Short Q&A on atheism

Here’s a little thing I did for Oxford University Press on atheism. Or, if you want the highlights:

“We live in an incredible world and we should not spend all our time either looking to the heavens or pointing out they do not exist.”

Leave a comment ?


  1. Interesting interview, Julian.

    This makes me wonder about how the term atheism hits people with strong religious backgrounds. I wonder if the term is so laden with meaning and baggage, that people either shut down or perk up at its mention, so issues around it may not get discussed since it carries so much? I think of other terms such as Hitler, Communism, or George Bush, all of which (speaking from an American perspective) often surface feelings before saying or reading anything. Can atheism be like that, too? Perhaps the word is so heavy that conversation, and thus communication, cannot move issues forward?

    Do we need a new word for it, then? This is commonly done in American English, and I wonder if atheism needs a refreshening, too?

  2. “[W]e should not spend all our time…” fill in the blank. Embroidering? Proofreading? Criticizing? What a strawman. Other than a few biological functions, not much can be defended there.

    We who believe that no “heavens” exist, and are constantly called upon to recognize their existence *do* need to point out the vacuity of that idea — not all the time, of course, but whenever we can get around to it.

  3. I agree with Jeffrey. In fact, I began my Very Short Introduction to Atheism by talking about just that: how the word has “dark” associations, even for me, since when I grew up it sounded rather dangerous.
    However, the suggested replacement of “atheists” with “brights” is, I think, terrible. It sounds self-congratulatory. Rather like gays, Methodists, Quakers and so on, we need to reclaim a mocking word. I personally favour “heathen”.
    Doug – it’s not a straw man: I’m not actually accusing anyone of literally thinking of nothing else. And I really think it should be obvious that “all the time” is not literal here. It’s easy to point out pseudo-logical fallacies if you never accept anything might be a figure of speech.

  4. Julian stated: “Rather like gays, Methodists, Quakers and so on, we need to reclaim a mocking word. I personally favour “heathen”.”

    I don’t think I agree with this, Julian. I don’t agree that the approach is to reclaim a certain word, for there will always be those who still use terms pejoratively and from whom reclaiming may not be possible. I am not fond of some of the gay terms that some try to reclaim, and in American rap music the use of n****r still makes people on both sides of the issue bristle (perhaps for its own sake?). The focus will then still hinge on the force of the word use, rather than the issue or issues the word is trying to convey.

    Business is rife with this, sometimes to temper or sway public opinion, and sometimes because complex issues no longer fit within certain terms. I think of how terms such as poor / lazy / economically disadvantaged / struggling / oppressed / blue collar/ working class can all mean the same population at times, and the word used depends upon the tone and climate of the discussion. WIth atheism as a term, I wonder if the term itself precludes discussion? Perhaps something else, such as human-focused or earth-driven or even rationalistic may be better.

    Of course, this depends upon the context, audience, and intention of the communicator.

  5. Perhaps something else, such as human-focused or earth-driven or even rationalistic may be better.

    No, because they all suggest charcteristics which are not strictly necessary for non-belief in a god. (Specially human-focused, yuk).

    “Naturalistic” might do except for the inconventient grammatical fact that the noun form already has an established meaning (and sounds similar to another word with a different e.m.).

    The whole brights thing was probably doomed to failure because deliberate attempts to coin words usually are, but shot itself in the head from the word go by picking a word which already had a different positive connotation (ie clever) thereby making the soi-disant brights seem unbearably smug. A better choice would have been something like, um, um, “blithe”.

    I don’t mind being a heathen. But another approach would be to say that the word we need to reclaim is “atheist” itself, by using it more, and particularly by explaining that it encompasses a Dawkins-scale 6/7 unbeliever, and not just someone who is utterly convinced that God does not exist and refuses to entertain the possibility that any new evidence whatsoever might make them reconsider their position.

    Or we could just say “I’m a 6”.

  6. I agree that ‘heathen’ has a nice ring to it, especially for people like me with irish parents who used the term as an affectionate remonstrance for children: ‘get out yer little heathen yer!’

  7. I like that sentence of the interview a lot, and like the suggestion to read Jane Goodall. I’ve a read a lot of anti-God books and enjoyed them, but when all is said and done, there are better things to think about than the non-existence of deities (and little green men)

    When I really want to be courteous I simply say I am not religious, or I’m not a believer, or I’m an unbeliever. I kind of like the last. These are good stand-ins while we wait for the word “atheist” to get a better aura. There’s hope–in my local bookstore in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas, not a place known for free-thinking, there are now two shelves devoted to atheism.

