PZ Myers on Living a Lie

Recently PZ Myers was considering a question from an atheist who wondered whether it would be better to hold false beliefs if those beliefs led to a more peaceful and fulfilling world. PZ answered that such a scenario would not be better, reminding me why I consider him to be one of the most honest atheists out there. As he explains:

“You see, living a lie is nearly universally considered a bad thing. Even the people who most devoutly believe in the most wacky fundybeliefs, or scientologists, or Mormons, do not argue that their ideas are falsebut that they believe in them anyway — they all argue that they are literallytrue. The truth of Christianity or Islam or Hinduism or whatever is consideredvery important, but they’ve simply deluded themselves into believing that they
are true (and we know that they can’t all be true, since they’re mutuallycontradictory).”

The problem with this answer is that almost all atheists do live a lie; they have to or they couldn’t live. As I have pointed out elsewhere there is no reason for atheists to believe they can choose their beliefs, or that human rights exist, or human equality has any basis in reality, or that they should be concerned with the suffering of strangers. In fact PZ’s statement contains a lie he himself apparently holds; namely that it should be considered bad to ‘live a lie’. There is in fact nothing in atheism that would lead one to that conclusion. For the most part atheists conform to the morality of the society around them because it is comfortable to do so, not because such conformity proceeds from beliefs they hold to be true.

And that is one of the primary differences between atheism and Christianity – atheists must live a lie in order to operate in ordinary society. Christians on the other hand can act consistently with their beliefs to the betterment of society.

So whether or not atheists consider it bad to live a lie, they all do.

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48 Responses to PZ Myers on Living a Lie

  1. Neil says:

    Yes, they live a lie and deep down they know it is a lie (Romans 1).

    Having said that, if they were consistent they’d concede that it would be fine to live a lie — just be happy and all that. He shouldn’t play the “universal” card, since he has no grounding for that, but of course they can’t go three sentences without doing so.

  2. Brian Westley says:

    As usual, religionists like you and Neil pretend you can read minds, and get things laughably wrong.

    Sorry, your ridiculous suppositions do not apply to my life.

  3. jackhudson says:

    It has nothing to do with reading your mind – it has to do with logical consistency.

  4. shaunphilly says:

    Atheism has no inherent logical implications, one way or another. The same emotional feelings, logical post hod rationalizations, and behavior patterns exist in people (non-sociopaths anyway) whether they believe in a god or not. One might argue that such things are derived from god, but that sort of begs the question at hand.

    The fact that a person does not believe in god is not necessarily a cause or an impediment to any social skills, beliefs in rights, morality, etc. Thus, an atheist is not living a lie by being an atheist and living within expected moral behavior etc. The only way it would be a lie would be to argue that theism is necessary (And not merely sufficient) for such things. You have not made that case, but appear to have merely asserted it.

    Assertion is not proof, and so your claim is invalid.

    Shaun

  5. jackhudson says:

    Atheism has no inherent logical implications, one way or another. The same emotional feelings, logical post hod rationalizations, and behavior patterns exist in people (non-sociopaths anyway) whether they believe in a god or not. One might argue that such things are derived from god, but that sort of begs the question at hand.

    How can something which makes a statement about the nature of reality not have any ‘inherent logical implications’? I can think of a few right off hand – if atheism is true life has no inherent ultimate purpose. Or if atheism is true humans are wholly material beings. Both of those realities in turn have profound implications for how we view the world. Indeed, if atheism had no logical implications, why would anyone advocate for it at all – as it would be an irrelevant and trivial consideration?

    The fact that a person does not believe in god is not necessarily a cause or an impediment to any social skills, beliefs in rights, morality, etc. Thus, an atheist is not living a lie by being an atheist and living within expected moral behavior etc. The only way it would be a lie would be to argue that theism is necessary (And not merely sufficient) for such things. You have not made that case, but appear to have merely asserted it.

    Well you are confusing ‘logical implications’ here with requiring particular norms or behaviors. It is true that atheism is not normative, but that itself is a logical implication of atheism, thus defeating your first point.

    And it is quite easy to formulate a contradiction within atheism without evoking theism – as was mentioned above, to say something is ‘universally bad’ would be logically contradictory to atheism as atheism would not allow for the existence of a universal objective norm or standard of morality.

    So my claim is perfectly valid.

  6. shaunphilly says:

    How can something which makes a statement about the nature of reality not have any ‘inherent logical implications’? I can think of a few right off hand – if atheism is true life has no inherent ultimate purpose. Or if atheism is true humans are wholly material beings. Both of those realities in turn have profound implications for how we view the world. Indeed, if atheism had no logical implications, why would anyone advocate for it at all – as it would be an irrelevant and trivial consideration?

    Because atheism is not a statement about the nature of reality. It is nothing more than the answer “no” to “do you believe a god exists,” which is not a statement about anything except one’s current lack of belief in any gods. Now, most atheists do actually continue to make statements about reality (eg “there are no gods), but this is not logically necessary from the first.

    It is possible for there to be a universe where there is inherent meaning and still have no gods. Again, the fact that a person does not accept the proposition that there is a god does not necessarily imply that they don’t believe in purpose. Now, most atheists I know don’t believe there is an inherent universal purpose (I am one of them), but this is not the same as saying there are no purposes. We, as human beings, create our own purposes, and those purposes often do have foundations (but not atheism per se) even they are not absolute. I believe the same is true for theists, except theists project their own values onto the divine.

