More theological criticism of atheists: we’re not despairing enough

May 2, 2012 • 8:05 am

UPDATE:  Over at Choice in Dying, Eric MacDonald has a nice commentary on this issue, “Nothing beside remains.


The video and the interview highlighted here aren’t new, but I wanted to put them up them because of the recurring accusation that New Atheists aren’t “serious” enough (I believe Terry Eagleton and R. Joseph Hoffmann have said this recently).  In a nutshell, the criticism is that New Atheists don’t follow their beliefs to the logical conclusion—the despair and nihilism that supposedly emerge when we realize that there is no God, no afterlife, and no supernatural basis for morality. When we see that, we lose all hope—or should lose all hope.

In other words, we’re not lugubrious enough. We should be existentialists like Sartre or even Camus, who said, in The Myth of Sisyphus, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” Why not bump ourselves off when we realize that life is meaningless?

The answer of course, is that we, not a sky-father, give life its meaning, and can find joy and fulfillment in the limited time we have. Is that “frivolous”?  I don’t think so.  Given our finite span, why spend our time being dolorous, weighed down by the supposed futility of life?  There is so much beauty and love to be had, not to mention friendship, books, music, food, drink, and cats; and I for one am happy to be happy about these things.

But Robert Barron, a Catholic priest, thinks I should feel otherwise. Watch the video of this seemingly genial fellow and see how many things you can disagree with in just a few minutes:

I find this the most invidious part of his spiel:

We have deeply ingrained in us a sense of the limitedness of this world that there is something more. In fact, our very wiring for God proves the existence of God. We desire something which transcends the limitations of this world means that we have within us a sort of participation in the eternal. . . Your hunger is not a sign that food is a projection, but your hunger in fact proves the existence of food—your hunger proves the reality of food. Right? It doesn’t mean that food is some kind of subjective projection or illusion. So that our desires are not misleading us: our desires order us to realities—so our desire for God.

That’s a new theological argument to me: The Argument from Hunger. Because we want something so badly, it must exist.  Readers might amuse themselves with refuting it.

Along similar lines, here’s part of an interview with John Haught published in Salon in 2007: “The atheist delusion.”

You’re saying older atheists like Nietzsche and Camus had a more sophisticated critique of religion?

Yes. They wanted us to think out completely and thoroughly, and with unrelenting logic, what the world would look like if the transcendent is wiped away from the horizon. Nietzsche, Sartre and Camus would have cringed at “the new atheism” because they would see it as dropping God like Santa Claus, and going on with the same old values. The new atheists don’t want to think out the implications of a complete absence of deity. Nietzsche, as well as Sartre and Camus, all expressed it quite correctly. The implications should be nihilism.

Didn’t they see the death of God as terrifying?

Yes, they did. And they thought it would take tremendous courage to be an atheist. Sartre himself said atheism is an extremely cruel affair. He was implying that most people wouldn’t be able to look it squarely in the face. And my own belief is they themselves didn’t either. Nietzsche, Sartre and Camus eventually realized that nihilism is not a space within which we can live our lives.

But it seems to me that Camus had a different project. He thought there was no God or transcendent reality, and the great existential struggle was for humans to create meaning themselves, without appealing to some higher reality. This wasn’t a cop-out at all. It was a profound struggle for him.

Yes, it was. But his earlier life was somewhat different from his later writings. In “The Stranger” and “The Myth of Sisyphus,” he argues that in the absence of God, there’s no hope. And we have to learn to live without hope. His figure of Sisyphus is the image of living without hope. And whatever happiness Camus thought we could attain comes from the sense of strength and courage that we feel in ourselves when we shake our fist at the gods. But none of the atheists — whether the hardcore or the new atheists — really examine where this courage comes from. What is its source? I think a theologian like Paul Tillich, who wrestled with the atheism of Nietzsche, Sartre and Camus, put his finger on the real issue. How do we account for the courage to go on living in the absence of hope? As you move to the later writings of Camus and Sartre, those books are saying it’s difficult to live without hope. What I want to show in my own work — as an alternative to the new atheists — is a universe in which hope is possible.

I don’t need no stinking hope, at least any hope that when the being known as Jerry Coyne has expired, he’ll be tranported to a cloud above, where he’ll pluck a harp for eternity.  And I do hope for accomplishment in science, and for love, friendship, learning, good books, good wine, and good noms—and that’s enough hope for me.

325 thoughts on “More theological criticism of atheists: we’re not despairing enough

  1. Well, it’s like I always say “there’s nothing like a meal when you’re hungry”.

    It’s a shame that the good priest doesn’t differentiate something for which we have plenty of evidence from something for which we have nothing.

  2. If there is no God, we would/should be unhappy, and we don’t like to be unhappy, therefore God.

    There is no better example of the wishful thinking that is religion. And it takes a lot of arrogance to think that the Universe revolves around one’s emotional needs.

    1. Rather, Brygida, what the non-existence of God implies is, ‘happy’ and ‘unhappy’ don’t exist at all. If someone breaks into your home, it isn’t wrong or stupid or frustrating; it just is. The ethnic cleansing of Rwanda is not evil; it just is. Who’s to say otherwise?

      1. You think I can’t be happy or unhappy without checking with God* first? You’re an idiot.

        *A non-existent god I don’t believe in…

        1. It’s so easy to write me off: I’m an idiot. And I can name plenty of football players who have done damage to their game’s reputation by the stupid things they do, on or off the field. But that does not alter the beauty of the game itself…it is easy to attack the straw man, but the real thing you must still deal with.

          Of course you can be happy or unhappy without checking in on God. But let’s not pretend about all this, and if there is no God, you are only pretending.

          1. It’s easy to write you off because your statements make no logical sense at all. As does your last one – “if there is no God, you are only pretending.” Pretending what about what? What has God got to do with whether I’m pretending?

      2. … the non-existence of God implies is, ‘happy’ and ‘unhappy’ don’t exist at all.

        Interesting idea, how would you justify it?

        If someone breaks into your home, it isn’t wrong or stupid or frustrating; it just is. The ethnic cleansing of Rwanda is not evil; it just is.

        What particular moral theory are you using here? Interestingly some Buddhists do say things like this but I get the impression that you are not a Buddhist.

        Who’s to say otherwise?

        Well, I do, for a start.

        1. Well, it’s a critque of what has been called ‘the great sez who?’.

          Eg, ‘The killing in Syria is dreadful, it’s sickening.’

          Sez who?

          ‘I do.’
          But who are you? So we say there is no God/sky father/supreme being.
          Alright. So: who decides what is right and wrong? We do. And we believe it is good for the killing to continue…we believe it is good to supress minority opinion…we believe it is fun & alright to do home invasions..whoops, did I say that? Ah, but – you see, I say it’s OK. Who’s to say I’m wrong? Sez who? There is no final arbiter of right & wrong, I can escape every time, I can get away with all sorts of things.

          If there really is no-one external to ourselves, to whom I am answerable, then might is right – the loudest wins – the strongest get their way.

          1. “There is no final arbiter of right & wrong”

            That’s right. Why would you expect there to be?

            “I can escape every time, I can get away with all sorts of things.”

            You might find that other human beings will not let you get away with those things.

            You are answerable to yourself and other people.

          2. gussy, you haven’t answered either of my questions. However I would like to spell out what you appear to be saying. You seem to be arguing that only a divine command theory makes sense along the following lines:

            1. Only a deontic moral theory makes sense (i.e. morality is a matter of obeying moral commands.)

            2. For a moral theory to be correct it must not be impossible for people to “get away with” their evil acts.

            Given 1 and 2 it is reasonable to assert:

            3. In a correct moral theory there must be some entity that both issues moral commands and has the power and will to sanction us for moral lapses.

            4. Only a divine being could fulfill the rôle of this entity

            There are a lot of things wrong with this:

            I think (1) is straight forwardly false. Before you can convince me of it, you need to show me what is wrong with the alternatives such as Aristotelian virtue ethics, the various forms of utilitarianism or the various forms of contractualism, to list but a few.

            As for (2), this is very problematic. One of the reasons for having a moral vocabulary is so the we can say thing like “The king is wicked” or “the gods are unjust.” In other words it appears quite coherent to use a moral vocabulary in situations where the agents involved are not subject to moral sanction. Moreover many Kantians would accept (1) but reject (2.) For a Kantian an act is only moral if it is done for a moral reason and she typically will not accept either fear of punishment or anticipation of reward as moral reasons.

            It is not clear that (3) is reasonable given (1) and (2). The world might simply be such that people in the end got their just desserts. Various doctrines of karma have this effect. Moreover it is not obvious why morality should be the responsibility of a single entity rather than, say, a committee.

            Before commenting on (4) consider this statement of yours:

            If there really is no-one external to ourselves, to whom I am answerable, then might is right – the loudest wins – the strongest get their way.

            It seems to me that (3) precisely is form to the doctrine that might makes right, as indeed is (4) – the mere fact that the mighty entity is divine seems irrelevant.

            However even if one accepts (3), (4) does not follow. Someone might accept (3) and say “We will never be moral until we have a world dictator to tell us what to do.” This makes morality essentially arbitrary, but then so does a divine command theory. To see this consider the following:

            Would I torture another human being? – No.

            Would I do it if God told me to? – No.

            Would I do it if God threatened me with eternal damnation if I refused? – Again no!

            It is no good saying that God would never order such a thing as this implies that I can know torture is wrong without reference to God. But I can take any immoral act and repeat the argument. So it would seem that the whole of morality is independent of God. Maybe I am being a bit unfair here as one could salvage a rôle for God in helping to solve moral dilemmas, but that seems to bean abdication of one’s responsibilities.

            An alternative is to say that if God ordered me to torture another human being He must have morally sufficient reasons for doing so. Now either God can explain these reasons to me or He can’t, but in either case it would be these reasons that would justify going against my naïve moral judgments and not the fact that God ordered me to do so. In this case the most you could claim is that a divine is epistemologically necessary for us to act morally in all cases. But this says nothing about whether morality can exist in the abscence of such a being.

            Another alternative is to say that God is God and He can command what the hell He likes and by doing so He makes the commanded action morally right. This strikes me as a complete abdication of one’s responsibilities to one’s fellow humans. If such a God exist, then I reserve the right to judge Him by decent human standards and I refuse to be some snivelling coward who refuses to act morally, as I see it, merely to escape eternal punishment.

            Even if I were to accept (4), this does not imply that the divine being in question is anything like the God of Christian Theology. In fact there are good reasons for thinking that it could not be. For a start there seems something morally odd about an omnibenevolent, omnipotent, omniscient god judging humanity according to obedience to commands while not giving us all equal access to such commands.

            In short you want to assert that if God (presumably the Christian God?) does not exist then there is no morality. You have not presented a carefully thought out argument but have merely provided the sort of rant one might hear from the pulpit. I have attempted to adumbrate the argument behind this rant and to show some of its weaknesses. It may be that I am completely off beam and you have some other argument for this assertion. If so I would like to know what he argument is. If you wish to convince someone like me you will need a decent philosophical argument. If you have one I would like to know what it is.

            1. I might be being philosophically naive, and this might be a kind of deepity, but can’t you simply reify (rather than deify!) “society” as the fount of morality and the agency that penalises us for moral lapses?


              1. If you simply do that then you have no way of distinguishing Nazi Germany from a liberal democracy.

                Contractual ethical theories try to get round this by imagining a thought experiment whereby we try to rationally decide on legal and ethical rules by coming to an agreement behind a veil of ignorance. I.e. we do not know, in this thought experiment, what our status in the society will be: intelligent or stupid, rich or poor, able-bodied or disabled, black or white, male or female, gay or straight, sane or insane etc.

                Of course there never has and never will be such a contract but to a contractualist an ethical argument is one which argues for or against a particular action or rule by considering what might be in such a contract. One of the advantages of contractualism is that it allows you to use other ethical theories in various circumstances. Thus, for instance, we might decide to assign people rights, e.g. a right to life, but in other circumstances to rely on utilitarian considerations. It can also allow the state a deontic rôle in some cases; for instance, the state says “Though shalt not kill!” and enforces this rule.

                Incidentally this is contrary to a venerable tradition that says that the state has no business interfering in moral affairs. Personally I think this is nonsense. I think that the only justification for the state is that it is an enforcer of moral rules. Even laws that seem to have no ethical content are only necessary because of moral considerations. For instance, the regulation that we drive on the left in the UK is to some extent arbitrary but depends for its justification on the observation that some such rule must be enforced.

                One advantage of a contractualist morality is that it allows for learning from experience. Thus we could say “We thought X was the right thing to do but it has unexpected consequence Y so perhaps we should reconsider it Y.” It also allows for modification in the light of new knowledge or new technical advances.

            2. ‘…either fear of punishment or anticipation of reward as moral reasons.’ Except that I do not act morally in order to escape eternal punishment, or to gain some kind of reward. Sorry, but that ain’t the way I read it.

              ‘…an omnibenevolent, omnipotent, omniscient god judging humanity according to obedience to commands’.
              Again – sorry, but I don’t see the Old Testament pointing to itself, but to Jesus.
              The opportunity is there to be judged according to grace – being rewarded with what I can never earn, and escaping the judgment I could never excuse.

              Hey – I don’t have an argument, except what I have known and lived. Sorry, but you are not my intellectual equal. You’re streets ahead of me! Bravo! We’ve gotten to the end of this little exchange, and your [lengthy] piece sounds very convincing: logical, reasoned, well-thought out, you’ve thought & read very widely. Fantastic!

              But oddly enough I am unconvinced. And I am deeply persuaded that no matter what I write, you will remain unconvinced by me, maybe because I am ‘congenitally stupid’ [ooh! now I’m insulted], but maybe because there is more to this whole discussion than meets the eye.

              It’s intrigued me for a long time [I’ve followed Jesus for over 30 years] the fact that some get it, and others don’t, while others stand there – scratch their heads- saying ‘why in the hell do they believe in that tripe?!’ -such as yourself, it seems. But all our reasoning, head-knowledge and logical argmuent is so much froth. I love it that we both walk away, unconvinced, by the other – now why is that? I guess you can show me a theory for that too?- when I simply wonder if there is mystery there beyond the edge of this discussion. Isn’t it great to wonder!

