Re: beyond utiliarianism
- On Thu Apr 25, 2002 1:30 pm, Mark Gosling wrote:
> DM:"cold" and "mechanistic" appear to imply that atheism is intrinsically
> However, the use of the adjectives "hard", "mean", "cruel", "selfish",
incompatible with an ability to develop, and live according to, a system of
morals and ethics that promotes gentleness, generosity, kindness,
selflessness, warmth and humanity. It also implies that the dominance of
theism is necessary to prevent humanity descending into an amoral, unethical
hell on earth. I reject both of these implications.
I can do no more than honestly express my opinion, you would surely not want
me to do any less. And this is my honest opinion.
Likewise I can do no more than honestly reject your opinion and express
mine, as appropriate.
This is exactly what I propose: Atheism - the philosophic position,
especially in its "strong" form - does not promote "gentleness, generosity,
kindness, selflessness, warmth and humanity". I am not saying that atheists
as persons are incapable of expressing "gentleness, generosity, kindness,
selflessness, warmth and humanity".
I agree that atheism does not promote gentleness, generosity, kindness,
selflessness, warmth and humanity. Such virtues are promoted by other
philosophies. However, theism also does not promote such virtues. It is only
particular religious belief systems that promote such virtues.
I also propose - again to use your words, though I would express it somewhat
differently, but I will continue with this as our point of contact - that
the dominance of theism is necessary to prevent humanity descending into an
amoral, unethical hell on earth."
If theism, where it was dominant, had a sound historical record of
preventing "humanity descending into an amoral, unethical hell on earth", I
might be willing to concede credibility to your position. But it does not,
any more than atheism, where it was dominant, has a sound historical record
of preventing "humanity descending into an amoral, unethical hell on earth".
It appears to me that both theism and atheism may be largely irrelevant to
the descent of humanity into an amoral, unethical hell on earth.
History reveals that powerful entities (theistic or atheistic), when
effectively unrestrained, will use whatever force is available to them to
subjugate or destroy those they perceive as threats or enemies. That the
numbers of people subjugated or destroyed by atheistic regimes is currently
greater than the number subjugated or destroyed by theistic regimes is no
more than a consequence of the virtual absence of theocratic regimes since
the invention of weapons of mass destruction (from automatic rifles to
What appears to matter is whether powerful people have sufficiently powerful
enemies to restrict their ability to exercise power. This is probably why
multi-party democracies governing pluralistic societies appear to work as
well as they do in maintaining a balance between human rights and
responsibilities. It may also be why capitalism appears to me to have been
much more human-centric and less economics-centric while communism was its
viable enemy, than it is now.
I am not proposing that any one religious tradition has a monopoly on
morality, virtue, honesty and truth.
In spite of that, I suspect that you have decided that one religious
tradition has a greater overall truth content than others and, in some
specific areas, does have a monopoly on truth.
I also propose that, despite the rhetoric of various internet infidels, no
one is born atheistic - atheism is not an inherent human quality.
I agree. As Richard Dawkins has explained, people are born credulous, not
atheistic nor theistic.
"Children are naturally credulous. Of course they are, what else would you
expect? They arrive in the world knowing nothing, surrounded by adults who
know, by comparison, everything. It is earnestly true that fire burns, that
snakes bite, that if you walk unprotected in the noon sun you will bake red,
raw and, as we now know, cancerous. Moreover, the other and apparently more
scientific way to gain useful knowledge, learning by trial and error, is
often a bad idea because the errors are too costly. If your mother tells you
never to paddle in the lake because of the crocodiles, it is no good coming
over all sceptical and scientific and 'adult' and saying, 'Thank you mother,
but I prefer to put it to the experimental test.' Too often, such
experiments would be terminal. It is easy to see why natural selection - the
survival of the fittest - might penalise an experimental and sceptical turn
of mind and favour simple credulity in children.
But this has an unfortunate by-product which can't be helped. If your
parents tell you something that is not true, you must believe that too. How
could you not? Children are not equipped to know the difference between a
true warning about genuine dangers and a false warning about going blind,
say, or going to hell, if you 'sin'. If they were so equipped, they wouldn't
need warnings at all. Credulity, as a survival device, comes as a package.