    Finally, atheism and materialism are not the same thing. Not all atheists believe that we are merely material things. Buddhists, for example, often believe in some spiritual dimension while not believing in gods (depending on the sect). There are also atheist pagans, and other minor religions which hold to no theism but believe in a soul, spirit, etc. Now, I happen to be a metaphysical naturalist (a ‘physicalist’) but in my case this philosophical position precedes my atheism; I’m a (methodological and philosophical) naturalist and a skeptic logically prior to my atheism.

    Atheists advocate for atheism mostly as a civil right not to be discriminated against (it happens a lot). We advocate also because many atheists believe that religion and/or faith are harmful more than they are good. It is not trivial if religion and/or faith actually do social, personal, and historical harm.

    Well you are confusing ‘logical implications’ here with requiring particular norms or behaviors. It is true that atheism is not normative, but that itself is a logical implication of atheism, thus defeating your first point.

    I believe I addressed this above, unless I am missing something further here. Elucidation would be appreciated.

    And it is quite easy to formulate a contradiction within atheism without evoking theism – as was mentioned above, to say something is ‘universally bad’ would be logically contradictory to atheism as atheism would not allow for the existence of a universal objective norm or standard of morality.

    So my claim is perfectly valid

    Again, I addressed this. The problem is that I don’t think many atheists claim anything as universally bad, but merely ‘socially bad,’ ‘personally bad,’ etc. An atheist who claims that something is ‘universally bad’ would certainly have some explaining to do, as making such a claim would require proof or at least evidence to support the claim, but again atheism per se cannot make any such claims (even if specific atheists might), because atheism (per se) is merely a negative position to the theist claim.

    Atheism is nothing more than the lack of belief in any gods. Just like the mere lack of belief in Santa Claus does not tell you anything about the Easter Bunny, it cannot tell you if they celebrate Christmas either.

    It seems your claim is based upon a fallacious understanding of what atheism is. It is actually a rather common misunderstanding. I hope my explication helps.

  7. justin says:

    Atheism has no inherent logical implications, one way or another.

    Often said, and always false.

  8. justin says:

    Because atheism is not a statement about the nature of reality.

    Ahh, the old no true atheist argument. I cannot stand the inherent sliminess of the phrase “lack of belief in gods”. Things I lack belief in I spend precisely 0% of my time online arguing with people that do believe in them. Further, my pencil is an atheist, since it “lacks a belief in god” – my dog is most likely an atheist, as is my vehicle and as is my TV. It’s not a very useful or honest definition.

  9. shaunphilly says:

    Well, it’s the only definition that makes sense upon analysis. To make the claim that there is no god is absurd and cannot be substantiated except in the case of specific logically impossible concepts of god. The fact is that I don’t know what the word ‘god’ is supposed to mean, so how could I say anything except “I don’t believe in this thing you insist exists but I can’t get a meaningful definition for.”

    Pencils are not sentient. Dogs may or may not have the capacity for belief in such things. Those are snarky points, because they don’t actually address the epistemological problem which deals with humans and other sentient and intelligent agents. It is disingenuous to avoid the issue because of not seeing the use of such a definition. I see plenty of use in it. You don’t even seem to be trying to understand where we atheists are coming from, and that makes your criticisms fall flat.

    You may not like the definition of atheism we atheists use, but that is not our problem. I’m sorry if our definition makes your characterization of us harder to support.

    Thanks for ignoring the substance of my argument.

    Shaun

  10. jackhudson says:

    I think it really comes down to what aspect of God atheists dispute. Obviosly they don’t deny the possibility of non-terrestrial life, or non-human intelligence, or even that an intelligence could originate living organisms. What they doubt is the existence of is the immaterial;.That is why atheists also deny the existence of the spiritual, the soul, and ultimately the immaterial self which allows for inherent rights,, equality, and free will.

  11. Justin says:

    Yes, Jack, but remember, they don’t “deny” it, they just “lack a belief” in it (and then proceed to deny it when engaging others). The new, redefined atheism is the same as the old, only with a slippier self-description.

    The new definition is essentially meaningless.

  12. Justin says:

    Shaun,

    Under the new and improved definition of atheism, it seems agnostics also get rolled into the definition. Again, you and hundreds of thousands of other atheists online like to debate with Christians, and yet claim that you simply lack a belief? That’s misleading at best.

    It might be better to define it like it used to be defined – one who denies the existence of gods. That definition is much more menaingful.

    Further, to say that there are no logical consequences for the denial of God or any other gods is naive. Atheist philosophers have recognized for centuries that there are logical implications to the denying the existence of God. It’s the New Atheists, and moreso at the popular level, that claim this new definition and claim that there are no implications for what really is a denial, not simply a “lack of belief”.

    You’re not the first person I’ve seen use this definition. I have attempted to understand it, but at best all I can come up with is that it was adopted to make debating Christians easier by trying to be slippery (while the debates themselves tell a different story). That’s how the definition comes across to me.

  13. shaunphilly says:

    Well, I’m an agnostic as well. But as I define agnosticism (http://shaunphilly.wordpress.com/2009/03/20/a-message-for-agnostics/), everyone is an agnostic. More “re”definitions I suppose…

    With the growth of the atheist community in the last 10 years, we have analyzed many ideas as part of our internal conversations. What we call ourselves is part of that conversation. Yes, there are some people in that larger community who use the definition of ‘atheism’ that you prefer, but I think they are in error in doing so.

    This is frustrating for me because our attempts at precisions and coherence is being met with accusations of trying to change definitions, when in fact the definition I argue against is the one which was imposed upon us from believers throughout history. In most of history the term “atheist” was used to designate a heretic, one who denied the gods of their specific culture. The term was used in a context of it being assumed that god was real and some dissenters denied it. The context looks different from my point of view, and the “atheist community” has various types of people who are held together by one commonality; they don’t believe in gods. Some of them deny gods, some of them say gods are impossible, and some think that religion should be eliminated. But the only thing that they all share is the lack of belief in gods. That is why that definition is the only one that makes sense to identify the whole group. Don’t like it? It does not matter. That is how we use it.

