Christopher Hitchens, as you've likely heard, has cancer. He's one of the "new atheists," and of course people asked "now that he's going to die, will he find God?" to which he replied in the negative. In this article, he discusses his "fan" reactions (i.e. people praying for him to get better in spite of his atheism, or assuring him that they wouldn't condescend by praying for him, or gloating that God has sent him such suffering), to which he responds:
...Why not a thunderbolt for yours truly, or something similarly awe-inspiring? The vengeful deity has a sadly depleted arsenal if all he can think of is exactly the cancer that my age and former “lifestyle” would suggest that I got.
I recently received a lengthy "fan" e-mail from someone positing that those atheists probably never had to deal with real suffering and loss, and that it's positively cruel to take away religion from those who need it. This is a common response, and one directly responded to by the new atheists (and by Freud, at some length). I'm not going to repeat those arguments here, but I wanted to weigh in from my current situation (my mother just passed away last week...).
One of the great things about atheism is that your thoughts are private. For believers, doubt is an affront. For those like myself for whom the actual existence of a personal God who listens and judges is simply not a live option for belief, if I talk to "God," if I talk to the souls of the departed, if I let the flood of warmth wash over me that comes with reflection on a felt, immediate connectedness to the dead, who is going to care?
I anticipate the responses: "Your mind tells you there is no God/afterlife, but your heart tells you otherwise." "In acting contrary to your beliefs, you show that you're conflicted." "This discrepancy is just fuzzy headedness."
On the contrary, I don't see any so drastic a problem here. In sketching out my metaphysical views, I'm doing one thing: rationally looking at the different positions and assessing some probabilities, well aware, of course, that even the grounds for making these probability judgments are pretty shaky. If I'm talking to God or any number of dead people, I'm doing... well... I don't want to give any definitive analysis of my behavior (trying to cope? aesthetically decorating my interior existence? taking advantage of some psychological/physiological ability that we all have? attuning myself emotionally to the universe as a whole?), because, frankly, it'd be an ad hoc, made up interpretation. But I do know that I'm not in doing so saying anything about "what I believe."
All of this points to my opinion about belief itself: that it is pragmatic. I believe in the ground in front of me for the purpose of walking, and remain neutral about its "inner nature" insofar as that's not relevant to my using it for that purpose. I do not believe it at all likely that is judging my every act for its effect on my immortal soul, so I don't act accordingly, or relatedly I don't believe it necessary to have any metaphysical view like that for me to be (mostly) nice to people. I believe that talking to the dead can make me feel better, and it doesn't spoil the experience for me to, upon reflection, believe that I'm probably not actually talking to the dead.
So it's not the case, on this view, that atheists in airborne turbulence suddenly become theists when they pray that the plane won't crash. No doubt they're reverting to some childhood habit of talking to God or flailing out in search of something to grasp onto. Really, though, my point is that one doesn't have to provide a definitive explanation for this behavior to say that it does not involve metaphysical assertions (unless you, following my pragmatic line stated above, reduce ANY metaphysical assertions to something that's not really an assertion, in which case I'd need to do some more work in stating the difference in character between these two kinds of non-assertion).
Mark, your insight into the psychological state of individuals dealing with crises, whether contemplating their own demise or dealing with the loss of a loved one, certainly rings true. Sort of like the adage “there are no atheists in foxholes.” I think you’re saying that some people suspend reason temporarily during a crisis and then call that belief.
However, I don’t think that’s a complete picture. There are certainly those that do that. But there are also many who have an experience, sometimes a life-changing experience and take it much further. It’s more than a temporary feeling of ecstacy (or dread or helplessness or whatever) that almost all of us have at different times in our lives.
The individual I have in mind makes a fully conscious decision about their life and it alters that person’s view of the world from that point on. It’s sometimes called a leap of faith, but for any thoughtful person, it’s a leap that only occurs after much reflection. This new view of the world, I suppose, can properly be called belief and it defines the world for this person.