  8. I sometimes call myself an infidel; I suppose that’s similar to Julian’s ‘heathen’.

    “The best atheists support free inquiry and rational debate”

    Is there a tension between free inquiry and humanism?

  9. I always liked the idea of “pagan”, but the new agey Pagans have given it such a difficult connotation (in many ways they seem to be just Born Agains with white sheets and staffs, lol) that it’s probably lost to us forever. Atheist works for me, heathen I could live with.
    Religion is such a touchy subject, isn’t it. I find it so hard to comprehend anyone who can deny the existence of fairies, magic, manifestations of ghosts and spirits, going on about God and angels…about miracles, about talking to God.
    If they said they were talking to a dead puppy people would begin to back away. But say you are having a dialogue with God and folks just nod and smile.

  10. when all is said and done, there are better things to think about than the non-existence of deities (and little green men)

    Fer sher; but what is worth thinking about (though not 24/7) is belief in the existence of deities (and little green people). God does seem mostly not all that worth thinking about, but how belief works I think does repay thought.

  11. There is a further point to be made about religion’s role if a solid, effective atheist viewpoint is to be derived.
    Being a product (victim) of catholic education, I had previously taken religion as a whole to be nothing more than a destructive set of erroneous beliefs and a vehicle for political and social power. I still hold that it plays these parts. However, as far as the deeper structure of religious belief, I came to see that it was at least an attempt at a philosophical anthropology. The reason this came to my attention was that in researching this topic, I found most of the sources to be from religious thinkers, even if they didn’t advertise the fact that they were such. Buber, Heidegger, and Kierkegaard, in the modern era, for instance. And I’ll stretch the point a little by saying that Milton, Augustine, and maybe Luther were religious writers whose thought had some element of this.
    What’s important here are the questions being asked by religion, as much as the answers it’s offering. What am I? What is my role in the world? What should I value? What does human life mean, and where is it going? These are undeniably relevant questions. My position on this matter is that these are the questions religion has grown up around answering, no matter how impoverished the answers it provides.
    The impact this will have for atheism is simple. Can the atheist offer real answers to these questions? Can the issues of life be answered within this perspective? Or is this atheism no more than a negative claim, ignoring the deeper issues rather than readdressing them?
    Now it may seem that I’ve sidetracked the topic a bit, but not without a reason. When we go about promoting a topic like atheism, there are these same issues of life meaning at stake. It’s not merely a technical point whether god exists, it has a huge impact on how we see ourselves, the choices we make, and the attitudes we hold towards our own lives. More so, our culture, values, and sense of identity had to develop quite a lot before atheism became a feasible doctrine. The upshot of all this is that the issues of life that religion tried to answer are still at work even within atheism, and an effective atheist philosophy will have to address them in due course.
    Here’s another way to see it. Perhaps human culture’s sense of meaning is passing out of mysticism and into clarity. The movement from religious to secular thinking will probably one day be seen as a natural transition that culture had to undergo in the process of defining itself intelligibly. If so, atheism will undoubtedly be seen as a major milestone in that development, provided it did more than simply contradict what came before it.

  12. Julian: “I really think it should be obvious that “all the time” is not literal here. It’s easy to point out pseudo-logical fallacies if you never accept anything might be a figure of speech.”

    You’re quite right about that. When my wife and I are arguing and she says, “You tell me that *all the time*,” I don’t stop her and remind her that I do have to sleep at times. However, here is the statement that I was responding to: “We live in an incredible world and we should not spend *all our time* either looking to the heavens or pointing out they do not exist.” (Emphasis added)

    I agree that the difference is slight, but not that it’s insignificant.

  13. jp lorence’s post is perfectly in synch with something I’ve been thinking lately. For a lot of people, philosophical issues don’t come up in their daily lives at all. They only think about them in a religious setting. So Saturday, or Sunday, or holidays, are a very important time in which to think about big issues, responsibilities, or just get a sense of peacefulness and depth.

    So yes, great question, if you don’t have religion, where are people going to find space to think about the intangibles, the big picture, et? Not a problem for me, or for a lot of people who read, think, bond over social causes, and enjoy a sense of wonder in nature, etc.,…but you’d certainly be taking something important out of the lives of a lot of people if you suddenly made religion vanish.

  14. Ron Aronson wrote a terrific essay for TPM on a related subject – what do you do with gratitude for nature, the world, life etc without religion?

  15. I looked (at Aronson), and enjoyed. A needed book–

    Rituals for Atheists: What to do when you don’t do god

  16. when you dont do god, I guess you do yourself.

