Why I Chose the Atheist Label

Theology

#21

That’s not quite what I mean, though I get your point. However, there is nothing falsifiable in Mormonism or Islam that would cause the religion to fail. Smith claims divine revelation. Mohammad claims divine revelation. It’s not a falsifiable claim. Whereas, the claim of Christianity is an evidentiary claim. Eye witnesses to an event. Jesus of Nazareth was dead. Now He is alive. If that’s not true, then Christianity is a lie. St. Paul says as much in 1 Cor. 15. Find the remains of Jesus and it all tumbles.

History is complicated and open to much interpretation. I could quibble here and there with your assessment of it, and you mine. I simply raise the same concerns raised by a couple of the greatest minds that are recognized by both people of faith and atheists. You’re free to disagree with them. :slight_smile:

Well, I suppose that’s one perspective. I’m no expert on Europe, but it seems to me that not everyone shares your rosy picture of Europe now and into the future.


(John Dalton) #22

OK. My point is that it is ultimately a matter of belief. It’s not anything close to being proven. People might believe it, or they might not. So you don’t have a sound basis for saying “It could just as easily be posited that not all humans are to be estimated equal in worth and one could argue that it’s worthy of belief in its own right.” We’re in the same boat here.

I don’t agree. You had a Europe that was steeped in Christianity for millennia, and still capable of producing massive breakdowns. The ship sinks sometimes, and that’s a problem. Not to mention the many other horrors which have occurred under Christianity’s watch.

I have my own opinion, and I’m not really concerned if others disagree with it in itself, though I’ll certainly consider any specific arguments. Again, my take on the implications of recent history is different than yours.

OK. I asked if you would accept it. I take that as a yes. To me, that’s sad. It’s the principle itself that matters to me, and should matter to everyone. In as much as your religious beliefs square with that, I take no issue with them myself. Myself, I think we’ll be fine just focusing on what’s actually important to people. As Taq has noted European nations leaning towards secularism are doing fine.

Good luck to the Oilers! It would be something if they make it.


#23

If you could prove that Muhammad did not ride to heaven on a horse, that would falsify it. If you showed the Golden Plates never existed, that would falsify Mormonism.

There are always contrarians. That’s not surprising.


#24

This raises the original question…what makes the principle such that it ought to matter to everyone? But this gets us into ontological and utilitarian discussions, etc., etc. I have a sense that we have that horse kicked sufficiently between us :slight_smile:

I am honestly quite surprised to hear this. I have recently spoken with several people from Europe…Britain, Poland, Germany, and France. They have expressed a sense of uncertainty and chaos. They are not at all happy with the way Europe is at the moment. Now, that is merely anecdotal, to be sure. However, Brexit points to a certain dissatisfaction. The rise of more right wing factions across Europe points to…who knows? However, again, this horse is sufficiently kicked and we have differing opinions on the matter.

That might take more faith than to believe in the Resurrection :slight_smile: However, thanks for the kind wishes!


#25

In the last 1,000 years, when has there ever been a complete absence of a sense of uncertainty and chaos? In the early 1900’s, Europe was quite religious. What we got was the deadliest war in history up to that point. 30 years later, Europe was still quite religious, and the deadliest war in history happened again. Now Europe is secular. How close are we to WW III? I would say we are a long, long, long ways off from another war engulfing Europe. Heck, France and Germany are equal partners in an economic union.


(Edward Robinson) #26

The First World War was caused by nations competing in imperialism, not because of the religious beliefs of average working Europeans at the time. The Second World War was also caused by imperialism, and to the extent that religion was involved, it was not the conventional religious beliefs of Europeans (traditional Christianity or Judaism), but new forms of secular religion, e.g. Marxism in Russia and Nazi race-based ideology, the one built on a secularizing corruption of the Christian understanding of history, and the other on a romanticized revival of paganism in the service of ethnic nationalism. Later on, the problems in Yugoslavia were rooted in ethnic and cultural hatreds, not religious doctrines. Problems in the former Soviet Union of late are connected with Russian imperialism (in the Crimea and elsewhere) not Eastern Orthodox religion. I can’t think of many multi-national wars that were started because Presbyterians and Lutherans disagreed over the nature of the sacrament, or because Baptists don’t kneel while Anglicans do. Most of the deaths in war and genocide of the 20th century occurred in conflicts originated by groups or regimes that were non-Christian or anti-Christian or anti-God. Hirohito, Mao, Pol Pot, etc. didn’t do what they did due to reading Calvin or Ignatius of Loyola. Whatever may have been true of earlier ages, the bloodbath of the 20th century was not primarily Christian in origin.


