Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Cracks in the granite façade

Before he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Christopher Hitchens used to cultivate the superior nonchalance concerning his own mortality which is part of the militant atheist mystique. But now that his mortality looms large and near, there are cracks in the granite façade:

So I get straight to the point and say what the odds are. The swiftest way of doing this is to note that the thing about Stage Four is that there is no such thing as Stage Five. Quite rightly, some people take me up on it. I recently had to accept that I wasn’t going to be able to attend my niece’s wedding, in my old hometown and former university in Oxford. This depressed me for more than one reason, and an especially close friend inquired, “Is it that you’re afraid you’ll never see England again?” As it happens he was exactly right to ask, and it had been precisely that which had been bothering me, but I was unreasonably shocked by his bluntness. I’ll do the facing of hard facts, thanks. Don’t you be doing it, too. And yet I had absolutely invited the question. Telling someone else, with deliberate realism, that once I’d had a few more scans and treatments I might be told by the doctors that things from now on could be mainly a matter of “management,” I again had the wind knocked out of me when she said, “Yes, I suppose a time comes when you have to consider letting go.” How true, and how crisp a summary of what I had just said myself.

http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2010/12/hitchens-201012

(On a related note, John Loftus churns out blistering, blustery attacks on his former faith. Yet the sudden death of Ken Pulliam shook him to the core–in his own words.)

I’m not suggesting that a deathbed conversion is in the offing. Especially for the high profile atheist, losing face is a fate worse than hell. Mustn’t let the team down.

There’s another reason, beyond the dire prognosis, that Hitchens has lost some of his swagger. Back when he was able-bodied, it was easier to live in denial because he kept himself so busy. What with his reading and writing, interviews, speeches, debates, and far-flung travels–he was a perpetual-motion machine. That made it easy to keep the bark of death at bay.

But due to the effects of cancer, as well as the side-effects of cancer therapy, he is forced to contemplate his mortality every day and every hour.

I feel a natural bond with members of my own generation. The kids I grew up with. We came of age together at the same time and place.

But I also feel a certain bond with the generation before me. Sometimes I go back and watch an old TV show I saw as a kid in the 60s. One thing I’m instantly reminded of is the ubiquitous character actors who used to satellite in and out of so many different TV shows back then. “Ah, yes, I remember him (or her)!” I say to myself.

Yet, at the same time, I also know, as I watch these instantly recognizable actors, that most of them are long gone. And for members of the younger generation, they would be unrecognizable. So quickly forgotten. So missable.

People aren’t discrete, self-contained units. We come in packages. Packages of time and space.

If you don’t have God, you don’t have anything.

21 comments:

  1. I’m not suggesting that a deathbed conversion is in the offing. Especially for the high profile atheist, losing face is a fate worse than hell. Mustn’t let the team down.

    I'm not sure how you would know what his motives are.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Ryan,

    I think that one's pretty obvious given all the empirical evidence...

    ReplyDelete
  3. Not to me. I've not seen any indication that he gives a flip about what anyone thinks about him, be it believer or atheist.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Would you rejoice if he did have a deathbed conversion? Or would you use it as an occasion to further rail against the guy and people like him? Just wondering.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Why would I rail against a deathbed conversion?

    ReplyDelete
  6. Steve asked:
    ---
    Why would I rail against a deathbed conversion?
    ---

    Because HD is a one-trick pony who doesn't know how to update his views in the face of new evidence.

    ReplyDelete
  7. "Would you rejoice if he did have a deathbed conversion?"

    Yes. And so would the angels in Heaven who rejoice when a lost sheep returns.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I asked my question in all sincerity. I'm wondering if you'd be genuinely happy about it or if your response would be one of, "Oh, yeah, he spends his life bashing God and then calls on him in the eleventh hour just to avoid hell." I'm hoping it would be the latter. But I don't know.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I meant the former, not the latter.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Hacksaw,

    Here you go:
    ---
    “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

    “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.

    “He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

    “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

    “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

    “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

    “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

    “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

    “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
    (Matthew 20:1-16)
    ---

    ReplyDelete
  11. Misleading, baseless, below the belt. Not the slightest evidence to support the suggestion that Hitchen's views on Christianity have changed one iota. Obviously the guy's sad about the possibility that he may not see his native land again, otherwise unpleasantly interpreted by you as "he's lost his swagger". But what's that got to do with the price of fish?