    I am all I have.

    friends, family, acquaintances, yes, but the bottom line is, I am responsible for my actions, good or bad. I get the credit, and take the blame. That sounds scary, but it’s incredibly empowering, as well.

    I am all I have to depend on.

    It also scares the bejesus outta me to know that when I die, I stop being. That’s probably the hardest thing to deal with. I grew up catholic too, and that was a pretty comfy afterlife we were handed, wasnt it.

    To have to give up that last bastion of comfort is like stepping out into a cold hard winter wind…

  17. Rituals for Atheists: What to do when you don’t do god There is, I believe, a church in North America for those who do not believe in a god but like the structure and community of belonging to a church. Even as the ultimate non-joiner myself, I can sort of see the point. I have (yet again) forgotten its name, so if anyone knows it, I would be grateful.

    Whislt hunting for it, Iserendipitiously found this which has all sorts of interesting stuff, and in particular really pointed up for me the importance of the concept of 6-dom.

  18. We live in an interesting world, so let’s not waste all our time thinking about the fine details of the tiny bits that it’s made of (or that we could break small bits of it up into)… except that of course to do that can be part of taking an interest in it (incredible though that seems to me).

  19. potentilla, absolutely fascinating link. something about it bothers me, though; the idea that we as atheists should mandate, coerce, convince or proselytyze christians into our way of thinking.

    In its own way, we are just being the other side of the mirror, reflecting the dark side of belief (as it were) to christians. I don’t think belief is wrong. It may be wrong-headed, it has definitely been one of the poorest excuses for war and torture (then again, it seems to always be the excuse, at base) that ever existed, and it dupes good people into strange attitudes of behavior that on balance seem down right silly.
    But if WE have a right to believe the way WE want, don’t they, as well? I think trying to change a fundie’s belief system is about as futile as trying to change a baby into a horse.

    If people need the comfort of a belief in an afterlife to make their lives here sweeter, to give them a purpose, who are we to say they’re wrong? If people need that crutch, well, Im not about to go knocking it out from under them and telling them to get up off their butts and walk, nope. That’s their business, not mine.

    Atheism seems more a personal belief, anyway. That we all got to this point does not disregard the fact that most of us got here by our own road, silently, without anyone exhorting us to do so.

  20. Mandating and coercing are not the same kind of thing as convincing and proselytizing; they shouldn’t be lumped together in that way. If atheists ought not to attempt to convince anyone, then we ought not to be making any comments here, this blog ought not to exist, Julian ought not to have written Atheism: a very short introduction, no one ought to argue anything.

  21. JudyT, if you read right to the end, you’ll find Gary Wolf agrees with you. Ophelia is right though – there is a spectrum between telling people rudely they are total idiots to believe (let alone coercing them), which I agree is not only morally questionable but also practically pointless, and at other other end facilitating them not to believe – making sure they know that lots of people don’t and it’s socially and intellectually acceptable.

    The facilitation thing is not very important in the UK as a whole (although possibly in some specific subsets of society) but I understand that it is much more of an issue in the US.

    There is also the separate point of how far it is acceptable for children to be indoctrinated into religion, either by their parents or by their schools.

  22. There’s a branch of that church for non-believers in Dallas. I’m not sure if they have much “ritual”–it’s basically Sunday morning lectures with refreshments. For anyone who likes ritual (I do, sometimes), it’s always possible to be a non-believing participant in some religion. I think there are a lot of non-believing Jews who go to synagogue periodically, and I am one. I’m also one to make up my own rituals on occasion–no animal sacrifices in the backyard, don’t worry.

  23. Re: proselytizing. If anyone wants to debate religion, I’m all for it and will try to be persuasive. But I don’t particularly look for a chance to draw my religious friends into such debates. As a 6/7 (like Dawkins and potentilla!) it’s not as if I’m completely 100% certain they’re wrong. The friends I’m thinking of get satisfaction from their religious beliefs and also inspiration for “good works.” I don’t think it’s my job to change them in any way (which is probably why we’re still friends).

  24. Jean, that’s one thing I don’t do, is try to convince anyone that their brand of black is better than mine. And like you, my friends and I do not discuss religion, unless we all agree that we’re on the same side.
    Of course then we dont need to…

    To proselytize, after all, is to do exactly what the born agains try to do to me, isnt it.

    It seems that in order to disbelieve in something rationally one needs to understand it from the other side first. You cant say “I hate spinach” if you’ve never tried it. And kids growing up in a religious household are going to be indoctrinated, there’s no problem with that. It’s when they start thinking it through, ALLLL the way to the end, reach their own conclusions, and at some point have to come out of that closet of religion.

