Saturday, January 05, 2019


A reply to my post:

The response to my video/post about grieving as an atheist has been overwhelmingly positive. I've had a lot of messages come back to me privately and on the various platforms I've posted it on and I've appreciated all of the wonderful feedback.

I'm sure he got positive feedback from fellow apostates, atheists, and "progressive Christians". What a surprise!

What surprised me was to see that the infamous Calvinist blog mentioned briefly in the original post decided to do a response/takedown of my post.

If I can't have fame, I'll settle for infamy.

The piece weirdly begins by attacking my mentioning of my parental/protective instincts being set off at the idea of sending my daughters to a Christian church. First, it's odd that he tries to say how instincts are amoral because unlike humans, some other animals instinctively eat their offspring, but then he says on Christianity we have god-given instincts. But on Christianity, that same god gave those other animals the instincts to eat their offspring!

That's confused. I didn't say human instincts are amoral just because some animals eat their young. The problem is not that some animals eat their offspring. It's not wrong for animals to eat their offspring. They're just animals.

The problem for naturalism is that instinctive taboos are arbitrary. It's just how our brains our wired by the mad scientist of naturalistic evolution. If human brains were rewired, we'd cannibalize our young, just like some animals do. And in naturalistic evolution, there's no right or wrong way to wire the brain. There's no way the brain is supposed to be.

By contrast, cannibalism is wrong for humans because God designed us differently. But in naturalism, nothing happens by design.

Second, he doesn't even actually refute any appeal to instinct, he only says that on naturalistic evolution there is a fumbling, pitiless process behind our instincts. So? That has zero bearing on whether or not we should follow the instincts, or if we have those instincts for a reason.

It's like throwing dice to pick race horses.

On naturalistic evolution we have those instincts because they directly contribute to the propagation of our species. For humans and our biology, we instinctively protect our young. That's "good-for" humans both individually and collectively in that it contributes to our flourishing.

What if protecting my young completes with protecting your young? Take a food shortage or water shortage.

Steve gets this wrong in a further appeal, later in the post when he attacks my preferred meta-ethic. Here he illustrates his misunderstanding of how natural selection works. It does have a goal: the survival of a species to procreate the next generation, which must in turn be able to do the same. That's literally what is "selected for" by the blind, pitiless process.

He commits a schoolboy error–especially ironic when he presumes to accuse me of misunderstanding how natural selection works even thought it's evident that he doesn't have a clue. He doesn't know the difference between a goal and an unintended side-effect. An unintelligent process can't be goal-oriented. It has no plans. No foresight.

He's deceived by the teleological metaphors used by evolutionary biologists. As William Provine explains:

Natural selection is not a mechanism, does no work, does not act, does not shape, does not cause anything...Natural selection is the outcome of a very complex process that basically boils down to heredity, genetic variation, ecology, and demographics (especially the overproduction of offspring, and constant struggle), "Evolution, Religion, and Science," The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science (2006).

Back to CA:

Steve attacks my appeal to the words of Epicurus, misrepresenting the entire point. First Steve accuses me of holding a double standard in saying that instincts can't be normative while at the same time appealing to Epicurus to hold off an instinctive fear of death.

Second he alleges that this outlook on death means that there's nothing tragic about dying young, or that a murder victim isn't really harmed.

This is incredibly wrongheaded. I think instincts can be normative, such as our protective instinct towards our children, while at the same time realizing the limitations of our instincts.

Now he's committing the naturalistic fallacy. But if instincts are the byproduct of a blind process, then there's nothing normative about the outcome. It's just a random, contingent development.

Secondly just because the fact that we shouldn't be afraid of the fact that we will die has no bearing on whether or not dying young is a tragedy or that a murdered person is wronged. The dead do not suffer, but we see that had misfortune not fallen on someone they would have lived longer, presumably happy lives (or at least a life they'd want to continue living).

He fails to grasp the Epicurean principle he glibly appeals to, according to which death isn't bad for the decedent. This is discussed in standard expositions of Epicurean views on death.

