Thursday, February 07, 2019

Secular neutrality

On Twitter, Jeff Lowder attempted to respond to my post (unless his tweets are sheer coincidence):

Did you know that “I (the speaker) exist” and “It’s hot on the surface of the sun” are both consistent with nihilism? No one worries about that, so why do some apologists think it’s a big deal that atheism is consistent with nihilism?

For the glaringly obvious reason that logical consistency with the surface temperature of the sun has no bearing on whether human life is important or worthwhile–which is hardly analogous to the logical consistency of atheism with nihilism. 

To take a comparison, suppose I'm a churchgoing member of the Khmer Rouge. Suppose I defend my behavior by saying Christianity is neutral on the Khmer Rouge. It's theologically consistent for a Christian to support or oppose the Khmer Rouge. 

Or suppose I'm a churchgoing Stalinist. I helped Stalin plan the forced famines. Suppose I defend my behavior by saying Christianity is neutral on Stalinism, It's theologically consistent for a Christian to support or oppose policies that starve millions of men, women, and children. 

Would that be "uninteresting"? To the contrary, it would be extremely discrediting. 

While atheism is consistent with nihilism, that fact is uninteresting because an atheist can consistently hold other beliefs which entail that nihilism is false. (Again, atheism doesn’t entail nihilism.)

Aside from the fact that Jeff is begging the question (since it's arguable that atheism does entail nihilism), his response illustrates his persistent blindspot. Is it really uninteresting to say a consistent atheist can be or not be a moral and existential nihilist? 

Suppose we said Buddhism is neutral on nihilism, so that a consistent Buddhist may rape little girls and torture elderly women while other Buddhists may, with equal consistency, disapprove of that behavior. Buddhism is indifferent about raping little girls and torturing elderly women. 

Would that be an uninteresting fact about Buddhism? Or would that be a revealing and disreputable fact about Buddhism?


  1. It is amazing to me that JJ Lowder believes that the consistency of atheism with nihilism is an uninteresting fact. The truth is, if I am in a dark-alley with an unknown atheist, the fact that his worldview is consistent with his being nice to me, or robbing me, or smiling at me, or killing me and eating me, and thus that he might have no moral problems doing anyone of these things, is a very interesting issue, and one that I would definitely want an answer to if I was in that dark alley. Furthermore, the lack of that knowledge would definitely make me initially suspicious of such an atheist, which is arguably why atheists--when considered in the abstract--are a distrusted group.

  2. Notice (if I understand correctly) that Lowder isn't saying it is not the case that atheism entails nihilism. In which case, he should/might be open to atheism actually entailing nihilism. But he keeps the focus on theistic apologists. Possibly in order to not to have to argue and demonstrate that there are forms of consistent atheism that affirm the opposite of nihilism.

    It seems to me that those hypothetical form(s) of atheism need to affirm ultimate and transcendent meaning since that's the only kind that's "interesting". Since even many atheists attempt to affirm the reality of a relative and subjective sense of the meaningfulness of life, while admitting there is no ultimate and objective meaning/value/purpose to life (e.g. Shelly Kagan's debate with William Lane Craig).

    It also seems to me that the prima facie and common sense conclusion is that atheism does entail (or at least implies the likelihood of) nihilism. If so, then unless and until a plausible positive case for ultimate meaning to be possible within an atheistic worldview(s) is given, people are within their rational rights to suspect atheism does imply nihilism.

    The interesting question isn't whether atheism is consistent with nihilism [most everyone agrees to that], but whether atheism is consistent with transcendent ultimate and objective meaning, value and purpose. If so, how?

    1. For all I know, Lowder had made such arguments. Maybe appealing to a kind of Platonic atheism. If so, maybe he should be focusing on that/those arguments. That is, unless he himself thinks those arguments aren't very strong. In which case, I can understand why he focuses on the (IMO short) leap of logic by theists that nihilism's consistency with atheism entails nihilism.