              I don’t have to offer a single argument why I love my wife – I know simply that I do, and so does she. Even if I was compelled to I don’t think I could – but even then it would not be relevant, because it is something beyond mere reason, logic and theory.

              And – I promise – I won’t finish by saying ‘I’ll pray for your soul, my friend.’ Don’t count on it!!
              End of rant – from pulpit, of course.

              ‘later! G

              1. When you start with “I don’t have an argument, except what I have known and lived”, you have given up. It is equivalent to “Cause I say so”.

                It says that what you say next carries all the weight of a naked mole rat’s insight, should one suddenly gain the ability to comment.

              2. ! I don’t have to offer a single argument why I love my wife – I know simply that I do, and so does she.

                Except that the analogy does not fully capture the case of religion, especially Christianity. The case of religion is more akin to someone who lover his spouse, but also goes about telling other people they should love her too, and if they don’t, there would be fire and brimstone.

      3. Really? Without God, there’s no reason to feel any emotion when someone breaks into your home or kills a bunch of people? What does God have to do with any of that?

        1. Well truthspeaker, it would mean your emotion is completely meaningless. It’s been said that the endpoint of atheism is demonstrated when your friend tells you ‘I have cancer’ and the only response appropriate to atheism is ‘Oh really?’

          Ravi Zacharias wrote, Atheism immediately commits the blunder of an absolute negation, which is self-contradictory…’I have infinite knowledge that there is no being in existence with infinite knowledge’.

          How can we be so sure?…

          1. My emotions still mean something to me. Why would I expect them to mean anything to anyone else? If you learn your friend has cancer, why do you need God to feel sad? You need God to feel bad that your friend is suffering? You need God to feel a loss when a friend dies?

            1. Reading this blog page has been amazing. I didn’t realise atheistic thinkers were so…dogmatic.

              PS Your dogma ran over my karma. – Anon

          2. Ravi Zacharias wrote, Atheism immediately commits the blunder of an absolute negation, which is self-contradictory…’I have infinite knowledge that there is no being in existence with infinite knowledge’.

            This is a typical strawman argument. Can you, gussy, or Ravi Zachharias, whoever that might be, name one atheist who would assent to something quite that silly? If not, but you think it is a logical consequence of atheism you will need a cogent argument for why this is so. You can’t just state what looks like garbage on the authority of someone I have never heard of and expect me to take you seriously.

            1. Frederick Antony Ravi Kumar Zacharias (born 1946) is an Indian-born, Canadian-American evangelical Christian apologist.
              — Wikipedia

              Ravi apparently “has voiced skepticism over what he believes to be inadequate empirical evidence in the fossil records for an honest endorsement of the theory of evolution” and “believes that evolution is incompatible with the second law of thermodynamics, saying that the two are inconsistent and irreconcilable.”

              So, he’s egregiously wrongheaded about a lot of things.


              1. That makes him a year older than me so it can’t be put it down to immaturity.

                I always think there is something vaguely amusing about someone self-identifying as an apologist. A guy introduced himself to me as a Christian apologist a couple of months ago to which my immediate reaction was to say “It’s about time someone apologised for Christianity!” That didn’t stop him trying to convert me for the whole of a one ad a half hour bus journey. At the end looked somewhat stunned and disorientated but he obviously thought there was still hope as he invited me round to his church. I tried to persuade him that he really didn’t want me to attend his church, but he seemed unconvinced.

                I was on my way to a Philosophy Society of England discussion of virtue ethics. With hindsight I should have invited him to it. Or, better still, have done a deal that if he come and take part in the PSE discussion I would take part in one of his services.

            2. Hey bernardhurley, sorry I haven’t replied. Life is busy. But if you haven’t heard of Ravi Zacharias, well, you know, go look him up. I haven’t heard of you either! cheers!

              1. Ah well, I have no ambitions to be well known among the congenitally stupid, but, that aside, I take it then that your answer to my question is “no.”

                Incidentally if your Ravi What’s-His-Name friend wants to discuss his inane statement with me he could either come over here or he could, you know, look me up.

  3. It doesn’t matter how terrible or terrifying atheism might be, if it is at all. It still beats the “joy” of knowing that the majority of people who ever lived are being tortured forever.

  4. “So that our desires are not misleading us: our desires order us to realities…”

    I believe this Catholic priest just justified all manner of sexual acts that the Catholic Church frowns upon.

    1. Hahah I was thinking the same thing.

      So homosexuality, heterosexuality, orgies, sex slaves, rape, domniatrixes, all that stuff must exist and be naturally acceptable to priests and laity who want them? Is that why your Church covered up all those sex scandals? They were ‘natural’ desires, and natural = good?

      I guess even non-rapist priests are just sinners denying God-created reality of their sexuality, because I’ve met some who definitely were not naturally asexual and considered celibacy a sacrifice.

  5. There must be nothing scarier for a religious person than a happy, moral, and well adjusted atheist. Because clearly, if you can get all that without God, why would you waste a day a week and 10% of your income? No wonder they want to label dour nihilists as the only true atheists. Frankly, I find it a great relief when I concluded that there wasn’t a god or gods…. isn’t the world depicted in the Bible so much, much more horrifying and depressing? Aren’t religion’s rules so much more arbitrary and merciless? Isn’t religion’s view of mankind ultimately so much more insulting?

    1. Yes.

      That there is no god should be a liberating fact. Meaning is so much more meaningful, values are so much more valuable, when they’re not imposed, often against our will.

      The thing that causes me to despair is witnessing the ubiquity of feeble, theistic thought and the problems it creates.

    2. To be honest, when I was Christian, I WAS really surprised to meet atheists in college who managed to be way better and happier people than most Christians I knew.

      I used to boggle at how they could be drug-free, good students, good friends, and so on. “Don’t they know that they can do whatever they want without God? Why are they still this good?”

      And yes, Christianity’s claims of man’s inherent horribleness and the ultimate pointlessness of this life compared to eternity: those things actually made more more of a nihilist when I was Christian than now that I’m an atheist.

      “I’ll just do whatever God wants, because my life is meaningless otherwise.” God just didn’t tell me what he wanted, so I limped pointlessly through life until the depression nearly killed me.

      At first as a new atheist, I assumed that now I was hopeless and that void where “God” had been wouldn’t ever close, that now I’d become more and more immoral. But I realized that was just a remnant of my nihilistic Christian thinking and the Christian devaluation of happiness and justice in this life.

      1. My hope is that the slowly increasing number of children being raised in non-religious households who are happy, well-adjusted, moral and totally non-reliant on sky-daddies of any kind to validate the meaningfulness of their life is just gentle upward slope of a curve that will eventually start to grow more exponentially, to the point where non-belief becomes the dominant view here, just as it has in much of Europe.

        It won’t happen overnight, but I think the whole “good (and fulfilled!) without God” concept is one of the most powerful weapons in our arsenal.

      2. That was beautiful! Thanks for writing it! I always find it tremendously uplifting to read stuff like this. And congratulations on freeing your mind from the shackles that you were put in by others. I’m happy for you! Would that more people succeed as you have!

  6. “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” Why not bump ourselves off when we realize that life is meaningless?

    Robert Barron, why not commit suicide as a Christian, when you believe you are going to a better place after death?

    Put “Father” in front of a name and one becomes extremely ignorant, I guess.

    1. I am in complete agreement. When you reject the notion that life is possible after you die and embrace the fact that this life is all we get, you’re generally in no hurry to end it. For myself, I’m motivated to make the best of this life as I can, and to leave it a better place than the way I found it so my children will have better opportunities.

    2. The Economist ran an article in the 1980s on suicide and rate of suicide in different countries. In the beginning paragraph of the article, it mentioned that early Christianity had to back up and readjust, and declare that committing suicide was a “sin”. Too many of the abjectly poor Christian believers, with barely one set of clothes, suffering with frequent hunger, and a grindingly oppressive workload, often gathered and committed mass suicide, because…why wait any longer for transport to a far, far more pleasurable existence??

      The population of Christian believers was being decimated, so suicide was quickly declared verboten, and suffering in this life was emphasized as a (saintly!) virtue. The personal pleasures of the hereafter was de-emphasized.

      1. Yes, the purpose of religious doctrine has always been to control the masses and keep them accepting their lives in abject poverty in order for those in power to go on living in extreme luxury. You wouldn’t be able locate that article, would you? My Google search turned up nothing but I would love to read it!

        1. Like I said, it was in the 1980s. It was a feature article, but not a “whole issue”-type coverage. I don’t know how far one can delve online into past issues. I believe they sell the old issues on CDs or DVDs, so maybe that’s why it cannot be found for free.

          Sometimes the conservative Economist surprises with their honesty, given that they could have left it unsaid.

      2. Yes, funny how the word of god is remarkably helpful in keeping the church hierarchy in the style to which is has become accustomed while the poor benefit from the poverty their god recommends as the only way into heaven. It pains me that the gullibility of the masses blinds them to the fact that their spiritual leaders live a life so far removed from that recommended by their god that one could believe they were actually servants of their devil. Very odd.

    3. This line of unreasoning always leads me to “Wanda June”.

      Choice bit from the above link:

      WANDA: “…I am not mad at the ice-cream truck driver, even though he was drunk when he hit me. It didn’t hurt much. It wasn’t even as bad as the sting of a bumblebee. I am really happy here! It’s so much fun. I am glad the driver was drunk. If he hadn’t been, I might not have got to Heaven for years and years and years. …Everybody up here is happy– the animals and the dead soldiers and people who went to the electric chair and everything. They’re all glad for whatever sent them here. Nobody is mad. We’re all too busy playing shuffleboard. So if you think of killing somebody, don’t worry about it. Just go ahead and do it. Whoever you do it to should kiss you for doing it. The soldiers up here just love the shrapnel and the tanks and the bayonets and the dum dums that let them play shuffleboard all the time–and drink beer.”

      1. We’re all too busy playing shuffleboard…

        That defines hell for me, not any kind of heaven.

        1. “In heaven, everything is fine… in heaven, everything is fine… in heaven, everything is fine. You got your good things and I got mi-i-i-ine…

          In heaven, you get to watch Eraserhead again, and again, and again for all eternity. (strapped into a chair, eyelids propped open a la Clockwork Orange, with baby Jesus supplying the eyedrops)

          1. I’ll like it? Depends on if it’s a euphemism for giving or receiving.

            Peter: It’s not like what you thought down on Earth. First off, you get to choose heaven or hell. We don’t foist it on you.

            Sasqwatch: what are they like?

            Peter: Well… both are forever. Hell is “I Love Lucy” re-runs with stale Cheetos, and Heaven is round-the-clock BJs.

            Sasqwatch: Heaven. I’ll take heaven.

            Peter: right this way. (aside to Jesus) ( psst… Another “sucker” for heaven. That’s how you do it.)

      2. Is THAT why there is a commandment against murder? The Bible doesn’t seem to go into any great detail as to why (“for I will not justify the wicked” in Exodus 23:7 does not say much).

        Perhaps it’s just to prevent you from helping someone get to heaven early?

        Hmmm… I may have to reconsider my disbelief of the scene in Zardoz when everyone is begging Sean Connery in a loincloth to kill them.

        1. No problem, just kill your friend so they can go to heaven then go straight to church and get forgiven. Get another friend to kill you so you can get to heaven, they go to church…

      3. We shall eat, by and by
        In that beautiful land in the sky
        Work and pray, live on hay
        We’ll eat pie in the sky when we die.

        – Joe Hill

  7. So if god and heaven and eternal bliss is so marvelous, why arn’t the religious killing themselves? (I am NOT urging this, just sayin’)
    THey wonder why we want to live on in a (magnificent) world without our very own god to comfort us but they dont want to live in a heaven above that is so much nicer and full of divine love – now. Yah, I know, it’s not god’s plan…
    ________________________________________________On another subject, Mr Coyne, might you start a discussion on our possible evolution towards becoming computers, robots? After listening to George Dyson, and hearing the talk about S Hawking on CSpan, I am curious to learn more about, for ex, if we are all robots some day, which we can be now, partially, where will the “human spirit” reside? Or will it be gone? Or just programmed by humans just before the last one is fully robotacized? It is all fascinating and bewildering and sooo interesting. Hawking, if I understand correctly, thinks we are computers. Thanks

    1. Study the human brain, and read about its magnificent functionality and intricacy. You are reaching too, too far in bringing robots up to ‘replacement human’ level.

      If you were to set out to walk from New York to San Francisco, and after a week, declared, “Gosh, I can almost see the Pacific Ocean!” that is about where your idea of replacing human functionality with robots exist.

      It is an un-informed question. “…if we are all robots some day…”

      1. Scott near Berkeley, you forgot to add at the end of your post, “in my own opinion.”

        The discussion is partly about life after death. So a question about that is germane.

        As we already have some implants connecting living brains with computers, this is not incredibly far fetched, regardless of how some naysayers would conclude.

        Using your analogy, it is like walking from New York to San Francisco, and after a week declaring “it’s too far, it won’t happen in my lifetime, and there’s no guarantee we’ll get there, so I quit.”

        There are many highly competent scientists and technicians who disagree with you, and are currently devoting themselves to the process.

        1. And precisely none of these highly competent and qualified scientists have made one jot of progress in the way of overcoming the hard-lines in the sand written down by Goedel, Chaitin and Kolmogorov. Logical problems aren’t showstoppers for humans because our brains, while capable of logic, are not restricted to the rules of logic. A computer, however, is.

          Unless and until the problems identified by the above three gentleman (and, of course, their many collaborators and successors who’ve worked on these problems) are even in theory capable of evasion by a sufficiently clever trick that is itself logical, a computer that ‘thinks’ anything like how a human ‘thinks’ is impossible.

          1. Actually, the Church-Turing thesis states that all computation and cognition and everything else can be carried out on a Turing machine of suitable size with suitable programming.

