Sunday, December 16, 2018

Grieving as an atheist

I'll comment on this:

It is one thing for me to pretend to believe an abominable doctrine such as Christianity, but it’s another for my children to be put under it. As a parent, one of the strongest instincts I feel is the desire to protect my daughters, and boy did the idea of sending them to a Christian church set off that protective instinct.

One problem with an atheist appealing to or relying on instinct is that in naturalistic evolution, instincts are amoral. Some animals instinctively protect their offspring while other animals instinctively eat their offspring–or eat the offspring of their rivals. 

So there's the question of what lies behind the instinct. In Christianity, we have some God-given instincts. Transcendent wisdom lies behind the instinct. But naturalistic evolution is a fumbling, pitiless process. 

I didn’t realize exactly how hostile I was to Christian doctrine. I don’t just not believe it, I loathe it. The question I wanted to explore is why.

Christianity promises salvation, redemption, a glorious afterlife for the saved. Most versions, including the most widespread versions also include eternal torment for the non-saved.  The main part of what makes Christianity so repulsive is what is embedded in its premise: that we need saving from eternal conscious torture, or at least from ourselves. It teaches we are fundamentally broken, evil, and sinful and the most common versions teach us that we deserve eternal conscious torture for even the smallest single moral infraction.  I’m not sure who expressed this idea first, but I find it apt: In order to sell you the cure of Jesus’s atonement, Christianity must first sell you on the idea that you are sick.

i) Quite apart from Christian revelation, humans are often miserable, and make each other miserable, even when all their material needs are provided for. We need love, yet we have a great capacity to hurt and be hurt by those we love the most. Not to mention a cruel streak. Consider all the atrocities humans commit. Consider the divorce rate. Consider how often we turn to drugs and alcohol because we find life unbearable, even in–or especially in–affluent cultures. You can put humans in an earthly paradise, come back in a few years see how they made it hell on earth. Why is that? 

ii) Although I think damnation is conscious and eternal, I doubt it's uniformly "torture". I think hell is probably an extension and intensification of what we find in this life. People make their own hell. Consider nightmares, which are a product of our own imagination. Hell may well be like a bad dream that you never awaken from–which makes it worse. A projection of your own character and imagination. The more evil you are, the worse hell will be for you because your evil imagination will furnish the infernal dreamscape. 

Indeed, it's like a collective nightmare which you share with others. It mirrors their character. Externalizes what lies within. 

It wouldn't surprise me of hell is compartmentalized. In some cases there may be solitary confinement. In other cases, people of the same kind may share the same space. Worse people with worse people. It may also be the case that all the damned become progressively worse over time. 

That's theological speculation, but if an atheist is trying to make me squirm, that's only effective if his objection matches my idea of hell. If he's operating with a different idea of hell, then his objection bounces off my own position. If I was a Christian director making a cinematic depiction of hell, that's how a visualize hell. 

iii) I don't think sinners are damned for the smallest single moral infraction. The core problem isn't particular sins but the underlying character. The source of particular sins. 

What this really does is center goodness on god and conversely evil/brokenness on humanity. As someone who has studied the moral argument and its counters, meta-ethically this is perfectly in line with Christian beliefs: Goodness is ontologically grounded in god’s nature.  This is contrasted with my preferred metaethics: goodness is about what is good-for something, and goodness for humanity is about what is “good for” humans. There are objective facts of the matter about that in any given situation, determined by the brute facts of our biology collectively and individually.  

In naturalistic evolution, there's nothing things are for. Natural selection isn't goal-oriented. It's a blind lumbering process. 

These are fundamentally irreconcilable views, and as a result the embedded premises of Christianity is triggering my moral revulsion. 

It's true that Christianity and naturalism represent fundamentally irreconcilable views. 

Psychologically speaking, that’s one of our strongest instincts, which explains my intense reaction.

Another appeal to instinct, but take a step back. In naturalistic evolution, "instinct" just means a mindless process has brainwashed us to feel a certain way and act accordingly. If you pull back the curtain, the determinants are amoral and witless. 