I also think you are right in pointing out the anguish that doubt can cause in a believer. But isn’t that true about any person for whom one cares deeply. I realize it’s not an apt comparison from an atheistic perspective because the doubt for the believer is about existence of God. However, the non-believer doesn’t doubt the existence of the person, simply their trustworthiness. But the reaction is similar. The doubt for the believer is essentially about a person and not existence since the whole belief system is really about people: the Church which has carried forward these sets of beliefs, friends, families, pastors, etc. and whoever was responsible for leading that person to belief. But I think if a non-believer is honest, they face doubts too, which are doubts about themselves and have they really got this all figured out.
Your comment “One of the great things about atheism is that your thoughts are private” puzzled me at first. I have never considered my inner thoughts anything but private, but I think I see what you mean and I guess maybe my thoughts aren’t private in a real sense if they are known by God. I’m guessing most believers consider that a fair price to pay for their commitment just as many consider the privacy they give up by getting married worth that commitment as well.
I think this last thought is the real crux of the matter and you alluded to it when you mentioned that belief is pragmatic. And as the pragmatist James would have agreed, the payoff for the believer is a better life, regardless of the sacrifices that life might entail.
Once again, thanks for making us think.
Douglas Lain says
Actually, there is a philosophical argument that by praying or talking to the dead you are in fact demonstrating belief in the only way that matters. What you subjectively experience as “belief” is hardly relevant by this reckoning, because belief itself is really a public affair. A belief is not a belief unless it can be acted out culturally or ritually.
Also, not even atheists can have private thoughts, at least not intelligible thoughts of this kind. This is because we think using public language and not our own private language.
I’m sorry to hear about your loss.
If agnosticism w/r space and time is philosophically acceptable, I suggest it is equally acceptable in the matter of deity.
I went to “God Concepts” class at my reform synagogue Wednesday night, listened to big part of your first Keirkegaard episode last night, returned home to hear that one of my best-friend’s father had died, and woke up this morning to find Mark’s quite beautiful comment on our tendency to invoke traditional concepts of God in the face of crisis and death. Wow – and who said God does not exist?
Usually — me.
Lots of things keep happening (and always have and always will happen) that manifest that the world is just working in a way that I can’t anticipate. At times that mysteriousness even has an as-if-guided quality to it. So I have a born-again very good friend, who if I shared this with (which I will not), would tell me: “ aha … I told you you‘d find him”; and I have an increasingly observant brother-in-law who would probably tell me: “aha…no coincidence this happens after engaging with the Torah”; and I have deeply committed atheist friends who would just skoff. These responses are all plausible interpretations of my experience, which is an experience I believe they share. And their disparate interpretations don’t cause them any of the functional problems that might arise from believing in, and acting upon, other perhaps unsustainable (or at least less sustainable) notions like — inanimate objects have souls, all people other than my me are interiorless zombies, and my dog, while quietly sitting on his ass all day, is performing high level mental math. So maybe it is just OK on these issues (and perhaps on many more) to allow yourself to “see the world as” – as Wittgenstein says.
Very recently I would have (and did) describe myself as a straight-up atheist. But I am even more recently thinking that signals too much inflexibility. Can people fairly fill the void of the unknown and unexplainable which anyone but the Enlightenment -Cartesian- thinker-on-steroids credits, with any number of competing, even irreconcilable, accounts? Perhaps which account you adopt should not be subject to the same epistemological tests as other everyday beliefs because, unlike beliefs about the more prosaic contents of the real world, beliefs about the nature of forces-greater-than- ourselves/the presence outside the limits of our language/ the substance of the non-stuff beyond the boundaries of space and time/ God —are inherently unknowable, so the standard William James-like functional tests of belief can’t apply. And maybe further — given the range of permissible belief that a lower epistemological standard allows; and, indeed, the possible benefits of consciously pushing ourselves to adopt different points of view on these subjects (kind of like forced alternative “seeing as” perspectives) that periodically break-up the over-worn grooves and gullies in our minds, the truly correct metaphysics might be that we have to interpret unknowables by constantly sitting on perches that we are not deeply committed too — because sitting there is worth the view.
Ethan Gach says
Sorry to hear that Mark.