            The thesis is on very solid ground, too. I’ve yet to encounter a proposed method for sidestepping it that didn’t either start with a violation of conservation or couldn’t be exploited to violate conservation.

            Our brains are different from computers in terms of their computational power and the software running on them, but not in any other way that’s significant. If you can do it, in theory, a sufficiently advanced computer can do it, too. If the computer can’t do it even in theory, neither can you.


            1. “Our brains are different from computers in terms of their computational power and the software running on them, but not in any other way that’s significant.”

              They’re also different in their method of operation: human brains don’t seem to work by a system of on-off switches.

              There’s no reason a computer needs to, either, but almost all of them do.

              1. That’s an implementation detail. Logically, all computation gets broken down into discrete states. The analog nature of our brains may (or may not) contribute a bit of randomness to the goings-on, but a Turing machine would treat that as data input from a random source.


            2. There are reasons I ignored the Church-Turing conjecture. It is ill-defined as a conjecture because its conditions are themselves not well-defined; because whatever else it is it doesn’t get away from the fact that in order for a computer to ‘think’ like a human ‘thinks’ it needs to be able evaluate its own axioms against inputs, and to be able to change its axioms when they are incongruent with reality; and, of course, the halting problem; and, of course, it’s just a conjecture and remains only that because the claim (so far as anyone knows at least) cannot itself be proved. Not just that it isn’t yet proved, but that it seems as though it cannot in principle be proved.

              1. I wouldn’t write off Church-Turing so easily. Yes, it’s exactly the sort of thing one would expect to be unprovable, in line with Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. On the other hand, all of science is also unprovable.

                There are lots and lots of really good reasons to suspect that Church-Turing is valid. If my very strong hunch that it’s equivalent to conservation is right, then it’s as solid as it gets in science.

                Here’s a thought experiment you should have some fun with: come up with something concrete that would invalidate Church-Turning, and examine the consequences. Does your technique require space and / or time to be divided more finely than Planck’s limits? If so, it also (by extension) requires infinite resources and is a perpetual motion machine. Can your technique be used to know or learn facts about the world that can’t be determined by a Turing machine? If so, you can probably hook it up to a variation on Maxwell’s Demon and thereby create a perpetual motion machine.

                I’ve yet to find an exception to either of those pathways. If you know or can think of one, I’d be delighted to hear it — and the rest of the world probably would be, too.


              2. I don’t need to ‘write it off’ to note that is nevertheless not a solved problem. That isn’t to say people shouldn’t think about it or work on it (though it’s considered unsolvable, perhaps someone will devise a sufficiently clever method to avoid it) – it was my reasoning I gave here for not including it in my original comment. There are lots of things I didn’t mention – some for reasons of space, some for being too esoteric and what not.

                I digress. The major problems I see as the showstoppers have to do with the fact that the computer needs to be fully autonomous. Despite what you said about there not being significant differences between us and computers with respect to software, I’ll return with one that is significant (and which I briefly mentioned above): we aren’t constrained by logic and can freely change axiomatic systems without needing to run a given system of logic to its end.

                And such as I’m aware, the only way a computer can determine if something can run is to run that program. And thus if the thing it’s running at the moment is undecidable on a given set of axioms, the computer doesn’t know when to stop trying on that set of axioms and switch another set of axioms or to just keep on computing forever. We can change logics on a lark in a way that a computer cannot. And it seems that the only way a computer will ever be able to determine that is to solve the halting problem, or find someway for the computer to evaluate its own axioms, which is a problem by using that selfsame system. Even we cannot do that (as you rightly mentioned). But I know that, and a computer doesn’t. I know to abandon a course without needing to follow it all the way to the end. A computer only knows to stop if the program finishes or it finds some contradiction and can’t go further – otherwise it keeps computing. And it is this feature alone that presents the problems I earlier mentioned.

            3. The Church-Turing thesis is a statement to the effect that the set of effectively (i.e. mechanically) computable arithmetic functions is identical to the set of general recursive functions. Since one can prove that the set of functions calculable by a Turing machine is the same the set of general recursive functions. It is, in effect, a statement about what kind of machine is possible.

              If one were to come across a process that one would be inclined to call mechanical but which provably could not be represented by a calculation of a Turing machine then what would one make of this? If the result were considered established then I think most mathematicians would take it that there are effectively computable arithmetic functions that are not general recursive and thus that the Church-Turing thesis was disproved. Of course if you wanted to you could decide that this procedure was not produced mechanically i.e. that whatever process was producing it was not “machine-like.” But that is merely a matter of what words one is using.

              I’m afraid the Church-Turing thesis has no philosophical consequences whatever. It is totally irrelevant to the question of whether the brain, or anything else, is or is not a machine.

              As to what it’s got to do with conservation of anything, I would be interested to know what this is about.

              1. I beg to differ. The most important consequence of the various theses (incidentally, the name itself is wrong: it should be the Post-Kleene thesis, as they defended it as a *thesis*) is that we seem to have captured a fundamental feature of reality and should be on the lookout for being wrong about it.

                It is, however, massively unlikely we are. Now, does this have any consequence for the philosophy of mind? It seems to me that yes, but there are some who do not regard computational principles as applicable to anything but “formal systems”, and since the brain isn’t one of those (note: it may still make use of them, but that’s different), the CT isn’t applicable. I don’t buy this, however, since it seems clear to me that Turing (and later folks like Gandy and Sieg) analyzed “concrete” (factual, in Bunge’s sense) objects, nor purely formal ones. In fact, that’s Turing’s genius (vis-a-vis Church, etc.): recognizing that the concern is over *doing mathematics*, rather than simply mathematics itself. Consequently one needs hypotheses about the calculating agent, and that’s what he supplied. (Correct or otherwise, and how to understand “creavitiy” are the interesting parts.)

                [Disclosure: I was an MS student of Sieg’s, so his take on the history is shared by me – though not completely – and our respective positions are sometimes held to be unusual.]

              2. I think think this is confused. First because CT cannot be other than about formal systems. We cannot actually build a Turing machine because of the infinite tape. We can only build finite machines and no finite machine can compute all the general recursive functions so if you take an effective procedure as referring to physical machines then then Q-T it is quite plainly wrong proved wrong. In other words, as I said CT has to be referring to formal systems.

                On the supposed philosophical consequences of CT. I seems quite reasonable to all a brain a sort of machine. But suppose the brain could be shown to be able to do something that, in principle, a computing machine (i.e. essentially a Turing machine with a finite tape.) could not do, what would that show? Someone committed to CT would presumably have to say that it was proof that a human brain was not, after all, a machine. I would prefer to say that it showed CT to be mistaken.

                I suppose I had better nail my colours to the mast. My general approach to the foundations of mathematics is that of an intuitionist, which does not mean that I necessarily agree with Brouwer, Heyting of Dummett in everything. Thus I think the meaning of mathematical statements is derived from the algorithms that prove them. If one takes a statement like “A universal Gandy register machine is equivalent to a universal Turing machine”, one is essentially saying that there is a pair of algorithms, or effective procedures, A1 and A2 one which transforms programs on a universal Turing machine “equivalent” programs on universal Gandy machine and one which does the opposite. Of course a lot of dotting of i’s and crossing of t’s needs to go on, but this is the essence of the matter. I simply don’t know what an algorithm that would transform “any procedure which, for whatever reason, we might take to be effective” into a program on a universal Turing machine would look like. However, from an intuitionistic point of view such an algorithm would have to be exhibited, in principle at least, for the claim to even begin to make much sense. Even from the point of view of classical mathematics, tightening up the notion of “effective procedure” so that the existence of such an algorithm could be discussed is likely either to render the answer trivial or to render it’s existence provably impossible. The plausibility of CT seems to stem from its very vagueness and the fact that it seems to be saying something philosophically significant.

                CT is responsible for a lot of “hand waving.” For instance in a paper about the solvability of the word problem for a particular algebraic structure, an author might get to the point where some procedure is “obviously effective” and leave it at that. No attempt is made to indicate how a universal Turing machine would implement the algorithm. I’m not saying that any harm is necessarily done by this. In most cases a competent reader would have the feeling that they could do it themselves, however this is a very different thing from actually doing so. CT could be taken as the claim that I will always be able to do it myself, maybe with the help of a supercomputer of two and half a dozen research assistance, but I, or at least someone, will always be able to do it. When did we acquire such omnipotence?

        2. Gr8hands, I suggest you read “101 Theory Drive” by Terry McDermott. Just an example, from page 213:
          “By some counts more than one thousand different kinds of proteins are present at a single synapse. There during the three-day LTP conference fifty thirty-minute talks, almost all of them devoted to discussion of different, particular molecules.”

          Also check out Paul Allen’s Allen Institute for Brain Science and view some of the available videos.

          Recently there was a breakthrough on memory, an actual “engram”. Fiendishly complicated.

          The “ I quit” analogy is hardly my stance on brain science and its progress. Even after tens of thousands of papers written over the last thirty years, I don’t think anyone concludes “quitting” is a reasonable decision.

      2. The way you phrased your objection is an issue of quantitative, not qualitative difference. Whether it will be available tomorrow or 250 years from now is a moot point from that perspective.

    2. alexandra quote:

      “if we are all robots some day, which we can be now, partially, where will the “human spirit” reside? Or will it be gone? Or just programmed by humans just before the last one is fully robotacized? It is all fascinating and bewildering and sooo interesting. Hawking, if I understand correctly, thinks we are computers. Thanks”

      What is “I”, “we” & “us?”. When you go to sleep & wake up are you the same person? How about when you awake from anaesthesia?

      If you accept that…
      1] By any modern definition of “computer” we are indeed computers &
      2] Any computer hardware & software can be mathematically modelled & simulated
      3] Until evidence is provided otherwise, mental phenomena are only physical processes that occur entirely within the host “computer”

      Then it must be possible to map a human onto any platform or insert that human perfectly into a ‘Matrix’ simulation that resembles reality

      However I doubt that this will be achieved since the brain has 22,000,000,000 neurons and 220,000,000,000,000 synapses with varying interconnections swimming in a bath of various vital [& varying] chemicals. The task of capturing a dynamic ‘snapshot’ of this & then mapping the whole onto another platform is mind boggling. And suppose you did it ~ how would you know it was a faithful copy?

      I think we will produce many forms of artificial life/intelligence & some of those will supplant us or become absorbed into us & ultimately ‘we’ will become extinct just like the 99.9% of all species that have ever existed which are now extinct.

      The most likely scenario that I can envision for the far future is that “we” become so mentally interconnected in memory & thought that the death of an individual becomes much less significant since elements of “him/her” will clearly be alive in others. I’m hoping this can be achieved in a non-Borg-like way which allows room for fun, curiosity & general silliness 🙂

      1. “When you go to sleep & wake up are you the same person? How about when you awake from anaesthesia? ”

        Yes, because the physical body that my consciousness is part of is still the same, minus whatever skin cells sloughed off while I was asleep and minus whatever parts of my body were cut off during surgery.

        1. You only believe that because you believe you have continuity of consciousness.

          We know for a fact that none of the cells carrying the memories from more than 7 years ago are alive today. Your memories, your sense of self, of history, is based on copies of copies of memories.

          You have no evidence that would disprove the idea that large portions of your memory had been altered.

          1. I never said we had continuity of consciousness. The body – which is the self – has continuity.

            “We know for a fact that none of the cells carrying the memories from more than 7 years ago are alive today”

            I’d like a cite for that, please, as it goes against everything I know about neurobiology.

              1. That article doesn’t say that at all.

                “Recent animal studies have shown a correlation between learning and new neurons surviving in the hippocampus. After teaching rodents a variety of tasks that engaged a range of brain areas, scientists found that, generally, the more the animal learned, the more neurons survived in the hippocampus. Cells that were born before the learning experience were more likely to survive to become neurons, but only if the animals actually learned. The increase in survival occurred with tasks that depended on the hippocampus as well as those that required significant effort to learn.”

                If anything, it suggests that for a memory to surive, the neuron or neurons it’s stored in have to survive.

            1. Different cells in the body last for different amounts of time. White blood cells die after a day or so. Red blood cells about 120 days.

              Some nerve cells may last much longer — but within a cell materials are constantly being processed and exchanged so that the actual cell has had repair and replacement of its structures over time, and is not the same cell that it was originally.

              The link I provided does not specify the length of time for the cells involved with memory (I was not able to immediately locate that), however the point is made that they do not live forever and have some finite lifespan that is less than the life of the rest of your body.

              1. It didn’t say that either. It said new neurons get created and many of them don’t survive. But there are cells in your brain (and your bones, and your heart, and your lungs) that have been there since before you were born.

              2. Citation?

                You seem to have skipped over the part that says: Research has shown that thousands of new cells are produced in the hippocampus each day, although many die within weeks of their birth.

                And: In order to understand neurogenesis better, it helps to understand that not all new neurons live very long after birth. In fact, more die than survive, which may be one reason it took so long for researchers to recognize neurogenesis in the adult brain.

              3. That doesn’t support your claim at all. Most of the new neurons die off. It doesn’t say the brain retains memories that were at one time stored in those neurons.

              4. truthspeaker, you didn’t provide a citation for your remarks.

                However, I withdraw my comment.

              5. You wrote: “But there are cells in your brain (and your bones, and your heart, and your lungs) that have been there since before you were born.”

                I asked for a citation. You claim the link I provided was your citation. I did a search on the text of the abstract, and the words “lung” and “bone” do not appear at all. The word “heart” appears once, but does not reference cells.

  8. Thought experiment (since there are ethical problems in experimenting on humans):

    Set up an isolated colony of babies and let them develop into adulthood without any knowledge of gods, spirits, the supernatural or transcendence. No exclamations of “My God!!!”. No stories of Jesus. Not even Santa Claus.

    Would these humans have anything to compare nihilism with? Would they expect to have any other purpose than their own best interests? I suspect not.

    I reckon John Haught is arguing that atheists have a ‘god hole’ in their thinking (because god really really exists natch). But if your thinking never had any trace of god in the first place, there would be no ‘hole’ to be nihilistic about.