    I’ll take another shot at demonstrating the argument for my use;

    Belief is digital; we either believe in a thing or we do not (the issue of what level of certainty is required to say one believes is a related question, but I will leave that aside for the moment). So, either I accept the proposition “a god exists” or not. I do not accept the proposition, and so this epistemological position should have a title. ‘Agnostic’ is not sufficient because a person can say that they do accept the proposition while not knowing for certain. If both are agnostics, then we need a term to designate the difference of accepting the proposition or not.

    And since to accept the proposition is defined as ‘theism,’ I like to follow the Greeks (as we do in English) and throw an ‘a-‘ in front to designate that I am not one of those people that accepts the proposition. Thus atheist, from ‘a-‘ + ‘theist’

    Further, to say that there are no logical consequences for the denial of God or any other gods is naive. Atheist philosophers have recognized for centuries that there are logical implications to the denying the existence of God. It’s the New Atheists, and moreso at the popular level, that claim this new definition and claim that there are no implications for what really is a denial, not simply a “lack of belief”.

    There are certainly social, political, and cultural implications. The point is that knowing that someone does not believe in a god does not tell you anything about what they do believe.

    Here’s a test for my claim; If I tell you that I don’t believe in any gods, can you tell me something else that I do believe (or at least what I must believe in order to be logically consistent) as a result of that position? Is there any other thing that you know about my set of beliefs, deductively, from that position?

  14. jackhudson says:

    I think the most significant indicator that atheism isn’t merely a lack of a belief in God is that atheists identify as a group. There are no a-Santa-ists or a-ghost-ist blogs or confernces out there because lack of belief in such things doesnt’t constitute an identy; atheism obviously does for atheists.

  15. shaunphilly says:

    *sigh*

    I guess you have never heard of the skeptic community. There are many skeptic groups, conventions, etc. The Amazing Meeting (TAM) is the most popular. There goes your a-ghost-ists etc. The reason that the atheist community as a group advocates for a negative position is because of the prevalence of and political power based upon the belief in a god.

    If there were a significant number of people in our culture who not only believed in other un-skeptical things things (like Santa, ghosts, etc) and who also used political power to they levy their ideas, then there would be large groups opposing things like Santa and ghosts.

    It is disingenuous to ignore the cultural difference between gods, ghosts, and Santa as cultural ideas with their relative abilities to affect political and social discourse. Many people believe in ghosts (or spirits, souls, etc), but those types of beliefs do not, themselves, lead to the wielding of power in our culture; they do lead to bad TV shows. I like the phrase “God is Santa for adults,” but that aside the issue of Santa is not taken serious by adults. Theists, specifically Christians, have a lot of social and political power in the USA, especially in the Republican party but also, to a lesser degree, the Democratic party.

    To say that your argument for why the definition of atheism cannot be the lack of belief in gods is because we are a group is plainly absurd. If that is the extent of your argument, well then I am not impressed.

  16. jackhudson says:

    Actually I think it is more disingenuous to compare ‘skeptics’ to atheists. I am a skeptical about ghosts and UFOs and psychics and the like, but have little in common with the Amazing Randy.

    This is quite different than from atheists who are devoted to a common idea. Modern atheists have identifiable leadership (i.e. the ‘Four Horseman’ Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens.) their publications are recognizable and can be categorized as a group, they meet together under common cause, they have a common social and political identity – there are even atheist dating sites for heaven’s sake. Atheists talk about raising their children in accordance with their beliefs; they talk about the social problems that face them as a group, they compare the intelligence of atheists verses that of believers. Even the fact that you pointed out the “social and political power” of Christians belies the fact that you note a divergence between identifiable groups in terms of their beliefs.

    So whether you are ‘impressed’ or not, you aren’t facing the reality that atheism, at least in its modern form, is in no ways a mere lack of belief. You need to re-assess your view on this; no one buys this claim anymore, not even the atheist you are trying to defend here.

  17. shaunphilly says:

    Skepticism, properly applied, necessarily leads to atheism. I have written about this here: http://shaunphilly.wordpress.com/2010/07/22/a-challenge-for-skeptics/

    The fact that we talk about all these things does indeed imply that we are more than mere atheists. That is the point; what brought us together was our lack of belief in gods, but what keeps us together are our commonalities which go beyond the mere lack of belief that is atheism. Those things are not atheism per se, but what we call humanism, rationalism, etc. To argue that there are things which we do share that allows us to be a coherent group does not show that atheism is not defined as the lack of belief in gods, it only demonstrates that we are more than mere atheists. The irony (considering the post we are commenting on) is that your argument actually agrees more with PZ Myers’ view, which differs from mine a bit. (cf http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2011/02/why_are_you_an_atheist.php)

    But there are also many differences. Yes, we have “leaders”, but we often differ with each other rather strongly. We are merciless in criticism when we think our “leaders” are wrong and we disagree about things more often than we agree, mostly because what initially brought us together was the negative position that is atheism. We don’t all hold the same political views (Michael Shermer, Penn Jillette, and Christopher Hitchens are all more conservative than I am, for example). We are not even all humanists. We do often agree on common goals and share many social experiences, but this still does not challenge the mere definition of atheism.

    There are many atheists who want nothing to do with the community (and they resent us for grouping together with the common name). There are even people that are part of the larger community that don’t accept the title of atheist (and some of them are not atheists).

