it’s a choice I made) – and this does not mean that I know there is no god, it means that I have no way of knowing (as fact) because the supernatural cannot be verified from within the natural realm, so whether there is or isn’t a supernatural cannot currently be known, This is atheistic agnosticism. Atheistic (because I live without a belief in god) Agnosticism (because I cannot know whether or not there is a god) when we get on the poetical side this transforms into ignosticism 😉

    You can observe the stages of evolution if you head to the Natural History Museum. Go see the fossils, go see the skulls – seriously, go look for yourself. You can read Dawkin’s best work ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ (that’s the stuff Dawkins’ should stick to, his pseudo-philosophical texts are like undergraduate papers) Please see this quote from Wikipedia “A 2009 poll by Pew Research Center found that “Nearly all scientists (97%) say humans and other living things have evolved over time – 87% say evolution is due to natural processes, such as natural selection. The dominant position among scientists – that living things have evolved due to natural processes – is shared by only about third (32%) of the public.” and this one from an earlier study “A 1991 Gallup poll of Americans found that about 5% of scientists (including those with training outside biology) identified themselves as creationists.” And please see the article itself at the following link for info on the levels of acceptance of evolution amongst Religions. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Level_of_support_for_evolution). Aside form the evidence the methods of discovery of evolution says a lot for itself. the discovery of evolution is the result of peer-review science, and peer review science has proven itself to be reliably honest. See the Piltdown Man fraud, this guy synthetically created an evidence for evolution, and the evolutionary scientists themselves exposed his evidence as a fraud. That’s peer review science in action. That’s why you can relax and stop worrying about that conspiracy theory, because I’m sorry, if you think that over 90% of the scientific establishment are wrong then you have to believe that they are intentionally misleading us because peer review filters needs to approve research, and peer review has intentionally approved misleadings- then that’s a conspiracy.

    Now morality, BTW, I had considered Harris to be a simple utilitarian (like you are doing) until I read his book ‘The Moral Landscape.’ I didn’t read this book expecting to like it (I like Harris for his secular meditation teachings – his naturalistic re-vamp of Buddhism) but the book turned out to be a great read, and I do recommend it, you’ll be surprised by how you feel about what he says. Ravi Z. is not responding to this book, he’s responding to ‘The End of Faith’ and therefore does not have all of the information. The establishment of good & suffering (samsara if you like) are based on solid neurological research, it’s a really exciting book once you get into it and I cannot recommend the book enough. NOW FOR THE QUOTE: I am aware of that particular quote by Harris, and have been equally surprised at the quote from the moment I heard it a couple of years ago, I was initially truly annoyed by it and let me say that I’m not here to defend each and every statement Harris makes. In fact, I cannot defend this statement in any way, all I can say is that Harris got that one wrong, he got it very very wrong, and I’ve no idea how he reasoned that one in his head, I can only presume that he got his calculations wrong in some way, though I don’t know how. That statement of Harris quoted by yourself above is deplorable, no doubt about that. – However, the establishment of what is good and what is suffering is based on science and results, not on the bad sort of philosophical reasoning we see from Harris above. We can actually assess the mental stimulations, positive and negative, there’s a whole big picture to build, and I can’t do it here, I wouldn’t even do it well, but this is not traditional utilitarianism. You can either trust me on that, or read the book. Religious morality is based on tradition, a scientific morality will be based on assessed results, currently, we do not have this scientific morality, we currently work with a sub-standard philosophical system of humanistic morality which at least tries to correct itself, something which traditional religious morality cannot claim to do (and so yes, even you utilise humanistic morality – where you do not follow the abhorrent dictates of the bible at it’s worst it’s because your religious morality has been revised by humanistic philosophy) But as I say, there is more than moral philosophy to come, science is working on morality, and it looks good, read the book.

  6. The points you raise are simply re-treads I think.

    In your first paragraph I think you are saying that you accept the naturalistic position and agree that nothing exists outside of the material or natural universe. Whether this causes your atheism or the other way around seems unimportant as I think they are most definitely linked. Either way, this leaves you in the very difficult position of not being able to explain the beginning of the universe. If nothing exists outside of the material universe then the universe itself should not exist. Yet it does. How?