    1. @DiscoveredJoys
      Well, it’s not that simple. One can claim that this experiment has been done in human evolution, although over more than one generation. Unless you assume divine inspiration, you have to recognize that the need for religion appeared “naturally” in our ancestors. 
      There are studies on the psychology and neurobiology of supernatural/religious belief that suggest that it may be a by-product of our evolution, possibly even giving our ancestors some selective advantage. Of course, this doesn’t prove that the object of religion is real. 

      1. No sure about this as there are second and third generation atheists in Europe, and I don’t see any evidence of their offspring running back to the church.

        1. No sure about this as there are second and third generation atheists in Europe, and I don’t see any evidence of their offspring running back to the church.

          I am one of those :-). Atheist upbringing combined with good education obviously works. But the psychological need is there, at least for some; obviously it can find other outlets than the belief in supernatural.

          I was only stating that it is wrong to claim that humanity cannot possibly invent religion out of nothing: we’ve obviously done it in the past.

          1. Some people seem to have a need for authority, of some kind or other. So if God didn’t exist it would (for them) be necessary to invent him. So they did…

            I wonder if atheists are (on average) more anti-authoritarian than religious people. Don’t know if any studies have been done on that. Somebody in this topic said atheists are rumoured to make bad soldiers. If so, I’m not so sure it’s due to a lack of belief in heaven, more likely a lack of belief in their leadership… I’m guessing about that though.

      2. My thought experiment excludes only the supernatural ‘stuff’. If the children are raised with the knowledge that thunder and lightning are natural events with some suitable idea of the natural cause, then they won’t have to ‘fill in the gaps with gods’ as previous generations have done in our evolutionary past. Part of the upbringing would have to include the idea of death being a natural part of the life cycle, none of the ‘gone to heaven’ fudging.

        I guess I’m saying that the idea of gods had a utility in the past (explaining the unknown) and this has inevitably shaped (or perhaps corrupted) our languages and societies. Start without this overburden and let’s see what happens. Perhaps gods or some other supernatural principle will be reinvented, or perhaps we’ll end up with a bunch of well adjusted people.

    2. Would the inhabitants of this colony have any experience of mortality? That’s what is at the root of religion, after all. After the first of them died, the survivors would speculate on what had happened, and where the deceased person “went”. Given our past evolution, one would have to assume that they would settle on a supernatural explanation.

      1. You know, that was one of the key steps in my atheism, seeing two young cousins talking about how my grandfather ‘went’ to heaven, when it was quite clear that he was sitting in a box in front of them.

        I think people can accept ‘dead’ as an option, if you’re not giving them a fairy tale to cling to.

      2. Would the inhabitants of this colony have any experience of mortality? That’s what is at the root of religion, after all.

        That’s your opinion. It’s not a universally held opinion.
        I have a friend who despite also being an atheist, actually cares sufficiently more about religion than I do to actually waste good drinking time thinking about it. His opinion on the source of religion is that it all comes from sharing of food.

  9. “Yes. They wanted us to think out completely and thoroughly, and with unrelenting logic, what the world would look like if the transcendent is wiped away from the horizon. ”

    I can see what such a world would look like by looking out my window.

  10. I’m struck by something from the cartoon Rugrats, of all things. Chuckie’s father brings out a new playhouse for the kids. Angelica, the older child and series bully, tries to take it first, but discovers that it was built for smaller children that she is, so she can’t fit. So, she concocts this wild story about how Chuckie and his father are secretly aliens and the playhouse is a trap to spirit those who go inside off to an alien planet, where they’ll never see their families again.

    Now, eventually, the other kids decide that they’d rather take the risk and have fun with their friend and his new toy than break their friendship and be bored all day. Angelica starts faking concern and panic, but, when nothing happens (because it is just a playhouse for toddlers), she pretty much yells at the kids to ‘stop having fun’!

    It strikes me that by atheists deciding that the existence of God is not important is the same sort of quandary — the despairing atheist appears to buy into the idea that the existence of God is important (so much so that it’s hard to live without one). Most modern atheists, agnostics, non-religious and so on seem to have decided that the matter isn’t something that affects them*, and have gone on to enjoy their lives.

    For that matter, didn’t someone else try to argue that atheists would make terrible soldiers, because lack of belief in an afterlife would prevent self-sacrificing heroics? You can’t have it both ways — either we’re one bad day from suicide or we are cowards who cling to life at all costs.

    * By which I mean, it’s not that God exists/doesn’t exist, but that people use that (and the subdivisions of theism) as a defining factor to their identities and to persecute others. Compare things like the belief in fairies, the Norse world-tree, and so on. The vast majority of atheists** don’t believe those things exist either, but don’t pay all that much attention to it.

    ** Maybe all of them, but there’s nothing excluding someone who doesn’t believe in God or gods, but is okay with the idea of fairies. Besides some level of cognitive dissonance.

    1. Atheism without despair implies that believers have been wasting their time and effort.

      1. Atheism without despair correctly implies that believers have been wasting their time and effort.
        As they say on Slashdot, FTFY (Fixed That For You).

    2. Not following this entry at all. You need to write out every sentence that you’re thinking, rather than just two out of the three. I cannot even tell if you are criticizing atheism, or favoring atheism.

      No asterisk footnotes, either, please (in my opinion).

      1. Sorry, I tend to find I think faster than I type, so my thoughts branch. Footnotes are the best way I can whip them into something resembling linearity without extensive editing.

        And, yeah, mostly it was trying to explain that one moment I had while reading, of hearing ‘Stop having fun!’ (in Angelica’s voice) and trying to provide the context to others.

      2. It’s not a perfect analogy. I think the gist is that some theists insist we atheists “stop having fun”, because they’re unable to see that meaning and morality have completely natural and secular sources. They would feel despair were they to learn, somehow, that god is a fiction; therefore, everybody who concludes there’s no god better get despairin’!

        “If I can’t have fun with the toy, then NOBODY can!”

  11. The European philosophers like Nietzsche etc. who speculated about how atheists “should” behave did so in the absence of empirical data from populations of atheists. So they just reversed christian beliefs and argued that atheists would have dark, dramatic lives, rather like Goth teenagers, based on angst, nihilism, existential despair and so forth. These philosophers just happened to speculate wrong, and we have evidence from the social sciences to indicate that, for example, from Phil Zuckerman’s research:

    Zuckerman notes, for example, that:

    “It is often assumed that someone who doesn’t believe in God doesn’t believe in anything,
    or that a person who has no religion must have no values. These assumptions are simply
    untrue. People can reject religion and still maintain strong beliefs. Being godless does not
    mean being without values. Numerous studies reveal that atheists and secular people most
    certainly maintain strong values, beliefs, and opinions. But more significantly, when we
    actually compare the values and beliefs of atheists and secular people to those of religious people, the former are markedly less nationalistic, less prejudiced, less anti-Semitic, less racist, less dogmatic, less ethnocentric, less close-minded, and less authoritarian (Greeley and Hout 2006; Sider 2005; Altemeyer 2003, 2009; Jackson and Hunsberger 1999; Wulff 1991; Altemeyer and Hunsberger 1992, 1997; Beit-Hallahmi 2007; Beit-Hallahmi and Argyle 1997; Batson et al. 1993; Argyle 2000).”

    BTW, Zuckerman’s findings argue against the framing of “atheism” as a mysterious void in the universe called “absence of beliefs in the gods,” analogous to “not stamp collecting.” In reality, many people understand and act upon atheism as an advocacy position analogous to, say, veganism. Otherwise the fact that atheists like to congregate at events like the Reason Rally and Rock Beyond Belief would make no sense. (We don’t see meetups organized around not collecting stamps.) And like vegans, advocacy atheists make empirically testable claims about their world view.

    1. “So they just reversed christian beliefs and argued that atheists would have dark, dramatic lives, rather like Goth teenagers, based on angst, nihilism, existential despair and so forth.”

      That’s what comes of never having tasted Key Lime Pie.

    2. I rather think reversing many xian beliefs would result in a much improved, more pleasant world in which to live.

      The reverse of xianity is definitely not dark and nihilistic.

    3. Very cool, indeed. The (doi:10.1111/j.1751-9020.2009.00247.x) is a nice citation find… though I’ll note it looks like Zuckerman missed Hunsberger and Altemeyer’s “Atheists” study.

  12. Let me turn around what this fellow says at the beginning – As an atheist I am against religion in particular & christianity in general.

    “nihilism is not a space within which we can live our lives”??? Rubbish.
    He does not know enough atheists to know what we really are, & we are all different because we are not religionists. I am a Nihilist – I consider myself a cheerful pessimist. I also happen to think that ‘hope’ is the curse in Pandora’s box, not all the other things she lets out. Hope means people do not do the things they could to improve life for themselves a& others. Sorry – I have not the patience to go on now. He has me riled.

  13. “God shaped hole”?

    Why make something simple so complicated (and impossible)? Humans are tribal, by necessity and for survival. ‘God’ is the projection of a tribal leader, “more perfect” than any real leader.

    Thus ‘god’ is a mental illusion, and hence thousands of years of pointless torture and murder.

    1. We all have some emptiness in our lives, an emptiness that some fill with art, some with God, some with learning. I have always filled the emptiness with drugs.

      — Bruce Sterling, Involution Ocean


  14. Sometimes I wonder how anyone who believes in an eternal afterlife can ascribe any meaning to this life at all.

    How important to the rest of your life was the first 15 seconds of high school? Was it not very important? How meaningful to your infinite, eternal life could 80 or so years on earth be?

    By the way, I wish I could have a TARDIS, therefore TARDISs are real.

    1. Ever since I was six years old, I have yearned for the Millenium Falcon to land in my back yard and for Han Solo to come out and invite me to join him for adventures in the void.

      No luck yet.

    2. Ha! Karl, I like the way you turn that on it’s head! Personally, the idea of an afterlife fills me with dread. And can you imagine how deadly those streets of gold must be? Though, I must admit to liking the idea of a nice, crispy pie in the sky when you die.

  15. Robert Barron is the classic example of an educated, articulate moron. He knows just enough about the issues and people that he discusses to sound like he really knows what he’s talking about. Glenn Beck, Sean Handpuppet and Bill O’Lielly are experts at feigning the same level of knowledge about everything.

    Here’s another classic example of the same phenomenon.

    The only different between Barron and the person featured in the video is in the former’s ability to articulate his limited knowledge so as to sound like an intelligent and “reasonable” human being.

    Other than that, zip.

  16. Gota give him credit — it’s an absolutely diabolical bit of rhetoric.

    No, his words aren’t aimed at atheists.

    They’re aimed at believers who’re starting to doubt.

    I’m sure many such people in that situation are feeling all sorts of despair and anguish for all sorts of reasons. So, what’ he’s doing, is telling them that, if they go through with abandoning their faith, all they have to look forward is to more of the same.

    Brilliant, really.



    1. You’re probably right, this is aimed at reigning in the wavering sheep. But the feeling I get from the video is that this is not some cynical rhetoric game: he strikes me as sincere. He definitely feels this hunger for God himself, the poor fella.

      By the way, I think he’s right about the human need for more: once we’re fed, sheltered and pleasured, we start having higher yearnings… But how this proves the reality of his imaginary being is beyond me. This characteristically human feature strikes me rather like an interesting riddle for scientists (eg evolutionary psychologists) to try and solve. It is also something we’re probably lucky to have as a species, as it can indeed be channeled to the greater good (when it’s not hijacked by some priest or warmongering demagogue).

      1. ivo.

        “By the way, I think he’s right about the human need for more: once we’re fed, sheltered and pleasured, we start having higher yearnings…”

        I think the opposite is true, just look at Europe. When you have a health service, free education, a safety net (unemployment benefit and a reasonable pension when you retire. You lose the fear factor and usually lose the need for a god.

        1. I agree with you. Maybe I didn’t express myself well. What I meant is not necessarily a “spiritual” yearning, or the need for a god (although that’s what faitheists would have us believe). It’s more like the need for a nobler, or simply more satisfying, purpose for one’s life. Psychologists tell us that to be happy, one doesn’t need much material wealth (beyond the basics), but rather things like acceptance from one’s peers and community, a sense of purpose, and the like. I said it’s a riddle for science because, well, as far as I know we really still don’t know much about all of this at all. For instance, from the evolutionary point of view, what adaptive purpose could be served by these psychological needs?

          (I’m European, by the way.)

          1. “what adaptive purpose could be served by these psychological needs?”

            The will to survive.

            For an animal, being satisfied with your life does not confer a reproductive advantage. To stay alive, you have to want to look for food and water and want to find someplace safe to sleep. To reproduce, you have to want to find a member of the opposite sex (or in a couple exceptions, the same sex) willing to copulate with you. And if you’re one of the kinds of animals with large brains, you have to feel the urge to use your brain to figure out new ways of doing all of the above.

            So that means you have to worry about things – food, water, shelter, predators, accidents – and yearn for relief from them.

    2. There is a Catholic Talk Radio station in my area that I have occasionally run across while driving. Mostly it’s Catholic zombies calling in to get advice on how to deal with various problems in their lives. Often they sound so depressed and out of touch with reality that I feel like they need psychiatric help rather than the advice of brainwashed Nuns and Catholic apologists. On one occasion a lady called in who was quite disturbed by what she had heard about these people called “New Atheists” and was clearly seeking reassurance from the host of the show that these people were deluded and had no basis for their unbelief. The host dutifully provided the requisite reasurances, the same sort of wooly-headed arguments as Father Baron offered. You’re right: convincing and reassuring only if you’re already a member of the Funny Farm. I’m sure it would have terrified this woman to even consider reading a Gnu book.

    3. YES!

      I actually got closer to suicide due to my Christianity. I started begging God to kill me if he wasn’t going to guide me or heal my emptiness and depression, so that I wouldn’t have to kill myself and risk damnation or accidentally hurting someone who wasn’t saved (I was considering throwing myself into traffic a few times).

      And when I finally let go of God, those beliefs that the nihilism would continue did pan out, because it’d been drilled into me that atheists were unhappy due to lacking God.

