Sunday, February 26, 2006

Midnight Atheism

Evan May posted a brief critique of Adam Lee’s “Inspiring Story” and commentary thereon. Lee has now responded.

“From the very beginning, starting with its title, this post bleeds arrogance and contempt. The author, one Evan May, seems to have studied at the J.P. Holding School of Apologetics, where the way to "win" a debate is to come up with the most creative string of insults. His post is filled with hostility, derision and invective.”

i) It is striking to contrast what Evan actually said with Lee’s tendentious characterization.

Evan’s post is not laden with invective. Notice that Lee says it’s filled with invective, but he doesn’t show it’s filled with invective.

ii) As to Holding, he has a habit, at least in my experience, of using invective as a substitute for reasoned argument and evidence.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with characterizing your opponent’s position as long you substantiate your conclusion with relevant argumentation.

iii) In what way was Evan’s critique “arrogant”? Lee makes adjectives deputize for arguments.

iv) There’s a difference between personal contempt and intellectual contempt. There’s nothing wrong with intellectual contempt as long as the contempt is intellectual justified, for some positions are, indeed, contemptible.

Lee evinces no small measure of contempt for, hostility towards, and derision of, his former faith and adherents thereof.

“One of his commenters wonders publicly why God has not killed Mr. James Young, of my original post. (Why are all these Christians so filled with anger?)”

This is a deliberate misrepresentation of what was actually said.

“I seriously considered whether this provocation was even worth responding to, but ultimately I decided that Mr. May's post deserved an answer. The mission of Daylight Atheism, after all, is to defend freethought where it matters, and to shatter the noxious stereotypes about us spread by religious commentators.”

Except that Lee is doing a wonderful job of playing right into the “stereotype.”

“However, so Mr. May does not acquire an inflated sense of his own self-importance, I will say at the outset that I will not give him any more of my time, either now or in the future, if he cannot clean up his act. I have better things to do than deal with his attitude; there are plenty of theists with whom I disagree that can carry on a civil conversation.”

Is this an example of Lee’s “civil” discourse? Sounds a lot like Mr. Lee has studied at the J.P. Holding School of Atheology, where the way to "win" a debate is to come up with the most creative string of insults. His post is filled with hostility, derision and invective towards Evan May, Christians and Christianity.

“I am an atheist and I happen to believe there is meaning in life, thank you very much. Many other atheists feel the same way. The only difference is that a Christian believes that meaning is conferred upon life by God, while an atheist believes that we define our own meaning and choose our own purpose in life. And this turns out not to be such a great difference, because just like an atheist, the Christian must still choose to find a particular set of religious teachings meaningful and worth following.”

Actually, this proves the very point that Evan was making. For an atheist, the meaning of life is extrinsic rather than intrinsic. He acts “as if “ life were meaningful. He indulges in a little game of Existential make-believe.

But the question at issue is whether there is anything objective that corresponds to our chosen value-system.

“Humanism stands for the positive values of reason, compassion and tolerance, which are three things we could use much more of in this faith-mad world.”

i) Is this what humanism stands for? The secular humanists lobby for speech codes and hate-speech legislation. Organizations like the ACLU now litigate in favor of prior restraint and content discrimination whenever Christianity is in play.

Secular regimes like Maoism, Stalinism, North Korea, the Third Reich, and the Khmer Rouge, to name a few, have not been conspicuous for their freedom of dissent.

ii) More to the point, how does a secular worldview justify compassion and tolerance?

Lee has just told us that an atheist defines his own meaning and chooses his own purpose in life.

So this is a purely individual code of conduct, which varies from one atheist to another. Really, it’s nothing more than play-acting, where you only get to choose which role you wish to impersonate.

iii) And how does a secular worldview justify reason? Reason confers no survival advantage. Cockroaches survive very nicely without a faculty for abstract reasoning.

So, on an evolutionary view, the brain is not adapted to discover truth.

iv) And what, according to secularism, is truth? In what does truth inhere?

“Life is valuable and meaningful because of what we do with it now that we have it…”

This begs the question of what makes a meaningful life meaningful. What is the source and standard of values?

“…not because of the manner of its origin.”

Really? I can use a baseball bat to hit a homerun. That’s what it was made for.

I can also use a baseball bat to bash someone’s skull. That is not what it was made for.

But if I get to define my own meaning and assign to life whatever purpose I like, I guess that playing baseball and beating someone’s brains out are potentially of equal meaning and value.

”If you're a theist and you're wrong, you lose just as badly. There are plenty of other religions besides Christianity that stipulate a hell for non-members, as Mr. May seems to have forgotten.”

i) What are the “plenty” of other religions that Evan has forgotten about? Hinduism and Buddhism have no doctrine of hell. Rather, they have hell on earth (reincarnation) and Nirvana (extinction of personal consciousness).

Tribal animism has no doctrine of hell.

The OT has a doctrine of hell, but the OT is part of the Christian canon.

Whether Judaism has a doctrine of hell varies with the school of Judaism. The Sadducees had no doctrine of hell. Reform Jews have no doctrine of hell.

Islam has a doctrine of hell because Islam is intellectually indebted to the Judeo-Christian tradition.

By process of elimination, it gets back to Christianity.

ii) Since Lee doesn’t believe in hell, he doesn’t believe that a Christian is in danger of hell if the Christian is mistaken.

“On the other hand, I do not agree that an atheist who is correct loses anything. On the contrary, such a person has gained something extremely valuable - the chance to live this life, the only life they will ever have, free of superstition and fear, with a clear view into how the universe really works.”

The problem with this is that, from Lee’s perspective, once you’re dead it doesn’t matter if you lived your life free of “superstition” and “fear,” with a clear view of how the universe “really” works.

Once you’re dead, there’s no more you. Once you’re dead it’s just as if you never existed.

You built your little sandcastle during the low-tide of life, and all that’s swept away under the high-tide of the grave. No hopes or fond memories remain.

For fifteen billions years you never existed, followed by this nanosecond of consciousness, followed by billions of years of oblivion. Yes, that’s pretty positive outlook on life, all right.

The idea that something is all the more precious because it’s so evanescent is a half-truth.

Take the proverbial shipboard romance. The knowledge that this will end, and end very soon, does, indeed, lend the experience a bittersweet intensity.

But what makes this ephemeral distillate so precious is not merely the concentrated passion of the moment, but our ability to look back on that experience and savor it, so that it enriches the rest of our life.

But if, to adapt our illustration, your ship were to hit an iceberg and both of you went straight to a watery grave, such a fate would be considerably less romantic.

There are endings ripe with new beginnings, and then there are endings that end it all.

“I do not consider the truth something to be tossed aside lightly, as Mr. May seems to;”

Evan will have to speak for himself, but I don’t think that’s an accurate description of his position:

i) He doesn’t regard atheism as the true, so he is not tossing it aside.

ii) Even if it were true, he’d be tossing it aside, not lightly, but precisely on account of what its truth implies for the quality of life. If it’s true, then it’s a one-way ticket to oblivion: zippo; blotto.

If it were true, it would be the discovery that life is a trap. That you cannot escape the trap. That, whatever you do, or don’t do, you’re doomed—like a rat in burning barn.

Or like being buried alive. You wake up only to find yourself sealed away in a coffin, six feet under. What a pity the undertaker was so busy that day that he pronounced you D.O.D. just a tad prematurely.

Of course, we all die anyway, so what’s the difference, right? You still have a few more minutes or hours of oxygen left. You kick and scream, but the world above is deaf to your cries for help.

Ah, but you take plucky consolation in the fact that you can enjoy your remaining hour of life free from superstition and fear, with a clear view into how the universe really works.

Yes, how the universe really works. How six feet of good earth dampens your cries for help. And the scientific rate at which a man in a coffin will exhaust his air supply.

And while you’re six feet under, gasping for breath, you can also “pity the people who allow ancient mythology to cloud their worldview, cramp their imaginations and fill their lives with unnecessary fear and guilt, when the truth is far more magnificent and inspiring.”

Moving along:

”Given the sheer unprovoked fury with which Mr. May has responded to me…”

This is so hyperbolic that it’s downright comical. Once again, just read Evan’s actually essay. Is the tone one of “unprovoked fury”?

Why is Lee so hypersensitive, anyway? He acts like a man with a guilty conscience.

“his entire focus is to denigrate and insult nonbelievers and argue that our lives are meaningless…”

Once more, why is Lee so touchy and irritable? Why the defensive tone?

All Evan did was to write a calmly-reasoned critique of Lee’s atheism. Why does Lee melt like butter in a frying pan as soon as a Christian applies the least degree of intellectual heat to his atheism?

I recently quoted Quentin Smith as saying:

“There is a sense that my life, actions and consequences of actions amount to nothing when I am considering the value of an infinite universe…In our daily lives, we believe actions are good or bad and that individuals have rights. These beliefs are false…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.”

Is Smith insulting and denigrating unbelievers? Obviously not since he’s an unbeliever himself.

He is, instead, deriving this nihilistic consequence from the secular outlook which he himself espouses.

All we’re getting for Lee at this point is a purely emotional reaction. Is that what atheism really is? Just another name for emotionalism?

“Like many other atheists, I would be more than happy to leave religious people alone, if only they would grant atheists the same courtesy.”

This is soooo phony. Apostates like Lee don’t leave the Christian faith alone. To the contrary, they become bloggers who attack their former faith.

There was nothing “unprovoked” about Evan’s critique. It was a response to something that Lee had posted, and Loftus had linked to.

Why do they put this stuff in the public domain if not to persuade and dissuade?

“I never cease to be amazed by the blithe arrogance with which some Christians attempt to psychoanalyze people they have never met or spoken to…I assume Mr. May is claiming the psychic power to read another person's thoughts, because I cannot see any other way he could so confidently discourse on the motivations of others.”

It is blithely arrogant to psychoanalyze the motives of others?

i) Let’s see, how. What did Lee say about what makes a Christian tick? Remind me, now. Ah, yes:

“Why are all these Christians so filled with anger?”

”I pity the people who allow ancient mythology to cloud their worldview, cramp their imaginations and fill their lives with unnecessary fear and guilt.”

“We have lost the superstition, illusion and fear associated with religious belief.”

Sounds like armchair psychoanalysis to me.

When Lee imputes these motives to Christian believers, he is tipping his own hand. For, by the same token, this would also explain what motivates an apostate to leave the faith.

So Lee himself has a general-purpose theory for fidelity and infidelity alike.

ii) Lee’s website also has a host of deconversion stories. These follow a stereotypical pattern. The apostate was reared in a legalistic faith, against which he later rebelled.

iii) Let’s also remember that imputing religious motives to psychological and sociological causes is the stock-in-trade of atheism (e.g. Feuerbach, Freud, Marx, Durkheim).

iii) In fact, the lives of many celebrated unbelievers are well-documented, viz.,

O. Guinness, Long Journey Home (Doubleday 2001)

P. Johnson, Intellectuals (Harper & Row 1988).

E. Jones, Degenerate Moderns (Ignatius 1993).

P. Vitz, Faith of the Fatherless (Spence 2000).

iv) For that matter, the Bible has a theology of apostasy as well as fidelity.

v) Finally, it’s a demonstrable fact, from their own behavior, that while these unbelievers left the faith, they were unable to put their former faith behind them. Instead of making a clean break with the faith and moving on with their lives, they can’t get it out of their system. They frame their lives in reaction to what they once believed.

“We have lost the superstition, illusion and fear associated with religious belief, as well as all the other aspects of theism which hold people back and prevent them from attaining their full potential and leading lives full of happiness.”

That’s the Hallmark version of humanism.

But we all know many guilt-ridden unbelievers who fear death, as well as a lot of guilt-free Christians to long for heaven.

Many unbelievers who turn to drink, drugs, gambling, pornography, and other a compulsive-addictive behavior to mask their pain and emptiness.

Many unbelievers who lurch from one broken marriage, love affair, or hook-up to another.

Many believers who came out of this lifestyle, and only found true happiness and stability in coming to the faith, rather than abandoning the faith.

“This is a loss worthy of celebration, not the tragedy Mr. May and his ilk seem to think it is. If he ever decides to stop clinging to his fantasies, he is welcome to join us.”

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Evan is clinging to a fantasy.

From a secular viewpoint, why shouldn’t I prefer a beautiful illusion to an ugly reality? If reality is utterly grim, bleak, hopeless, and despairing, why should I not cling to whatever escapist fantasy will make my life bearable?

Why should I be loyal to the truth if the truth does nothing to reciprocate my loyalty? Why should I prefer the truth when the truth hurts?

A Christian has an answer to that question, but what answer does an unbeliever have to offer?

“Christianity may claim to offer the *individual* a way to escape this horrible fate, but it still declares that the vast majority of humanity, including people I know, people I love, and people I look up to, are destined for an eternity of torture at the hands of the very god I'm supposed to be worshipping. (See Matthew 7:13-14, for example.) Do you really think that is a cheerful and positive worldview?”

The answer depends, in part, on whether we define “positive” in emotive, Day-Glo colors.

I’d say that a worldview in which justice ultimately triumphs over evil is definitely a positive worldview.

“I wouldn't say that I have a "gospel" as such, but humanity does have many problems, and the solution is simple: We need to get up off our knees, stop wasting our time and effort worshipping a god that isn't there, stop using belief in that god as an excuse to hurt and oppress each other, and concentrate on improving our understanding of the world and treating our fellow human beings with compassion and kindness. This life is the only one we'll ever have, which makes it all the more important to ensure that we make the best of it.”

i) If the solution were that simple, we’d never have the problem in the first place, and even if we had the problem, we would have solved it long ago.

Lee’s “simple solution” suffers the same fate as all utopian visions, like Marxism and pacifism:

If they could work, they would work; since they don’t work, they can’t work.

If there were enough men of good will to make them work, we wouldn’t have all these social problems to begin with.

It was this bubble-gummy, little-train-that-couldism creed which gave rise the U.N. Did it work? No.

ii) And why, from a secular standpoint, should I care about the welfare of my fellow man?

If life is just a one-shot deal, then why should I sacrifice my personal gratification on the altar of altruism? Why not be a social Darwinist? Why not feather my nest at the expense of others? In the long-run, we’re all dead, so it makes a lot more sense to be a hedonist rather than a philanthropist.


  1. 10 on a scale of 10. And in case any of the atheists say of course because I'm the choir, the writing alone is a 10 on a scale of 10.

    Unfortunately it's the type of response that leaves an atheist no line of retreat. You've decimated his advance guard, his main body, and his baggage trains and lines of communication. And the strategic fortified camp he had planned to use in case of real bizarre catastrophic failure -- I see you hit that too. He's left with nothing. Now he has to pretend it didn't happen...

    Or wake up...

  2. "Secular regimes like Maoism, Stalinism, North Korea, the Third Reich, and the Khmer Rouge, to name a few, have not been conspicuous for their freedom of dissent."

    steve, I refer you to Usenet prescident on this matter. Anyone who make a comparison to Hitler or the Nazis has lost whatever debate they are in by default. Adam is the instant victor of this due to your own incompetance.

  3. Godwin's Law hardly applies in this instance. The law refers not to any reference of Hitler or nazis at all but to a reference where one side in an argument calls or compares the other side to nazis in a promiscuous way. What you've done is described in this portion of the Wikipedia article:

    "One common objection to the invocation of Godwin's Law is that sometimes using Hitler or the Nazis is an apt way of making a point. For instance, if one is debating the relative merits of a particular leader, and someone says something like, "He's a good leader, look at the way he's improved the economy," one could reply, "Just because he improved the economy doesn't make him a good leader. Even Hitler improved the economy." Some would view this as a perfectly acceptable comparison. One uses Hitler as a well-known example of an extreme case that requires no explanation to prove that a generalization is not universally true.

    Some would argue, however, that Godwin's Law applies especially to the situation mentioned above, as it portrays an inevitable appeal to emotion as well as holding an implied ad hominem attack on the subject being compared, both of which are fallacious in irrelevant contexts. Hitler, on a semiotic level, has far too many negative connotations associated with him to be used as a valid comparison to anything but other despotic dictators. Thus, Godwin's Law holds even in making comparisons to normal leaders that, on the surface, would seem to be reasonable comparisons.

    Godwin's standard answer to this objection is to note that Godwin's Law does not dispute whether, in a particular instance, a reference or comparison to Hitler or the Nazis might be apt. It is precisely because such a reference or comparison may sometimes be appropriate, Godwin has argued, that hyperbolic overuse of the Hitler/Nazi comparison should be avoided. Avoiding such hyperbole, he argues, is a way of ensuring that when valid comparisons to Hitler or Nazis are made, such comparisons have the appropriate impact."'s_law

  4. Not that I care what Mr. Godwin or anyone else thinks about my or anyone else's use of Hitler references...

  5. Wow, I didn't actually think you'd try to say that comparing the ACLU to Adolf Hitler's Nazi Party was actually valid.

    So just how long do you think we have to go until the ACLU manages to convince the US Supreme Court to start another holocaust?

  6. The holocause is ongoing. It's called abortion-on-demand. Often it's not even abortion but so-called partial-birth abortion which is full-blown infanticide.

    I mean, if you want to talk about the ACLU and holocausts...

  7. So to you, the neo-Nazis are wasting their time because the ACLU are the real Nazis of today. Fantastic. We appear to have reached an impasse, and I'm very tired now.

    steve lost when he bought up the Third Reich, you lost when you defended him, I lost when I chose to bring up the holocaust rather than the more promising route of the Gestapo, and Adam loses if he should choose the get dragged any further into this quagmire.

    So everyone loses, and I'm going to bed.

  8. Why don't we allow more objective observers decide who has won and who has lost?

    Maybe your conscience would like to put in its word on the matter as well? You never know...

  9. Lillymon:

    I'm curious what you thought about the rest of the post, not simply that you thought someone "lost" based upon some arbitrary standard.

  10. Steve's mention of the Third Reich is as legitimate as any of the other regimes he mentions, all of which are generally regarded as secular and oppressive. Why the particular objection to the Third Reich?

  11. Sorry to disappoint you, k7, but you'll notice I'm making no effort to pretend this post didn't happen.

    I haven't yet decided whether to write a full reply to this, because frankly it's just more of the same and I'm tired of it, but I do have one comment.

    You said this about atheism, steve:

    "If it were true, it would be the discovery that life is a trap. That you cannot escape the trap. That, whatever you do, or don’t do, you’re doomed—like a rat in burning barn.
    Or like being buried alive. You wake up only to find yourself sealed away in a coffin, six feet under. What a pity the undertaker was so busy that day that he pronounced you D.O.D. just a tad prematurely."

    I have just one question: Aren't you a Calvinist?

  12. Heh, looks like Lee is going to make the grave mistake of equating Calvinism with fatalism.

  13. "I'm curious what you thought about the rest of the post, not simply that you thought someone "lost" based upon some arbitrary standard."

    I didn't read all of it. As I said, I was very tired and probably should've been in bed for hours by that point.

    The post itself seems to be overly long without saying much of consequence. I would try and respond to it, but I'm trying to cut down on that stuff. I have trouble enough keeping my temper under control.

  14. Heh, well I would suggest reading it before you declare any losers or winners....generally, that is the idea.

  15. it isnt just the problems of fatalism. There are the real world problems of teaching childrn and adults that there is no God, that we evolved from lower life forms, and we are just high functioning animals.animals commit genocide(yes they really do) animals castrate their rivals, animals kill and eat their young, animals in the wild have no sense of shame,remorse,conscience or pity. The list goes on, sow the wind reap the whirlwind. Atheists, please keep your children far away from my children.