The night before I found solace in some ancient philosophy I had read fairly recently:

"Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And once it does come, we no longer exist.” – Epicurus (paraphrased)

i) Notice that he appeals to instinct, but then switches to Epicurean philosophy to suffocate his instinctive fear of death and oblivion. That's a backdoor admission that he doesn't think instincts are normative. 

ii) Epicureanism generates a dilemma. If it isn't bad to die, because postmortem nonexistence is equivalent to prenatal nonexistence, then it isn't bad to die young. There's nothing tragic about premature death. Nothing tragic about a child dying of cancer. For that matter, murder doesn't harm the victim because they don't know what hit them. They don't know they're missing. They're no worse of than before they existed. 

That simple quote doesn’t solve every problem with death as an atheist, but it is at least some comfort when you’re thinking about death. 

It staves off the fear of oblivion if you don't think about it too deeply. 

I don’t want to live forever, but I know I will die before I’d probably prefer to.  Still, I’m not overly in a state of fear of my own death, probably because I’m privileged enough to think it very likely I won’t be dead for some time. 

But that's a tacit admission that the Epicurean argument is a failure. What's comforting isn't the Epicurean argument but the buffer between life and death provided by relative youth. 

That said, my mortality does motivate me to live my life to its fullest, here and now. My life is all the more valuable due to its fragility and its limitations.  

That has a specious appeal, but what's the basis of the appeal? For instance, you might say high school football is all the more precious because you only get to be a teenager once. But in addition, you can have fond memories of high school football. And you can form enduring friendships from that time of life. So even though there's loss, it's not a total loss.

Then again, wouldn't lots of middle-aged men step into the time machine for another shot–if the technology existed? So it's not as if high school football is precious primarilly because you can only play it for three years. 

But is your experience all the more valuable because you will cease to be able to experience anything at all? Doesn't that retroactively negate everything that went before? 

Consider people who develop a paralyzing disease. Their minds are trapped in a frozen body. What if you knew you had that to look forward to? Wouldn't that put a damper on your outlook on life? To be happy, wouldn't you need to constantly distract your mind from the fate that awaits you? How you expect the journey to end will rationally condition how you view the journey long before you reach that destination. 

So while I am sad he’s gone, and I do have some sad memories, I don’t really have any regrets - the things that cause the sad memories were beyond my ability to control. Stoicism teaches us not to concern ourselves with the things we cannot control.

Notice that he's grasping at the secular alternatives. Epicureanism plus Stoicism. 

There's some wisdom in saying we shouldn't fret over things beyond our control. But that depends on whether there's reason to hope things will eventually get better. It makes little sense to say you shouldn't care about things beyond your control if the things beyond your control happen to be the very things you most care about! Consider a political prisoner watching his life slip away in a gulag. Everything he cares about lies outside the gulag. He will never see the outside of the gulag. Yes, he can feign Stoic resolve and resignation, but that's just playacting. 

In the post, the author only asks: “And what would he tell his six-year-old daughter if she was dying?”  

Here the Christians believe there’s some blood in the water, and want to press what they feel is an advantage for their worldview by forcing uncomfortable questions on a grieving atheist. 

He was the one who publicly talked about how he tries to cope with a death in the family from a secular perspective. Well, if atheism is a position we're supposed to take seriously, then that includes taking seriously how well an atheist can deal with the ultimate existential questions. An acid test of a worldview is life at its worst. When all the insulation is stripped away.

That’s not something I’d be able to let stand, so I’ll take up their question.  To answer them about what I’d say to my six year old if she had contracted some fatal illness – it’d depend.

If I felt my daughter could handle the knowledge emotionally, I’d tell her. I’d comfort her with Epicurus’s words. I’d make her as comfortable as possible, I’d spend as much time with her as possible, staying with her till the end. I’d let her know how much she’s loved and try to give her as much joy as I could in what time we had left.

If I was an atheist (which I used to be, as an adolescent boy), I'd have no hesitation in telling my dying child a comforting lie. Why does he think he has a duty to tell a dying child the truth if a lie would be more comforting? Is his priority about protecting the child's feelings–or protecting his own feelings? 