But wouldn't some prefer to live forever? Sure, but that's impossible.

Is he saying immortality is impossible given current conditions, or impossible in principle? Is it impossible for God to confer immorality?

Ideally in such a way that they'd want to continue living. To have that taken away from them, while they could still realistically achieve that, is what makes a premature death a tragedy.

But according to the Epicurean view, death isn't tragic. He's a typical example of an apostate who ditches Christianity as if that's liberating, but has no coherent alternative to fall back on. He cobbles together some half-baked positions that don't add up.

I don't believe I'll be any more afraid of death when I'm in my 60's or 70's. I may be more likely to die then, but I will have had a pretty full life by that point, especially given my current position.

That's an easy claim to make from the safe distance of youth. But once that buffer is gone he may feel very different about the prospect of death.

Ironically in those cases the philosophy I do align with (Stoicism) speaks about suicide as an answer. In those cases I would want to end my own life. In these cases the fact that I will experience nothing after death is a comfort all its own! The worst thing isn't experiencing nothing, it's experiencing unending, hopeless pain. The fact that "the door is always open" to end my existence is itself comforting in the face of such contingencies. This is why I will have a living will about ending my life if I were to end up in that kind of state.

That's a sorry substitute for heaven.

Finally, what gets me is that Steve disdains appealing to philosophies like Stoicism. In fact Stoicism, Epicureanism, or even a host of other philosophies are compatible with atheism. Those are indeed full fledged philosophies, which address things like what it means to live a good life. These aren't "alternatives" to atheism.

i) I didn't say they were alternatives to atheism. To the contrary, I said they were secular alternatives. By definition, that makes them atheistic. The point is that he reaches for Stoicism and Epicureanism to anesthetize the stark consequences of atheism. It's still atheistic, but tries to make the best of the losing hand it dealt itself.

ii) He operates with the compartmentalized, village atheist definition of atheism, but as Paul Draper points out:

Many writers at least implicitly identify atheism with a positive metaphysical theory like naturalism or even materialism.

Denying God's existence has wide-ranging moral, metaphysical, and epistemological consequences. And I've quoted numerous atheist thinkers who admit that atheism/naturalism is nihilistic.

They're philosophies. If you want to address atheism, you're going to have to deal with atheists who hold to these philosophies, but poor Steve doesn't want to do that. That'd be hard. It's much easier for him to build a strawman of atheism entailing nihilism and burning that rather than dealing with positions atheists actually hold.

Such a foolhardy challenge:

This ties in to the next topic where Steve goes off the rails. First off, Steve immediately admits that at least for some, hell is eternal conscious torture - and he likes that fact! He's glad that some of the damned will scream forever because of how bad they were in life!

This is incredibly immoral by any standard. Here on earth, in the USA, we have a constitutional amendment banning the use of torture as punishment. We consider it immoral to torture, even the worst offenders among us. Are we more moral than Steve's god, who supposedly will torture at least some of the people in hell?

i) Fallacious appeal to authority. How is quoting a document from the Enlightenment proof that "torture" is wrong? What makes that cultural practice morally superior to contrary cultural practices?

ii) In what respect is poetic justice incredibly immoral by any standard? How is it immoral for members of ISIS to be on the receiving end of what they inflicted on innocent victims?

Second, if anyone has a cartoon version of hell, it's Steve. It's a cartoon entirely of his own making, to avoid the force of the argument from hell against his version of Christianity.

i) CA brought up my belief in hell as a wedge tactic. Problem is, he imputes his interpretation of the Bible to me, but I don't operate with his backwoods hermeneutics.

ii) In Christian eschatology there's a distinction between the intermediate state and the final state. If you're asking what happens to unbelievers when they die, the intermediate state is the frame of reference.

iii) In that context, my position on hell simply parallels my position on heaven. The intermediate state is a disembodied state. So heaven or hell in that context will be a psychological state, like a collective dream. And it's analogous to revelatory dreams and visions in Scripture. So that's the actual basis for my position, and not avoiding the force of the argument from hell against my version of Christianity.

iv) As for the final state, which is a physical, reembodied state, suppose God puts a bunch of sociopaths on a tropical island. It's a physical paradise, but they will torture each other. Is there an obligation to prevent sociopaths from torturing each other? Don't they deserve each other? Isn't the most fitting punishment for a sociopath to be put with his own kind?

