Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas from a Nihilist Humanist.

I tend to think of religions across three categories of things they provide: metaphysics, imperative, and community. "Metaphysics" in this context refers to what one believes is true about the world: Does god exist? Is there afterlife? Can we freely make choices in our lives? "Imperative" refers to what one should do about it. Should I help the poor? Should I hate gays? Is my salvation dependent upon my holding a concise set of metaphysical beliefs? "Community" is unique in this context, as it stems from the religion's imperative, i.e., a religion will tend to state that you should gather around those with similar beliefs. However, it seems to be to deserve separate mention in that: (a) For a given individual's decision making process, a selection of a religion most often comes with an existing community, and (b) it is one thing, like the other two, for which an individual will typically need to find a source if choosing to abandon a religion, or religion in general.

When the Dawkinses and Hitchenses of the world begin their arguments to undermine religion, they usually focus on this first category. "There is no evidence" is likely the most oft repeated expression, focusing on matters such as god's existence, earth's age, and natural selection. One problem with this line of argument is that it presumes a logical framework in which a person should not believe any thought for which there is no evidence, as opposed to, say, a framework in which people believe whatever thoughts occur to them until there is evidence to the contrary. This latter logical framework would still force a person to reconsider a belief in a young earth, but something like god's existence might have an easier time surviving. My question, however, is: what should inform our metaphysics, i.e., what should constitute evidence? Though the religious will not use the word "evidence" to describe their reasons for believing in, say, god's existence, the things they treat as evidence, as things that inform their beliefs, may include holy books, divine revelation, or merely the fact that people have believed this for centuries as part of a cultural tradition. It is my suspicion that this latter category may be the most powerful. Nonetheless, when a religious person hears "there is no evidence," in response to a belief of theirs, their response, though they have not the words to describe it, is that "there is evidence, my evidence is that this has been a long standing belief in my culture and my culture has survived." Perhaps there is reason to admit this as evidence, but only weak evidence if that: it is certainly possible that communities of people survive despite their beliefs.

I have let myself cross over into the "imperative" category (though perhaps sticking closely to that which is closely related to metaphysics), and probably did as soon as I used the word "should." I of course do believe these categories to be closely related, as they do tend to come packaged together. In fact, nearly every metaphysical belief includes the imperative that "I should believe this" though many have no imperative beyond that, i.e., belief in a young earth does not necessarily imply that one should love their neighbour. Even still, the possibility exists that metaphysics and imperative may contradict, i.e., "I believe that X is true, but I believe that I SHOULD believe Y, which contradicts X." This situation would be rare in reality, but theoretically possible. Most formal religions discourage or disallow such a contradiction. But, more on this later, as I believe I've taken a slight bit of a theoretical digression.

Those items in the imperative category are those in which outspoken atheists have a tougher time gaining their footing. Those on the religious side of the argument tend to respond with, "Well, your science may be able to tell you that natural selection is real, but surely it's useless when telling me how to live my life!" This is true of the strictly deterministic sciences, but the probabilistic sciences have more to say in this subject matter. For example, consider the following three arguments:

"We should be radically charitable because the bible or god tells us to"
"We should be radically charitable because my culture has believed this, and our culture has survived."
"We should be radically charitable because anthropological studies across cultures have indicated that those cultures that have a strong altruistic imperative fare best in the long run."

The first is command by fiat. The middle is anecdotal regarding a single culture. The last bears closest resemblance to controlled scientific study. Can I say that that is always best? Perhaps not, but I can say that the latter sort of argument will have the greatest truth in the widest array of contexts compared to the others. Now, I do not wish to assert that for all things deterministic science has an answer. Science admittedly can only inform us fully on those subjects which are deterministic, such as physics and chemistry, or those which can be closely related to a deterministic template using probability, such as psychology and sociology. Effectively, science can not tell us what values to adopt, merely what happens when you adopt those values.

In the context of these recent three arguments regarding radical charity, there is the implied value that "humanity's long-term well-being is more important than an individual's short-term well-being." Moreso, there is the implied value that "it is good for humanity to survive," which is not necessarily true, in fact, science and history have taught us a great deal about what happens to the planet when humanity flourishes. If we were to reconcile a value of humanity's good with the value of nature's good, we might be on the losing end of that battle. If justice were an ideal to be valued, humanity may be on the losing end of that reconciliation as well.

There can be no rational way to reconcile values without arbitrarily drawing upon other assumed values. I thus propose two values I retain based on either faith or delusion (on which any system of values must rely):

I value that which is true in the widest context.
I value humanity's survival and happiness in the long-term.

I attempt to justify these values and I cannot without referring back to them. But I do discover that when I reason from these values, taking the widest array of evidence into account, the evidence proposed by my religious life (as it once was) becomes superfluous. Before deeming it superfluous, I had even become quite adept at using what would be considered religiously-admissible-evidence to reconcile religious truth with what I found to be true in a wider context. But even this turned out to be not only superfluous, but near arbitrary -- usually in the form of picking a verse from the bible to trump some other verse from the bible. But even here, my reasoning resorts to the above-stated value of truth in the widest context.

Though I find both of these values necessary for building any working world view in which to move forward with my life, I find that it will occasionally result in the metaphysics/imperative contradiction aforementioned. For example: I recognize the futility of humanity, but I believe that it is in humanity's best interest to ignore it. Thus haphazardly I've brought myself to the final category in religions, the built-in community. I have often thought, even when I've been more inclined to sympathize with religious beliefs, that I'm a stranger in communities of those with a religious background and those without. Perhaps because I distrust a religion's lack of recognition of humanity's futility, and perhaps I'm bored with the general past times of those who internalize that futility. Perhaps then, this is another intrinsic contradiction of this value system: recognition of the value of (a) community, yet forfeiting your participation in it. In any case, this is category that an individual plays the closest role in creating, and thus it is the category through which I have the hardest time reasoning, and about which I have the least answers.

