Here’s the Answer to your Question: You’re an Idiot.

I came across this and thought a better title might have been the title to this post.  Look, I know there are Christians and other theists that ask these questions in a way where they do seem to be implying what the writer here finds insulting.  But frankly, they are usually the type of Christian that doesn’t  let’s just say, represent the best or brightest of the bunch.  This is fairly low hanging fruit.  What is interesting though is that we can tell by the writer’s responses and phrasing of the questions—that she “hears” or interprets in a way that this must be what Christians are “really” suggesting or asking, when in fact, many of them are not.  I’m not going to waste too much time going through each question, but I will take a few and translate so we can unpack this and, I think, show that many radical atheists still do not “hear” very well what people are asking them or trying to communicate.
Up front though I need to say that not only do her “answers” miss the real point- in her very missing of the point, her answers reveal how ignorant she is, of Christianity at least, which explains so much.  As for her being upset or angry when questions like this are asked of her, I’m reminded of an old character on Saturday Night Live.  There was a character called Rosanna Rosannadanna (Gilda Radner) who was a part of their “weekend update” news segment.  She never quite understood what anyone was saying.  In one of the skits her commentary deals with the talk around Washington about making Puerto Rico a state.  She thinks they said “steak.”  She then goes on this rambling commentary regarding how crazy it was for anyone to suggest such a stupid thing as designating a country a piece of meat.  And of course after all her fumbling, shouting, arm waving, and desk pounding, the bemused anchors tell her calmly that people were talking about a “state” not a “steak.” 
I had the same sense when reading this writer’s essay.  She addressed a lot of thing no one is really suggesting.  They are talking about something else.  She is upset for no reason.  Don’t blame others because you don’t get it.  And if she were only talking about fundamentalists, she should have said so and made it clear she knew the great majority of educated Christians do not represent what she is angry about here.  Since she is a secular fundamentalist, however, I’m sure Christians look (and sound) the same to her.
1: “How can you be moral without believing in God?”
The real question and what most people are trying to get at here has nothing to do with suggesting that atheists are “bad” immoral people or that to act morally should be a contradiction for them.  What is really being asked here is- how is morality grounded?  Is morality determined by majority rule and power alone or is it grounded in some other way?  And this is why the writer’s “answer” completely misses the point.
Just as an aside, one has to love this line: “Humans are social animals, and like other social animals, we evolved with some core moral values wired into our brains…”
One has to read that several times and let it sink it to get a sense of how many things are just being assumed or left unsaid.  I could write an entire post just on her off-handed attempt at an explanation with this one comment.  What would it even mean to say that “core moral values” were “wired” into our brains?  The description “moral” is something she is noting (a little) after the fact.  She is naming it “moral” in 2013.  What was it initially?  Nothing.  We could name it “immoral” now if we wanted to and also say it was “wired” into our brains.  Or, we could name it “oatmeal” and say it was wired into our brains.  See the problem here?  The only thing the materialist can tell us we were hard wired with was a survival impulse.  There are many ways to “survive” and some are moral and some are not.  But that, of course, is another question.  One the writer seems completely oblivious to.  The rest of her “answer” is question begging to say the least.
2: “How do you have any meaning in your life?” Sometimes asked as, “Don’t you feel sad or hopeless?” Or even, “If you don’t believe in God or heaven, why don’t you just kill yourself?”
Again, this completely misses the point of what most people are asking or trying to find out.  Related, as far as “creating” one’s own meaning- wasn’t that just what any given 20th Century tyrant was doing?  Or the tyrants of today?  Or a gang leader?  Or certain CEO’s?  Isn’t that what everyone incarcerated in prison right now was doing?  Again, see number one above.  What should “meaning” look like and what sort of behavior should it inspire?  That might be an important aspect to “creating” meaning.  Beyond that, the real question being asked is-why would we even care about “meaning” in a meaningless universe, let alone try and create any?  Where would that longing, desire, or need even come from?  Isn’t creating meaning sort of like creating Santa Clause?  We know there is no ultimate meaning to life (i.e. it doesn’t exist just like Santa Clause) but for some reason it makes us feel better to think there is meaning.  How is that psychology different than the very thing theists are accused of in “creating” god?  If the answer is, “Because we know our meaning is false or doesn’t really exist,” then why shouldn’t the response be, “Then, in reality, there is no meaning in your life, right?”  So the question is a little more complex than she seems to realize.
3: “Doesn’t it take just as much/even more faith to be an atheist as it does to be a believer?”
The answer: No.
Wow, I didn’t even know where to start with this one.  Her response was just a window into her own assumptions.  Since she assumes that “faith” means without reason or evidence- she just goes on from there and chases phantoms.  Read her answer, she just pours contempt on theists as people who haven’t “bothered to think” about what they believe—of course she states it in a reverse sort of way.  Wow.  And on top of that she throws in philosophical category errors to boot.  I hope she’s not held up as some sort of standard other atheists are looking up to or trying to emulate.  Wow.
4: “Isn’t atheism just a religion?”
The answer: No.
Well, except for a number of philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, and other cultural commentators who do see it functioning like a religion (See for instance John Gray, Robert Bellah, or Frans de Waal).  All the recent talk about atheist evangelism is out there for a reason.  The rest of her response basically boils down to, “How dare you compare what we do to your stupid, evidence lacking, unreasonable, and illogical type of community!!!”  Preach it sister.  Right, it’s not a religion.  Someone please pass the plate.
And it goes on from there.  Her “answers” (the real insult here) from thereon display the same pattern with the same philosophical depth as that printed on a shampoo bottle to just rinse and repeat.  Also note that the issues that I unpacked from these questions, she was light years away from “answering.”  In reality, she answered nothing here.  Before she gets so angry, she may need to actually attempt to truly “hear” what the other person is saying or try to ask, even if they are asking it in an awkward way.  After all that, I will also say this: Christians should ask these questions in better ways and if they learn the person they were addressing was insulted or offended, they should apologize and ask a better question.    
To the writer, Greta Christina, I would suggest she follow her own advice.

