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My Poor Church, a Tale of Two Oppositions: First, the Atheist
10/08/2002

Teaching computers today, I marveled at the sheer audacity of the individual, which is most naked when people are young and haven't yet learned to cloak it in social niceties. Some, mostly boys, who have yet to listen to my instructions were incredulous — incredulous — that I would move them from the best computers to make way for other students who have been struggling to learn with substandard equipment. Others, mostly girls, gave me looks such that I recalled those eighth grade days in public school when, to some, I was one species of loser or other. Some of my students, I'm sure, think that of me now.

That's fine. They'll learn or they won't, and it won't do any good to allow it to bother me... a Full Grown Man, whatever that is supposed to indicate.

But I thought of this aspect of human nature when I read an anti-Catholic screed by Richard Dawkins. There isn't much in the column that deserves response. The call-out on the side of the page sums it up: "Sexual abuse is disgusting, but it's not as harmful as the grievous mental harm of bringing children up Catholic in the first place." Mr. Dawkins expresses astonishment that intelligent people who are raised Catholic could fail to "shake off" the effects of the "brilliant techniques in brain washing children." Well, as an intelligent person who was raised more or less Atheist, I suppose my conversion to Roman Catholicism must be beyond comprehension for such a man.

Personally, what I find astonishing is that Atheists actually claim their beliefs to be built on reason and rationalism. Here's the rare paragraph in the essay at hand that dips below the line above which is pure, dismissable hatred of Catholics:

The word atheism sounds negative; let me call it rationalism. It is a rational view of the world where you stand up proudly, in your humanity, you look life straight in the face, you look the universe straight in the face, you do your level best to understand it, to understand why you exist, what the universe is about, you recognise that when you die that's it, and therefore life is very, very precious and you devote your life to making the world a better place, to leading a good life so when you die you can say to yourself I have led a good life. Now, that seems to me to be a worthwhile goal to put in place of the medieval superstition which is religion. Belief in God doesn't have to be a bad thing, but I think it's a very demeaning thing to the human mind to believe in a falsehood, especially as the truth about the universe is so immensely exciting.

This all sounds pretty good if one reads it lightly and is desperate to find some meaning in a Godless life. I've been down this road a distance, so I can say with reasonable confidence that there is only one way to construe a "why you exist" without some form of higher Meaning: procreation or, at broadest, perpetuation. Following the course of pre-biology through to individual organisms through to societies, the only rational "why" that can be applied to life is the perpetuation of family, society, and species. In this construction, the duty of life is havin' babies... the rest is just free time. To be sure, since "we" would merely be self-aware blobs of matter, the weight of this "duty" is minimal, but "to lead a good life," in this sense, would be to maximize the odds of survival of the species. Killing off or merely sterilizing those who are substandard or unproductive would fit this dictate. It would be a matter for debate whether the "psychological damage" of early sexualization really outweighs the increased years of childbearing by "initiating" boys and girls as early as possible. Or how about murdering or banishing those evil office workers who perpetuate the degradation of Mother Earth?

In short, everything is on the table because "a good life" depends entirely on where in the scheme of things one cuts the cards. Moreover, relatively recent advances in technology make life such that it can almost entirely be free time, so a good life would be dependent upon how one filled that time. (And luckily there will be those who live "a good life" by providing society with the back-breaking labor necessary to keep the scientists sufficiently free of humdrum responsibilities to perfect cloning.)

Acknowledging the relative nature of "good" from this point of view surely makes one wonder how there could be confidence, even in that last moment before death, of a good life. As my students showed me today, and as adults prove every day, what is right and good can vary quite a bit from person to person and is usually well aligned with personal impulse. And the people whom one tramples in the rush to do self-defined good before the cards are all played? Well, really now, they were only carbon and electricity... and they should have watched out for themselves. Am I my brother's keeper?

I've come to the conclusion that outspoken atheists must either hate God for not living up to some unrealistic expectation, hate people who believe in God out of jealousy of such a capacity to be comforted, loved, and sure of meaning, or — most hopeful — desire to be convinced that they are wrong. Unfortunately, the danger among these last is that they will not see that they, themselves, are the only obstacles to faith, not the least because they stand to lose the identity endowed by skepticism, doubt, and anger.

Posted by Justin Katz @ 10:53 PM EST



6 comments


I've come to the conclusion that outspoken atheists must either hate God for not living up to some unrealistic expectation, hate people who believe in God out of jealousy of such a capacity to be comforted, loved, and sure of meaning, or most hopeful desire to be convinced that they are wrong.

Well, whatever gets you through the day, Justin. Whatever gets you through the day.

Jody @ 10/09/2002 12:00 AM EST


Actually, Jody, I get through the day just fine regardless of this stuff. Trying to understand people is part of what I do in my free time...

But you'll note that I limited those choices to those who feel the drive to be outspoken; this particular question isn't one of Atheism, but of Atheistic proselytization.

Justin Katz @ 10/09/2002 12:11 AM EST


[i]I've come to the conclusion that outspoken atheists must either hate God for not living up to some unrealistic expectation, hate people who believe in God out of jealousy of such a capacity to be comforted, loved, and sure of meaning, or — most hopeful — desire to be convinced that they are wrong.[/i]

That is a really bizarre notion.

Martin @ 10/09/2002 12:36 AM EST


Well, as someone else pointed out at my place, what does that say then for Christian proselytization?

You can't have it both ways.

Jody @ 10/09/2002 01:41 AM EST


Oh, please, Jody. If we're talking about motivation of people with different beliefs, of course I can have it both ways.

If one believes in God, there is Truth. Therefore, proselytizing can be done out of love. If one does not believe in God, then there is no objective reason that others should not have faith. Even if faith were a delusion, in a Godless universe, there can be no objective reason that delusion goes against some universal principle. Until they become more than just a little annoying to the non-believer, the benefits that most people derive from faith absolutely outweigh the justification for attempting to shatter that faith.

You might think that all faith is inherently dangerous or undesirable, Dawkins certainly does, but that is an assertion that I reject (and have rejected from you, specifically)... and for the good reason that it simply isn't true. Thus, with no objective reason that not believing is universally better than believing, we're left with the three possibilities that I already stated.

The truth is that you can't have it both ways: both rejecting the concept of a Universal and demanding that your ideals have any external justification.

Justin Katz @ 10/09/2002 07:10 AM EST


I've always thought that the
most devout Atheists are
not unbelievers, but simply
hate the idea that there is
a power and authority
infinitely greater than anything
on this Earth.

Greg @ 10/09/2002 08:16 PM EST