    Schools not labeled religious have no business teaching religion. However, I see no harm in teaching about the religion of a culture, since it’s part of the world’s history–art, music, pyramids, stonehenge, all of that. Eliminate the reason those things were created, and you have just about closed the door on rational discussion of nearly everything out there.

  25. I agree–religion is fascinating as well as being a huge force in the world. It seems like it should definitely be taught, but there are proposals afoot in US schools to do that and unfortunately I have to say “hell no.” The problem is that the curriculum would inevitably fall under the control of conservative Christians (they are all ready working on this) and religion class would wind up being spread-the-word class. Too bad.

  26. that’s one thing I don’t do, is try to convince anyone that their brand of black is better than mine.

    That would presumably be supererogatory, but do you try to convince people that your brand of black is better than theirs?

    Joking aside, if one person’s brand of black is torturing children, do you pride yourself on not trying to convince her that your brand of black is better? If someone else’s brand of black is setting fire to rain forests for the fun of it, do you pride yourself on not trying to convince him that your brand of black is better? Do you never under any circumstances try to convince anyone that one idea or action or belief or institution is better than another? If not, why not?

    To proselytize, after all, is to do exactly what the born agains try to do to me, isnt it.

    What happened to ‘convince’? You lumped ‘convince’ in there with proselytize, remember?

  27. well I got that backasswards, didnt i

    what Im saying is, they have their beliefs, and I have mine. I will argue my point of view, but never with an eye to trying to change anyone else’s. I only know that what floats my boat works for me. If they ask, I tell ’em, and if they push john23 onto me, I back away.

    And religion, to my mind, is not about who has the better god, but what works for them.

  28. So ‘brand of black’ refers strictly to religion and nothing else? That wasn’t clear.

    Cool about your boat-floating working for you, but what about the people for whom, say, female subordination or animal torture works because their god said it ought to? Would you never under any circumstances try to convince such people that their boat-floating is harmful to others? If not, why not?

    There’s a lot to be said for tolerance, but there’s also a lot to be said for defending particular values or principles. ‘Whatever floats your boat’ isn’t always or necessarily the best answer. Sometimes it is, but sometimes it isn’t.

  29. sorry, you’re right, of course. Clarity does help. and I think there must be a way to approach someone who has subverted their religion to allow themselves to commit murder, rape, and brutality of all forms.

    Im not sure how, though, since anyone of them can point fingers at christianity and say the same things.

    you have to have a pretty clean slate in that regard before you start telling other people about wrong and right in the name of religion. *s*.

  30. No need to be sorry! These discussions can be rewarding because they can lead to mutual clarification.

    I would think one way would be not to ground the counter-claims in Christianity or any other religion, thus avoiding the whole finger pointing problem. Which is not to say that that’s easy – it’s not; but it is to say that neither tolerance nor more religion is the best response.

  31. well the difficulty, ophelia, is when you are, for example, discussing an atrocity someone from another religion has committed, in the name of that religion. My god, he says, wishes me to do this.

    Even though I might say, this is not about religion, this is about humanity, or however I worded it, there is no way we can set ground rules at that point and say, let’s keep religion–yours or mine or whomever–out of this and discuss this purely as human beings.

    I don’t see that working.

    “Stop beating your wife, it’s not right”

    “my religion says…”

    “this is not about religion, this is about another human being”

    ”My religion says women are beneath us. Do you have no wife beaters in your religion?”

    and there goes the argument

  32. Yup, Judy, I know – that’s why I say it’s not easy. But as for the ‘”Do you have no wife beaters in your religion?”

    and there goes the argument’ problem, I don’t have a religion, so that question has no purchase on me. I have no equivalent of ‘My religion says’ that I have to try to excuse or hide under the rug. The question in my case would have to be ‘Do you have no wife beaters in your atheism?’ which doesn’t work the same way. There are bound to be atheist beaters of women, but they don’t get to say ‘My atheism says…’

    And that is in fact a major advantage, because unfortunately a lot of people do think ”My religion says” requires them to back off respectfully. Atheists are better able to play on a level field.

  33. Ophelia, you have managed to misread and misinterpret everything I have said, forcing the issue away from what I actually did say, and forcing me to explain “what I really meant” in every subsequent post.
    you are an intelligent woman, so I don’t think you’re acting out of stupdity, you’re using the red herring debating style, and more power to ya.

    only I don’t play that way. Nothing I have said, as near as I can tell, has suggested anything that you are telling me I said.

    Enjoy your debate. I don’t think this is going anywhere, as long as I have to keep defending what I said to someone who keeps telling me I said something else.