    Atheists contemplate their mortality regularly, and impending death does not alter the fact that we consider the notion of an afterlife to be so much baloney. The patronising comment that we are somehow 'living in denial' as a result is pathetic and insulting. We do not take Pascal's Wager because it would be dishonest, because there is zero reason to choose your god over any other of the myriads on offer, and finally, were it to exist, any god worthy of being worshipped would prefer a moral, honest atheist to a snivelling, playing the odds, liar. Or it should. If not, you're worshipping the wrong god.

    If you don't lead a moral, intellectually honest life, living according to the 'Golden Rule' (no other commandments needed) THEN you "don't have anything", as you conclude.

    ReplyDelete
  12. You use lots of chest-thumping epithets to shame the Christian into agreeing with you, but if there is no God, then there are no objective moral norms, in which case there are no epistemic duties.

    You don't have to take Pascal's Wager to lose. From a secular standpoint, you will lose the bet however you play the cards–for in the end, it makes no difference how you lived or died; in the end it makes no difference who was right and who was wrong. The cemetery is indifferent to which corpse was a "sniveling" corpse and which corpse was a "moral, intellectually honest" corpse.

    ReplyDelete
  13. That old chestnut? ! Implicit in your reply is the suggestion that Christianity represents an exclusive pathway to morality. Hitchens himself points out the absurdity of this, with the (as yet unanswered) challenge to theists: "Name one ethical statement made or one ethical action performed by a believer, that could not have been uttered or done by a non-believer". And please don't evoke our failure to respect the first commandment as some kind of moral shortcoming. I think it’s positively sick to define the highest morality as paying homage to a being that neither needs it nor deserves it while people starve to death or die of preventable illnesses. Furthermore the idea that moral Behaviour is achievable only through the obeying of god-given rules is astonishing. Are Christians genuinely suggesting that, in the absence of their deity, they would have no hesitation in indulging in all the 'sins' on offer, including rape, murder, child abuse? Ludicrous. At least I hope so, for their sake!

    Science has made great strides in this area of study. We now understand how the seeds of moral behaviour first arose in the earliest hunter gatherer days, aeons before organised religion came on the scene. Some suggest even earlier, as witnessed by recent studies of our fellow primates, chimpanzees. As primate behaviourist Prof. Frans de Waal puts it, "human morality incorporates a set of psychological tendencies and capacities such as empathy, reciprocity, a desire for co-operation and harmony that are older than our species, and grew out of our primate psychology." Not only chimps, but also elephants, wolves, coyotes, bats, whales and even rodents have demonstrated a propensity for altruism under certain circumstances in controlled studies.

    There is therefore a strong case for the claim that morals are "hard-wired" into the brains of all mammals, providing the "social glue" that allow often aggressive and competitive animals to live together in groups. In the case of humans, these more advanced moral codes are not set in stone, and evolve according to the demands of the society in which we live - fortunately so, or despite the best efforts of certain fundamentalist believers, we would still believe the likes of slavery and homophobia to be acceptable, were we to accept the literal word of the Bible. In that respect moral relativism is clearly preferable! Thank goodness for the secular humanists, at the forefront of campaigns to change conservative sexist, homophobic, and other generally discriminatory formerly 'moral' attitudes plugged in scripture.

    ReplyDelete
  14. As for your second point which seems to be that in the end it makes no difference how we live our lives, I beg to differ. It is a popular and convenient myth amongst theists that atheism somehow equates to nihilism. On the contrary, most of us believe the will to live, love, and change for the better comes from within without divine influence, as part of a community of social animals that comes together and cooperates for the common 'good', for the survival of our kin, humanity, indeed for the future of life itself on this planet. We feel immensely fortunate to experience mystery and wonder in a universe whose horizons are rapidly expanding thanks to science, and one that is worthy of awe, respect and humility. There may indeed be no eternity for us as individuals beyond the grave, but we are courageous enough to accept that reality. We have no egotistical desire for everlasting life. The reality is here and now, at stake is the future of humanity through our children. There are no last minute reprieves - we are judged by our actions, not for them. Life is worth living for any one of the above reasons, and preferably as many of them in combination as possible.

    Last but not least, we are being true to ourselves. Any god worth his salt would recognise that fact, and would not punIsh us for our honest and humanistic ideals. On the other hand, I wouldn't like to be in the shoes of many intolerant, condescending, smug believers if there is indeed some kind of personal deity out there.
    (Apologies for reply in 3 parts, Blogger didn't want to swallow the complete version!)

    ReplyDelete
  15. Atheocrat said:

    Name one ethical statement made or one ethical action performed by a believer, that could not have been uttered or done by a non-believer

    The question isn't whether an "ethical action" could've been performed by a religious or irreligious person. The question is what properly grounds or justifies the ethical action or inaction in the first place.