    The definition of atheist only tells you what that word itself means. The fact that the community, which often (but not always) refers to itself as the “atheist community,” often shares other things than this lack of belief does not affect that definition. Again it just tells you that the community is more than atheism. You are conflating the label we give the group with the fact that we share many things in common with each other which are more than our being atheists. As Sam Harris has argued, perhaps we should not even use the title anymore because (as has also been argued here) people don’t call ourselves a-fairie-ists. And at some point he will be right; at some point, when atheism is an accepted social position, the term will become useless as a description. That is not the case yet.

  18. Justin says:

    more redefinitions I suppose….

    Yep, redefine them until they’re meaningless.

    Redefine the terms so that you can continue to use the same ancient atheist arguments while disclaiming the necessity of actually having to support those positions intellectually. When a group has to resort to this form of semantics, it’s not a good sign for the state of their cause.

  19. shaunphilly says:

    I did defend it intellectually. You are just not honest enough to actually address that. I broke down the definition above, but for the attention-disabled, I’ll be quick.

    Theist: one who believes in god

    a-: not (from the Greek)

    therefore,

    a- + theist (atheist): a person who is not a theist, i.e., one who does not believe in god.

    Worded differently, someone who lacks belief in go (because ‘one who does not believe in god’ is logically equivalent to ‘one who lacks belief in god’)

    And yes, that is semantics. All language is semantics. The difference is that the people who insist that atheist means one who denies god (or who says god does not exist) are not addressing the skeptic’s stance on god; without evidence there simply is no reason to believe in a god. That is my position.

    So, am I not an ‘atheist’ (as you use it) then? Fine, even if that were the case I still lack belief in a god. I don’t deny god. I don’t think it’s rational to say a god does not exist.

    Address that, rather than be disingenuous.

  20. jackhudson says:

    Skepticism, properly applied, necessarily leads to atheism. I have written about this here: http://shaunphilly.wordpress.com/2010/07/22/a-challenge-for-skeptics/

    And I have explained why skepticism led me too Christianity here and here – but that is irrelevant to this conversation.

    The fact that we talk about all these things does indeed imply that we are more than mere atheists. That is the point; what brought us together was our lack of belief in gods, but what keeps us together are our commonalities which go beyond the mere lack of belief that is atheism. Those things are not atheism per se, but what we call humanism, rationalism, etc. To argue that there are things which we do share that allows us to be a coherent group does not show that atheism is not defined as the lack of belief in gods, it only demonstrates that we are more than mere atheists. The irony (considering the post we are commenting on) is that your argument actually agrees more with PZ Myers’ view, which differs from mine a bit. (cf http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2011/02/why_are_you_an_atheist.php)

    I am not sure why this is ironic; I always agree with people when they are right.

    But you seem to be somewhat in agreement with me here – there is no such thing as a ‘mere atheist’, invariably atheists are compositions of beliefs of which atheism is merely a portal. No one simply lacks a belief in god.

    But there are also many differences. Yes, we have “leaders”, but we often differ with each other rather strongly. We are merciless in criticism when we think our “leaders” are wrong and we disagree about things more often than we agree, mostly because what initially brought us together was the negative position that is atheism. We don’t all hold the same political views (Michael Shermer, Penn Jillette, and Christopher Hitchens are all more conservative than I am, for example). We are not even all humanists. We do often agree on common goals and share many social experiences, but this still does not challenge the mere definition of atheism.

    The fact that there are differences really doesn’t prove you aren’t a group. Atheists collectively refer to believers as ‘theists’ despite the fact that a Hindu is nothing like a Christian. I would argue atheists are much more close in their beliefs about various issues than are Christians, yet no one would not argue that Christians aren’t an identifiable group.

    There are many atheists who want nothing to do with the community (and they resent us for grouping together with the common name). There are even people that are part of the larger community that don’t accept the title of atheist (and some of them are not atheists).

    Again, much the same could be said about any religious group.

    The definition of atheist only tells you what that word itself means. The fact that the community, which often (but not always) refers to itself as the “atheist community,” often shares other things than this lack of belief does not affect that definition. Again it just tells you that the community is more than atheism. You are conflating the label we give the group with the fact that we share many things in common with each other which are more than our being atheists. As Sam Harris has argued, perhaps we should not even use the title anymore because (as has also been argued here) people don’t call ourselves a-fairie-ists. And at some point he will be right; at some point, when atheism is an accepted social position, the term will become useless as a description. That is not the case yet.

    Atheism of course has not only been an “accepted social condition”, but a mandatory one a number of times in human history (the Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Eastern Europe before the wall fell, North Korea now) and yet the notion of atheism persists – because it isn’t merely a denial of God, but of all that we experience of God in everyday life. Belief in God persists through horrendous opposition because it actually takes more work to sustain atheism than it does to have some basic concept of God. Quite different from a belief in fairies or Santa which crumbles quickly in the light of adulthood.

    And breaking a word into its lingual components doesn’t necessarily tell us about those the word describes. Anarchy from the Greek means ‘without a leader’, but that doesn’t particularly describe those we call anarchists.

    Atheists, as I have shown, are more than simply those who lack a belief in God. I would argue no such person actually exists – those who call themselves atheists explicitly choose not to accept the existence of God, either because they think the evidence is lacking or insufficient, or because they find the notion of God unappealing.

  21. jackhudson says:

    @shaun

    one note – I just wanted to say I appreciate your even-handed tone in this discussion.