    I thought this was going to be interesting. My mistake.

  34. Oh, I do beg your pardon, I thought this was a philosophy blog, I thought careful reading was allowed. So sorry.

    (Thanks for the benefit of the doubt, but I was of course ‘acting out of stupdity.’ I can do no other.)

  35. careful reading, not careful and artful misinterpretation.


  36. I’m an atheist, have been one since a child and have always taken my atheism for granted, without trying to convince others. Suddenly, I find that atheism has become a cause, perhaps a political cause.
    Now, I realize that one of the chief reasons for this phenomenon is the rise of the Christian right and of militant Islamism. However, atheism as a cause doesn’t reach or affect the Christian right, much less militant Islamist: rather, it ends up debating with liberal Christians or Jews, people with who I feel a lot in common, especially common ethical values and whose way of life I respect entirely. I for one have no interest in converting my liberal Christian or Jewish friends to atheism or in pointing out the error of their ways, since we share the same views on economic injustice, human rights, racism, women’s rights, etc, issues which matter more to me than whether or not God exists . Now, in my experience, philosophical arguments have never convinced anyone of God’s existence or non-existence. I realize that everyone needs to define his or her views about whether God exists or not, but as far as I’m concerned the problem is not my liberal Christian friends and colleagues, but fanatics who bomb abortion clinics or fly planes into skyscrapers.

  37. Sorry, anonymous Judy, but it’s not my fault that you’re a sloppy writer.

  38. Whoa, there! The differences in conversation were not semantic: they were almost cultural, maybe even linguistic in origin. Exactness of point versus colloquial conversation, if you will.

    It’s impossible to be sufficiently accurate to satisfy all circumstances within the scope of a blog post; we have to rely upon implied meaning as much as we do on implied scope. I’ve run into this before, and it’s, frankly, not about exactness of writing: not everyone can write with the clarity of Mark Twain or provide a sound-bite with the gusto of Winston Churchill. So while I’m not advocating tolerance for extremely lazy writing, I do think the blogosphere (as it’s apparently called) allows a little latitude in how “we” phrase things. (And no, I have absolutely no idea where the border between conversational English and academic exactness lies. Sufficient to say: somewhere over that way.)

    I’m not sure the “brand of black” argument works: it’s the same one used in religion, and it doesn’t work there, either. Look at how many brands of black there are!

    The idea of no belief in the supernatural is not to counter what others think, but simply to have no belief in the supernatural. I don’t feel any need to justify my (very strident) atheism to anyone. I do like to pick holes in the arguments and points of theists, though. But it’s a hobby, not a vocation.

    I make my points on a simple context: I’m not the one making outrageous and spectacular claims. For me, there is nothing but what we see; for the fundamentalist, there’s a powerful and vindictive deity. Which is the more fantastical idea? The various shades of grey that exist between those two poles provides plenty of confusion and even comfort for many. Who am I to deny them their fantasy?

    Ergo, people are as free to believe as they wish. The point where their belief interferes with my life is nebulous and inexact, but is usually rooted in either violence or the legislature.

    Personally, I find it easier to say “I’m an atheist” (well, I usually growl it) than attach some other label to myself. I’m fed up of labels, actually. All they do is place “you” in a container; frequently not one of your own choosing, either.

    Just as an observation, I’ve noticed that atheists do tend to get a bit prickly when presented with arguments about definition. (I’m not exempt!) There also seems to be a trend – I’ve noticed it more and more, recently – about “how” to argue with theists. There’s no “right” way to do so, but there are plenty of ways to irritate people. Atheism doesn’t “need” these arguments (definition/label/how-to), although I’m sure they’ll persist for as long as people exist. And maybe a bit longer than that.

    Carolyn Ann

  39. I don’t get this 6/7 stuff. It would take a miracle for a divine being to exist — a divine anything, really. Surely miracles occur with a far lower frequency than one in seven. What people have managed to come to know about reality would have to be completely upended for the existence of god to be established convincingly. And how would that occcur? Simultaneous miracles in all the world’s capitals or somesuch? And wouldn’t scientists then just get to work trying to figure out how to explain the phenomena? Or I guess god could speak directly to the consciousness of every living person. What’s it waiting for? If it exists and created us, why didn’t it build the knowledge of its existence into the hardware? I, for one, am 99 44/100% positive that no such being exists.