      But it just wasn’t true.

      This guy may actually believe that nihilism must be eating away at atheists: I know I did, just going off the Bible. So it might not be a purposeful control tactic from him.

      But the Bible is full of social control methods and psychological manipulations against counter-evidence, reason, alternative beliefs, and counter-arguments, so a genuine believer just carrying out the tenets of that religion will end up manipulating and goading others.

      1. Damn. That’s one hell of a bad mindfuck you got. My condolences for the pain you endured, and my congratulations for escaping with your life.


  17. If theologists are so terrified to live free and to find meaning in life for themselves, if they so desperately crave the fake security of a spiritual and moral dictatorship — to the point that they can’t help but project these childish feelings on everybody else — this is certainly not the atheists’ problem.

    I mean, it’s perhaps time to grow up! And if life is too much for you, go get some professional help. (And no, not of the “spiritual” kind, which only reinforces the problem.)

    1. Oh dear. ‘Moral and spiritual dictatorship?’
      Think of marriage. Or even friendship: you know how there’s freedom in marriage – but also constraint? You know how there’s rights – but also responsibilities? You know how there’s ‘I ought to…’ but there are also ‘I want to…’?

      That’s my relationship with God. Dictatorship it ain’t.

      1. You know, in my marriage (pretty successful at 30+ years), I never have to worry that every thought is being monitored by someone with the power to send me to an eternity in the fiery lake.

        And, for the most part, when we have “issues”, we resolve them together. It is a bit different than your situation. My wife is actually there.

      2. That is not the god of the Israelites you’re married to, then, mate. Yahweh says “Do this” and boy, you better do it.

        Your relationship with your god seems to be more of a partnership… do you settle arguments by talking it over, the two of you? Of course, a cynic would claim you’ll always come up with a solution that satisifies you since you’re really just talking to yourself. (I’m a cynic, in case you hadn’t guessed).

        1. That was of course addressed to gussy, not gbjames. WP’s nesting is sooo deceptive…

  18. Dr. Coyne, I suspect from your music related posts that you might not be a Rush fan (it’s okay, most people aren’t!) and I do try to resist being the cliche fanboy who quotes Rush lyrics as if they’re the highest of philosophical thought.
    But having said that… your last sentence immediately brought to mind the song _Faithless_ – take a look at the lyrics when you have a chance (but don’t trust the usual lyrics sites, try for example
    Neil Peart really is an intelligent voice for atheism (among other things) – you’ll just have to forgive him for _Freewill_ which was written in ’79 before we knew what we know now. 😉

    1. Hilarious. I, too, think of the song “Freewill” whenever that topic comes up (and have a chuckle).

      Occasionally, good lyrics comes out of Peart, which lets me forgive him for his earlier dalliances with Ayn Rand. (e.g. Anthem)

        1. It sure is, but now that we know there’s no such thing as free will even in the absence of religion, it’s hard to use that as an argument against religion, as that song tried to do.

    2. Chris, I’m a Rush fanboy, too, anxiously awaiting the release of “Clockwork Angels” (and primed to buy concert tickets first thing this Friday morning), and the Rush song that this issue most reminds ME of is “Bravado,” which strikes me as having a particular “Sisyphus” vibe to it:

      If we burn our wings
      Flying too close to the sun
      If the moment of glory
      Is over before it’s begun
      If the dream is won —
      Though everything is lost
      We will pay the price,
      But we will not count the cost

      When the dust has cleared
      And victory denied
      A summit too lofty
      River a little too wide
      If we keep our pride
      Though paradise is lost
      We will pay the price,
      But we will not count the cost

      And if the music stops
      There’s only the sound of the rain
      All the hope and glory,
      All the sacrifice in vain
      And if love remains
      Though everything is lost
      We will pay the price,
      But we will not count the cost

      To me, that’s it. Everything is in one sense “hopeless,” if by that we mean that things must be eternal or guaranteed successful to merit hope. But like the Zen koan about the man stuck on a ledge, with enemies above him and fierce carnavores below, we can still enjoy the strawberries growing out of the cracks. I would argue we probably enjoy those strawberries MORE because of where they are growing.

      1. Yep, _Bravado_ is one of my faves; but I’ve always interpreted it to be not so much a commentary on hope, but more of a statement like “don’t regret stuff” (like failure, or wasted effort, or whatever) – just pay the price, learn your lesson, and move on.

        _Faithless_ on the other hand, is not a particular favorite of mine for whatever reason, but I do think it’s a very elegant statement of the atheist position.

        Judging from _BU2B_ I fully expect more well-stated anti-religious lyrics on Clockwork Angels.

        Strangely, there is no tour date scheduled near me this time around – I can only hope (!) for a tour continuation in Jan 2013 where they’ll swing down my way.

  19. Those people that really want to be abducted by aliens? Proved aliens exist.

    “Atheists should lose all hope because they don’t believe in anything.” Just theists getting upset again because they are making another claim that is at odds with reality.

  20. “How do we account for the courage to go on living in the absence of hope?”

    A billion years of evolution has programmed that into us. There was once a very suicidal species of land squid but, sadly (happily?), they are now extinct.

      1. For that matter, how could we *not* have hope? Having seen that events can turn out in a way we want, or not, I don’t see a way we could avoid wanting the former and not the latter even knowing that things could turn out either way. The only time that hope becomes an issue is when one argues or thinks that because one wants a favorable outcome, one will therefore actually get it and thus starts acting as though it must happen.

      2. Furthermore, who says we don’t have hope?

        I have lots of hopes.

        One is to watch US xianity shrink itself down small enough to go drown in the bathtub.

        It’s trending that way. Xians are projected to go below 50% by 2050.

  21. The argument that analogizes hunger:food :: spiritual longing:God was popularized by C.S. Lewis, who further analogized it as being a “God-shaped hole” in the human heart that can only be filled through worship of the real God.

    So when a pagan finds comfort in worshiping an idol, that is evidence for the existence of the God that prohibits worshiping idols.

    1. I’ve certainly come across it before, and recently, but if not in another post on this website (since it’s new to Jerry), I’m not sure where… Eric’s blog?


  22. We poor sods are too busy enjoying and participating in life to realise that we’re supposed to be miserable about not living forever.

    This really does paint religion as a childish fantasy, doesn’t it? “If I can’t live forever, then I won’t live at all! Wah!”

  23. So Haught thinks Nietzsche should be the model for atheists? He had serious mental issues and was institutionalized. I don’t think I would recommend him as a model for anyone, especially for how to react to something emotionally.

    1. Nietzche hated Christainity and wrote vehemently against it more than any New Atheist, and so he got some things right.

  24. (I believe Terry Eagleton and R. Joseph Hoffmann have said this recently

    And aesthetic James Wood.

  25. Un/fortunately Catholics never come to my door to talk about God, but.. I have only one question for anyone who is Catholic:

    Why do you support an organization that denies, promotes, encourages, overlooks, can’t seem to solve their institutionalized pedophillia?

    I don’t care words and prayers, I care about YOUR ACTIONS.

  26. It makes me sad, particularly because for as long as I’ve been thinking about the importance of having external (or objective/transcendent) morality, I have been leanings towards the idea that Religion fails to offer that. Taking Christianity for example, in order for it to be external we need to believe that the morality is coming from God, not through our subjectivity. Contrast that with an evolutionary model, in which we /can/ find evidence and don’t need to discount anything. We /have/ found evidence, and it’s directing us to think that our moral sense comes from the circumstances of our ancient homo-sapiens ancestors’ social dependencies. We obviously can’t go back and change the selection that applied to them and what that selective process endowed us with as genetic legacy. That’s external. That’s objective. Dare I say, that’s transcendent.

    If someone wants to believe that God had a part in that culling, I can accept that (even though it’s morally reprehensible). If someone wants to cast God as an architect of that ecosystem, I can understand how that brings comfort (even though it lacks biblical precedence). If someone rejects that idea based on negative evidence and doesn’t arbitrarily pick up a new one, I can accept that. What I can’t accept is making-up evidence under the disguise of some “logical conclusion.”

    If you look at the idea of religious morality vs. selected morality, determining which one is /more/ external to humanity, or more objective, is a perfectly answerable question. Given the subjectivity of biblical authors, regardless of divine inspiration, we have a very human enterprise between us and the desired moral code. By contrast, our biological history is written in stone (literally – fossils). Everything I’ve learned points to selected morality. People who make theo-political criticisms of atheistic ideologies muddy the waters for everyone, including intellectually honest theists. I fear that it does an immense amount of damage to our attitude, our culture and our education system.

  27. We have deeply ingrained in us a sense of the limitedness of this world that there is something more. In fact, our very wiring for God proves the existence of God. We desire something which transcends the limitations of this world means that we have within us a sort of participation in the eternal. . . Your hunger is not a sign that food is a projection, but your hunger in fact proves the existence of food—your hunger proves the reality of food. Right? It doesn’t mean that food is some kind of subjective projection or illusion. So that our desires are not misleading us: our desires order us to realities—so our desire for God.

    Oh, I wish, I wish! How many times have I not stared at the beautiful deep blue sky and wished, desired, and craved to just dive into it, and fly like superman, with just the power of my mind!

    1. You must have a “fly like superman” shaped hole in your soul, so it corresponds to something real!

      According to a less than reliable source, that is.

  28. What later works of Sartre and Camus is Haught (or naught) referring to?

    I have always admired Camus for his principled stand on various political issues. And he also seems to have lived a full and meaningful life.

    How is that the Scandinavian countries never show up in these discussions? These societies have not descended into despair and chaos.

    1. Yeah, as a Camus-derived-pseudonym holder, I call bullshit on this “Camus was all depressed and thought that life was for shit” stuff.

      Camus’s existentialism (though he didn’t like that word for it) was a call to action, a call for humanity to dump stupidities like gods and irrational hopes and address ourselves to finding and preserving real things in the real world that we could take (albeit finite) joy and meaning from. Sure, whether-or-not-to-commit-suicide is a big question—and he argued that we are all obligated to holler “Hell no!” and grab life by the throat.

      There’s nothing depressing about that, unless one is terminally faith-soaked.

      1. What I got out of existentialism from my community college Phil 101 class was the lesson that we should enjoy and cherish every moment, to find joy in the minutiae of an evening stroll or in every flake of falling snow. Then again, I didn’t define my existence in subservience to God at the time so maybe my mind was free enough to see the upside to that.

        1. Hey, that’s my approach too, though I didn’t get it from any philosophical -ism. It’s just a simple obvious conclusion from my atheism – this is the only life I’ve got, better make the most of it. 🙂

          (Does that make me a existentialist? That’s as good a label as any other, I guess)

    2. ‘I have always admired Camus for his principled stand on various political issues.’ Sunny.

      Have you read ‘The Stranger’?

  29. That asshole catholic has it all wrong. Atheists are just as likely to have existential yearnings as anyone else, but we don’t have to force ourselves to believe in childish fairly tales, with no good evidence to suppose they are true, in order to calm our fears of reality.

    Both Barron & Haught doing what religious apologists do best. Arguing from false/unproven premises, i.e. making shit up, and lying. Or maybe I have that backwards?

  30. The problem with these philosophers and theists, is that they think or thought that humans are some kind of special magical beeing beyond the material and animal realm, so of course their silly conclusions is that we should all be nihilists.

    But we’re not. We behave according to the human species, just as monkeys, fish, and birds behave according to theirs. And as such, no matter what logical or illogical conclusions we come to, we will still behave as according to our species. As it would just be the same as walk up to a donkey and tell it’s life is meaningless and it should just stop living, but of course that donkey would never listen, part of not understanding your language, but another part because it’s not in it’s nature.

  31. What is the point of Christians bringing up Nietzsche, Camus, and Sartre? Yes, all three said life might be harder without God, but did ANY of them decide that meant going back to God and Christianity? No! They decided atheism was the way to go, regardless of any discomforts. By bringing up these thinkers, Christian apologists only further discredit themselves by showing that even people they admire had to let go of God. But the reason fatuous twits like Barron feel compelled to bring up these thinkers is that they can’t bear to see an atheist who isn’t mentally suffering. What resentment and spite lie behind the smug faces of these Churchmen!

    And if Barron thinks Nietzsche would have cringed at “the new atheism” than he’s either ignorant or dishonest. The Nietzsche who wrote The Antichrist was far less civil and far more strident than the most firebreathing New Atheist. No book is more contemptuous and high-spirited in its attack on Christianity and the Judaeo-Christian God. Believers who think Nietzsche was more on their side are flat out wrong, because Nietzsche would most certainly cringe at being co-opted by people like Barron, who represent everything Nietzsche hated.

    1. I think choosing Nietzsche is a clever choice. He wasn’t just a nihilist, he was a moral nihilist. So you can point at him and say “See, no God, no meaning to life, no morals.” Then it’s just a hop, skip and a jump to Will to Power, Ubermensch, Beyond Good and Evil and voila, Nazis. So atheism leads to Hitler.

      1. I think that’s what some religious folks would say. Nietzsche on the other hand said he was the opposite of a nihilist, and his loudly voiced distaste for German nationalism and antisemitism means he would have regarded the Nazis with disgust.

        1. Indeed – I wrote a paper (since lost, but no big deal, since it wasn’t very good) for an undergraduate existentialism class defending the idea that Nietzsche is in fact quite the moralist, after a fashion. A better way (in retrospect) is to say it is that he’s all about values – just that he thinks that Christians have almost all the wrong ones.

  32. I hunger for a pleasant afterlife without any God, where quality beer flows in rivers. Good to know that the Father Barron says it exists!

  33. So many ways “Father” Barron is wrong, it would take a book to respond, but for now I’d just like to point out how “The Myth of Sisyphus” concludes:

    “Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks… This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill one’s heart.”

    Camus imagine Sisyphus as HAPPY. In spite of the fact, and possibly because of his courage in the face of the fact, that there is no “hope” in the sense that the Raping Children Church thinks we should have.

    (Is that what the “RC” stands for? I forget.)