If you want to understand more about Christians and Christianity — that is awesome. Many of us are more than happy to talk about our faith with you: that’s how we change people’s minds about us, and overcome the widespread myths and misinformation about us. But maybe you could do a little Googling before you start asking us questions that we’ve not only fielded a hundred times before, but that have bigotry and dehumanization and secular privilege embedded in the very asking. And if you do want to know more about Christianity, please stop and think about the questions you’re asking — and the assumptions behind them — before you do. Thanks.
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8 Responses to Here’s the Answer to your Question: You’re an Idiot.

  1. Burk Braun says:

    Darrell-

    No question, I wouldn't hold to all the answers Greta gives, or umbrage being tossed around. But let me critique a few points.

    “She is naming it “moral” in 2013. What was it initially? Nothing. We could name it “immoral” now if we wanted to and also say it was “wired” into our brains. Or, we could name it “oatmeal” and say it was wired into our brains. See the problem here? The only thing the materialist can tell us we were hard wired with was a survival impulse. There are many ways to “survive” and some are moral and some are not.”

    Turns out we are hard-wired with a great deal more, including morals and empathy. That is why most societies work in some fashion, rather than falling apart to nothing. We have basic sociable and empathetic impulses that provide the judgement that we bring to everything- even judging god. Note how in the Job and the old testament generally, it is we who judge god- that prankster and cruel master. And often find him wanting.

    And I would disagree that the questioner means what you mean- they mean precisely what they say, which is to ask how, without the narrative and institutional and philosophic (!) support of a religion, does one maintain a civilized, upstanding moral tone? The answer, is written in the acts of Islam and many other instances- that religions are no better than the people in them.

    “We know there is no ultimate meaning to life (i.e. it doesn't exist just like Santa Clause) but for some reason it makes us feel better to think there is meaning. How is that psychology different than the very thing theists are accused of in “creating” god? If the answer is, “Because we know our meaning is false or doesn't really exist,” then why shouldn't the response be, “Then, in reality, there is no meaning in your life, right?” So the question is a little more complex than she seems to realize.”

    That is the curious paradox- that no matter how nonsensical the religious propositions, you feel it necessary to “believe” in them, lest they no longer carry the magical power of granting life after death, morals, and whatever else comes with the theo-package.

    The modern age is characterized by the psychological ability to exist on multiple planes- to enjoy, even believe in, a fictional story and know it is fiction, and to do meaningful things with one's brief time on earth while knowing there is nothing ultimately meaningful about it. Again, we can refer to biology and how we are wired. We derive great meaning, say, from our social relationships. This happens whether those relationships are continued after death or not.

    This is the key, most important thing we as atheists are asking- for theists to stop regarding their stories as “true” with a capital T at all costs. It is a very damaging practice, both on the intellectual plane we generally bat it around, but also on the political and psychological planes, as it leads to fundamentalism, misplaced certainties, hubris, etc. Unless they are true, in which case it is a totally different story, but as I never tire of noting, standards for that type of thing have changed quite a bit. Speaking of which, I picked up the Ruse book that Ron suggested, which I hope to blog about very soon. He speaks to this (both directly and despite himself) at length.

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  2. Burk Braun says:

    If I may add.. the meaning one gets from there being a god- isn't that just pleasing the father? Isn't that the oldest psychological projection one can think of? Honestly, the obviousness of this is breathtaking. And so you please god and she is happy. What then? Is the reward perpetual happy-vibes? Isn't that a weirdly immature ambition, like doing great bong hits for the rest of time, or something? It is so clearly a mere wish-construction with whatever fell into the mind of the originators of these traditions.. like the seventy-two virgins and chocolate dates or whatever.

    The mature attitude was laid out by the existentialists- that grappling with the ultimate meaninglessness of it all it is what religion is all about, in its way, if you don't take it too seriously, (i.e. “believe” in it), and also what serious philosophy is about, and ultimately biology too, I guess. That is why Bellah regards all the religions he writes about as equally true .. and equally untrue. They are stories about human ideals and meaning, not scientific texts about how things work.