  40. Well, I’m not terribly hung up on the exact fraction, I just borrowed it from Dawkins. But neither can I cope with the idea of being 100% certain about the nonexistence of any sort of god – I’m hardly 100% certain about anything at all, and certainly not anything outside matters of personal taste and preference, since I’m a scientist of sorts. And there are lots of questions about universe to which we don’t have good answers yet. A deist sort of answer seems more likely than a personal theist one, though, if gods we posit. Actually, I suspect that the sort of evidence which might start we seriously wondering about gods would also be the sort of evidence that would leave all of us very dead and not in a position to wonder.

    If it exists and created us, why didn’t it build the knowledge of its existence into the hardware? Ignoring for the moment the sort of answer Swinburne would give to this…….because it doesn’t care?

  41. Bertrand Russell, in an essay “Am I an Atheist or an Agnostic” says that if he were speaking to the man on the street, he would call himself an atheist, but if he were addressing a group of professional philosophers, he would identify himself as an agnostic, given his philosophical criteria for certainty. Of course Russell’s criteria for certainty may be out of date in philosophical circles these days, but it does explain why someone might define herself as a 6/7 atheist. Others use the term “weak atheist” to mean an atheist who would not claim to be able to prove that God does not exist. Once again, that depends on one’s criteria for proof.

  42. I can’t think of a single reason why anyone would prove that a deity doesn’t exist. To do that is simply to reply to the accusation that a deity does exist.

    “Does too!” Does not!”

    Children play those games. Atheists don’t have to prove anything: mainly because they have nothing to prove. Again, who’s making the more fantastic claim: the atheist who says “there’s nothing there”, or the theist?

    Carolyn Ann

  43. I suspect the Russel quote links to Potentilla’s ealier remark regarding facilitation. My argument for my more strident Atheism is not that I want to convince believers, I’ve yet to see any hope of that, rather to provide evidence for a culture that supports it and it’s conclusions. Speaking from an experience where, in order to engage in any reasonable discussions, I needed to speak as if I believe in things such as Tarot and Astrology. This lack of a coherent culture is I feel possibly the weakest aspect of Atheism and one that’s not actually that hard to address.

  44. Carolyn Ann: Why do atheists have to provide proofs or at least good arguments for their position? Because that’s the way the game is set up. The theists came first, and the atheists challenge their established position. The debate is political, not philosophical in the purest sense, if a philosophical debate in the purest sense can exist, which I doubt.
    So when I talk to a theist about the subject, I know from experience that I need a number of good arguments for atheism, the argument from evil being the most effective one, I believe. Ask any theist why the good Lord allows children to die from cancer, and you’ll receive a baffled silence. The Buddhists are an exception: they’ll blame the child’s suffering on her karma from past lives.

  45. One of Julian’s points in his QnA threw up an issue I’ve been trying to think through recently in relation to the humanist tradition. So can I ask a question (about Kant I fear, so you may just want to skip what follows!).

    It concerns the ‘good without god’ matter. Point taken about not needing to fear God and so on to do good. But the reason Kant thought moral philosophy ‘proved’ God, or at least needed divine underpinning, was to make it reasonable to follow his maxims (like doing to others and so on). Kant didn’t think that the issue was the need for a deity to pressure you into following the maxims. It was that he thought it was only reasonable to follow a maxim if there was actually the possibility of the good world which that maxim was aimed at actually existing. ‘Ought implies can’, as he put it. That isn’t likely or even possible in the world that we know. So his belief in God served to guarantee it in the next, or at least as existing somehow ‘in God’.

    So just on Kant’s issue of maxims requiring the possibility of the good world they aim at, and that ‘having’ to be underpinned by God, can anyone suggest the atheist/agnostic response? Now that I’ve been looking at the issue, I don’t think I’ve quite seen it answered. You can of course do your ethics in a way other than Kant’s, but for what it’s worth that is not exactly what I’m after.

  46. That’s sort of my point: theism is political. As such it’s like trying to argue a walrus out of a tusk – or two.

    Personally, I’ve given up using the good versus evil debate. It’s too easy to circumvent: God gave man freewill, etc. And the endlessly entertaining “stuff happens”. I tend to stick to the simple, and maybe simplistic, “life is incredible! Does it need anything more?” That usually gets at least a contemplative frown.

    Try as I might, I can never [sic?] get my mind around the “we need God to have ethics and morals” thing. Reading the description of Kant, and I still fail.

    (By the way, I’m 8+ out of 7 on Dawkins’ scale… 🙂 )

    Carolyn Ann

  47. Carolyn Ann: I’m sure that you know this, but the best argument against “we need God to have ethics and morals” is Plato’s Euthyphro. 8 out of 7 on Dawkins’s scale: me caes bien. That’s an expression (see the previous topic on this blog) that I cannot translate, but let me assure you that it is a positive reaction to your persona.