You believe what you are told, the false with the true. Parents and elders
know so much, it is natural to assume that they know everything and natural
to believe them. So when they tell you about Father Christmas coming down
the chimney, and about faith 'moving mountains', of course you believe that
(Richard Dawkins, "Unweaving the Rainbow", Penguin Books, 1998, pp. 139-140)
Atheism is a learned or acquired worldview as much as the adherence to any
other religious or philosophic tradition is. Studies by Professor Robert
Coles and others have demonstrated that the spiritual life of children, even
very young children, is very rich and indeed stems from an innate sense of
transcendence. Humans are not born atheistic but are born with this deep
sense of transcendence.
I can only relate the experience of my own family, brought up in an
effectively atheistic household. The limit of any "sense of transcendence" I
have observed in my children has been limited to belief in Santa Claus, the
Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. While they have enjoyed reading Biblical
stories and other "fairy" stories, I have no evidence that they saw these as
any more than enjoyable, escapist fantasy.
It is modern society that has driven God and the supernatural out of the
conscious life of children and adults.
I would suggest that the consumerist nature of modern society is the prime
contributor to driving God and the supernatural out of the conscious life of
adults. The increasing ability of science (through observation and
explanation of "material" phenomena) to generate impressive, useful,
life-enhancing and life-saving technology has also contributed. My own
experience suggests that it is the absence (or even lack of emphasis) of God
and the supernatural by adult parents that directly influences children to
not take up such concepts.
It is not the case that religion indoctrinates the masses in modern society
with belief in the supernatural but rather mass media, consumerism,
naturalism and all the other forms of "idol worship" have seduced and
indoctrinated them away from their essential spiritual centre.
I see modern Western society as essentially consumerist, due to the
necessity for a capitalist economy to continue to grow, as an alternative to
recession, depression and widespread (material) poverty. What this means in
practice is that everyone with a product to sell competes with each other,
initially for the consumer's "mindspace" (this is the word marketers
actually use - they all seek to have their product as "top of mind" with as
many consumers as possible) and then for the consumer's resources (usually
money, but sometimes time or some other barterable item of value). In order
to compete in this consumerist society, religions and worldviews have had to
become "productised", and marketed no less aggressively than commercial
products. This is very different from the position religion once held when
it had a virtual monopoly on literacy and education, and had a vast range of
temporal and eternal rewards and punishments at its disposal.
I don't believe that people have an "essential spiritual centre". As I noted
above, I believe they are born with an essential credulous centre, which can
be turned into a spiritual or materialist centre by the influences of their
Supernatural beliefs - the recognition of a reality beyond nature - are
normative in humans even when modernist blinkers obscure this fact or fail
to see the essential religious nature of so many otherwise "secular"
I question your definition of "supernatural beliefs" as "the recognition of
a reality beyond nature". It appears to me that this definition *assumes*
the existence "of a reality beyond nature". While you may strongly believe
that a reality beyond nature exists and that this believed reality has some
influence on material reality, a definition should not include such an
assumption. IMO supernatural beliefs are more correctly defined as "the
assumption of a reality beyond nature that has some influence on material
I don't believe that supernatural beliefs are normative in humans, but I do
believe a hunger to know "why" is normative in humans and that, in the
absence of scientific knowledge, supernatural beliefs have a long history of
providing answers to "why" questions - not necessarily correct answers, but
generally answers that somewhat satisfied the recipients.
As the cultural underpinning of Judeo-Christian values diminishes in western
society, it is true that more and more people are growing up with no clearly
defined and articulated system of values or ethics directly derived from
those religious traditions.
Instead, people are growing up with variably defined and articulated systems
of values and ethics directly derived from the consensus of the societies in
which they live. Far better, IMO. Values and ethics directly derived from
the consensus of the societies in which we live have allowed us to dispense
with the divine right of kings, slavery, and capital punishment for
witchcraft and adultery. They have also allowed us to develop and implement
ethical systems related to weapons of mass destruction, reproductive
technologies and other emerging issues not relevant to or imagined by the
authors of traditional religious texts.