  22. shaunphilly says:

    I have never claimed that anyone is a “mere atheist’ (although it gives me an ideas for a post of my own, making myself the atheist CS Lewis, perhaps). No person is described as only having a lack of a belief in a god, but the philosophical position of atheist/atheism is nothing more than that mere lack.

    Yes, atheists are more than the lack of belief in a god. But that is because they are people. That is, people who lack belief in a god do believe in other things, because as sentient being we have beliefs. That does not change the fact that by saying a person is an atheist tells you nothing more than they don’t believe in gods.

    That is, the definition of the word atheism is still ‘the lack of belief in gods,’ even if a person who has this lack of belief also believes things.

    Let’s try it this way: “Hi, my name is Shaun. I’m an atheist.” tells you nothing other than what I don’t believe. It tells you nothing about what I do believe (besides that I believe that my name is Shaun, which is immaterial here). If the word atheist meant anything besides this lack of belief, then I could not say that because it would necessarily imply another belief I have because it would be built into the word ‘atheist.’ But this is not the case, ergo atheist is nothing more than a lack of belief in any gods.

    And I think that atheists differ in opinion more than you know. Go to an atheist convention sometimes and listen to their discussions. We disagree a lot. It would be like sitting and listening to a religious discussion between a Catholic, an Orthodox, and a Calvinist. They have a lot of things in common, but they differ greatly in the details. Atheists disagree on many, many more things, as they really only share that lack (as I have said).

    Differences between atheists might be compared to the differences between Christians, Moslems, and Hindus, for example. While the differences between religions are great, the common acceptance (generally) about the supernatural is what makes you more alike, from my point of view. Just like what atheists share is limited to the lack of belief in gods, what you share with Moslems and Hindus is the belief in god(s). Calling someone a theist tells you nothing about what they believe other than a god/gods.

    Concerning your post about why skepticism made you a Christian, I will have to read that first. I have studied the origin, history, and theology of Christianity and do not find it generally believable. Perhaps you will have some insight for me.

    But I’m skeptical.

    😉

  23. Justin says:

    I did defend it intellectually. You are just not honest enough to actually address that. I broke down the definition above, but for the attention-disabled, I’ll be quick.

    I’m not sure how I’m being dishonest by adhering to the traditional definition. Even some modern atheists dislike the new definition. And it is new. You admitted to redefining it into menainglessness when you claimed everyone was an agnostic. If you claim that everyone is something, then it loses the meaning it once has. Not to mention, you’re speaking for others where you have no right to do so.

    To say that the traditional definition doesn’t reflect your skepticism is one thing, but again, the term has been redefined by atheists to the point where it has lost the meaning understood by thinking atheists such as Nietzsche. Traditionally it wasn’t one who merely lacks belief in gods, it was one who rejected the belief in gods. Slight difference, but on the one hand there is a position that was defended logically, along with the recognition of the logical outworkings of such a belief, and on the other hand, with the new definition, there’s really no difference between you and a pencil. Some of the meaning has been removed, and at the same time, there’s a refusal to recognize that there indeed are logical ramifications to a rejection of dieties. That, to me, seems the more dishonest of the two.

    It is accurate to say that atheists have a wide variety of beliefs on most everything else. In my experience, however, there is a core set of beliefs, a core set of arguments, the same tired ridicule, and many of the same self-contradictory positions that are indeed as widely held by atheists as the belief Christians hold about who Christ is. Of course there are exceptions, people who are logically consistent in their atheism. But they seem to be the minority online.

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  25. shaunphilly says:

    @Justin

    The term agnostic is redundant, and thus meaningless. I have argued that for years.

    The people who are logically consistent as atheists may be the minority, but even if that were true so what? It’s not how many people have an idea, it’s the merits of the idea itself.

    The traditional use of ‘atheist’ is problematic. That’s why we try to change how the term is used. Yes, some atheists disagree with this effort, and I think they are incorrect. Many of us, trying to be consistent logically, thought about the term and how it was used, and realized that the traditional definition did not describe us. The traditional definition, as I said above, was imposed upon us by believers. I think that makes it somewhat illegitimate, especially since almost nobody i know actually describes themselves as denying gods.

    I don’t want to keep re-hashing the same points about the definition of atheism. It does not matter that much. I lack belief in gods, so call it whatever you like but that is my position concerning theism in general.

  26. Justin says:

    @ Shaun – do you not think that having a self-consistent worldview is important?

    Also, how would you, specifically, differentiate yourself from someone more traditional, like Nietzsche, who saw the logical ramifications of his beliefs?

  27. jackhudson says:

    Shaun, in agreeing that “No person is described as only having a lack of a belief in a god” you bring us back to my original point of this post – which is that atheists believe and behave in ways that would only make sense if theism were true. Given that you have acknowledged there is no such thing as a ‘mere atheist’, you can no longer use the baseline definition of atheism as an argument against my claim.

    What we are left with is the reality that atheists can’t live as atheists, they must accede to other realities, realities that only make sense when derived from a worldview that includes the notion of God.

  28. shaunphilly says:

    Yes, I do think having an internally consistent worldview is important. I am sure that I am not completely rational about everything (I doubt anyone is), but I do try and have as many true beliefs as possible.

    Well, Nietzsche saw all sorts of implications of the rejection of Christianity and Judaism. I see those implications as well. They are just not inherent to atheism per se I actually like Nietzsche quite a lot, but even he rejected the label of ‘atheist’ and had some things to say about atheism which we less than friendly. I think his view of atheism was not the mere atheism which I wrote about yesterday.

  29. shaunphilly says:

    …atheists believe and behave in ways that would only make sense if theism were true.