(John Dalton) #27

I agree religion wasn’t directly involved. However if one cares to suggest that Christianity has had a major edifying influence on Western civilization, and that we may be in trouble without it, there’s some accounting to be done. Christian states made war gleefully for ages, and shipped it abroad at the earliest opportunity. The First World War was only an extension of this phenomenon–only the technology made things different–and without the First War, the Second doesn’t happen. In other words, nor can the bloodbaths be attributed to decreased religiosity.


#28

And yet all of these things happened within religious populations. That’s the point I am making. The claim is that taking religion out of society will open it up to all of these dangers, but religion wasn’t able to prevent them before. It kind of reminds me of my grandparents putting tiger balm on all my cuts and bruises. It probably didn’t help, but it was tradition.


(Edward Robinson) #29

It’s true that nominally Christian princes, and nominally Christian peoples, behaved very badly at various times during the time of the Church’s cultural ascendancy. The ambitions of princes and the greed of merchants and the hatred and prejudices of the masses often enough overcame Christian principles. But at least there was always the possibility of making people (occasionally even a prince, an emperor, or a priest) feel sinful and ashamed when they fell short of Christian standards. That had a somewhat moderating effect in many times and places. On the other hand, what happened when explicitly anti-Christian, atheist regimes took charge in the world?

The Soviet ideology justified mass dispossessions, faked trials, gulags, etc.; without some conception of an absolute moral standard by which even actions of states and peoples can be judged, the ends (of those in charge of the state) will always be said to justify the means – no matter how ruthless the means. I’m sure the Soviets felt betrayed by Hitler, who violated his promises and invaded them; but on what grounds could they protest, consistently? Given what they themselves had done to their kulaks and dissenters, it was clear that their regime acknowledged no transcendent standard regulating human behavior; so why should they expect Hitler, a totalitarian whose mind they should have understood, to behave any better? The powerful oppress those they have the power to oppress – unless they acknowledge the voice of something higher than the will to power inside of them, telling them that there are certain things they must never do to other human beings.

I’m not equating secular humanists in Western countries today with Stalin, Hitler, etc. Our secular humanists here still have largely Christian or Jewish hearts, even if they have atheist heads. So there will be some agreement between religious believers and secular humanists on some policy matters. But in the long run, history shows us what happens when regimes, and sometimes whole peoples (conditioned by those regimes) deny the doctrine that all men are created equal, in the image of God. So decreased religiosity – where it is at the heart of a regime – can make a very big difference.


#30

They were defeated in many cases, just as the religious despots were.

Same thing happened in very religious Germany during the 1930’s and 40’s. It even happened along religious lines, with Christians preying on Jews.

If the only reason you are moral is because you are a christian, then that scares me. It tells me that you have no inner sense of morality which I think a normal human being has.


(Edward Robinson) #31

You have to distinguish between the population and the regime. In Russia, even after Communism, there were still tens of millions of Orthodox believers, but they were shut out of the regime. In Germany, it was a bit different; you could be a Party leader and still go to Church. But the Church had to keep silent about what the regime was doing. So it was impotent. The State was in the hands of an ideology that was de facto atheist, and acknowledged no moral law higher than the dictates of the Fuhrer – as Bonhoeffer and others found out, to their cost. Real Christianity, as opposed to merely habitual, cradle Christianity, the regime could not tolerate. You can say the population was “religious” in the sense of being accustomed to Lutheran and Catholic churchgoing, but routine middle-class churchgoing of civil servants, businessmen, and professionals is not the kind of religion that usually produces heroes or martyrs. And in any case, the regime, not the churches or their members, were calling all the shots, and they had the guns, the prisons, and the torture rooms to enforce their edicts, so only the bravest Christians would resist. So Christianity, as such, had very little influence on the course of events once the Nazi Party gained power.

