The Paradoxes of Atheism?!

Back in 2013 Neil Shenvi wrote an article trying to outline three things that he considers paradoxes of atheism. While the article is quite old, I think it deals directly with why I started this blog. After all, who knew that not believing in the gods could give rise to paradoxes?! It’s unfortunate that nonsense like this exists, and I want to address it. I think the main problem is that theists don’t have enough awareness of alternate explanations, and are always looking for ways to force everything into match their worldview.

According to Shenvi the following are paradoxes if you don’t believe in the gods:

  • truth-seeking
  • moral reflection
  • moral motivation

Truth Seeking

“If a truth-loving God doesn’t exist, then truth-seeking is neither intrinsically good nor morally obligatory. Therefore, paradoxically, the Christian has grounds to urge all people to seek the truth and to claim it is their moral obligation to seek the truth whereas the atheist has no grounds to urge others to seek the truth or to claim it is their moral obligation to do so.”

The first thing to come out of this is to ask the question: Do we have a moral obligation to seek the truth? It’s important to remember that reality itself doesn’t care what we believe, or how we act. Only those who have to deal with the consequences of our actions care about how we act. Since our beliefs inform our actions then what we believe has an impact on how we act. I think we do have a moral obligation to truth in the sense that if somebody wants to live around me, and I’m potentially affected by the beliefs, then I want them to believe true things, and not believe false things. I want the actions of others to be the least harmful to me that they can be.

I think it’s also important to point out that philosophy, literally the love of knowledge, arose sometime around 2600 years ago in ancient Greece. The people who first started exploring philosophy had no concept of a “truth-loving God.” It stands to reason that these first philosophers had reasons, other than their belief in the gods, as their motivation to determine truth. Why Christians think that they have a lock on truth seeking, when there were genuine truth seekers before Jesus, is beyond me. It’s not much different from the Christian who claims that science is an invention of Christianity. Christians developed science not because of their Christianity, but rather it was in spite of it, and I think the same holds true for truth seeking.

Truth seeking is ultimately an exercise in having a good understanding of likely consequences to our actions. This means that I perform actions that are likely to have desirable outcomes, and avoid actions that are likely to have undesirable outcomes. Once I understand outcomes, I can now take my values and try to make decisions that are consistent with those values. Remember, reality doesn’t care about what we think, or how we act, but other humans do, and we have to live with those people. If you don’t care what happens to you, or what the rest of us are going to do about you, then by all means, believe whatever you want.

Moral Reflection

Suffering and evil in the world is so prolific and horrendous that we instinctively avoid thinking about it to preserve our happiness. If Christianity is true, then all suffering and evil will one day be destroyed and healed. If atheism is true, suffering and evil are pointless and will never be rectified. So, paradoxically, a Christian gains the emotional resources to reflect honestly on suffering by reflecting on reality (as he perceives it) while an atheist gains the emotional resources to reflect honestly on suffering only by ignoring reality (as he perceives it).

This is a really poor argument, and I’d contend that it’s not much of an argument at all. If anything it points out the hypocrisy of some atheists who ignore the suffering of others around them, but this says absolutely nothing about the existence of gods. It’s simply an appeal to emotions to try and convince people that the best answer for suffering is wishful thinking, rather than ignoring reality.

There is real suffering in the world, and neither sticking your head in the ground, or any amount of wishful thinking about an afterlife, are going to do anything to reduce the amount of suffering in the world. The best way to deal with suffering is to have the best understanding of reality that we can. This allows us to understand the causes of suffering, and what can be done to stop suffering. Again, understanding and seeking of truth is the best way that we have to make real, and positive, changes in our world.

Do I do enough to reduce suffering in the world? Probably not. Do I claim to be morally perfect, and capable of stopping all suffering in the world? Definitely not. Is God perfectly moral, and capable of stopping all suffering in the world right now? Yes. Does God stop the suffering in the world? Not as far as I can tell. So why appeal to a being that doesn’t do anything to solve problems anyways? How does Christian theism actually deal with the problem of suffering? It simply doesn’t.