If I felt she couldn’t handle the knowledge that she was going to die, I wouldn’t tell her. I’d just say we’re trying to make her better and then do all the above.  I’d alleviate her suffering as best I could, let her know she’s loved.

He's right that we need to give age-appropriate answers. 

I think that this is the response of a loving parent.

Actually, that's the response of a conflicted parent who's torn between comforting a child and telling a child the truth. 

That’s not really the point of their questioning though. I think what they’re trying to achieve is to make atheism look bad, since the only answer we can give does contain a hard truth: when people die, they’re gone forever.

However I’m not really sure that the religious alternative really is any better in the given scenario of a young child with a fatal illness. What religious comfort is there if my child was going to die but couldn’t emotionally handle that knowledge? Tell her that she’s going to die and be with a god that let them get sick and won't heal her, taking her away from the parents she loves? As if that'll make her feel any better.

Of course there's a dilemma if a dying child can't handle the truth. But is that a Christian dilemma or an atheist dilemma? 

But let's step back from the specifics of this question and look at the ultimate issue with what is being asked of me on the blog – it’s a classic case of poisoning the well.  

The problem isn’t with answering what happens when you’re going to die. The problem is having to reveal hard or uncomfortable truths to young children who may not be emotionally ready to handle those facts.   That’s why they didn’t ask me “what will you tell the 50 year old diagnosed with terminal cancer will happen when they die” but instead frames it in terms of a 6 year old girl.

i) No, the reason I asked about the 6-year-old rather than the 50-year-old is because the original context was about talking to a child about death. Indeed, your very own child. And I flipped it around to a dying child rather than a dead grandparent because that's a more emotionally acute example. 

ii) It's true that we can say things to an adult that we can't say to a young child, because the adult has a greater capacity to understand a more complex answer.

iii) There's a crucial difference between hard truths and hopeless truths. The difference isn't between young kids who can't process a hard truth and adults who can. Rather, there are some answers–if true–that no one could emotionally process if they were honest with themselves. 

The same kind of well poisoning can be done right back to these Christians.  Since I know the writer of the blog believes in hell, I wonder what would he would tell a three or six year old child who asked what happened to their Muslim/Hindu/Non-Christian teacher or relative that died?

That depends on what the child is able to grasp at that age. No point giving them an answer they can't understand, even if that happens to be the right answer. 

What if the child asks what happens if they didn’t convert to Christianity before their death?  Will the parent tell them that the person is going to burn for eternity in hell, that their sweet, kind, loved one deserves such punishment and that don’t worry, you won’t see them again when you die, because you’ll be too busy partying up in heaven while they burn in hell?

i) As I already indicated, while I do believe in everlasting punishment, he and I don't have the same idea of hell. Indeed, like many apostates, his theology suffers from arrested intellectual development. He has an adult philosophy but a juvenile theology. His philosophy has continued to develop while his theology is stuck in Sunday school. 

Most of the time, they probably won’t. A common escape route from this kind of hard question is to say something about how “only god knows the state of someone’s soul and how you can’t know if the person didn’t have a miraculous deathbed conversion” to avoid telling their child that someone they love is in hell.

If you think about it, it would be very strange to say the someone who denies the Christian God, someone who hates Christianity, someone who avoids Christian company, went to the Christian heaven when he died, where he will spend eternity with Jesus and the Christian saints. Why would that even be appealing to a Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist? Surely that wouldn't be their idea of heaven. 

My point here is that the real problem in each scenario is having to reveal an uncomfortable truth to a young child before they’re emotionally ready to handle that fact.  Both Christianity and atheism have this problem, just in different ways.

It's true that in a sense, all answers to the hard questions amount to pick your poison. That's what makes them hard questions. There is, though, a crucial difference between hard answers and unmitigated despair. There's nothing to redeem the grimness of atheism. Atheism is unremittingly bleak all the way down. No ultimate compensations for anyone. 