He says that it wouldn't be torture to be forced to endure an unending nightmare.

I didn't frame the issue in terms of torture, one way or the other. That's how CA cast the issue, not me.

So at best, this would be a kind of mental torture, distinct from the burning flames Steve thinks some of the damned will suffer from.

I didn't say some of the damned will suffer from burning flames.

Of course mental torture is still torture

But CA misses the point. The "mental torture" is a mirror of their own character and imagination. Self-torment.

and any kind of eternal existence would be torturous if one doesn't want to live forever in any state.

Retributive punishment isn't supposed to be pleasant.

I wouldn't want to live forever, heaven or hell. At some point, I'd want to have my existence end. Being forced to exist forever would itself be torture.

i) Punitive justice isn't about what the offender wants. That's one major defect in CA's "good-for" metaethics. Why should punishment be good for Stalin? It's a question of just deserts.

ii) Immortality isn't tantamount to torture. Even secular philosophers argue that immortality can be enjoyable. Cf. John Martin Fischer, Our Stories (Oxford 2009).

Thirdly, this is all the more ironic given Steve's criticism of how I'd handle hard truths as being hopeless vs. hopeful. There is literally nothing more hopeless than the idea that the majority of humanity is going to be stuck in an eternal hell!

Once again, he imputes his interpretation to me. I didn't say I think the majority of humanity is hellbound. I have multiple reasons for thinking that's probably not the case:

What Steve gets wrong again is that having no experiences at all (ie. death on atheism) is infinitely preferable to continued suffering for eternity. Much like a quick death is preferable to going into a mind-trapped paralysis where you slowly wither away for years in a bed before death finally claims you.

Before I move on, I'd just like to point out the silliness of Steve's "theological speculation" about hell. First off, the bible is full of references to hell as including fire, burning, suffering, etc. Some Christians try to metaphor that away as best they can, but when their head honcho, one crossy-boi Jesus Herschel Christ tells a parable that includes a depiction of hell, it is someone burning, begging for a tiny bit of water to cool his tongue. It's incredible to interpret that away as a description of hell given all the other biblical references of hell include notions of burning and despair. But hey, it's basically impossible to argue scripture with believers. They can just adopt a hermeneutic to interpret whatever conclusion they want from their holy texts.

The frequency of picturesque imagery carries no presumption that the imagery is literal rather than figurative. Scripture routinely uses poetic imagery and colorful metaphors. It doesn't require a special hermeneutic to recognize that fact. CA illustrates a pattern: childish Christians become childish atheists.

Again, though, the onus is not on me to convince CA. He tried to use my position on hell against my critique of his position, but that backfired because he simply assumed I have the same conception of hell as his folk theology. Scripture has various ways of depicting eschatological punishment:

Steve tries to alleviate some of my criticism about Christianity having to convince you that you're sick in order to sell you the cure of Jesus. First off, his ideas don't map to reality. He's painting only the bad parts of our existence and leaving out the good. For all the atrocities committed, there are still those who love and care for each other. There is still joy, people living happy, fulfilled lives. His idea that you could put is in an earthly paradise and come back to find it a hell on earth is ridiculous. The happiest places on earth right now are largely atheistic, or have majority non-Christian populations. Entire generations of people have lived and died in those societies, many of whom have lived happy fulfilled lives. Nothing will ever be perfect, but we have have societies that generally provide for human well being, allow us to flourish, compared to other societies. On the whole we already know what those places can look like, we don't have to go much further than Scandinavia.