This does not mean that the innate spiritual longings of humans are being
extinguished or have been extinguished. It is said nature abhors a vacuum,
more so does human nature.
Again you assume that spiritual longings of humans are innate. The real
longing, as you correctly state below, is "a need to find answers". IMO,
this need is strong, even when no meaningful answers are available. Thus the
human willingness to believe invented answers if they satisfy the need.
The pursuit of Philosophy (among the elite, not the "ordinary" man in the
street) itself is an excellent example of this need to find answers to
essentially metaphysical and spiritual questions to quell the restless
searchings of the human heart.
While the non-theist "elite" are pursuing philosophy, the non-theist
"'ordinary' man in the street" seems to be turning to "New Age" or ancient
occult belief systems. While science is reasonably good at doing "factual",
it apparently rates poorly at doing "satisfactory". Hardly surprising - if I
wanted a spiritually satisfying answer to what happened to my Christian
grandmother after she died, I would ask a priest, not a forensic
pathologist. Unfortunately, I would be unable to believe a word the priest
would say on this matter, but would have great confidence in the facts
advised by the forensic pathologist.
As Chesterton noted, when people stop believing in God they don't believe in
nothing, they believe in anything; and history has shown him to be prophetic
Chesterton may have noted it, but I don't buy it. I see the supernatural
beliefs held by Christians as far more fantastic than anything I would be
prepared to believe.
The tragedy is we have, like Saturn devouring his own children, abandoned
our young people to the quagmire of relativism where they have to make up
their own morals, , so to speak - relying on cues from the mass media and
peers to sort the wheat from the chaff, the good from the evil, and the
right from the wrong.
I disagree. We have not, as a society, abandoned our young people to the
quagmire of relativism. Young people do not have to make up their own
morals, values and ethics on the run unless they are provided with no moral
direction at home. This would also be the case in an overtly theistic
society. While there will always be young people that reject the moral
direction provided by their families, it is a reasonable bet that they would
do so whether society was overtly atheistic, theistic or pluralist.
Almost all self-professing atheists I have encountered consider themselves
as former adherents of Christianity or whatever religious tradition they
were brought up in, who have "seen the light" and consciously rejected the
worldview of their parents or elders, or "society" in general.
Don't count on this continuing. While it is true of me, it is not true of my
wife and it is not true of our children. It may become true of our
grandchildren, since our oldest son (atheist) married a Catholic wife.
By the same token, as the West has now succumbed to widespread atheism at
both the practical level generally and at the philosophic level particularly
I would expect to find many people becoming dissatisfied with the bleakness
and hopelessness of such a mechanistic, frenetic, and utilitarian worldview
and taking flight to, or refuge in, all sorts of transcendental, religious,
mystical and spiritual beliefs in an attempt to fill what Pascal described
as the "God-shaped vacuum" in every individual's heart and about which
Augustine opined that we can find no rest until we find our rest in God.
While Pascal may have described this insatiable curiosity as a "God-shaped
vacuum", it is my opinion that the vacuum was only made God-shaped by his
childhood environment. I wonder what shape is the vacuum of people brought
up in a New Age family.
People cannot help it because at our core we are all "hungry for heaven",
for meaning and purpose.
The only people, IMO, who are "hungry for heaven" are those who have been
conditioned to be so, usually during the most credulous phase of their
childhood, and who have not wanted (or been able) to break that
conditioning. The rest of us are capable of finding meaning and purpose in
our own finite lives. It may not be the infinite (but IMO illusory) meaning
and purpose offered by Christianity, but it is *ours*, it is *real* and we
Atheism has nothing to offer for these longings, intuitions and hopes.
True - but neither does theism. Only *specific* belief systems can make such
offers. The challenge, particularly for supernaturally based belief systems,
is to *deliver* something that is demonstrably more than promise and
One could argue it is not so much a question of the dominance of theism
being required as the indisputable fact of history and archaeology that all
human societies in all places and in all times have been theistic,
supernaturalist and religious, in one form or another.