Is there a thesis, then? Not sure. Perhaps "science can offer us not just metaphysics, but an imperative as well," which would be a message for both the religious and non-religious alike. Perhaps "I have alienated myself from my peers," which is probably a message moreso for me.


  1. Where - in time and space - do you stand/move/sleep/sit/work/etc.?

    Do you pay the full economic rent for your personal time-and-space slot?

  2. "But I do discover that when I reason from these values, taking the widest array of evidence into account, the evidence proposed by my religious life (as it once was) becomes superfluous. Before deeming it superfluous, I had even become quite adept at using what would be considered religiously-admissible-evidence to reconcile religious truth with what I found to be true in a wider context. But even this turned out to be not only superfluous, but near arbitrary -- usually in the form of picking a verse from the bible to trump some other verse from the bible."

    I found this part to have a good deal of traction for me. Personal experience has brought me to similar thoughts.

  3. Richard... wasn't really considering that for this post, but I'm guessing that the rent I pay for my space is greatly undervalued. It's hard to judge given the impact on Cleveland that the crash has had, and the fact that my own space is technically only a handful of square feet, but I've got pretty great resources around me. More on that in other posts.

    Derek... Yeah, generally my experience has led to emphasizing less so the erroneous nature of it (whose errors have been well documented, to be sure) and more so the irrelevant nature.

  4. Evan - interesting stuff. I appreciate your thoughtful approach. Here are a few thoughts I had while reading this:

    1) As humans we have a very hard time understanding the particulars of our current state of being and reality. So, for example, many people who are genuinely born again (and yes, I firmly believe in that reality) have a very difficult time explaining to anyone why it is that they have believed, they simply do. They have heard and understood the gospel, been changed by grace, and found themselves believing. You might as well ask someone for a detailed answer with evidence for why they enjoy the taste of honey. In an attempt to give answers to those who question their faith many people, having been poorly taught in the church, or being young in their faith, give silly responses because, as I said, they don't fully understand what has happened. They know that they have heard the gospel, received it as true, and gone forth changed.

    2) it seems your whole structure rests on your ability to hold your 2 values. Yet you seem to admit that your system provides no grounds for doing so. It's no surprise that as you move outward, applying these values, life makes sense. You have stumbled upon what I believe God has ingrained into every human being as patently obvious and undeniable. After all, someone who in no way values life, not even their own or their friends and family, would be considered to be an anomaly or to be disturbed in some way.

    3)The problem with an unbeliever attempting to understand the Christian faith is that impartiality is impossible. You have no choice but to look from the outside in, and the more you learn, having as of yet not believed, the more convinced you must become of the rightness of your own decision, i.e., not believing, and the silliness of the other position. Again, it's like someone who doesn't like honey trying to get inside the head of someone who does. You just can't do it. Many liberal theologians can write with great accuracy on the theological positions of evangelicalism and can appear to have great insight into the workings of the Christian church and community, but, at the end of the day, many of them admit that they simply don't believe the gospel and they cannot fathom why somebody would. At the most basic level, the difference between an unbeliever and a believer is an act of grace on the part of God, and it is his prerogative whether or not to act.

    Evan, I don't pretend to know you very well (or at all, for that matter! Though we did have a good time cleaning cabins together for a month!), so I hope I'm not being annoying or overstepping my bounds here. However, based on what I read here and based on what I understand the Bible to say, I see clearly that you never truly believed the gospel. In other words, I don't believe that you have "fallen from grace" so to speak. I'm curious, in the simplest terms, why have not believed the gospel? Is it because you find it unbelievable on its own terms, or because it doesn't fit with your own presuppositions?

  5. Certainly not overstepping bounds! I did write this for a public forum, after all. A few short responses to your points:

    1) I agree fully that people have a hard time explaining their beliefs and positions, but I was attempting to be charitable in stating that reasons are actually there. But it's because of this bias (people's inability to understand their own beliefs), however, that I tend to err toward the notion that judging worldviews from the outside, not the inside, tends to be the more accurate standpoint.

    2) Yes, I am stating that this structure I have chosen rests on those two assumptions, and yes, I do consider them to be assumptions, either faith or delusion (depending on whether you'd like to have a positive or negative connotation). I have chosen those two because they seem to require the fewest additional assumptions.

    3) I agree that impartiality is impossible (whether you are a believer in a religion or not), but in general, when observing phenomena (in hard sciences or social sciences) observing from outside reduces partiality, and that includes the phenomena of religious belief. I think this is perhaps even more true when those being observed have a hard time explaining their behavior or belief, as we have already agreed can tend to be the case.

    I take no offense to the assertion that I "never truly believed the gospel," though I would certainly have described my experience at the time as having been a believer (again, here I am trusting the judgment of an outside observer). The assertion of my prior non-belief would have to stand up against not only my subjective experience, but other faith leaders believing that my faith was strong enough to choose me for leadership positions. I can't help but suspect that the assertion is made categorically, that if a person decides they no longer believe what they once did, they retroactively no longer had ever believed.

    To answer your final question (in the simplest terms, as you requested), I found the gospel to not contribute anything useful to my understanding of the world. Belief in any sort of accuracy became irrelevant.