You mean, like suicide rates in Japan, France, Switzerland, Belgium, rates of alcoholism in Finland, Denmark, France, Norway, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, cocaine use in the Netherlands, rates of depression in Europe, rates of domestic abuse in Japan. A veritable secular panacea!

First we come to the idea of why Steve framed his question in terms of a 6 year old girl vs. a 50 year old. I had accused him of poisoning the well by going with the framing of a young child. So he used the framing of a 6 year old because it was about talking to a child about death...and the fact that a dying child is more emotionally acute. There's a reason he didn't frame it as "what how would you tell a 50 year old that their 6 year old grandchild is dying" or the other example. There's no clear symmetry here, he's simply admitting to doing exactly what I accused him of because it's more emotionally acute.

False. As I already explained, I was simply working from CA's chosen example. He chose to cast the issue in terms of a 6-year-old girl. So I continued along the same lines. I'm quite prepared to discuss the example of a 50-year-old. Indeed, I did that when challenged.

Next, consider where I spoke about what I'd tell my 6 year old daughter if she had a terminal illness and I thought she could handle the truth: What Steve misses is the fact that in the case where the child could handle the truth I would tell them because we all have an overriding desire to know the truth.

i) If "we all have an overriding desire to know the truth", then he doesn't believe Christian faith is based on wishful-thinking–unlike many atheists allege.

ii) That said, where does he come up with these sweeping generalizations? What about people who have alarming medical symptoms but procrastinate about going to the doctor because they're afraid of really bad news? What about parents who can't bring themselves to believe that their teenage son or daughter is stealing from them to support a drug habit despite compelling evidence? Resistance to unwelcome truths is a commonplace of human experience.

Most of us would rather know what's really going on if someone told us they could tell us the truth or give us a comforting lie.

What about the dilemma of genetic testing. A healthy asymptomatic teenage who had everything to live for is diagnosed with a genetic defect which will manifest as an incurable degenerative disorder in their twenties or so. Prior to diagnosis, they didn't have that overshadowing the rest of their lives. They had several good years ahead of them, with lots to look forward to, in their blissful ignorance of the horrendous future that awaits them.

But this is where Steve ends up in exactly the same position I espouse! He says he'd effectively lie when presented with the Christian's version of the dilemma about telling a child someone they loved was in hell. So it's OK for the Christian to not tell a hard truth to a child that can't handle or understand the answer. Presumably, if the child could handle the hard truth, Steve would then actually tell them the truth...which is exactly what I said I would do in that situation as an atheist. Isn't this then Steve giving "the response of a conflicted parent who's torn between comforting a child and telling a child the truth?"

It's not a lie to withhold information if the child lacks the cognitive development to process a more detailed explanation. Withholding information isn't equivalent to lying. That requires additional considerations.

Steve tap dances around the idea of a child's loved one being condemned to hell, saying how a Muslim or Hindu would hate to be stuck in the Christian heaven, not quite mentioning how they'd prefer non-existence to suffering for eternity in the Christian hell.

Should people always get what they prefer? Should Stalin have a choice of how to be treated for his crimes?

He tries to paint Christianity as better equipped to deal with "hard truths" because on Christianity there are no "hopeless truths"

Not what I said.

The entire point of my post was how I'm processing grief and how I'm helping my child process it as well. I'm utterly honest with myself with what the situation is and I'm OK with it. My child is also doing OK with it.

Having dealt himself a losing hand, he tries to play it as best he can.

However his second point makes even less sense because as I mentioned before nothing could possibly be more hopeless than being stuck in an eternal hell which his Christianity entails!

That's simplistic. There's an elementary difference between a scenario that's hopeless for everyone and a scenario that's hopeless for some rather than others. If a ship with no lifeboats capsizes and all the passengers drown, that's hopeless for everyone. If a ship with lifeboats for half the passengers capsizes, that's hopeless for some but not for others. If there's only enough antidote in stock to cure half the patients with a life-threatening illness, that's hopeless for some but not for others.