    In your second paragraph you talk about the evidence for evolution being the displays in museums. This misses a vital point. What is present in the museum is an interpretation of the data and not the data itself. If the interpretation – naturalistic evolution – is incorrect then what is in the museum is also incorrect. Peer review, as a means of weeding out bad theories, is not always very successful. In fact, the very case you mentioned is an example of why peer review should not be relied on. Scientists took forty years to discover the fraud of the Piltdown Man. After switching their view all of the evidence became crystal clear. Perhaps the problem was their worldview? Have a look at http://creation.com/the-piltdown-man-fraud for more info on this particular case.

    Your assertion that the establishment of what is good is based on results is groundless. Prove it. And please, attempt to prove it in a way which does not reduce to a preference for some states over others. In other words, we could measure the ‘pleasure’ in someone’s brain when certain acts occur and decide that we have a preference for pleasure and thus pleasure is good. The problem is that some people take pleasure in things which must be considered to be wrong.

    Quite simply, without an objective ground for morality, all one is left with is subjective morality. Yet this is self-defeating and not possible as anything more than a theory.

  7. I think we’ve probably come to a place where we will be able to move no further forward with this discussion at this time … so some final thoughts in response to what you’ve written above (especially becuase in your first paragraph you completely mis-represent what I’ve said)

    Once again you’ve said “I think you are saying that you accept the naturalistic position and agree that nothing exists outside of the material or natural universe.” When what you will find I’ve actually said (if you re-read) that naturalism states that nothing outside of the natural realm can be scientifically known – but that does not mean that there is not something supernatural or supranatural. Now, there may be an alternative means of accessing the supernatural, intuition, instinct … resulting in wisdom instead rather than knowledge, these are open questions BUT nothing can be known, KNOWN which is not a part of the naturalistic realm. This is my position and I am not bound by the stereo-type of the post-religious which you have become accustomed to. There is much variety within the non-believing subculture and you should get to know us and not the Chruch reports. You appear inclined to try to tell atheists, humanists, secularists & agnostics what they are thinking and feeling without actually accepting what we are telling you we think and feel and it is this response to the Community of Reason which has led to your blog piece here. To answer your other point, naturalism leaves no problems for the beginnings question, there are various theories, though nothing finally confirmed yet (we don’t like to jump to conclusions) string theory, m-theory (looking very very strong) – if this area is a big stumbling block for you let me suggest Stephen Hawking’s ‘The Grand Design’ (And may I also say, even if we had not one theory of cosmogony, the absence of a theory would not mean that creating a supernatural being to fill the gap is a good move).

    You’re fond of the creationist sites arn’t you. If you want to read some more interesting refutations of evolution see David Berlinski, he’s much more entertaining, but the fact remains that the evidence is in and evolution is the answer. There is no escaping that, from the fact that we have tail bones, to the clear progression in skeletal & skull finds leading up to homo-erectus to the meandering paths certain organs take within our bodies as they have evolved to the fact that you sinuses get blocked when you get a cold become ours is a nose evolved from animals which did not walk upright. We actually have all of the design mistakes you’d expect to find if we were not created by a grand designer but instead evolved in stages. As Theolodosius Dobhonsky (Russian Orthodox Christian & Evolutionary Biologist) has said “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” it’s strange that you will trust peer review science to find cures to your illnesses, but not to find answers when they disagree with your book. I mean there’s nothing more I can do here, you need to go and openly look at the evidence for yourself from the guys who exist to find answers (peer reviewed scientists) instead of trusting the guys who exist who defend already proscribed answers (creationists) to relay the evidence to you honestly.

    The scientific analysis of morality is a work-in-progress, ‘The Moral Landscape’ outlines that work-in-progress, and it’s there for you to read. That is BTW the only sort of morality (if a system can be established from this) which will not be relative or subjective. You imagine that religious morality is objective, yet what is true is that religionists from within the same religion, even the same religious sect/ church will disagree on many moral questions because your morality is based on the interpretation of a book. Humanistic morality at least does not attempt to base it’s relativeness on the interpretation of a text, but rather on the experience of humans. It’s quite clear which of those 2 systems of relative morality (the religious system v the humanistic system) is more conducive to a happy human, a progressive society, freedom of personhood, and equality for all. The religious system seeks to impose the religionists’ interpretation of the text on all, the humanistic system seeks to work with all to come to a consensus of some sort. As for the scientific assessment of morality, I doubt it will answer all moral questions, but if you take time to read the proposals of Harris’ book there is potential to provide moral guidelines in many areas from that scientific method. (And it’s not about pleasure, you’ve prejudged us “hedonistic secularists” again.) The result will probably some amalgamation of relative moral philosophising and objective scientific morality.

    I’ve enjoyed our discussion and we should do this again some time Josh.

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