At different times in the duration of humans on earth it has been possible
to accurately state that the following characteristics have applied to "all
human societies in all places and in all times": illiteracy, innumeracy,
inability to share ideas with people we have never met, and the inability to
travel on land faster than a galloping horse. We have overcome these
limitations and others, and I am optimistic that it will eventually be
possible for humanity to overcome theism, supernaturalism and religion - but
not if we don't try.
Transcendent religious belief is a defining quality of what it is to be
human - one of the distinctive qualities that sets us off from all other
life forms on the planet - hence "homo religioso".
This may have been the case to date, but it is hard for me to believe that
it will continue to be the case for as long as life exists on earth.
Further, "transcendent religious belief" is more likely to be a conjunction
of the human attributes of high-level abstract thought, sense of self,
knowledge of mortality and insatiable curiosity, than a primary attribute.
Religious belief is as necessary for humans as is breathing air.
I have to suspect, from that comment, that you have either never been a
committed agnostic or atheist, or have forgotten what it was like.
The rejection of particular religious paradigms, I contend, is not a
rejection of the transcendental core of humanness for people will seek
outlet for their religious feelings, aspirations, hopes, and desires in
other forms - even those which appear superficially non-religious or
If you include scientism and materialism as potential outlets for religious
feelings, aspirations, hopes, and desires, then what you say is probably
irrefutable, but also meaningless.
I believe it is possible for people to be intellectually atheistic but it is
not possible at the deeper level of being to cast off religious and
IMO it is possible to cast of religious and supernatural aspirations (It
must be - I've done it!) but you may be right about spiritual aspirations
(depending on your definition of "spiritual").
And I question whether there is a "deeper" level of being than the
To use a term that may be more acceptable to naturalists I could be said
that religion is hardwired into the very core of our being. We are
unequivocally religious beings - home religioso.
You are of course free to reject these ideas, as is your right.
Consider most of them rejected.
You will surely note that I quoted from the autobiography of Jean-Paul
Sartre who made the statement that "atheism is a cruel, long-term business".
If the most influential atheist intellectual of the 20th century has made
use of the term "cruel" I think you should consider that it is not without
So Sartre was "the most influential atheist intellectual of the 20th
century"? Where does this leave Bertrand Russell? Or Stephen Hawking,
Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould or Daniel Dennett. While I agree with
Sartre that atheism is a long-term business, I don't see it as being
Strong atheism as a philosophy IS "hard", "mean", "cruel", "selfish", "cold"
Atheism (strong or weak) is not a philosophy; it is merely a statement of
disbelief. Philosophies are based around statements of positive belief, not
solely founded on a statement of disbelief.
Utilitarianism is the only basis upon which a system of atheistic morality
can be built.
Tom dealt with this much better than I would attempt.
There is no dispute that it is more than possible to construct a model of
transient, timebound moral philosophy from a secular or utilitarian
foundation, but such a foundation cannot produce any ultimate or absolute
sense of meaning and purpose - precisely because, according to atheism,
there is no ultimate or absolute meaning and purpose beyond mere survival
(whether it be of the individual, the group or of the genes).
You assume that there is an "ultimate or absolute sense of meaning and
purpose" to be found and that atheism is not equipped to find it. Consider
the alternative hypothesis that there is no "ultimate or absolute sense of
meaning and purpose" and that theism is not equipped to recognise this and
abandon the search.
For atheists like Dawkins all morals, ethics, religious and cultural
beliefs, etc. are merely "memes" which have emerged and been transmitted
solely because they have survival value.
I love your use of the word, "merely". It allows you to dismiss the "meme"
concept, but saves you the trouble of constructing a sound argument to
justify such dismissal.
Memes, like genes, "obey the laws of selection quite exactly". Such
utilitarianism is more than able to construct a social contract for human
behaviour and interaction but this contract is inherently selfish - perhaps
never more so than when it promotes "altruism".
The primary *visible* and undisputable effect of all religious belief
systems has been the construction and maintenance of "a social contract for
human behaviour and interaction". Interestingly, such contracts have almost
always provided the greatest benefit to those with temporal power. Atheistic
belief systems, IMO, do exactly the same, but either without the mythology
or with materialist mythologies.
It can offer no genuine, resonant transcendent values for the individual.