That said, I would at least like to point out that if we are going to get into the game of comparing “hard truths” on our respective worldviews, I’ll take the silence of the void for all over the screams of the majority of humanity emanating from an eternal hell as the price to pay for a minority in heaven any day of the week.  Atheism is far preferable to the kind of Christianity espoused by these people.

i) It doesn't bother me if some of the damned are screaming in hell. Some of the damned took fiendish delight in making their victims scream when they were alive. So their eternal fate is poetic justice.

ii) I doubt all the damned are screaming in hell. That's a cartoon version of hell. 

iii) I don't have enough information to have a firm opinion on the percentages. 

In the end, I think I’ve handled breaking the news to my daughter as best I can.  I haven’t sugar coated anything, but at the same time I’ve tried to provide her with the thoughts necessary to try and comfort her.  She clearly understands that death is the end, and hasn’t been troubled by it. 

Except that like most atheists, he's in denial. He takes sedatives like Epicureanism and Stoicism to numb the gnawing pain of his position. 

I do think that is possibly what upsets the kind of Christians who lashed out at me so much. If children are taught that this life is all we have and are raised with that expectation, the evangelistic tool of avoiding hell or living in paradise for eternity doesn’t carry the weight it otherwise would in a cultural background where belief in an afterlife is the default.

I for one didn't lash out at him. It's true that indoctrinating a child may make it harder to evangelize them when the grow up, but I wasn't thinking about that. What I was thinking about is the harm atheism does to a child's mind by casting a shadow over their outlook on life. A gratuitous shadow cast by a malignant ideology. 


  1. I'd like to comment on a remark he made in the beginning: "goodness for humanity is about what is “good for” humans" - My question to that would be: Who gets to decide? Is it majority rule? If it's not majority rule, how do you enforce it? Is it an abitrary selection based on whatever criteria sounds good? And, whatever you use to determine it, is it just & fair or is it just the best we can do? And is it good in the long term? Do we even have the capability to determine that? Much as I disagree with Ayn Rand's philosophy (a lot!) & hold that her writing is far too heavily painted with a broad brush, there is one point I do love in Atlas Shrugged. She, in my opinion, puts a spotlight on a core problem of communism/socialism - Sure, 'from each according to their abilities: to each according to their needs' sounds like a lovely rule. But the problem is the same as this man's argument - Who decides?

    1. I had similar thoughts when I read that line. Indeed, one could easily argue that it is good for humans to evolve in directed paths, and therefore Social Darwinism--sacrificing the "undesirables" so they don't mate--would, by definition, be good for humanity.

      But the view also betrays a human-centric code of ethics, as if nothing else matters in the universe, when atheism clearly cannot establish humanity as the pinnacle of anything. I can easily imagine scenarios wherein human suffering is good for other creatures more advanced than we are. What if there are aliens who can feed only off our suffering and we are in their farm? The utilitarian argument means that our suffering would increase the overall good in the entire universe just in the same way that us eating any food--including vegetation--does. Just because it sucks for the food doesn't make it immoral in the grand scheme of things. In fact, any attempts for us to lessen our suffering is, in fact, immoral to them because we are depriving them of their sustenance.

      Ultimately, here's the problem with secular ethics summarized. A lion eats a zebra. The zebra would prefer not to be eaten. The lion doesn't care. What good does it do for the zebra to assert the lion has no moral right to eat the zebra? None. Therefore, the zebra convinces himself that lions don't exist.

      Similarly, man has his moral views. God has His moral views. On atheism, man doesn't like God's morality and thinks it is evil. What good does it do for man to assert his morality over God? None. Therefore, man convinces himself that God doesn't exist.

    2. “ preferred metaethics: goodness is about what is good-for something, and goodness for humanity is about what is “good for” humans. There are objective facts of the matter about that in any given situation, determined by the brute facts of our biology collectively and individually.”

      I don’t know what “brute facts of our biology” he’s referring to. Given neo-Darwinism, humans evolve, and given human evolution, what’s to stop our sense of morality from changing in the future? Suppose we evolve to think rape is moral because it’s “good for” and in fact better for our collective survival as a species to forcibly engage in sex with our females rather than letting them choose mates. That’s something atheist philosopher Michael Ruse has pointed out.