If you want to blame German Christians for those outcomes, you’d have to take the blame back a few generations, when German Christianity made its accommodation to the modern secular world, and became a Sunday activity rather than a culture-directing activity. Once that happened, imperialism leading to WW I and totalitarianism leading to WW II could all take place relatively unopposed. So religion was to blame, but only indirectly, for failing to live up to its own mission. On the other hand, Nazi and Soviet ideologies were directly to blame for the outcomes in those countries. The kinds of actions they performed were directly connected with their rejection of any transcendent God or any morality beyond the verdict of history (which would presumably reward the superior).

I’m not equating secular humanism here and now with there and then. There are lots of kindly, just secular humanists. However, our secular humanism still has a strong lingering aroma of Jewish and Christian ethics and metaphysics. That’s why our secular humanists write books and columns and vote for medicare instead of running around exterminating races or classes in the name of the Deity of History. But once the last of the Biblical ethics and metaphysics is gone from the heart as well as from the head of our humanists, I expect much worse things to happen. Once you stop believing that all human beings are created in the image of God, the basis for assertions about justice and equality becomes very uncertain.


#32

At this point, it is obvious you will invent a long string of excuses at every corner. It doesn’t seem worth pursuing.


(Edward Robinson) #33

But not from within. The Western Allies and Russia smashed the Nazi regime from the outside. Only then were German Christians free to speak again. The regime would never have allowed criticism of itself on religious or even moral grounds while it was in power.

There was certainly anti-Semitism among the masses in Germany. But the restrictive laws, and ultimately the death camps, were from the Nazi regime, which was, as I said, for all practical purposes atheist, even if some of its individual members were Christians. Ask any Jew if he would prefer the Nazi regime or a typical medieval ghetto. I think the answer would be pretty nearly unanimous. A regime which treated Jews as second-class citizens, but with some rights (medieval Europe) is not to be equated with a regime which ultimately treated the Jews as having no rights at all, not only no civil rights, but also no human rights. It helps in this regard if you understand something about what “atheism” meant in German thought at the time; it was something much less innocuous than the Bertrand Russell sort of atheism which most North Americans are familiar with.

I of course never said that, or implied that. There are metaphysical positions other than Christianity which can ground morality: Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, and others. If Christianity were disproved tomorrow, I could still be a Platonist. But in Europe the predominant metaphysical position had been Christianity, and when it went down, it was not replaced by Platonism, Stoicism, etc., or even Hinduism or Islam. It was replaced (I’m talking about the intelligentsia here, not the churchgoing masses) by atheism. And because of the tendency of German thinkers (unlike British or French thinkers) to take things to logical extremes, this was no half-hearted atheism, but a thoroughgoing one, an atheism of head and heart. This was recognized as a huge problem by the greatest thinkers of Germany – Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Heidegger – over a period of several decades. It had both ethical and political dimensions, in their mind. Anglo-American atheism is genteel by comparison. (For now.)

Our “inner sense of morality” is shaped much more by culture than we care to admit. There is of course a very rudimentary “natural” morality, e.g., mothers caring for infants and so on, but many of our most prized moral valuations are learned culturally. A certain type of old-fashioned Japanese person, for example, tended to find certain kinds of Americans, e.g., evangelists, or know-it-all New Yorkers, loud, aggressive, tasteless, and pushy. By the way, I actually have a highly developed morality (which is why I don’t get along with most professors of religion and philosophy, who tend to be among the most dishonest people I’ve ever met, and betray their subject-matter and their students by being so). I have noticed that people who are less scrupulous about moral matters routinely do better in life than I do, career-wise and money-wise. But one must follow one’s own conscience, even at some sacrifice.


#34

Thinking further on this: Yes, I can understand your concern here. However, if one becomes convinced that one is dealing with divine revelation, what else would one do other than accept it?

You mention that it is the principle that matters (essentially that all people are equal, etc). I am curious as to how as an atheist you have come to hold that principle? Would you suggest that such a principle is the natural consequence of reason/rationale thought? That the view that all people have inherent dignity and worth is something that is deduced from the evidence of the natural world?


#35

It seems to me that Eddie is explaining historically that the events in history have complex origins and it is not as simple to say “the Christians did it.”


(John Dalton) #36

At that point it would become a question of what I was morally willing to go along with.