Like I've said before, atheism is far preferable to his Christianity. There is no eternal suffering, and when there is even hopeless finite suffering in this life, there is always "an open door" to end it. This is because there are far worse fates in this life than death (suffering paralyzed and unable to communicate for years, torture, etc), and there are far worse fates than non-existence if life after death were even possible (eternal existence, hell).

Top Nazis committed suicide or fled to South America to cheat justice. Not believing in the afterlife, they thought that was an open door to end it.


  1. "If I can't have fame, I'll settle for infamy." That is a great line.

    1. Perhaps our host will settle with being famous for being infamous! :)

  2. My idea of utopia isn't Scandinavia. Maybe Scandinavia is a utopian society for progressive white folks, but that's not me.

    1. I dislike the cold. I'd probably prefer a beachside shack to a winter wonderland. But maybe that's peripheral since we're talking about the nature of a society rather than its climate.

    2. Perhaps contrary to secular expectations, there are plenty of (shall we say) less than morally upstanding people in Scandinavia! For example, as a non-Caucasian, I've experienced racism by Scandinavians. (Interestingly, I've seldom experienced racism by Americans and to a much lesser degree when I have.)

    3. I don't like all the perfectly clean and organized Nordic cities and so on. I prefer something a bit more hectic and messy with more variety and vibrancy. As far as cities go, I'd prefer Hong Kong to Stockholm.

    4. Unlike many others, I want a challenge. I want to have to struggle to make something of myself, but truly make it myself, as opposed to living in a society where there's a safety net guaranteed for me, so long as I abide by what the powers that be wish. To me, it's the difference between being an independent adult vs. a forever child.

    5. Their health care system is actually not that great. It's fine for the basics, just like most developed nations. However, if I have cancer, then I'd prefer to see an American oncologist at MD Anderson, Memorial Sloan Kettering, or Dana Farber.

    6. Likewise, I suspect their educational system might not be that great relative to (say) many Asian nations.

    1. For example:

      "Other awkward truths? There is more than a whiff of the police state about the fact that Danish policeman refuse to display ID numbers and can refuse to give their names. The Danes are aggressively jingoistic, waving their red-and-white dannebrog at the slightest provocation. Like the Swedes, they embraced privatisation with great enthusiasm (even the ambulance service is privatised); and can seem spectacularly unsophisticated in their race relations (cartoon depictions of black people with big lips and bones through their noses are not uncommon in the national press). And if you think a move across the North Sea would help you escape the paedophiles, racists, crooks and tax-dodging corporations one reads about in the British media on a daily basis, I'm afraid I must disabuse you of that too. Got plenty of them."

      The rest of the article is worth reading:

  3. "Most of us would rather know what's really going on if someone told us they could tell us the truth or give us a comforting lie."

    Anecdotally, there are many patients who explicitly tell us they don't wish to know if they have Huntington's Disease (to cite a particular disease). They'd much rather live in ignorant bliss and see how their future unfolds.

  4. '[Natural selection] does have a goal: the survival of a species to procreate the next generation, which must in turn be able do the same...'

    1. So the story goes. But as Steve notes, natural selection can have no teleological goal; it is utterly passive, and the concept can only function as a filter.

    2. Yes, functionally/practically, an organism is there to propagate itself, but contrary to the claims of many if not most of naturalistic evolution's proponents/defenders, there is no end goal that dictates an organism *must* propagate itself. Is there some Darwinian imperative to propagate one's genes? Why *ought* the human species keep on moving?

    3. I always cringe when I hear an atheist speak in lofty terms about their moral purpose being fulfilled in 'doing their bit' to contribute to the flourishing of the human species. It's so phoney. It's an obvious and painfully inadequate attempt to justify the sense of morality that they know that we know they have.

  5. I'm not sure why CA is so offended that Steve is focusing on how we should approach a 6-year-old. This was how CA framed the discussion from the start and Steve has merely responded accordingly.

  6. “The happiest places on earth right now are largely atheistic, or have majority non-Christian populations.”

    Yeah, Christians are having a real great time in China: