Saturday, January 17, 2009

Stiff lips atop weak knees

Many unbelievers suffer from conflicted body language. On the one hand, they attack Christianity because Christians can’t face up to reality. Christians nurse the illusion of a God who cares about them. Christians nurse the illusion of a heavenly afterlife. Christianity is founded on wishful thinking.

And that’s bad. We need to grow up. Stare reality square in the face. Be unflinching in our courageous embrace of the evidence, wherever it leads us.

Richard Dawkins is a classic exponent of this doughty, tough-minded rhetoric. For example:

“If it's true that it [i.e. naturalistic evolution] causes people to feel despair, that's tough. It's still the truth. The universe doesn't owe us condolence or consolation; it doesn't owe us a nice warm feeling inside. If it's true, it's true, and you'd better live with it.”

Dawkins acts like a stern, disapproving nun who patrols her classroom with a metal-edged ruler to smite the bare knuckles of naughty, mischievous students. His calling in life is to turn boys into men. To banish our childish fears of oblivion.

That’s atheism from the neck up. The stiff upper-lip of labial atheism.

But when you shift your focus to atheism below the belt, it has an odd way of going weak at the knees. The tender joints of arthological atheism.

When Christians point out that atheism entails moral nihilism, which renders human existence meaningless, the average atheist becomes very agitated. Very defensive. He accuses you of misrepresenting atheism.

Suddenly the undaunted atheist can’t quite bring himself to accept the grim consequences of his position. He yells at you for making him look at a picture of the moral abyss.

He retreats into make-believe meaning. We project meaning onto the world. We create our very own heaven-on-earth through utopian good deeds. The triumph of the human spirit. The Ode to Joy and all that good stuff.

So we need to distinguish between labial atheism and arthological atheism. Labial atheism is boundlessly brave, heroic, and noble. But arthological atheism is timid and fanciful.

What is atheism? Depends on which part of the anatomy you’re inspecting. The upper lip or the wobbly knees? To paraphrase Scripture, “These people honor me with their lips, but their knees are far from me.”


  1. Paging John Loftus, Paging John Loftus, where are you? We are looking at the unregenerate atheist corpse and the autopsy reveals rigor mortis of deadly hypocrisy evidenced by "Stiff lips atop weak knees."

  2. Yeah, they spend half their time saying that Christians are wimps for not facing THE GRIM TRUTH OF ATHEISM. They spend the other half of their time arguing that the atheist life is joyful and full of meaning. Crazy.

  3. Mark: They spend the other half of their time arguing that the atheist life is joyful and full of meaning.

    Vytautas: If you know that life is short and harsh, then you are happy. If life was long and fun, then you must endure childish games that have no meaning. But if life treats you unfairly, then you are pressed on towards the end of life, since you do not take the time to consider the unjust events around you.

  4. Could this be another example of a rationalist-irrationalist dialectic in unbelieving thought?

  5. I'm wondering if you've got labial and arthological mixed up in this paragraph:

    "So we need to distinguish between labial atheism and arthological atheism. Arthological atheism is boundlessly brave, heroic, and noble. But labial atheism is timid and fanciful."

    Based on how you used the terms in the prior part of the post.

    Otherwise, striking observation and post.

  6. The disconnect in my mind is thus:

    Being an atheist does not make someone less moral, automatically. Atheists still have access, for instance, to natural law and intuitive ways of knowing the Good life, and even to ways of finding meaning in life.

    The problem is that once you've stripped away all of God in the world you've also stripped away all justification of Good, of meaning, of reason itself, for God (which here need only be defined as 'something the atheists don't want to believe in'), for God is the animator of Good, of meaning, of reason. It's not necessarily reasoned or fair, but it is because of the animation of the God they reject that complete, utter naturalists can still find any meaning, morality or reason in the universe at all. They just can't acknowledge it; ergo morality becomes at best subjective, meaning at best existentialist, and reason at best a crippled reason.