  34. Good to know that we have irrefutable proof of the existence of perpetual motion machines, lucky numbers, or, indeed,anything else we feel we cannot live without.

    So, this god whose existence is hereby proven,is it like food, or heroin?

  35. And I do hope for accomplishment in science, and for love, friendship, learning, good books, good wine, and good noms—and that’s enough hope for me.

    Why is this never enough for the faith-heads?

    1. They claim that the only way something can be meaningful is if you get an infinite amount of it, then wonder why those who are content with the finite aren’t overwhelmed by sadness. Weird.

  36. Haught should read Sartre more carefully!!

    “Existentialism is nothing else but an attempt to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position. Its intention is not in the least that of plunging men into despair…..what man needs is to find himself again and to understand that nothing can save him from himself, not even a valid proof of the existence of God. In this sense existentialism is optimistic. It is a doctrine of action, and it is only by self-deception, by confining their own despair with ours that Christians can describe us as without hope.”

  37. I don’t understand this obsession with having objective meaning instead of subjective meaning. Why do theists think objective meaning is so much better? A hammer has objective meaning. I doubt it’s particularly happy about that.

    Subjective meaning is just fine, thank you very much. It’s better, even, because it means that we’re not just tools; we’re not just expendable cogs in the divine machine. Furthermore, since God himself presumably wasn’t created for a purpose, wouldn’t he himself have no objective meaning? I suppose the sophisticated theologians would just go on about him being the “ground of all objective meaning” or whatever.

    By the way, anyone know what email address Dr Coyne can be contacted at?

  38. If they really, truly, believe that religion is the sole source of meaning in life why do they not spend every waking moment practising it? Why do they foolishly waste time enjoying the company of friends and family? Savouring the taste of good food and drink? Enjoying great music? Art? Literature? Films? If religion is the sole source of meaning then why do they waste their time with these frivolous pursuits? I can’t help but feel that perhaps it’s because these things aren’t meaningless to them. In the same way that it’s not for us. I can’t help but feel that perhaps they have lots of sources of meaning in their life. Much like us. Except we’ve picked out the god bit and replaced it with truth.

    1. You know, they never ‘get’ that question. Ever. I’ve asked about religion. But hell, any subject.

      Take game forums. If you critize an MMO, like SWTOR, the biodrones (unthinking fanboys in denial of flaws and abusive in response) ask you why you’re there… And you ask them, if this game so great and its greatness so obvious, why are you here arguing with people you call trolls instead of playing the game?

      And you can find lots of people like that across many subjects. And they never, ever really seem to get it…

      1. I think the key thing here is that they never ‘get’ any of the questions that raise very relevant points and force them to consider that they might actually be incorrect with their ‘This is the first answer I came across and I’m sticking to it’ philosophy.

    2. Lance, I’m not interested in defending it to you but you clearly have no clue what religion is. And I’d like to see you you reconcile your question with an explanation as to why a lot of great art, music, literature, etc not only comes off a religious base but has a religious subject?
      Eg: The Carmina Burana (a bunch of drunken revelling monks), Handel’s Messiah, the Statue of David, Babette’s Feast (movie), most of John Milton’s poetry, Westvleteren (best beer in the world), much of the best calligraphy done worldwide over the past 4000 years, etc.

      If religion is your enemy, you should make a proper effort to know him.

      1. So if those things can be an expression of faith for theists or whatever, why is it that atheists are not supposed to enjoy those things or find meaning in them?

        Someone’s not making any sense here, and I’m fairly certain it’s a theist.

        1. Beats me …
          I didn’t mean to imply that at all. In fact, In my experience, the fundamentalists can be such plebs – very little appreciation for the finer things in life. I’m just trying point out that one really has no idea what religion is if one separates it from food, music, Belgian beer, etc. Though I think one could safely separate it from your average Hollywood movie. 😉

        2. To answer your question, just off the top of my head (I know religion fairly well), I’d say the idea of not being a creature / creation is like to being a painting without a painter – just a meaningless splash pigmented goo.

          I have an answer to that but I’m sure you’d enjoy it more coming up with your own.

        3. @Beachscriber

          I had no idea that I was a philistine. It never occurred to me that one had to have faith in order to appreciate religious-inspired art. I wonder what the deeply unorthodox Christian Tolstoy, who never met the rather more orthodox Dostoevsky, and whose work he profoundly admired, would have to say about that.

          I wonder why I find Bernini’s erotic statue of St. Theresa of Ávila fascinating and shocking; why do I love Milton? Why do I find the short poem in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 one of the best? Why was my most moving experience this year that of hearing the Birmingham Philharmonic rehearsing Mahler’s 10th in Lichfield Cathedral? Oh, it must be because, according to Father Barron above, I am a hardcore, and not a new, atheist; I don’t understand the difference, either.

          Seriously, Beachscriber, think of any ‘secular’ work of art; can you appreciate it? Of course you can. Daft argument.

          1. Eish! Relax. I’m just telling you what the religious person’s argument would be. A Godless universe leaves life meaningless the way a painting is meaningless without the painter, but since God does exist, these things are meaningful whether you believe in him or not. The fact that you find life meaningful is proof of God’s existence.

            The problem with that is discovered when you stop talking about meaning in some vague, general sense and start asking after the specific meanings that these experiences have to you. It’s ironic but we tend to equivocate very easily when we talk about meaning.

            If you ask me, it’s inconceivable that life actually be meaningless – whether God exists or not.

            But then, the idea of God is that in some sense he is life: “In him we live and have our being.” (Paul quoting the Greeks) … so now you see why I’m still an agnostic … and why I need to go and switch my brain off for while …

      2. Woohoo! I got a biter! So:

        I have no clue what religion is? Really? Well I apologise. And in order to wrong that right I’ve quickly gone to the online Collins dictionary to brush up my knowledge. Apparently religion is: belief in, worship of, or obedience to a supernatural power or powers considered to be divine or to have control of human destiny. Which is surprising really because that’s (although admittedly worded better than I would have done) exactly what I think it is. May I suggest that perhaps you don’t know what it is? Or at least you don’t know what I think it is?

        As to why a lot of great art, music etc comes from a religious base, well that one’s easy. Firstly, religion has long been a central and dominating aspect of people’s lives. And secondly, the church (using all that piously gained wealth) has long been a great patron of the arts.

        I guess a great support to my argument would be if I could point to a world of declining religiosity that is still generating great art, music, literature etc that lacks a religious basis. And that would be the one we live in now.

        And religion is not my enemy. Not sure where you got that from as I never said it. But even if it was, why should I spend time getting to know my enemy? I’d rather spend meaningless godless hours enjoying the company of my friends and family.

        1. I don’t have any qualms about doing the bitter and sarcastic thing (it can be fun) but I wasn’t actually being bitter or sarcastic or whatever when I said you clearly didn’t have a clue. I just meant it literally. Everything you just said screams ignorance. Really religious people see everything they do, whether it’s praying or having sex as an expression of their religion. All the overtly religious stuff is geared at pumping religious breath into everything else. If you don’t know that, then you know nothing.

          Your offering a dictionary definition is like me, the calligrapher, telling Prof Coyne I know what evolutionary biology is because I can trot out the definition. How far is the definition going to get me when I want to disagree on the details?

          Your defence that religion has dominated life in the past misses my point. Neither does it matter if religion is really your enemy or not. Even if it’s just an abstract hypothesis you disagree with, you should have some clue.

            1. @Beachscriber

              Here’s a question for you, as you know religion fairly well, I’d be interested in your considered theological opinion.

              Ex hypothesi, the kenotic Weltanschauung of the post-Judaic dharma centring on the Хριστός, that His lay should be as sclaves, would you posit manumission as:
              a) epistemologically, indicative of αϊρεσις
              b) contingent on hierographology or
              c) a genus of intercessory sensus fidelium inspiring the Sancta Sedes, strictly ex cathedra?

              1. Ha, easy one that! The answer comes straight to you from the holy book of Job chapter 15: “Then, Eli’phaz the Termite answered; “Should a wise man answer with windy knowledge, and fill himself with the East wind?”

                Exegesis: Notice that it mentions the East wind specifically, which is offshore in Israel and good for the surf, if it’s up, but too strong blows it flat because being the Mediterranean it can only be a mere wind swell to start with. The point is you can get schlotted there in an East wind but you’d have to cut and paste to Slaapstad if you want serious gnarlies.

          1. I’ll ignore the bitter and sarcastic bit as you’ve already admitted your mistake with regards to that. I’ll focus on the main crux of your point. That being your sweeping generalisation that ‘religious people see everything they do, whether it’s praying or having sex as an expression of their religion’. Are you serious? Do you honestly think that when a Christian is fu*king their wife they see that as an expression of their religion? Are you serious? And have you ever actually heard a religious person say that? The majority of people in US jails are religious, do you think those crimes were committed as an expression of their faith as well? When priests abuse children do you think that’s an expression of their faith? How can you make such a ludicrous statement? And on what basis? How about when they’re angry? When they break someone’s heart? When they lie? When they’re bitter? Selfish? Arrogant? Spiteful? Do you seriously suggest all of those acts are an expression of their faith? That’s so utterly ridiculous as to be absurd. People are complex creatures. We behave and act in many different ways in many different situations and for many different reasons. There is no one central locus for anyone’s behaviour. And if you don’t know that then I’m afraid that you sir, are the clueless know nothing.

            Your point about arguing with Prof Coyne about the details using a dictionary definition is fatuous because we were not discussing details. You claimed that I didn’t know what religion is. The term ‘religion’ is not the details. It’s a very broad general term, so I sought a definition of the broad general term. And I did it using reference material. If you wanted to argue the details then reference materials would still be the best place to turn. You would simply turn to reference material that covered the details.

      3. Lance, I’m not interested in defending it to you but you clearly have no clue what religion is.

        Neither do you.

        Religion is just made up fairy tales.

        It also evolves quite rapidly not being grounded in reality or testable.

        The only way the religious have ever found to settle their ever increasing differences is war and violence.

        I realize you aren’t very bright and not used to thinking. Read about Monnie-ism of Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the Branch Davidians, or the Scientologists, all religions.

        Where did they come from? Since these are recent history, we know. Guys like Moon, Hubbard, and David Koresh just made it up as they went along.

        1. Religion doesn’t evolve that rapidly when you think of it as a conceptual thing. It is quite the opposite actually. Conceptual “things” go out of date faster than most religions.

          1. If you look at xian’s beliefs, they change often and quite rapidly. And this is on the scale of years and decades.

            The Southern Baptists were taken over a few decades ago by right wing extremists. They threw out most of the central Baptist principles and have been trying to centralize the cult.

            They used to be pro science and in an important US court case, were against the creationists. Now days they are hard core YEC creationists and can and will toss people for accepting religion.

            This whole anti-gay crusade the fundies are on is just a few years old. I don’t remember them really much caring even a decade ago. It looks like they just needed a group to hate and nonwhites and women were now socially unacceptable.

            During the later 20th century, there were huge battles among the moderate Protestants about ordaining women. These days in some of them women are approaching 50% of the ministers in some sects and no one cares.

            The sects are also consrantly speciating, splitting. My natal sect seems to have a schism every few years. There are so many pieces no one knows how many.

            The RCC used to be liberal leaning and emphasized social justice. Just lately, the hierarchy has seemed to consist of rwisted old right wingers and they are now copying the fundies and ranting and raving about the gays and the evils of birth control.

      4. beacsriber the idiot:

        If religion is your enemy, you should make a proper effort to know him.

        I just guessed that you weren’t very bright.

        You really are very stupid.

        Most of us on these threads are ex-religious, mostly ex-Xians. I was a xian myself for many decades.

        Where do you think atheists come from anyway? The stork brings them? People are fleeing that hopeless wreck of xianity by the millions per year in the USA.

        PS Some of the leaders in the atheist movement are ex-ministers. It’s easy for the brighter and more educated to think their way out of the superstition.

      5. I think you should re-read what Beachscriber is writing, I don’t think the invective is necessary. Though the art, food, music angle conflates culture and religion too much (though they are often tightly intertwined), it is used often by believers in belief to the tune of “Uh yeah, well look at all this art and crap that religion has inspired and where is all the science art? You can’t explain that!” Though, I will say that when religion is the culture, the art, food and music reflect this. Religion, or at least it’s mythology, is inspiring to a great many people and they express this in their culture, though religion is not the only form of inspiration. As the religiosity of a culture decreases, the percentage of religious themes in artwork also decreases, yet art, food, and music are still made. As Richard Feynman once said, “Is no one inspired by our present picture of the universe? This value of science remains unsung by singers, you are reduced to hearing not a song or poem, but an evening lecture about it. This is not yet a scientific age.” I would contend that the wonders of science need more than just the orators that tirelessly promote it through education and documentaries, though they bring a certain poetry along with them, we need culture to reflect and praise our scientific achievements, our knowledge about the world. I look for this, and I see it beginning to take hold, but still, though our technology provides us amazing expressions of this science, we do not yet live in a scientific age.

        1. There are some beginnings …

          What are some popularizations, like _Cosmos_, if not an attempt to be arty about science?

          Not to mention that Symphony of Science guy, and I got the impression that some people in scienceometrics (citation analysis, etc.) like the pretty visuals that result.

  39. So… If I’m driving down the Interstate and I’m 50 miles from the nearest town, intersection or gas station (like in much of Wyoming) and I have to pee, a toilet must be in my trunk? Am I getting this right?

    My bladder is telling me, quite urgently, I really need a toilet. And since this is hard-wired into my brain, ergo Porta John…


  40. I refute the Argument from Hunger (which seeks to argue that there is a god) with the Argument from Unicorn (which argues that there is no god):

    Every kid desperately wants a unicorn. And yet unicorns don’t exist. If they did, then kids would not want them so desperately.

    Every theist desperately wants there to be a god. By analogy, we see that god must not exist.

    (Oh, the many logical fallacies…)

    1. And yet, no child “desperately wants a unicorn” until they are presented with the concept of a unicorn. Feral children, for instance, do not have this longing.