  48. I always thought the God business in Kant was strange. He says the moral law is a “fact of reason” and should be followed without any concern for consequences or rewards. On that view, what need could there be to believe in a heaven where everyone is moral, or people get rewarded for being moral, or anything of the kind? When Kant brings in such things (in the fine print, really), he seems to be muddying the water, maybe even contradicting himself. So an atheist response might be just to remind Kant of his own views.

    Moving away from Kantian ideas, though, it does seem like a good question how people could possibly be motivated to do all that they really should, morally, if this is the one life they have. That doesn’t strike me as an easily dismissible worry. Peter Singer has a very hard time telling us why we should make huge sacrifices for the poor. Rewards in the hereafter would certainly make his job easier!

  49. “We live in an incredible world and we should not spend all our time either looking to the heavens or pointing out they do not exist.”

    We live in a world where many people do point to the heavens; and some of these people affect the world in adverse ways based on the unquestionable moral ‘guidance’ they thence receive. I am wondering if the purpose of emphasising the above quotation, in the context of an article on atheism, is a call for atheists to avoid mentioning the fact that they don’t believe in god? My personal experience is that atheists have for too long been silent on the matter, in light of the perceived sensitivities of theists and the resulting taboos regarding questioning faith.

    In a world where religious voices have so much influence and power, surely now is the time for atheists to come out of the closet! The liberal, relativistic, tolerant attitude of ‘fine, if that works for you’ is, of course, commendable when the beliefs in question are harmless. When they contribute to conflict, war, terrorism, injustice and the erosion of education, then they should be vehemently opposed, or, at the very least, open to debate.

  50. how people could possibly be motivated to do all that they really should, morally

    Why should? In whose view should?

  51. Does it have to be an external should? Don’t we frequently just feel moral obligations?

  52. OK, concrete example. I took a wonderful trip to Alaska at the beginning of the summer, which cost a lot of money. Meanwhile, there are a billion people in the world living in extreme poverty. With the money I spent on my trip, I could have saved many lives. (Go along with that assumption, please…)

    Singer thinks, and I’m prepared to agree, that I should (objectively) have given up the trip. But the thing is, I’ve always wanted to go, and I have just one life to live and who knows when it will be over…

    If, if, if I thought there was unimaginable splendor to come in the afterlife–far better than Alaska–that might have helped me choose to save lives. Especially if I thought I was going to get an extra piece of afterlife splendor for being so good.

    So, yes, the idea of a happy afterlife to come could help us be motivated to do more of what, objectively, we ought to do. Actually, any kind of good to come would help–a better rebirth, for example. Karma, etc.

  53. I understand the motivational afterlife point.

    But, in the real world, why should you have given up the trip? How do you mean, objectively? Where would moral objective facts come from? Does “should” come out of your head, or somewhere else?

    Kallan G, yes we do frequently feel moral obligations. But we frequently feel all sorts of things. Does the fact we call a cerain sort of feelings “moral obligations” give them a special status? If so, what sort, and why?

    (Sorry, perhaps 6 question marks is too many. I do of course have my own views on the answers which I will divulge on request, but I am interested in yours.)

  54. Potentilla, After many years of trying, I have failed to establish a monogamous relationship with any one view about “where objective moral facts come from” although I believe in them. So I have to plod along looking at examples, analogies, thought experiments. Singer-esque thought experiments and examples make me think–yes, it’s right to save lives if the cost is trivial. Giving up my fun Alaska vacation really is a pretty trivial price to pay for saving a lot of lives. Some people really would make that sacrifice, but I think a serious percentage of them believe in glories to come after death.

  55. Jean: I’m glad that you enjoyed your vacation in Alaska. Religions generally have defined moral codes and I’m not aware that trips to Alaska are prohibited in any known religion. However, most religions would damn you to hell if you had donated the money to Oxfam and stayed home engaging in non-kosher sexual acts, none of which contribute to global warming or increase the amount of economic injustice in this world. Generally, religious people follow the code of their religion or at least try to follow that code. Many of those codes are incredibly dated or appear to be dictated by a bureaucrat suffering from an obsessive-compulsive personality disorder: look at Orthodox Judaism. Actually, it appears to be atheists like Singer (not my favorite philosopher, but that’s another issue), who try to up-date ethics to apply it to a globalized world.

  56. Donate to Oxfam and stay home for non-kosher sex acts …actually, that sounds interesting.

    Here’s what I’m trying to say. Suppose I believe there is objective right and wrong, and I don’t believe all morality is “religious morality.” (Yes, lots of “religious morality” is really nutty stuff…orthodox Judaism being a a good example.)