You appear to assume that transcendent values can be genuine. Maybe they
Atheists may promote values and ethics but there is nothing intrinsic in
atheism that promotes virtue for virtues sake.
There is nothing intrinsic in theism that promotes virtue for virtue's sake.
You may have admitted as much below when you chose (or found it necessary)
to qualify "theism" with the adjective "Christian".
Christian theism on the other hand commands, promotes, and nurtures the
By its own definition of virtuous, maybe. One variety of Christian theism
forbids the use of contraceptives by their adherents in obviously
overpopulated countries. All major varieties of institutional Christian
theism tolerated slavery until about 300 years ago. Virtuous, I don't think.
And it should be noted that very few varieties of institutional Christian
theism have ever seriously stood on the side of Jesus-like virtue against
Atheistic morals have to be "constructed" - and indeed various systems have
been so constructed. The ethical systems that are so constructed tend to
reflect the universal codes of conduct and behaviour that already exist in
all the major religious traditions. They do not represent some new and
enlightened values previously hidden from humanity.
Except, perhaps, for the evil of slavery. No "major religious traditions"
described slavery as an unmitigated evil, until about 300 years ago.
In any event, both theistic and atheistic morals have to be constructed, if
for no other reason than to ensure that they don't unduly interfere with the
aspirations of temporal authority. Is there anyone who believes that 4th
century institutional Christianity was not constructed so as not to
interfere with the aspirations of Constantine?
I believe this is because of the "imagio deo" all persons possess which
makes religious/transcendent/metaphysical hopes, aspirations and beliefs
essential to all that makes us human and humane. Atheists, of necessity,
must feed off the capital of humankind's inbuilt religious sensibilities.
I don't think so.
At this point let me digress to correct an error constantly repeated by
atheists/agnostics and by nominal Christians. Christianity does not
encourage virtue as a means of avoiding judgment or hell or as a means of
obtaining eternal life. Christianity encourages and even demands virtue,
morality, justice, righteousness and holiness (to use a few biblical terms)
precisely because God himself is virtuous, righteous, just and holy. Virtue
is exalted because virtue is good and right. Virtues - "works" - per se are
never the basis of being declared justified before God. Such only occurs by
the loving act of God to which we freely respond.
While this is technically correct (although I think there may be some
Christian denominations who do claim that "works" contribute to salvation),
Christianity does promote the "carrot" of eternal life and the "stick" of
hell, to persuade those for whom virtue for its own sake is insufficient.
It is certain that if you see an atheist behaving virtuously (however you or
they define it), you know they are not motivated by the promise of eternal
life or the threat of hell.
And, as I commented above, Christianity defines its own virtue.
Strong philosophic atheism is actually unnatural and inhuman and will never
catch on as a way of knowing or a worldview for ordinary people; it will
remain the refuge of elitist intellectuals, hard men and driven pragmatists
(are they synonymous?).
It is nice to know I am among friends. My self-view is much more "elitist
intellectual" and "pragmatist" than "ordinary people".
I agree with you that strong philosophic atheism will never catch on as a
way of knowing or a worldview for ordinary people, but this is also the case
with strong, theologically informed theism. My observation is that only
extraordinary people make the effort to develop strong, intellectually
sustainable worldviews. Maybe only extraordinary people are intellectually
equipped for the exercise.
It is not in question that everyone - those not contemplating suicide
because of life's apparent meaninglessness, that is - is able to find some
meaning and purpose in their lives at the superficial level.
True, but mostly empty of meaning, since "superficial" is a relative (and,
in this context, dismissive) term.
We could none of us get through our daily lives if we were not deriving some
sense of satisfaction, meaning and purpose from our activities but that this
sense of purpose or meaning offers any hope beyond the frame of reference of
the material world and during the tenuous hold we have on physical life I
Of course any activity-based sense of purpose or meaning will not, by
definition, offer "any hope beyond the frame of reference of the material
world and" *beyond* "the tenuous hold we have on physical life". However,
the offer of such hope is a cruel fraud if not deliverable.
The greatness of humanity - and its curse? - is that we hunger for more -
this hunger will never be satisfied if we close our eyes to it's essential
transcendent and spiritual nature. In our quietest moments of honest
self-examination and reflection we all know it to be true.