    2. James, I don’t buy that either. My problem with the hunger thing is that it is an analogy parading as an argument. It has a strong emotional appeal. It is obviously true that hunger proves the existence of food, and who hasn’t ever wished for a miracle, a divine intervention? The problem is food and hunger are a physical affair, God is not. That is why it is just an analogy.

      1. I don’t think hunger even proves the existence of food. Food proves the existence of food.

      2. Well, of course, it is possible that, say, after a cataclysmic event which destroys all food, that in fact the hunger is there precisely because of the absence of food but the idea is not that hunger proves the existence of specific instances of food. To see how hunger proves food, do the philosophy, unpack what hunger is. It is not merely the desire, or even the need for food, it is part of the cycle of feeding – the not having fed part. You can’t speak of not having fed if there is no such thing as food.

  41. I always find Catholic priests amongst the most insidious of religious commentators because they’re usually quite educated, sometimes highly so, which gives them a demeanor that seems more deep and thoughtful than, say, your average ranting evangelical fundie spewing Bible-based hate. Of course, beneath the veneer of deepity, the content is same vacuous nonsense (see video above), but you can understand how the “faithful” might be taken in by it if they don’t have their thinking caps on, something the church deeply discourages, of course.

    1. I don’t go to church and I don’t consider myself a catholic anymore but I wouldn’t qualify the video above vacuous non-sense. he is very good actually and addresses well the differences between existentialists and new atheists.

      1. What differences?

        It’s already been pointed out that he misstated the views of the existentialists.

      2. Ditto, I haven’t been to mass since the last time I was forced to go at age 14. But I just found all of his points facile and unconvincing, in spite of his calculated pausing to “think deeply” and looking into the middle distance as if channeling some divine inspiration.

        His claim that you can’t be a “serious atheist” unless you experience (or at least are aware of) some kind of Sartrian existential angst is just a tired variation of the “Ah, but has Dawkins read ?” trope. Answer: No, and so what?

        The message of the psalm he quoted is: you can’t live a truly fulfilled life that is only concerned the matters of the material world, of the here and now. Oh yeah, wanna bet? I have nothing against people who feel they need to trek into the spiritual realm in order to find the answers they seek, but don’t tell me I’m only living half a life if I don’t do that.

        Finally, his claim that we’re “wired for God” is really just a misrepresentation of the fact that we’re actually wired for curiosity, self-reflection, empathy and agency detection, and of course that, as humans, we’re uniquely aware of our inescapable mortality. These are very different from being “wired for God”, and again his claim doesn’t stand up to the slightest scrutiny.

        1. Grr, did it again. I must stop using < as a meta character. It should have read:

          …the “Ah, but has Dawkins read [insert your favorite philosopher or sophisticated theologian(tm) here]?” trope.

    2. I always find Catholic priests amongst the most insidious of religious commentators because they’re usually quite educated..

      Not anymore.

      The RCC hasn’t been able to get many good priests for decades now. Almost no one wants to be a (supposed) life long virgin with no mates, family, children etc..

      Most of the ones I’ve seen are really warped old men. Even the higher ups show this. They also generally seem pretty dull witted intellectually.

      1. I guess I was thinking more about the ones they roll out to give the RC view on NPR programs and such like. In my mind my old parish priest was a smart cookie (he used come round our house and chat about the affairs of the day and play his guitar and drink my dad’s Scotch :D), but then I was only a dumb kid, so maybe I was easily impressed…

        I’ve no doubt the the church is having a lot of difficulty attracting the brightest and best these days. Dunno how the Jesuits are doing.

        1. The other difficulty is that for about the last 20 years, US Catholics may have somewhat plateaued in their median education.

    3. Being better educated (and perhaps more intelligent) than the typical religious babbler makes them better equipped to come up with more subtle rationalizations to harmonize the cognitive dissonance; and more likely to have encountered the best rationalizations that the cleverest theists of the last 2000 years have come up with.

      The difficulty is that finding subtle weaknesses in an argument is twice as hard as coming up with the argument in the first place. When relying on the work of people even cleverer than you, finding the glitches is even less likely.

    1. Charming isn’t he? Has he not considered we love life as much as anyone, and don’t want it to end, but we refuse to over-ride reason to delude ourselves into a belief that there’s enough reason to believe in an afterlife to arbitrarily have faith in a book.

      1. 1. How does he know why I don’t kill myself? Is he a mind reader?
        2. What evidence is there for the notion that “hope”, “reason”, “beauty”, and “faith” have “exterior sources”? As far as I can tell, those things exist within my mind, not exterior to it. It’s possible that they got into my mind from somewhere else but I know of absolutely no evidence that this is actually the case.

        1. You usually kill yourself because you have lost hope or because you are mentally sick, culturally speaking of course.
          These are the main reasons. But maybe you can learn me more about why people don’t kill themselves?
          Oh, I found it! It is because we don’t have free will!

          1. No, I specifically asked why I personally don’t kill myself — because when you use the pronoun “you” it sounds like you’re talking about the speaker. If you were speaking in the third person then you should have used a third person pronoun or the word “people” or something like that.

            Your explanation for why people kill themselves leaves a lot to be desired. I’m pretty sure no one has ever killed themselves because they ran out of “hope.” “Hope” is too abstract to be of any use in such a discussion unless you care to define it. “Mentally sick” doesn’t really do anything for me either. How is “mentally sick” defined; how is “mentally healthy” defined for that matter? Sometimes I think the world is so fucked up that it’s the happy-go-lucky folks who are messed up in the head…how does that factor into your analysis?

            I notice you don’t even bother to address the important question.

            1. You are convinced that those things aren’t outside the mind and this is your right. I think the opposite. I think that the consciousness is an uncreated primal stuff.

        1. You are a light atheist compare to existentialists…. ;p
          From what I can read on the blog, the cultural context of the US makes it hard to say loud you are an atheist. It sounds like it is a courageous thing to admit. And for that same reason, I think you guys are overreacting whenever spirituality comes around. The idea of theism is not that silly. What men wrote about it thousands years ago maybe, but the concept isn’t that odd. And I think Fr Barron brings good point from a philosophical perspective. But no one here will accept that a good point can be brought by a theist…

          1. The idea of theism is not that silly.
            Yes it is.
            What men wrote about it thousands years ago maybe, but the concept isn’t that odd.
            No, it was actually less silly when they wrote about it thousands of years ago because they didn’t know any better. We do.
            And I think Fr Barron brings good point from a philosophical perspective. But no one here will accept that a good point can be brought by a theist…
            That last one is a ridiculous cheap shot and patently untrue.

            And bringing up existentialism is NOT a good point from a philosophical perspective. They were mostly philosophical lightweights. I don’t know why Nietzsche gets lumped in with them, but he’s a red herring because he was not an atheist, was not advocating atheism, and if he were alive today would probably be one of Dawkins’ biggest detractors (he seemed to have though that science was intellectually barren and stultifying).

  42. Nietzsche was mad at christianity and morality but from what I read from his work, he resonates a lot with the oriental teaching.
    In Beyond Good and Evil (beyond our dual mode of grasping, he describes what is an enlightened man (the Objective man) in a way a buddhist wouldn’t deny:

    “His MIRRORING AND ETERNALLY SELF-POLISHING SOUL no longer knows how to affirm, no longer how to deny; he does not command; neither does he destroy.”

    “The objective man is in truth a mirror accustomed to prostration before everything that wants to be known, with such desires only as knowing or “reflecting” implies–he waits until something comes, and then expands himself sensitively, so that even the light footsteps and gliding-past of spiritual beings may not be lost on his surface and film Whatever “personality” he still possesses seems to him accidental, arbitrary, or still oftener, disturbing, so much has he come to regard himself as the passage and reflection of outside forms and events He calls up the recollection of “himself” with an effort, and not infrequently wrongly, he readily confounds himself with other persons, he makes mistakes with regard to his own needs, and here only is he unrefined and negligent”.

  43. I imagine, for a man who has dedicated his entire life to this God idea, that to lose that would, for him, represent nihilism. He gave up sex and a diverse wardrobe in exchange for his own “meaning” for life. What he fails to see is that nihilism is not a logical conclusion, it’s a subjective one. How anyone would take advice on life and meaning from a man who has given up on living is beyond me. The disastrous meme of the priest as a symbol of wisdom and morality is one that I hope dies out soon. It has facilitated in the rape of children, and in the trust of so many clueless people in the lame words of these men in opposition to their own reason. The clerical collar should no longer be a symbol of trust, but that of sad men who have abandoned the world, yet presume to provide guidance for it.

    1. I have a feeling it’s only a matter of time. The nun’s habit seems to already represent a wasted life, at least in much of popular culture.

  44. I don’t know about you but i desire a teleporter / jetpack / atm but… That doesn’t make it exist.

    1. I’m positive that atm’s exist.

      We have great video of a guy flying with a jetpack, so it exists.

      Still working on that teleporter . . .

  45. No, Mr. Barron, atheism is not the opiate. Atheism doesn’t try to mask or deny profound yearnings or transcendent experiences. Atheism is simply honest about why we have them.

    Which brings me to the difference between us and the dog. The difference is that our large and sophisticated brains are able to create fuller, more complex mental models of reality, models that include things like our own mortality, the mortality of others, our own suffering, the suffering of others. Of course we won’t (most of us) be content simply to eat and sleep. We’ll, naturally, concern ourselves with trying to alleviate the problems our big brains are able to perceive.

    That’s where the yearning for more than food and shelter comes from. Not from any stupid sensus divinitatis.

          1. The latter.

            Our big brains both produce and perceive meaning (the “Yes” to the first statement) — and meaning does not exist outside of our minds (perception and production of it).

            But brains in general seem to do this to various extents, not just big ones.

            1. And it is for you out of question that meaning exists by itself? Because if it is the case, it is normal that a more complex brain would be able to grasp meaning while a less complex one wouldn’t be able to see it.

              1. It is for me.

                But whether it exists by, in and of itself or is a product of our and others’ brains, it would still be “normal that a more complex brain would be able to grasp meaning while a less complex one wouldn’t be able to see it” (for some senses of “normal”).

                If meaning does exist by, in and of itself: Where?


              2. It would be God’s attribute. Consciousness would then be an uncreated property of the universe. It is in the nature of consciousness to produce meaning, just like an apple tree is meant to give apples.

              3. It would be God’s attribute. Consciousness would then be an uncreated property of the universe. It is in the nature of consciousness to produce meaning, just like an apple tree is meant to give apples.

                But how do you know this?

                You don’t. It’s really that simple. It’s not enough to just have some made up story that sort of sounds good. You need to adduce some evidence for it.

              4. Eastern traditions are more technical when it comes to God. They developed method so you can look at your self in a different way and see its uncreated nature. Because it deals with consciousness, you have to understand that no instrument could check at your place how infinite, out of time, the process of awareness is. This is how tricky it is…

      1. Our sophisticated brains allow us to “perceive meaning” insofar as we can model how others might be likely to respond to facts about the world.

        That is what “meaning” is: our responses to facts about the world, facts which are internalized via our sense organs, and synthesized/analyzed by our brains. The illusion of external/objective meaning is brought about by the fact that, all of us being homo sapiens, there will be significant overlap in how we respond to various facts.

        But you can’t deny that there is also significant diversity among human responses to given facts. This demonstrates that meaning is not external.

        But really, my original comment didn’t have much to do with the slippery notion of “meaning”. I was only showing that we have more complicated desires than a dog because we can comprehend more of the complexity of reality. We don’t have more complicated desires than a dog “BECAUSE OF GOD!!1!eleven!”

        1. Or maybe it is because we can have a wider comprehension of our reality that God is a concept that imposes itself…

          Of course meaning is slippery. It is because it is immaterial and it can’t be measured. But you can’t deny it exists.
          And not only facts can provide meaning. Justice, beauty, harmony, joy, love are all things that give meaning to meaning. That they are subjective doesn’t alter their reality. You couldn’t have objectivity without subjectivity.

          1. “…you can’t deny [meaning] exists.”

            I didn’t.

            “And not only facts can provide meaning. Justice, beauty, harmony, joy, love are all things that give meaning to meaning.”

            Those things emerge from the way we humans interact with the world and with each other. They are results, not causes. This is not to deny their existence, you understand. But they are not external, objective entities. Why is this such a scary notion for so many people?

            “You couldn’t have objectivity without subjectivity.”

            What? I can certainly imagine a universe composed entirely of inanimate matter. Plenty of things existing objectively without subjects there to experience them. Are you thinking of that old saw “if a tree falls and no one is there, does it make a sound?” The tree’s collision with the ground does exactly what it always does, producing sound waves etc, whether an ear is there to capture that data or not.

            1. You can only imagine a universe composed entirely of inanimate matter because of your own subjectivity. Without this, objectivity wouldn’t exist. But these are conceptual division, they have no existence in themselves.

              1. Objects can and do exist whether or not a subject is there to witness them. Object permanence is generally learned before the age of 12 months.

                But what does this have to do with my original comment?

                “…these are conceptual division, they have no existence in themselves.”

                This sounds a lot like what Dan, Ant, Sasqwatch and I have been saying about meaning.

  46. Anyone who thinks Nietzsche advocated relentless application of logic must not have read the first page of Nietzsche.

    That’s not supposed to be a knock on the guy. But it’s not exactly a secret that his style of philosophy was distinctly antirational. Or maybe “arational” would be the better way to put it.

  47. Does the fact that most religions believe in multiple deities mean that multiple deities exist? Because most all societies go to war mean that war is acceptable? Because rape occurs in all societies and in animals mean that rape is acceptable? Strange reasoning?

  48. the criticism is that New Atheists don’t follow their beliefs to the logical conclusion—the despair and nihilism that supposedly emerges when we realize that there is no God, no afterlife, and no supernatural basis for morality.

    Let me reply with this:

    Highly religious people are less motivated by compassion than are non-believers:

    “”Love thy neighbor” is preached from many a pulpit. But new research from the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that the highly religious are less motivated by compassion when helping a stranger than are atheists, agnostics and less religious people.”