    I read moral philosophy and become convinced I ought to do X. X happens to be very difficult. It means giving up something I really want, like the vacation. Or being honest in a situation where that’s going to cost me a lot. Or whatever…

    The thought that this is my only life will tend to make it harder to go ahead and do X. That “seize the day” feeling is very powerful, and does not always inspire moral goodness.

    It’s really a testable claim–huge sacrifices are more often made by people who believe in more life to come. Somebody should study this…I’m just guessing what they’ll find out and reporting on my own “moral psychology.”

  57. Jean: I suspect that you’re reporting on your own moral psychology, which might well be similar to many other people. My moral psychology tends to come from feeling good about myself if I do ethically appropriate actions and seeking that others see me as an ethically consistent person. I am a very disciplined person, and my ethical beliefs (or my superego) generally dictate my course of action.
    The idea of a reward in the afterlife would not change me at all. I must sound very boring and square and perhaps I am.

  58. But, but, but…maybe you have more “common sense” ideas about what you ought to do, morally, than I do. When it comes to ordinary stuff–taking care of my children, being honest and loyal, I have no need for any extra incentives.

    But I actually do think I should be donating my time and money to save lives and skipping the trip to Alaska. It’s the really challenging stuff I can’t do a whole lot of, but might be able to do with a sense that life goes on.

    I did spent time a while back reading biographies of people who do truly extraordinary things. Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder is my favorite. Many of them have ideas about objective right and wrong PLUS some extra-added religious motivations.

  59. Amos — A mí me caes bien, también. For non-speakers of Spanish: We could be pals. However, to quote the great philospher Sam (he of the Pharoahs), “Let’s not be L7.”

    More seriously though, JK has an excellent question. Might less good be done in the world if people didn’t believe in a post mortem reward for their good works? My answer is, very possibly so, but the evil deeds that are motivated by supernatural ideas of an afterlife would not occur either, and I venture to guess that the decrease in evil would outweigh that of the decrease in good if humanity as a whole would eventually accept the fact that we have no divine minders and nowhere to go after death.

  60. Jean K writes:
    “I always thought the God business in Kant was strange. He says the moral law is a “fact of reason” and should be followed without any concern for consequences or rewards. On that view, what need could there be to believe in a heaven where everyone is moral, or people get rewarded for being moral, or anything of the kind?”

    This doing the good for its own sake must have been part of the moral life of the Jews who had no clear idea of Heaven or an afterlife with God until the end of the Biblical period. No heavenly reward for the prophets then. Likewise the Greeks thought the afterlife a place of shades not particularly desirable. ‘Arete’ was its own reward.

  61. Doug, Yes, there would be an awful lot of things to tally up to really get the final score on whether afterlife ideas lead to more good or evil. There are lots of examples of the latter (lots and lots).

    Michael, I’m with you more or less about the Greeks, but not so much about the Jews. I don’t think the Jews in the bible follow the laws “for their own sake.” They follow them because of the covenant with Yahweh and because of the prosperity he promises. But yes, the afterlife isn’t the point. I think most people think there’s lots of heaven and hell in the bible and they’d be surprised how little there really is.

  62. Jean: Couldn’t it be that since there are more religious people than atheists in this world and since almost everyone was religious until, say, 100 years ago, almost all biographies of people who do exceptionally good things deal with religious people? Couldn’t it also be that religious people who do good things tend to have books written about them since their respective religious organizations want to publicize their exemplary lives? If the Communist had won the cold war, I bet that we’d see a lot of books on the market (or free of charge thanks to socialism) talking about Marxist-Leninists who had spent their lives sacrificing all comforts for the benefit of the poor. In my personal experience many Marxist-Leninists did that in Latin America at least.

  63. Doug: Gracias. The phrase, “me caes bien,” really can’t be translated exactly, in my opinion, because it’s tied up with the concept of “simpatía”, which has no translation in English. Then again, you may be right: while the expression definitely could not be translated “we could be friends”, it could be translated, as you translate it, “we could be pals” or “we could be pals, how about a beer?”

  64. Amos– I was struck by something in Tracy Kidder’s book Mountains Beyond Mountains. He’s writing about these smart Cambridge Mass doctors who do unbelievably generous things around the world…and most of them are devout Christians. It seems like not a coincidence. But you have a point. Maybe I haven’t read the right biographies. You’ve got a point about the Marxist-Leninists in Latin America. There must be lots of different things that can drive huge generosity…in fact, it makes a lot of sense (now that I think more about it) to think so. But I’m going to stick to my guns just to the extent of saying religion is one impetus (and I don’t have it).

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