Moral Motivation

If Christianity is true, then all of our moral choices have tremendous, eternal significance. If atheism is true, then none of our moral choices have any eternal significance. So, paradoxically, the Christian gains the motivation to act morally by reflecting on reality (as he perceives it) while the atheist gains the motivation to act morally only by ignoring reality (as he perceives it).

This has to be one of the worst arguments for acting morally. The idea that without eternal significance to our actions that our actions are meaningless ignores the fundamental fact that our actions have real consequences now. I don’t know about Christians, but I care about what happens today, and what’s going to happen during the rest of my life. Maybe fantasies about a world of eternal bliss and paradise would be enough to make me stop caring about reality, but I’m not interested in fantasy. I’m interested in what our actions do today, and the consequences they will have for the billions of other humans, and other sentient animals, that we have to share our planet with.

I don’t need to know that my actions will have eternal consequences in order to act (or not act) in certain ways. Even if my actions only have consequences for a few seconds, I still want to act in ways that promote the well being of myself and the well being of others. This is simply a selfish policy because if I don’t give a damn about you, you’re not going to give a damn about me. I want to be alive, and having 8 billion other people not care about me isn’t conducive to me staying alive.

If you cannot understand that your actions will affect others, and their actions will affect you, then I don’t know what else I can tell you. It almost feels like some Christians are only moral beings because they’ve been told that if they don’t behave properly they’re going to be eternally punished. As somebody who’s been outside the Christian fold for decades, the mentality of some people seems completely foreign to me.

Why Christians think that articles, like the one I’m critiquing, are good support for their Christian views may remain a mystery for a long time. At least I will try to counter their points, and try to bring some sense back into reality. I do hope that they can at least see that we’re all connected, in some way, to everyone else, and that we need to live like we are connected if we want to survive.

Why I Care About Beliefs

Many times, while engaging with Christians, I’m asked something like “why do you care?  If what you believe is true we just go to the ground and rot.  Why can’t you just leave our beliefs alone?

The answer is really easy.  I care because what we believe matters.  Our beliefs inform our actions, and our actions have objective consequences for both ourselves and others around us.  When we believe things that aren’t actually true we risk causing real harm to other people, including those we care about.  I care about what I believe because I do not want to cause harm to others.  I care about what I believe because I’d be a hypocrite if I told people to believe something that I myself didn’t care about. As Matt Dillahunty has said many times “I want to know as many true things and as few false things as possible.

If you value truth, and you care about yourself and those around you, then it stands to reason that one should try to make sure that all of their beliefs are true, or at least very likely to be true.

I Make Mistakes Sometimes

I’ll admit that I make plenty of mistakes, including mistakes about beliefs.  Even at this moment I almost certainly hold beliefs that are not actually good descriptions of reality.  I hope that these beliefs are benign, but ultimately it’s hard to know.  Knowing what’s actually true is hard, and we make a lot of errors in the process.  After all, nobody ever said that learning was easy.  We should all be willing to admit that we could be wrong about just about anything we believe!

Why I’m A Skeptic

Because knowing what is true is so difficult, and reliable means to establish truth are so limited, I try to be very careful about what I “allow” myself to believe (not that belief is actually a choice.)  Being a skeptic, and forcing your brain to justify every belief, seems to be one of the best tools we have to protect ourselves from bad beliefs, but even that isn’t perfect.

I’m sure all of us like to think that our beliefs are a good modeling of reality.  Nobody wants to think that their beliefs are unfounded, or wrong.  The thing is every one of us almost certainly believe something incredibly stupid, and we’d probably feel embarrassed when we realize the truth about some of these things.  Here’s the rub: we all make mistakes, and it’s very unlikely that anybody is going to stop loving you, or is going to think less of you, for admitting that you held a wrong belief.

Commit yourself to having true beliefs, and always making sure that your most important beliefs are true.  Commit yourself to good epistemological methods, so that we can stop believing silly things.  We owe it to ourselves, and to those around us!