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  3. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    “Turns out we are hard-wired with a great deal more, including morals and empathy. “

    No, it turns out that you are naming, after the fact, certain behaviors, sensibilities, as “moral” or “empathetic.” We could name anything currently moral as “immoral” if we wanted. We could call being empathetic “weak minded” if we wanted. You are making the same mistake as the writer. The bottom line is that we are only hard wired for survival. Again, how we do that (survive) is named later as moral or not. And how that arises is much more complex that simply pointing to “wiring.” After all, this is entirely bound up with the debates between materialists and others. As noted here:

    “When it comes to human nature and culture, scientism and ontological naturalism would contend that we are guilty of what John Ruskin called the “pathetic fallacy.” We commit this fallacy when we attribute emotions to what quite obviously cannot have emotion – as in “the wind cried” or “the trees wept.” We keep insisting that we have such emotions. We keep attributing terms such as life, death, existence, desire, free will, pain and so on, to ourselves.”

    “But for ontological naturalism – or better, restrictive naturalism – this simply cannot be the case because the very entities to which we ascribe such terms do not exist. We are left in a world that consists solely in the physical or the material. Consequently, what we see before our eyes is merely the agitation of matter; now thus, now so. That remains the case whether such agitation is that of murder, rape, cancer, war, famine, love or joy, birth or death.” (Cunningham)

    “This is the key, most important thing we as atheists are asking- for theists to stop regarding their stories as “true” with a capital T at all costs. It is a very damaging practice…”

    That is pretty rich given the fact atheists regard their story (God doesn’t exist, we can only know truth empirically) as true with a capital T. The modern Enlightenment secular story (modernity), and any atheism thereupon derived, is just that—a story, a narrative.

    What is dangerous is fundamentalism. And the fundamentalist sensibility is very clear in this writer’s “answers.”

    As to the father issue, we could turn this around and say isn’t atheism just a rebellion against the father? So you’re upset with Daddy—and this is your way of showing him. “I’ll just act like he doesn’t exist—the silent treatment ought to do it.”

    No, what we might want to do is actually have enough respect for the other’s view not to simply and condescendingly say of it that it’s “all in your head.” Because to do that would display the same sort of ignorance and insult as Greta does.

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  4. RonH says:

    Technically, on naturalism the bottom line is that we're wired for reproduction. Survival is secondary… That's why teenage boys will do stupid and dangerous things to impress girls. It's also why the males of some species will mate even though they will be promptly killed and eaten afterwards.

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  5. Darrell says:

    Ron,

    Duly noted.

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  6. Burk Braun says:

    Darrell-

    Way to be reductionistic! Emotions don't exist… I see.

    Your rhetoric (and Cunningham's) are getting away from you here. Emotions exist and are felt- that is undeniable. How we explain them operationally (souls) or developmentally/historically (god-did-it) is a separate question.

    So your quote and its argument are bizarre straw men that put words into the opponent's mouths that fail to deal with the actual issue.

    Anyhow, onwards with Ruse…

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  7. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    You do realize that such (reductionism) is exactly what Cunningham is arguing against, right? It is a known fact that a strict materialist must “reduce” everything to matter-in-motion. What else is there for the materialist, right? So I’m curious, when they do, do you also tell them “way to go”? And if you don't think everything reduces to the material, then what do you believe the remainder is?

    He is taking materialism to its logical conclusion. In such a scheme, emotions do not exist, only chemical reactions do. We can name the agitations of matter, but that is all they are.

    But you are right about dealing with the actual issue and that is exactly what the writer failed to do—and that was my point.

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  8. Burk Braun says:

    Darrell-

    Your understanding of reductionism seems yet another problem zone. Your (Cunninghan's) argument is like saying the biology doesn't exist, because it can be reduced to chemistry. And for that matter, chemistry doesn't exist either, ad infinitum.

    The fields exist, as you are well aware, equally to reductionists and to mysiticsts / holists, if not more so. Turning to emotions, trees may or may not have them, but we certainly do. And they have a material basis!

    ###

    Anyhow, your turnaround on daddy rebellion was typical nonsense. And illuminating of your issues with Bernard as well, I think. We (atheists or agnostics) are not trying to infer mystical unseen deities and causes. We take things (ontology, philosophy) as they come on a reliable basis. Thus that we don't believe in your deity is not a psychological issue, since it does not exist. It we didn't believe in global warming, now that would be a psychological issue!

    You are so immired in the certainty of your deity (despite its poor philosophical underpinnings) that you instinctively turn around any disbelief as betokening a hostile attitude, (which it may), and involving some sort of dubious suppositions, which it certainly does not.

    It all reminds me of the psychiatric incarceration practices of the Soviet Union, where dissidents were frequently committed out of the state's conviction (cynical or not, I am not sure) that disbelief in their glorious system betokened a mental disorder. When all the empirical evidence ran the other way!

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