Theists may *know* it to be true; atheists *know* it to be false; agnostics,
in the absence of sufficient evidence for real transcendence; generally live
as though it is false.
The best way to avoid such contemplation is to fill our lives with what
modern society is supremely good at offering - "noise".
Contemplation avoidance may be useful for people that don't really want to
examine themselves; but contemplation avoidance is not a behaviour that can
be particularly associated with theists, atheists or agnostics.
As far as I am concerned atheism is ultimately morally bankrupt but, I
repeat again, individual atheists - as persons - are not necessarily so.
Many atheists are indeed exemplerary and moral individuals - "gentle,
generous, kind selfless and "warm". But this is IN SPITE OF their atheism,
not BECAUSE OF it. Moral atheists do not prove an atheist position, nor is
it a logical extension of it.
Atheism and theism, unless further qualified, e.g. "Christian theism" or
"utilitarian atheism", are morally neutral. Systems of morality are separate
from both atheism and theism. Is there a better explanation for the
existence of evil theists and virtuous atheists?
"...neither good nor bad "fellow travelers" validate or invalidate the
existence of God-given ethics any more than moral atheists prove the atheist
position. For every Judas in Christianity there is a Stalin among atheists."
Passantino, "Religion, truth, and value without God: Contemporary atheism
speaks out in Humanist manifesto 2000"
Well put, though I might have said "for every Torquemada in Christianity . .
. . ."
Atheism as a philosophy is negative; it is what is not affirmed and what is
denied that is essential to it; it is a philosophy of thanatos, not of life
Atheism isn't a philosophy, it is a one-dimensional belief statement.
I agree with Gandhi when he said "It amazes me to find an intelligent person
who fights against something which he does not at all believe exists." The
militant atheist is a "theophobic" and Quixotic crusader tilting at
windmills; he claims not to believe in God but spends inordinate amounts of
energy engaged in a struggle to the death with what he proclaims is
non-existent. Only an "intellectual" could be so foolish...
IMO what militant atheists (and even militant agnostics) struggle against is
the power exercised by belief systems that cannot clearly demonstrate their
ability to deliver on their promises. Such belief systems enslave people to
the rules and restrictions promoted by the leaders of these belief systems,
in the name of one or more God or gods.
Atheism itself provides no moral compass or ethical guidelines.
Nor does theism. Only specific religions or philosophies provide these
Atheists must look elsewhere for these. That is why atheism cannot stand
alone, it requires other philosophical views to support it.
So must theists. That is why theism cannot stand alone, it requires more
specific religious views to support it.
Atheists do not derive their morals from their atheism they derive them from
utilitarianism or naturalism or pragmatism or "scientific" humanism or
Similarly, theists do not derive their morals from their theism; they derive
them from Christianity or Islam or Judaism or Hinduism - or, at least, from
the pronouncements of the acknowledged leaders of those religions.
Often they simply take over unconsciously the innate religious values that
have been universally existent within all human cultures and societies -
while seeking to deny the hand that feeds them by attempting to strip them
of their religious foundations.
I see no problem with this; some values adopted by religions are worthwhile
for general adoption, while the religious foundations of those values may be
not based on reality.
You have heard of the paradigm "hate the sin but love the sinner".
Of course. I continue to wonder how Christians can say this without choking
on the words, as institutional Christianity has a long and bloody history of
hating sinners to death.
My position is that atheists as human beings are created in the image of
God, unique and special, with God-given abilities and talents, supremely the
gift of freedom of choice - even though this allows them the freedom to
reject as well as acknowledge the creator. All individuals are to be treated
with dignity, respect, care and concern even if they see it as their goal to
destroy God and belief in him. For God remains God and the father of all
humans, and the place where the restless heart finds its rest.
My position is that human beings evolved in the image of their ancestors,
modified by their environment, unique and special, with evolution-given and
self-developed abilities and talents. All individuals are to be treated with
dignity, respect, care and concern because we, individually and as
societies, wish to be treated that way. For God remains a comfortable myth
and the psychological crutch of all humans that need one, and the place
where the lazy mind and the weak spirit finds its rest.