Ethan Gach says
I’m not sure atheism is actually inflexible (unless we’re looking at the sterotypical caricatures of it).
I like to think of atheism more as, “not belief in God until such time as there is better ‘evidence’ to the contrary.”
*I like to think of atheism more as, “not belief in God until such time as there is better ‘evidence’ to the contrary.”*
Pretty sure this is agnosticism.
A quick search adds some clarity: both atheism and theism are beliefs in uncertain positions about God’s existence, and either belief may be strong or weakly held. Agnosticism is about the degree of certainty available given our current knowledge. So one can be an agnostic theist, or an agnostic atheist. I have lately begun to explain myself as agnostic with theistic leaning, so I guess I am an agnostic theist.
There are a lot of us out here who are curious about the various religious stories that the mind can create, as well as other stories about elves and demons, flat earths, etc. I don’t feel the need to label myself as atheist or agnostic because I’m not part of that game- the issue doesn’t arise for me, just as I have no need to consider whether I am an anti-flat earther. I certainly respect people who have been raised in a religious culture and am curious about how their beliefs affect their behavior (when it does).
Because metaphysics has been forbidden by modern philosophicologists, the search for wisdom and knowledge w/r God is no longer the purview of the field of philosophy.
So forget about it. Knowledge of God’s existence is a matter of natural science (it is physical rather than metaphysical). So while this discipline is currently leans heavily agnostic atheistic, the matter is no more settled than that of Einstein’s space-time, in which we find mass having the efficacy to curve mathematical geometry!
If I am following, Ross, you want to ask things of hobbyists in philosophy around here some questions that normally fall in the areas of mythology, cultural anthropology, religion, theology, and psychology.
I have recently come across historic leads you might pursue within philosophy. Before the Greek logos, going all the way back to the primary seed of most civilization coming from the Black Sea region – Indo-European tribes who spread their language and mythos of gods to India (vedas), Greece (Homer’s gods), and the Norse gods. As for how ideas can influence life, the Hellenistic schools of Stoics, Cynics, Epicurians, and neo-Platonists might be of value.
Otherwise, literature and the web is filled with Christian witness to the agency of faith.
I forgot about the Semitic tribes and the Abrahamic tradition throughout history.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Thanks for the support, all.
I tend to think of agnosticism not just as not being sure, but as the positive claim that you CAN’T know whether or not God exists under any (earthly) circumstances.
Sort of relatedly, discussion has kicked into gear again on this episode, if you’d like to contribute to that: http://partiallyexaminedlife.com/2010/11/21/episode-29-kierkegaard-on-the-self/
(Doug, I noticed in there that I do clarify the connection between private thoughts in the sense that no one is listening and a private language in the sense that no one could in principle understand. These are pretty different things, I think.)
Hmm. No worries, but kind of felt my point was missed. Assume that to be an agnositc is to believe that you just can’t know the truth value of propositions that assert or imply God’s existence, while to be an athiest is to belive you know the truth values are all false. So I guess I’d ask -in light of so much of the fun stuff in 20th century Math and Science being about the limits of knowledge, what does it mean for the athiest to say: “the one thing I do know is – you won’t find God in all that unknowable stuff”. Hmm… that sounds presumptious at best, and self-contradicting at worst. But doesn’t that force all us would-be athiests into agnosticism?
“I tend to think of agnosticism not just as not being sure, but as the positive claim that…”
I do not really like my googled discovery of agnostic theist and agnostic atheist – too complex. I prefer agnostic.
“…you CAN’T know whether or not God exists under any (earthly) circumstances.”
While the history of talk about God — from earliest nature-explanation myths, thru the logos of philosophic rationalizations, and into theological systems of the last 2 millennia – seems mostly about a supernatural God, this is certainly not an exhaustive appraisal of the possibilities.
If we see God-talk as a finger pointing into space (which, I must remind all, cannot cause gravity by re-interpreting it to be the solution to a differential equation), we can optimistically anticipate that the wonders signified in the pointing may be discoverable as our knowledge of nature progresses in the sciences.
The theologian can aid us in asking what we should look for in our interior and exterior experience, just as good philosophers of science “ought to” caution physicists that the logic of causal agence informs us that empty space cannot create gravity.