    “”Overall, we find that for less religious people, the strength of their emotional connection to another person is critical to whether they will help that person or not,” said UC Berkeley social psychologist Robb Willer, a co-author of the study. “The more religious, on the other hand, may ground their generosity less in emotion, and more in other factors such as doctrine, a communal identity, or reputational concerns.””

    A pox on all religious houses!

    1. That could also be interpreted to mean that atheists help only their friends and family while religious folks help everyone. I’d have to actually check out the data to know whether that would be a reasonable conclusion, but “helps friends less on average” can also mean “helps strangers more in absolute terms”.

  49. About 1m 36s into the rant he states: “Fulfillment, Truth, Goodness, Justice, in other words God” I’ve found these qualities using Logic and Reason. If that is God, then I have it. Why do I need a Religion?

  50. Because we’re not gutless cowards I guess.

    The flipside of that would be possibly be hy do christians bothering storing up riches on earth if they’re going to heaven?

    1. Do any of these wankers actually talk to atheists?

      I think they avoid doing so *precisely* because they might learn something contrary to what they already “know”. Nothing fucks up a book-worshipper more than having to change their mind.

    2. I suspect he’s talked to (or, more likely, at) plenty – it’s just that he just hasn’t listened to any of them.

      1. There’s the rub – it’s one thing to talk, another thing entirely to listen.

        Maybe this chap only listens to the voices in his head – or to people with larger hats than he.

  51. As one prone to depression and anxiety, I found that once I shed my god-belief at about 15 – absolutely nothing happened. I can’t recall what, if anything, I expected to happen; nonetheless my general state of mind was more or less the same.

    What I did eventually realise, however, was that anything that I did, or anything that happened to me, was completely up to me to deal with, suffer the consequences from or claim any associated rewards. No deus ex machina was going to pull my arse out of any fire I happened to fall into; no giant hand would crush my enemies and drive them before me (whilst I heard the lamentations of their women). It wasn’t a blinding revelation, more of “Huh. OK, good” kind of moment. Sort of like when I discovered at 7 that my parents were actually Santa (that was actually kind of a relief as I’d “calculated” that Santa would have to travel at one billion miles per hour to visit every child in the world in 24 hours and deliver their presents AND eat all their snacks – this was very troubling to me; I didn’t believe in magic and assumed Santa had some kind of photon-drive and wondered why he wouldn’t share this technology with the world).

    I actually remained a deist – a believer in “something” – for around the next decade, but only in the back of my mind and only because I hadn’t really thought about it. The word “atheist” and its definition hadn’t even entered my thinkosphere but once it did, I realised I’d more or less been behaving and thinking as one since 15, deism notwithstanding. Bingo. I’m an atheist. Big deal. Now what? Back to life, I guess.

    I’m not sure if I should feel offended at the assumption that I should be a “proper” atheist and come to the “logical conclusions” of despair and amorality like Camus and Sartre (particularly because I have those problems anyway; god-belief or not) – but I’m quite sure that I’m suppressing more than a little chuckle at a fucking theologian/used-god salesman telling me (a) to be more logical and (b) be a better atheist.


    (suppression failed)

    1. Correction: amorality/immorality isn’t one of the problems I have. I think the Vatican has more problems there than little old me.

      But the other stuff? Probably. It’s ok though. I’m a singer in a band. That’ll fix everything.

  52. Not despairing enough! Doesn’t the man know how much despair I feel when I hear a religious nutcase like him spout out such rubbish?

    Actually maybe it is a good thing that this priest is talking as he does. I think the thing that triggered my eventual disbelief was a sermon at a mass my family attended on holiday in Cornwall. I can only have been seven or eight at the time but I can clearly remember the priest saying that those who did not believe in God may as well commit suicide. I also remember my parents seemed embarrassed by it and would not talk about it afterwards. I guess having friends and relatives who were atheists, it didn’t seem quite right to them; on the other hand they would not have felt able to openly criticise a priest.

  53. The simple statement that there is no proof for the existance of god results in 8 minutes & 30 seconds of christian apologetics. Are we supposed to hear some profound sophistication in the retort? I feel like I am being sold a slicer-dicer at a carnival.

  54. All Fr Barron has successfully argued for is that we are built to be perpetually dissatisfied. This is not a novel idea of course. Others have observed this tragedy of happiness and hedonic treadmill. We do always want something more. Is it possible for evolution to produce a creature that has a satisfaction limit? Of course, but a hungrier mutant will always out-compete it. A species that has dominated the world cannot be expected to be less competitive.

    We always want more – more knowledge, more riches, more sex, and more of all the things that tend to give us greater progeny. Basically we want more life – or the business of living. Blame evolution for that. We who are built to want more life, however are able to delude ourselves that there’s more of it after death. Is this a bug in our software, or a feature? I’m not sure.

    Our built-in longing for something more (even something greater than us, or transcendent) is explainable from evolution and the simulation-capable features of our brains. Some are happy deluding themselves. But some of us can see through the mythology and delusion, believing in Jesus is not an option. But the alternative view i submit is actually better: our bodies are temporary but our genes live on; we are built from stardust and we are the way the universe knows itself.

    1. But why would the universe want to know itself?
      It would make sense if consciousness is an uncreated property of the universe. It would explain the presence of meaning, why there is something instead of nothing and it would give evolution a new signification.

      Otherwise, from a materialist perspective, it is absurd to say that the universe knows itself…

      1. It’s absurd to say that the universe does not know itself, and asinine to assume that there is any “want” involved, especially from a materialist perspective. I’m made of the universe, I strive to know the universe and so the universe knows itself. Not hard to understand. DV is quoting the poetry of Carl Sagan, you’d do well to familiarize yourself with it.

        1. I know Carl. And I do agree that through humanity, the universes knows itself. But I too think this is one of the best teleological argument. It has the advantage to give meaning to meaning. Meaning would exist by itself. We can’t know if it is true but in front of the choice left, I’ll choose what I find useful.

          1. Utility is a poor criterion for determining if something is so.

            “It seems to me a fundamental dishonesty and a fundamental treachery to intellectual integrity to hold a belief because you think it’s useful, and not because you think it’s true.” — Bertrand Russell, tv interview (1959)


            1. You are sure that if I had to choose between something true or something useful, I would choose what is useful. Usefulness is useful. Even evolution “knows” that…

              1. Besides what Mr. Russell thinks about the concept of usefulness, why would you choose truth vs usefulness, especially when you can’t know the truth…

              2. Well, you said so yourself that you’d use what you find useful, no? Bernard would say that if you don’t know what’s true or not, you should suspend judgment.

                Evolution does not know about utility, only fitness.

                And I still don’t know the meaning of giving meaning to meaning. It seems as incoherent as giving length to length or hunger to hunger.


              3. No way I’ll suspend my judgment if I can’t know what is true. To not choose what is useful would be to suspend my judgment.

                Also, we know what causes hunger and what causes length. But the nature of meaning is more mysterious.

              4. We know what causes length? Srsly? I think that is incoherent. Just putting words into sentence-like form doesn’t make them meaningful.

              5. What “causes” length is the measurement between A and B. I know, it isn’t an appropriate way to talk about length, but I was responding to the inappropriate argument that length causes length… Add to this that English is not my first language…

              6. So you’d tell an expedient (‘useful’) lie, if it furthered your aims? Okay, so might we all. But I’m not sure I’d feel good about it – depends on circumstances I guess.

                But none of that would make it ‘true’. And there’s always the possibility that further developments will expose it.

                And nobody would claim that what evolution “knows” (i.e. does) is always good.

              7. Damn, that was a reply to “You are sure that if I had to choose between something true or something useful, I would choose what is useful. Usefulness is useful. Even evolution “knows” that…”

                Bugger wp and its weird nesting…

              8. Let me rephrase this: when you CAN’T know what is trute, why wouldn’t you choose the useful option? You don’t have to lie here because truth is unknowable or not absolute.
                As for evolution “knowing” what is useful, it was a “clin d’oeil” to a previous comment that was saying the universe “knows” itself through us…

              9. Well, “if I had to choose between something true or something useful” does kinda imply that what is ‘true’ is known, with at least reasonable probability. It’s okay to choose the ‘useful’ option, so long as you don’t claim it to be true. If you want to argue that the truth can never be 100% certain therefore we shouldn’t bother about it, I think that’s just an argument for giving up before we start.

                Best example I can think of is Ptolemy vs Copernicus. Ptolemy’s earth-centred solar system, with epicycles, actually predicted planetary movements (‘saved the appearances’?) far better than Copernicus’ almost-true sun-centred circular orbits. So Ptolemy was more useful. It was also a dead end. When Kepler worked out that orbits were elliptical, the sun-centred theory became the way forward.

                Nothing wrong with choosing the ‘useful’ option so long as one recognises it’s merely a convenient rule of thumb.

          2. >>it is absurd to say that the universe knows itself

            >>I do agree that through humanity, the universes knows itself

            make up your mind.

            1. I’m saying that the universe, as a thing, can’t know itself. It cannot have a holistic understanding of what it is.

              But if you believe that the universe is not just a thing, that consciousness is an uncreated property of the universe (and therefore meaning), well, yes the universe can know itself, and humanity would then be an “organ” of that consciousness for the material level in which we evolve…

              1. conveniently you have defined “a thing” as something that cannot know itself, ergo, you are correct by definition.

                if you mean there is a non-material ingredient required for the ability of knowing, then you’re assuming dualism contrary to evidence.

          3. I’ll give you props for most of that response, but at the end, when faced with that choice, between made-up things, and those things we can know to be true, I choose not to fool myself. If “meaning” can even be a thing rather than merely a psychological motivation, then I will find it in the beauty which surrounds me and not the lint in my navel.

            1. The thing is, you can’t honestly know about the true nature of meaning. In front of that impossibility, I prefer to choose what is useful. I’m a practical guy you know. 🙂

  55. The Argument from Hunger, as applied to computational complexity theory:

    My need for a polynomial time algorithm for checking the satisfiability of a Boolean formula proves that such an algorithm must exist. Hence P = NP. Can I haz Clay Mathematical Institution Prize?

    The Argument from Hunger, as applied to number theory:

    My need for the truth of the statement that the zeroes of the Riemann Zeta function to lie on the line Re(z) = 1/2 is proof that this statement must be true. Can I haz another Clay Mathematical Institution Prize?

    In all fairness though, it is not me, but the good Father who deserves the prizes, for the proofs are but simple applications of his groundbreaking new technique.

  56. As a despairing, atheist-leaning agnostic myself, I think the priest is right. In the grand scheme of things, any existential ‘meaning’ is laughable.

  57. Oh, I love it. The Argument from Hunger. Okay, I want a car that will go from 0 to 100 in three seconds, and cost (counts up pocket money) $27. Now I know it logically MUST exist, all I have to do is find it. 😉

    More seriously, on another tack, I don’t think I have ever felt more depressed than when we had to read one of Graham bloody Greene’s novels at school. What a total downer. If that’s what being Catholic does for you….

    1. Try Monsignor Quixote. It is light and funny, whilst being serious and literary at the same time.

  58. Camus repeatedly denied that he was an existentialist. He asserted that his position was that life is absurd. And I would say that his philosophical position (such as it is) is more in line with Ecclesiastes than Existentialism.

    1. Thanks Justin Zimmer. Its a pity that christians won’t even allow themselves to comprehend.

  59. His conclusion of the necessity of nihilistic despair is a simple enough reasoning error. Essentially, he and other theists are assuming that since God is their basis for morality/purpose/hope/etc, that absent God, there can be no morality/purpose/hope/etc. This only holds in so far as God is the only basis for such. This is not necessarily the case.

    These concepts all involve giving ordering relationships over a set of options/choices; mathematically, a poset. The abstract existence of (for non-trivial cases) a non-empty set of posets can be shown (constructively, for finite choice sets) from standard set theory axioms.

    The idea that “You ought to do what God says” or other theistic is-ought bridge can serve to specify one. However, it’s a premise that is essentially arbitrary; if not itself a primary point of faith, then one resting on some other horn of the Münchhausen Trilemma. In so far as it is an independent axiom, an alternate axiomatic premise may be taken as is-ought bridge basis instead — some of which may end up yielding meanings significantly resembling the usual senses of morality/purpose/hope/etc that humans regularly use.

    Of course, showing that some particular alternate yields such resemblance is far less trivial.

    Still, the response boils down to is “I can pick something else as my basis, arbitrarily.”

  60. There is probably nothing that arouses more scornful pity in me than the christian rant that life has no meaning unless they exist forever. Totally disgusting self absorbed bullshit.

    Suck It jesus, christ.

  61. Many years ago I had a very good friend, now sadly passed on, who was an Evangelical (actually a member of the Vineyard). She knew I was an atheist, and we had no problems with each other on the matter of religion. It was a rather tough period for both of us, and we had a conversation late one evening that turned to the question of suicide.

    I offered that, since I believed that there wasn’t anything after this life, suicide wasn’t an option. Things would get better probably (they did), but ending it would mean the end of hope as well. I said that, if I really thought there were an afterlife, I’d be off in a flash (trusting like Bertrand Russell that god would forgive me, that’s his job).

    My friend on the other hand said that if she thought there really wasn’t an afterlife where she would be punished, then she would end it all.

    Despair is not the exclusive property of the believer or non-believer, and both can find themselves similarly constrained.

    1. I know, or knew, people in that category – believers in the afterlife who topped themselves. I can’t say for sure they wouldn’t have done it if they were atheists. Wasted lives.

    1. I admit it is a very smart argument. So smart that it settles at a stroke all the big open problems in Mathematics. Also so smart that it might potentially lead to a proof of the existence of the Higgs Boson, if only those physicists could all make up their minds and decide that they really had a hunger for the Higgs boson to exist.

  62. Non-alchemy is the drug. Chemists dull their senses to the deeper reality and deny mankind’s golden nature. Alchemy says “stop taking the drug and wake up”.

      1. Oh yes. Just watched it. I think some very fine chemical products inspired the animator for that sequence 😉

  63. “That’s a new theological argument to me: The Argument from Hunger.”

    Argumentum ad Famem.

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