    But I disagree with this claim. I have made some comments about related ideas at http://shaunphilly.wordpress.com/2011/07/20/atheism-over-humanism-why-we-must-philosophize-with-a-hammer/. You may find them interesting. In fact, Justin may find them interesting as well because I talk about Nietzsche a bit in that post.

    There all all sorts of ways to base the ideas of rights, morality, etc without the existence (or even notion of) a god. No, you cannot base them on absolutist grounds, but that is not an issue because absolute grounds are not necessary to have meaningful concepts of rights or morality. In fact, given the Euthyphro problem (which deals with morality specifically but has more general points to make as well) I don’t think that even a theistic worldview makes these questions easy or conclusive.

    My view is that the values that Christianity (as well as many other theological worldviews) uses are not, in fact, original to religion. I think that the cultural institutions of religion, in the West this means Christianity, usurps ideas such as rights, morality, etc and incorporates them into their doctrines and claims them as their own.

    That is, the values that underpin rights and such are humanist values first, religious/theist ones second. The claim that an atheist cannot have a basis for such things is, therefore, absurd.

    A worldview that includes the existence of, or even just the notion of, a god is not necessary for any of these things. There are very good secular bases of rights, morality, and ontology. In fact, science has had a lot to say about these issues in recent years. (Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape is only a small part of it).

    I’m sure you can find such things if you really wanted, and I suppose I could point you in the right directions if I were so inclined. But your apparent ignorance of these arguments is a little baffling, honestly.

  30. jackhudson says:

    Well, take a simple idea like ‘equality’. There is no material, natural, or biological basis for human equality. Given that these are the only basis atheists really have to draw from, their belief in human equality is contradictory to their atheistic position.

    I would argue the only reasonable and consistent basis would be a metaphysical notion of equality, which is exactly where the Western notion comes from.

  31. shaunphilly says:

    What sense of equality do you mean? I don’t think that secular thinkers argue that people are inherently equal. The idea of us being “equal in the eyes of god,” for example, is an idea which many secular people reject as meaningless, including myself. In terms of secular arguments for equality, the idea of legal equality is upheld, not metaphysical equality.

    People vary in all sorts of ways–intellectual, emotional, height, weight, etc. But legal protections afford us the ability to try and give people equality in terms of opportunities. Yes, some people will succeed and others will fail. The idea is not to give everyone the same outcome, but rather make sure that people have the ability of fairness of opportunity to achieve to the best of their ability.

    Also, equality in terms of rights is an issue that brings up discrimination. People have the right, I believe, to choose how to live with whomever wants to consensually live with them. Thus gay marriage rights, polyamorous marriage rights, etc. So long as the persons are able to comprehend and consent to an arrangement of lifestyle, activity, and so forth I don’t think that anyone has the right to object without demonstration of direct harm to non-consenting individuals.

  32. jackhudson says:

    You have avoided the question a bit. Yes, inherent equality, of the sort that the Declaration claims when it says ‘all men are created equal’.

    There is no basis to provide equal opportunity or legal equality absent inherent equality – so absent a metaphysical basis, how could an atheist argue for the inherent equality of all persons?

  33. shaunphilly says:

    Inherent equality, as in the Declaration, is a fiction. It was an idea adopted by Deists which was, in fact, influenced by Christian ideas. It has subsequently been eschewed as meaningless by secular philosophy, as it should be. I am a fan of Thomas Jefferson, but I do think even he was enamored with too many atavistic philosophical ideas.

    Of course there is a basis to provide equal opportunity without inherent equality. The history of the concept of equality is long and complicated to comprehensively summarize here (and I am not an expert in the idea, myself), but I am not so sure that the idea is actually derived from inherent equality in the first place. It is not necessarily so.

    In my studies about Platonism and its influence on Christian theology, for example, it seems to me that the Platonic (the universal, inherent, and pre-existing “Ideas” or “Forms”) are an abstraction from real experience onto the Intelligible World or Plato’s metaphysics (a metaphysics which influenced Christian and Islamic worldviews) is rejected by most modern philosophy, and I personally reject it nearly whole-cloth. If you are familiar with the “cave analogy” (from The Republic), I would argue that Plato had the analogy almost exactly backwards. It is a subject i have great interest in, but will not say more now in the interest of space.

    So, are you telling me that without the concept of inherent equality a person could not conceive of the idea of equality? The very idea of rationality, which is derived from the Greek idea of the ability to measure, directly leads to the ability to measure quantities in relation to one-another. If you can measure one quantity, and then another, and subsequently compare them, then there is the basis for equality/inequality. It is a pretty basic idea, and to apply it to circumstances in life is not an intellectual stretch. You don’t need the idea to exist as a Platonic From or as an inherent construct in your mind to do so.

    One does not need logical absolutes to comprehend logical relatives. In fact, I think the very idea of logical absolutes are derived, like I said, from experiences with real things which are then abstracted into static concepts. That is how much of our cognition works.

  34. jackhudson says:

    So, are you telling me that without the concept of inherent equality a person could not conceive of the idea of equality? The very idea of rationality, which is derived from the Greek idea of the ability to measure, directly leads to the ability to measure quantities in relation to one-another. If you can measure one quantity, and then another, and subsequently compare them, then there is the basis for equality/inequality. It is a pretty basic idea, and to apply it to circumstances in life is not an intellectual stretch. You don’t need the idea to exist as a Platonic From or as an inherent construct in your mind to do so.

    Obviously one can ‘compare quantities’ – in fact that is exactly my point! Given that the atheist has no metaphysical grounding for equality he is left with only physical or material measures and by those measures there is no actual human equality.