    Science has made great strides in this area of study. We now understand how the seeds of moral behaviour first arose in the earliest hunter gatherer days, aeons before organised religion came on the scene. Some suggest even earlier, as witnessed by recent studies of our fellow primates, chimpanzees. As primate behaviourist Prof. Frans de Waal puts it, "human morality incorporates a set of psychological tendencies and capacities such as empathy, reciprocity, a desire for co-operation and harmony that are older than our species, and grew out of our primate psychology." Not only chimps, but also elephants, wolves, coyotes, bats, whales and even rodents have demonstrated a propensity for altruism under certain circumstances in controlled studies.

    I think what you say here commits the genetic fallacy.

    There is therefore a strong case for the claim that morals are "hard-wired" into the brains of all mammals, providing the "social glue" that allow often aggressive and competitive animals to live together in groups. In the case of humans, these more advanced moral codes are not set in stone, and evolve according to the demands of the society in which we live - fortunately so, or despite the best efforts of certain fundamentalist believers, we would still believe the likes of slavery and homophobia to be acceptable, were we to accept the literal word of the Bible. In that respect moral relativism is clearly preferable! Thank goodness for the secular humanists, at the forefront of campaigns to change conservative sexist, homophobic, and other generally discriminatory formerly 'moral' attitudes plugged in scripture.

    If what you say is true, then this would-be killer in Brian Godawa's "Cruel Logic" has got it right.

    ReplyDelete
  16. (Cont.)

    On the contrary, most of us believe the will to live, love, and change for the better comes from within without divine influence, as part of a community of social animals that comes together and cooperates for the common 'good', for the survival of our kin, humanity, indeed for the future of life itself on this planet. We feel immensely fortunate to experience mystery and wonder in a universe whose horizons are rapidly expanding thanks to science, and one that is worthy of awe, respect and humility. There may indeed be no eternity for us as individuals beyond the grave, but we are courageous enough to accept that reality. We have no egotistical desire for everlasting life. The reality is here and now, at stake is the future of humanity through our children. There are no last minute reprieves - we are judged by our actions, not for them. Life is worth living for any one of the above reasons, and preferably as many of them in combination as possible.

    The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.

    Last but not least, we are being true to ourselves. Any god worth his salt would recognise that fact, and would not punIsh us for our honest and humanistic ideals. On the other hand, I wouldn't like to be in the shoes of many intolerant, condescending, smug believers if there is indeed some kind of personal deity out there.

    There is no ultimate truth about morality. It is an invention - an invention of the genes rather than of humans, and we cannot change games at will, as one might baseball if one went to England and played cricket. Within the system, the human moral system, it is objectively true that rape is wrong. That follows from the principles of morality and from human nature. If our females came into heat, it would not necessarily be objectively wrong to rape — in fact, I doubt we would have the concept of rape at all. So, within the system, I can justify. But I deny that human morality at the highest level — love your neighbor as yourself, etc. — is justifiable. That is why I am not deriving "is" from "ought," in the illicit sense of justification. I am deriving it in the sense of explaining why we have moral sentiments, but that is a different matter. As an analyst I can explain why you hate your father, but that doesn't mean your hatred is justified.

    ReplyDelete
  17. ATHEOCRAT SAID:

    "As for your second point which seems to be that in the end it makes no difference how we live our lives, I beg to differ. It is a popular and convenient myth amongst theists that atheism somehow equates to nihilism."

    Michael Ruse:

    "I think ethics is an illusion put into place by our genes to keep us social...Then in metaethics, I think we see that morality is an adaptation merely and hence has no justification...We’re like dogs, social animals, and so we have morality and this part of the phenomenology of morality, how it appears to us, that it is not subjective, that we think it *is* objective…So I think ethics is essentially subjective but it appears to us as objective and this appearance, too, is an adaptation...There is no ultimate truth about morality. It is an invention—an invention of the genes rather than of humans, and we cannot change games at will, as one might baseball if one went to England and played cricket...I think ultimately there is nothing—moral nihilism, if you wish.

    http://evans-experientialism.freewebspace.com/ruse.htm

    Quentin Smith:

    "In our daily lives, we believe actions are good or bad and that individuals have rights. These beliefs are false, but we know this only on the occasions when we engage in second order beliefs about our everyday beliefs and view our everyday beliefs from the perspective of infinity. Most of the time, we live in an illusion of meaningfulness and only some times, when we are philosophically reflective, are we aware of reality and the meaninglessness of our lives. It seems obvious that this has a genetic basis, due to Darwinian laws of evolution. In order to survive and reproduce, it must seem to us most of the time that our actions are not futile, that people have rights. The rare occasions in which we know the truth about life are genetically prevented from overriding living our daily lives with the illusion that they are meaningful."