On Kierkegaard, we must remember he studied Lutheran theology and preaching, so his outlook on life is akin to the man with a hammer seeing a world of nails. I never paid much heed to his God talk, as I was overwhelmed by the truth expressed in his “the crowd is the untruth,” and “truth is in the minority.” These appealed to me in my Phil 101 course because I had been raised Catholic and the preachings of my parents and the nuns and brothers usually centered on harsh criticism of conformity.
Something on the K combox brings the following to mind:
The young country preacher fresh from seminary is despondent over the poor turnout of just a handful of elderly congregants each Sunday. One Sunday, he relays his sense of failure to one of the regulars over the inability to inspire and attract a larger gathering.
“Reverend,” the cattle rancher says, “when I go out to my pastures in the back 40 acres with a truckful of hay for my cattle, even though only a few might respond to my call, still I FEED THEM.”
This inspired the preacher the following Sunday to deliver a sermon that covered Genesis to Revelation. The small handful of attendees got a vigorous 3 hour sermon, after which the excited minister asked the cattle rancher what he thought.
“You know, reverend, how I said even though only a handful of cattle come when I call them to eat, I still feed them?”
“Absolutely! That was my inspiration, brother.”
“Yeah, reverend, but I don’t feed them the WHOLE LOAD!”
Rereading your post a time or two, I am thinking about emotional affects as being prior to reasoning and metaphysics. A cry to God in a scary airplane situation is panic, fear, but is pretty close to a baby crying for someone to come and fill its wants (a cry for nurturing care) – this is real. Philosophy leads us to falsely believe we are primarily rational when it should be clear that this is never the case. There is NO argument that can prove/disprove God – how ridiculous! Still, we are existentially hounded by the mystery of the experience of existence which we vaguely sense to be transcendence – and it is.
Burl, I think you’ve hit it on the head. For me, philosophy is a fascinating subject and takes reason to its ultimate limits, but in the end, I don’t think reason alone suffices. “The heart has its own reasons that reason can’t understand.”
David Buchanan says
As I understand it, there are atheists in fox holes. Sometimes people are lose their faith and become atheists in fox holes. Conversion goes both ways.
Joseph Campbell liked to say that atheists and theists disagree about the literal truth of God and that’s why they’re equally wrong. Religion is a misunderstanding of mythology, he said. It is the result of misreading a symbolic language as concrete fact. The so-called new atheists only ever attack the simplistic and literalistic misreadings.
Sometimes atheism has nothing to do with metaphysical certainty. It just means you’re not a theist. As Sam Harris might point out, we all know what it’s like to not believe in Zeus. There is no reason to be shrill or fanatical about not believing in Zeus, Thor or Mars.
Ever heard of the deprivation theory of religion? I think it’s Freud’s, or maybe just Freudian. This theory says that religion caters to people who’ve been deprived of some basic emotional need, usually love, acceptance, a sense of purpose, self-esteem and the like. On this view, religiosity is a sign of sickness, weakness or disability. I think that view is overblown and unkind, but it probably describes some percentage of the faithful or any one of us in moments of great crisis or terrible loss.
Does the promise of eternal life prepare us for death? Does the Christian heaven inspire us to face mortality soberly and honestly? Such promises seem as unhealthy as they are unrealistic. It’s not something we want to rip from the hands of grieving widows but in the long run religion should seriously renovate the pearly gates and repave the golden streets. Something a little less “candyland” would be nice.
Going back and rereading all the posts on Mark’s blog which ponders the nature of our behavior, I am left with the wonder of just how the argument between theists and atheists is ever sustained for more than a few minutes.
Do they ever pin down such things as: 1) a mutually agreed upon definition of God, 2) a clarification of the distinction between belief and fact, and/or 3) the relevance of our weak understanding of the interrelations of emotion and reason?
On the question ‘Does God exist?’ I think Pirsig’s notion of the Hindi term “mu” is the only possible response. Mu means your question is too restrictive for the subject matter.
As you all may know from some of my previous comment posts on PEL, I am a BIG dog lover, and attribute my affinity w/ Whitehead’s philosophy of organism to the fact that he was one of the few to resist anthropocentrism when discussing pan-experentialism.
So, in the matter of our emotional response to death, with today’s great news of delivering justice to OBL, am I the only person deeply conflicted with our government? I mean, did we really have to put the lives of baby seals at such risk? And how did our government ever conclude that these cute little creatures were suited for such intense missions? I want answers!
Some quite inspiring things being posted. I’m thinking of it this way now: on the opposite ends of the spectrum you have the theists believing in their respective Gods relying on a notion that the strength of their conviction is justification enough; and the a-theists limiting their ontology to the sights and sounds of everyday life, plus whatever else the scientific method produces, which so far, and probably forever, won’t include God. Everyone else occupies the middle ground. (and I am finding the term agnostic doesn’t quite mean that).
So the problem with the atheist view (or at least this articulation of it), is that it isn’t really what anyone believes, and smacks of the “impoverished” world-view of Carnap (quoting Seth on Wittgenstein-Carnap Episode). What we believe-in — what we have to believe-in to make sense of the world, engage in abstract thought, and give meaning and direction to our lives — consists of a whole lot more.
Starting even at the sights-and-sounds end of the spectrum, citing my idol W- (meaning Wittgenstein not Wes) as well as the narratives of Oliver Sachs, even how we see things requires interpretation. In W-‘s famous duck/rabbit example:
what we “see” in a single line-diagram shifts between duck and rabbit; there seems to be no transition; and we don’t seem capable of “seeing” both simultaneously. Interpretation is going on at this lowest possible level!
So do we have a right to expect real objectivity as we climb the ladder of interpretations to greater levels of abstraction? We can’t interpret our world without invoking heuristics, objectifications of patterns, and analogy. In Douglas Hofstader’s fairly recent book “I am a Strange Loop”, which is an amazing non-lyrical interpretation of his classic Godel, Escher, Bach, he talks about our deeply inherent tendency, indeed compulsion, to interpret things at increasingly higher levels. He describes, for example, a simple computer world where certain small objects move randomly on the screen according to fixed interactive rules which ultimately appear to cause them to stick together in different blob-type forms, which then themselves start to move around in the computer-space in patterns that can also be explicated according to what sound like basic laws. But the rules of the computer game come entirely from the rules assigned to the lower level mini-objects; the patterns and “rules” assignable to the blobs is purely a matter of interpretation; they don’t exist at the programming level.
Are the blobs real? Are we just seeing the computer world of Hofstader’s game “as” having blobs which don’t occur in the language of the program’s design?
Well, if that were the case, then we don’t exist, because there are probably various levels of “rules” that would completely describe our behavior, such as physics, then chemistry, then molecular biology —before you get to the level of individual personhood.
So when one religion adopts wind gods and saints and another invokes commandments, and ethics; am I entitled to just dismiss them all as inconsistent with the scientific method? What does that leave me with and what other forms of abstractions, symbolic systems, and heuristics would I also have to abandon for sake of consistency? If I did all this, would I be able to even navigate every day life? Don’t we all kind of occupy the middle ground?
Ethan Gach says
I think I agree with most of what you’re saying TR.
But the problem tends to be that there are people who genuinely do believe there is a “being” that commands the heavens.
In fact, just last week the Catholic Church (I hope I’m getting this right) had to make sure to confirm that Pope John Paul II had indeed committed and “miracle.”
A lot of people want to take “religion” much further than the use of heuristics, the interpretation of symbols, and the making of meaning.
It’s one thing to say “Jesus is the son of God,” symbolic acts as or is a manifestation of certain necessary ways in which the human mind interacts with every day life.
But I think fair amount of people are claiming much more than that. Would you agree?
No doubt I let my momentum take me a little far there. You can definitely draw meaningful distinctions between hard-core theists, hard-core a-thiests and the people in between.
But your question really got me thinking. What if we didn’t treat as decisive the differences generated by how people will SPEAK about their beliefs, i.e. if we don’t take it as necessarily reflective of real belief what theists will SAY about the inclusiveness of their belief systems, and atheists about the exclusiveness of theirs.
Don’t we think we could catch Carnap or A.J. Ayer acting-on, letting their lives be guided by, or following, some concepts or principles that look a lot like motivating heuristics? And if push came to shove, do we really believe the true believer BELIEVES in his “commander of the heavens” with the same quality of certainty that he accepts the existence of chairs and beds?
So if the folks at the opposite ends have fuzziness in their respective commitments, then isn’t the whole canvass a spectrum of different qualitites of adherence to various intepratations, heuristics and concepts – and thus not a series of differences separated by any bright lines?
Ethan Gach says
I’m of the pragmatic mind here. To me it is not as important to try and figure out what people “actually” believe. I’ll settle for what they claim to believe and how those claims cash out. Whether or not someone really believes in hell is not as important to me as whether that belief informs how they act and treat other people.
But am I right to say that you are claiming a belief in hell would not be a factual one, but rather the way in which someone is interacting with different symbols/heuristics?
I think people will CLAIM they believe in hell the same way they believe in pots and pans; but they are either not realizing the difference or are insincere. The guy who denies the existence of pots and pans can be hit over the head with one, and then we can measure the sincerity of his claimed denial by his reaction. What is the equivalent test of someone’s claimed belief in hell? More interrogations of the guy will just yield more statements, which we will have as much reason to doubt as the first.
Yes, I think the conept of hell is really working for the guy as a heuristic or a symbol, even if, again, he does not know it or care to speak truthfully about it. What would it even mean for him, or anyone, to believe in the existence of hell in the same way he believes in the existence of pots and pans? And I think we should care about the guy’s beliefs, not just his statements, because it may turn out that if we could ever get through the b.s. in his utterances, we’d find our disagreements with him are not as substantial as we thought.
Daniel Horne says
I think Wittgenstein gives us a way to determine if they are insincere:
This is probably the same rule of thumb everyone applies — look to how people act. Do they conform public and private behavior to their professed belief that people suffer eternally for biblical violations? Soren Kierkegaard passes this test for belief. (Arguably, so did Wittgenstein himself.) Jim Bakker, on the other hand, would fail.
Well, I love everything Wittgenstein. Where is that one from?
All the same, I think that the W- response works in the extreme case he describes: a person claiming to operate with Judgment Day as a singular guiding principle. We should be able to catch Judgment-Day Man engaging in actions which conflict with any reasonable interpretation of his claimed beliefs. But in most cases people don’t make it that hard on themselves and it certainly does not mean that we should always (or even often) be content to let an analysis of our apparent disagreements with others end after reviewing the facial consistency of our speech and actual acts.
In other words, I don’t think that the W- line of reasoning does much to discourage the view that in many case disagreements have a lot more to do with the referents of words, than disparity in belief. Why should I be content to assume that the person with whom I disagree must be using words the same way I do when further questioning may (and I think often does) reveal — especially in subjects like religion, politics and philosophy where words have obtuse and unclear referents — that we have, often intentionally, hidden the extent of the concurrence of our beliefs with language guided by disparate polemic senses of the meanings of words. For example, the atheist wants to believe that when the theist uses the word “God” he is referring to the strict-constructionalist enforcer of the words of the Bible, which becomes an easy straw-man to take down. And the theist wants to believe that when the atheist strikes, he is endorsing a world view guided by nothing but scientific principles which do no work informing the ethical and aspirational choices that matter most in life. So they end-up in profound disagreement. But if pushed, is the view of either really that lacking in nuance? No doubt they have disparate beliefs; but wouldn’t doing more work possibly — indeed likely — reveal that their disagreements in belief are not the chasm that their facial use of language indicates given the different seneses of words their respective camps have trained them to employ.
I think doing difficult work separating the wheat from the chaff, i.e. vetting the extent to which language rather than belief is the basis of our disagreements; beginning with a presumption that on abstract subjects loose use of language prevails, should be a discipline taught in Public School right up there with Math, Science, English and History. A call for the rise of Action Philosophy!
Daniel Horne says