    Thus far you have meandered around this point, but in calling the notion of inherent equality a fiction and in acknowledging that other metaphysical groundings are rejected by secular philosophy, you have essentially conceded the notion that atheism has no basis for human equality.

    Thus, when an atheist argues for any action based on notions of equality, he is, as I noted in my original post, living a lie.

  35. shaunphilly says:

    Um, what?

    Atheists have the exact metaphysical grounding as you do. For some reason some people think this has something to do with gods. I was not saying that there is no metaphysical grounding, just that there is not some absolute grounding. Grounding in metaphysics does not have to be absolute to be real.

    Again, I’m not saying that metaphysical groundings are fictional, I’m saying that inherent or Platonic ideas are fictional, as they are created as concepts after the experience of them in reality.

    Your point is incoherent and absurd.

  36. jackhudson says:

    You are still dissembling – what basis would there be from a physical, material, or biological perspective to contend all humans are equal?

  37. shaunphilly says:

    OK, after discussing what I think is a misunderstanding here (with my ex-Christian fiance), she seems to think that what is going on is that you are saying that as an atheist I cannot argue for inherent human equality. NOT that I cannot argue for legal or rational equalities.

    Well, fine. I don’t try to argue for such things as inherent human equality, and I am not sure of many atheists who do. I have similarly criticized atheists who try and argue for ideas which are (probably unconsciously) based on theistic ideas. If that is your point, well, I guess my answer is “so what?”

    People are pretty inconsistent.

    But your OP was about whether atheists can talk about human rights at all, not whether we can talk about inherent human rights. At least that is how I read it. Again, a right does not have to be inherent to be real.

  38. shaunphilly says:

    (we cross-posted)

    what basis would there be from a physical, material, or biological perspective to contend all humans are equal?

    There is none, because the idea that all humans are (inherently) equal is nonsensical. It is easy shown to not be true upon quick inspection of the facts.

    We only argue that they should be given legal equality. That is what I mean when I talk about human rights and equality; not that they are equal, but that they deserve legal equality.

  39. jackhudson says:

    Why should they be given ‘legal equality’ if they are not in fact equal? Why do you think they ‘deserve’ such a thing if it isn’t actually the case that they are equal?

    In this lies the contradiction I noted in the OP.

  40. shaunphilly says:

    I am not going to explain the history of the philosophy of ethics to you. The concepts of inherent equality and equal protection under the law have very little to do with each other.

    A few quick hints:

    Enlightened self-interest. The golden rule (the idea is older than the Bible). John Rawls’ “original position” (the veil of ignorance). The value of fairness (related to the golden rule concept).

    Here’s a few links to start with:

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/metaethics/

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/morality-definition/

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secular_ethics

    I will not spend time composing an argument for secular ethics when there is a plethora of articles on the topic out there for you to read. If you don’t know enough about this topic to answer your own question, you really need to start educating yourself.

    If that is all, then I’m afraid I’m done here.

  41. jackhudson says:

    I’m sorry you feel that way, but the ethics arguments you googled aren’t arguments that people are actually equal. Some of them assume equality (like the golden rule) and some of them could actually be used to argue against equality – Southern slave owners would certainly be acting out of self-interest to argue blacks don’t deserve equal treatment to whites.

    And arguing ‘that I don’t know enough about the topic’ when you have struggled to respond to the simplest questions on the subject is somewhat disingenuous, don’t you think?

    The simple truth is atheists have no internally consistent means by which to argue for human equality, and the Christian does. A Christian is not required to live a lie when they claim human equality exists.

  42. Justin says:

    Shaun, all of the rules that fall under “enlightened self-interest” still smuggle in philisophical assumptions that one ought to act that way when it’s clear that sometimes people can get away with behaving badly. When all is said and done, enlightened self-interest often resolves itself to “might makes right”. History bears this out repeatedly. I have yet to see a secular (atheist) philosophy of ethics or morals that succeeds in grounding itself logically. There are always either 1) loopholes to the rules, or 2) smuggled in assumptions with no logical foundation whatsoever.

  43. shaunphilly says:

    No, you both don’t understand. Everything in logic requires an assumption. That is how logic works. You make assumptions, I make assumptions, etc. Logic is merely a tool you use to shape the axioms you start with. The question is whether those assumptions are based in something reasonable or not.

    For me, the relevant axioms are existence, relative certainty of experience as representative of reality, and the existence of other things in the universe (some of them sentient like me). From there I can trace through metaethics, morality, to an argument for why we should apply legal protection equally. It’s too long to do here, and frankly I don’t think you have any interest in hearing it.

    You have every right to view these next comments as unsubstantiated, but frankly I don’t care and I don’t feel like explaining it right now. Christian ideas, specifically total depravity and the Fall, makes it hard to see our ability to think through problems like this. Christianity both gives you the disease and the cure; it tells you that you are a fallen, sinful being whose thoughts, feelings, etc cannot be trusted and then tells you that it has the solution in a set of ideas which creates a worldview. This worldview poisons your ability to see certain things, like how you can derive moral and social ideas about how to act towards others. I have talked with so many ex-Christians about this and it is frustrating for them, as well as I, to see it.

    The thing is that you are easily capable, both of you, of seeing how you can derive a very simple argument for why we should have equal protection under the law with very basic assumptions about reality and our circumstances in reality. It’s really quite simple. But you insist that it cannot be done without some universal standard to act as an axiom.

    Just think about what you want. Not specifically, but the way it feels to have preferences, desires, and goals. Now, if you believe that other beings like you exist, and you interact with them, you will have to accept that they have similar experiences as yourself. If you value your desires, you must assume that they also value theirs. From here, the math is easy. If you don’t see it, well, I just don’t know what to say.