    http://www.qsmithwmu.com/moral_realism_and_infinte_spacetime_imply_moral_nihilism_by_quentin_smith.htm

    ReplyDelete
  18. ATHEOCRAT SAID:

    “That old chestnut? ! Implicit in your reply is the suggestion that Christianity represents an exclusive pathway to morality. Hitchens himself points out the absurdity of this, with the (as yet unanswered) challenge to theists: ‘Name one ethical statement made or one ethical action performed by a believer, that could not have been uttered or done by a non-believer.’”

    For someone with your intellectual pretensions, you have a lot to learn. The question at issue is not how people behave, but whether they have a moral warrant for their actions.

    “Are Christians genuinely suggesting that, in the absence of their deity, they would have no hesitation in indulging in all the 'sins' on offer, including rape, murder, child abuse? Ludicrous. At least I hope so, for their sake!”

    That objection is inept on two grounds:

    i) Absence of moral restraint doesn’t ipso facto conduce to an otherwise forbidden activity. For there would have to be a suppressed desire to do so. Absence of moral restraint doesn’t create that desire; rather, assuming that desire is already in place, absence of moral restraint would remove the obstacle to acting on one’s desire.

    If there’s a law against eating turnips, and that law is repealed, it doesn’t follow that I will suddenly eat turnips. If I find turnips unappetizing, the presence or absence of the turnip law makes no difference.

    ii) You implicitly beg the question by assuming that these activities are heinous. But the very question in dispute is whether any behavior can be wrong in a secular worldview.

    “Science has made great strides in this area of study. We now understand how the seeds of moral behaviour first arose in the earliest hunter gatherer days, aeons before organised religion came on the scene. Some suggest even earlier, as witnessed by recent studies of our fellow primates, chimpanzees.”

    Your argument is philosophically jejune. Even if we grant evolutionary psychology for the sake of argument, that only explains the development of certain beliefs or feelings about right and wrong; that does nothing to show how those beliefs or feelings correspond to objective moral facts.

    Indeed, your very argument undercuts objective morality. For it reduces ethical instincts to blind programming. An amoral process (natural selection) has conditioned us to imagine that some things are right and others are wrong because that confers a survival advantage (e.g. altruism). But that’s just a trick of the mind. And once we evolve to the point where we become aware of our evolutionary programming, we also become aware of the illusory character of our ethical instincts.

    “…we would still believe the likes of slavery and homophobia to be acceptable.”

    i) Once again, that begs the question.

    ii) And, ironically, it reflects your own Pavlovian conditioning. The social circles in which you move disapprove of “homophobia.” So you’ve learned to adapt. That makes you a slave to the social conventions of your in-group.

    ReplyDelete
  19. ATHEOCRAT SAID:

    “On the contrary, most of us believe the will to live, love, and change for the better…”

    A change for the “better” presupposes a standard to attain. But evolution cannot supply moral standards since, on your view, moral “standards” are themselves in process of evolving. As such, they can’t be evolving towards a moral ideal. For that assumes a preexisting goal to which they are trending.

    “…and cooperates for the common 'good', for the survival of our kin, humanity, indeed for the future of life itself on this planet.”

    i) Once again, you beg the question by assuming that survival of our kin, humanity, or the biosphere is “good.”

    ii) In addition, your appeal to the “common good” is incoherent, for the survival of one party often comes at the expense of another party.

    “There may indeed be no eternity for us as individuals beyond the grave, but we are courageous enough to accept that reality.”

    “Courage” is only a virtue in a world with moral values–which you have yet to establish.

    “We have no egotistical desire for everlasting life.”

    The desire to live for 70 years is just as “egotistical” as the desire to live forever. By definition, any human desire is “egotistical.” You are the locus your own desires.

    “There are no last minute reprieves - we are judged by our actions, not for them.”

    Let’s see. Many dictators live and die in opulence while impoverishing their countrymen. So what if they are judged “by their actions” while they live or after they die? What concern is that to them?

    “Last but not least, we are being true to ourselves.”

    Ted Bundy could say the same thing. As well as Jeffery Dahmer. To name a few.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Steve, as always(!), great answers/responses. Why in the world you're not being paid for this is CRAZY (IMNSHO)! And why you're not on the following list is even CRAZIER!

    http://apologetics315.blogspot.com/2009/06/100-christian-apologists.html

    I wait with bated breath for ATHEOCRAT's response.

    ReplyDelete