  3. Yes, if the (evolving) God of the Bible exists then one can ward off the existential dread, there'd be purpose, objective meaning, no nihilism. But that's a conditional. There's a big "if" at the front of it. And... maybe he doesn't exist. This discussion of nihilism is a flawed appeal to consequences. Argumentum ad consequentiam.

    1. The God of the Bible doesn't evolve in the sense of changing attributes where former characteristics are contradicted by later ones. Though, a greater and fuller revealing of God's character and attributes as well as His redemptive plans does occur as redemptive HIStory progresses. That's what Christian theologians refer to as Progressive Revelation. There's nothing in the New Testament that isn't prophecied or in seed form in the Old Testament. That includes the doctrine of the Trinity (as many, including myself, have documented).

      //But that's a conditional. There's a big "if" at the front of it.//

      The God of the Bible has provided the perfectly balanced sufficient evidence of His existence to save His elect and justly condemn the rest of humanity for their culpable rejection or ignorance of His existence. All humans either know God exists, or are culpably ignorant and (at the very least) *ought* to know God exists given General Revelation and the sensus divinitatis [even without the additional propositional Special Revelation given through Israel]. Much of that evidence has been documented by the folks at Triablogue.

      //This discussion of nihilism is a flawed appeal to consequences. Argumentum ad consequentiam.//

      That only follows if all apologists claim atheism is false or that theism is true because of the likely or necessarily entailed nihilism of atheism. But knowledgeable theistic (generally) and Christian (particularly) apologists don't make the mistake of committing the Argumentum ad Consequentiam fallacy. For example, near the end of William Lane Craig's chapter on the Absurdity of Life without God, he writes:

      //Now I want to make it clear that I have not yet shown biblical Christianity to be true. But what I have done is clearly spell out the alternatives. If God does not exist, then life is futile. If the God of the Bible does exist, then life is meaningful. Only the second of these two alternatives enables us to live happily and consistently. Therefore, it seems to me that even if the evidence for these two options were absolutely equal, a rational person ought to choose biblical Christianity. It seems to me positively irrational to prefer death, futility, and destruction to life, meaningfulness, and happiness. As Pascal said, we have nothing to lose and infinity to gain.// [bold added by me, AP]

    2. How is the current discussion a fallacious appeal to consequence? You need to substantiate the claim. No fallacy has been committed.

    3. Indeed, the question at issue, as Lowder framed it, is whether it's "uninteresting" that atheism is consistent with nihilism.

    4. The consistency is very interesting. In fact, Lowder inadvertently and ironically further draws out the interesting nature of this consistency with his ridiculous attempt to equate such a consistency with the *actual* uninteresting and disconnected consistency of nihilism and the hotness of the sun's surface. Those paying attention and serious about the topic will notice the glaring (no pun intended) category error. We are dealing with life, the nature of reality and the ontological conditions required for meaning and values to obtain. Both atheism and nihilism are *directly related* to this question; the hotness of the sun's surface is not. It is irrelevant to the discussion.

  4. It is uninteresting in the same sense that nihilism is consistent with theism as well. That is, it is possible that a god does exists (theism is true), but a god different from the Christian God, one unconcerned with morality. Christianity (a version of theism) is not nihilistic, and neither is utilitarianism (compatible with atheism). Condemning atheism for being consistent with nihilism is like condemning the theory of gravity for being consistent with nihilism. Atheism (or gravity) are not in themselves complete philosophies with direct implications about the existence of morality.

    1. A godless universe has far-reaching implications.

      Since I'm using Christian theism as the basis of comparison, the hypothetical alternatives are irrelevant. And the onus is not on me to disprove them since you don't believe them either.

    2. > Atheism (or gravity) are not in themselves complete philosophies with direct implications about the existence of morality.

      Bunk. There being no God to be accountable to, no overall purpose or design behind the universe that our lives can be measured against, no day of judgment on which we'll be held to account, no divine law to have our lives measured by, would be direct implications of first importance.

  5. Given atheism being nihilism as the starting point, how does Lowder employ uninteresting as a category. Nihilism itself is the very essence of uninteresting, or from another angle : interesting and uninteresting are invalid concepts since the worldview itself has no transcendent and objective basis for comparison.