    Yes, you have a basis upon which to talk about human rights and equality; God, right? But you have not given a logical reason to accept that basis as real. There is no reason to believe in such a thing, and so it acts an an unreasonable axiom in your logical analysis. To say that I don’t have a logical basis while not having one yourself is, well, frankly ludicrous. At least my axioms are based in direct experience. (Oh, please don’t say “so is my experience with God” because that would just be conflating experience with explanation).

    So, think what you like. Your arguments are absurd and your inability to see it as absurd is disheartening. I have no interest (at this moment) in continuing this dialogue as it currently stands.

    I thank you for he discussion.

  44. jackhudson says:

    The thing is that you are easily capable, both of you, of seeing how you can derive a very simple argument for why we should have equal protection under the law with very basic assumptions about reality and our circumstances in reality. It’s really quite simple. But you insist that it cannot be done without some universal standard to act as an axiom.

    Well, we are actually waiting for you to make that very simple argument.

    Just think about what you want. Not specifically, but the way it feels to have preferences, desires, and goals. Now, if you believe that other beings like you exist, and you interact with them, you will have to accept that they have similar experiences as yourself. If you value your desires, you must assume that they also value theirs. From here, the math is easy. If you don’t see it, well, I just don’t know what to say.

    The problem is ‘other beings’ may include apes, dolphins, or dogs. They have the same basic desires – food, a mate, to procreate, to be safe. But that doesn’t obviously make them ‘equal’.

    And obviously human can have very different desires – perhaps they want a wife. Perhaps they want my wife. Perhaps they suffer from dementia or some other form of mental disability and they don’t know what they want. If such people are truly equal to me, it must be because we share something beyond desire, beyond what we know or experience. I know how this can be true – I would argue an atheist does not.

    Yes, you have a basis upon which to talk about human rights and equality; God, right? But you have not given a logical reason to accept that basis as real. There is no reason to believe in such a thing, and so it acts an an unreasonable axiom in your logical analysis. To say that I don’t have a logical basis while not having one yourself is, well, frankly ludicrous. At least my axioms are based in direct experience. (Oh, please don’t say “so is my experience with God” because that would just be conflating experience with explanation).

    Well whether God exists is a different argument than why His existence provides a logically consistent basis for human equality. I have plenty of reasons to believe God exists, which I have articulated throughout this site – but these arguments aren’t necessary to say my belief in God is logically consistent with my belief in human equality – or to say if God doesn’t exist, then neither does human equality.

    Appreciate the dialogue Shaun.

  45. Justin says:

    @ Shaun

    So the existence of aliens is one of your basic philosophical assumptions? I’m not even sure how that is relevant to the existence of God or gods.

    Outside of God, there is no basis for equal rights. It’s all a persnal preference and is illusory. Like any form of ethcial system that isn’t based on God, equal rights has no logical grounding without God.

    And since equal rights and morals, without God, simply become your personal preference, how do you come up with any grounding to say that a system of morals different from yours, or that unequal rights are “wrong”?

    I will take the assumption that God exists and the self-consistent logical consequences as opposed to assuming God does not exist, and then having to have a worldview riddled with inconsistencies and self-contradictions.

  46. shaunphilly says:

    @Justin

    Oh my sweet Flying Spaghetti Monster you cannot be serious. When I made reference to the axiom that other sentient beings exist, I meant other humans besides yourself.

    Like I said, I am not going to explain metaethics to you. I have wriiten much already and you have seemingly ignored much of it. You also seem to have not read any of the relevant posts I linked to. I made an effort to understand your point of view, and it has been unrequited. Explaining more to people who think they already have the answers would be a waste of my time.

    Both of your apparent understandings of ethics and skepticism are sophomoric at best. Franklyi really don’t care anymore.

  47. jackhudson says:

    shaun, I have to say your response reminds of a comment I read on the Maverickphilosopher the other day. To wit:

    “It’s an anecdote, but it’s been my experience that New Atheists (who seem to principally be behind all these weird re-definitions of atheism) hate being on defense. That’s the fun of being a skeptic after all — you risk nothing, and whoever you’re talking with risks everything — so long as you can frame the conversation as “You are making a claim, and I am not”. You can criticize, mock, argue, whatever you wish, and so long as you avoid the right moves, you’ll have no risk of having the same come back to you. But key to that is to avoid being thought of as making claims. Someone who says “There is no God”, makes a claim. Therefore, that position is avoided, at least superficially. (In my opinion, often dishonestly.)”

    You are essentially saying, “There are some ethical theories out there somewhere, and you two can’t understand how sophisticated my reasoning is” as a way of avoiding actually making a proposition about equality that can be examined. Posting general links to Wiki articles on ethics isn’t an argument. You are doing this because you know after googling around a bit and talking with other atheists that there aren’t any robust arguments for actual human equality from the atheist perspective. So rather than admit that, you simply are dithering and dissembling. And then you repeatedly post to tell us ‘’you don’t care anymore’; can’t you see how transparent this all is?

    I mean, let’s ‘go with the evidence’ as atheists are want to say, and agree from a materialist perspective there is no human equality and thus no particular basis for legal equality. This fact doesn’t disprove atheism – so why are you so intent on defending it?

  48. Justin says:

    Shaun,

    In what I’ve read, it was discussed in terms of minds, and the way you worded it was a bit confusing, but I understand what you were trying to say now.

    The rest of your post didn’t really address my points, though. Or maybe I missed it amidst your efforts to condescend.

    My understanding of morality may be sophmoric, but I have read up on quite a few atheist theories on morals, and I have to say, they all fall flat, as I previously mentioned.

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