It’s not really a radical idea in our day and age, is it? I have no recollection of how I came to hold it specifically. I was brought up that way, for one thing. I continue to hold it because that’s the kind of world I want to live in, want the people I care about to live in, and I’m convinced it’s the best world possible for everyone.

I don’t know about that, but I think it is reasonable and rational.

That the view that all people have inherent dignity and worth is something that is deduced from the evidence of the natural world?

I don’t think it’s an objective truth, if that’s what you’re getting at. We do know what kind of things benefit and harm people, and understand that we are all people and have to share this world.

That’s kind of the point. It can’t be said about the moral progress we’ve made over millennia any more than it can be said about the various negative things in our history.


#37

My point is that humans did it, and religion didn’t seem to matter one way or another.


#38

My fault…the horse was kicked. I should have left it.

I’ve appreciated the discussion. It’s helped me understand a different perspective better.

Go Oilers!


(Edward Robinson) #39

Yes, mkluther, you have understood my point.

I wasn’t responding only to you, but also to John Dalton, who insinuated that Christianity had something to answer for in the matter. So it was necessary to qualify things, to say in what respect Christians and/or Christianity were blameworthy, and in what sense blameless. However, the way you jumped in, your objection seemed dual to me; on the one hand you seemed to be making the more limited point you state above, but on the other you seemed to be defending his position against mine – hence my response to some of your statements.

Regarding your more limited claim, i.e., that atheism was no more guilty than Christianity, I already answered that: the level of violence and the targeting of particular races, classes, etc. was greatly ramped up in the 20th century, under atheist regimes, and it certainly appears that the very atheism of these regimes helped to remove traditional inhibitions to evils of that kind. I gave the example of differing treatments of the Jews in Europe under pre-Nazi Christianity and under Nazi rule. In the former case, Jews were treated very badly; in the latter case, they were almost exterminated from Europe (and the extermination would have been completed had Hitler won the war). No one who believed in the God of the Bible would have carried out such a program. Similarly, regimes shaped by the influence of Marx (a Jew who had repudiated his own Judaism and even his own people, as his writings show) rejected the God of the Bible as nonexistent and hence irrelevant to moral and political decision-making, and we know how many political murders those regimes were willing to commit. Believing that there exists a God who is looking over your shoulder and measuring your behavior by a standard he has clearly announced has an inhibiting effect.

Of course, there have always been rulers and large numbers of people in societies who nominally accept the existence of a God and pay lip service to that God’s morality, but do not in their heart of hearts believe any of it. We see the difference between such people and those who really believe in God, when we read the stories of those Christians who risked their lives or freedom to harbor Jews in homes (as they harbored the Frank family), or to speak out against the Nazi regime (Bonhoeffer, spitefully executed by the Nazis even after they knew the war was lost, just to get in one last act of hatred against Christians who dared to resist them). Real belief in Christian principles, as opposed to purely formal assent, seems to make people more ethical and more willing to oppose murder, genocide, torture, deprival of rights, etc. The track record of 20th-century regimes animated by anti-Christian or atheistic ideologies is nowhere near so good.

I have not said that all atheists go around murdering people or depriving them of their rights. I haven’t even said that atheism logically requires that. But atheism, historically speaking, did contribute to the removal of deep cultural restraints. This is concealed from us because here in North America, and even in Britain, atheism is a genteel affair, and atheists here generally accept the civilized standards of freedom of speech, limited state power, etc. Our atheists tend be at worst Bertrand Russells, and at best lovable pussycats like Carl Sagan. That was not the case in Continental and Asian atheism in the 20th century. It was an ugly movement filled with much hatred of past culture and past religion, and it had a much more political, less private flavor. To fail to understand this is to fail to understand much of the 20th century.


(Edward Robinson) #40

I have no doubt that this is true for you and for many others. But what Mkluther seems to be asking, and what I would ask, is how you would justify such a belief – that all people are equal – if asked to do so. For example, “I was brought up that way” might be used to justify accepting slavery (people in the Antebellum South were brought up to accept slavery as part of a good order of things), so presumably your justification involves more than simply accepting what you were brought up with.

My historical point was that in America explicitly, and in traditional Europe implicitly, the idea of the equality of all men was grounded in the doctrine of creation. I gather that you do not accept any doctrine of creation, and therefore that you do not view our equality as something decreed by, or intended by, any God. I would guess, then, that you regard it either as something “natural” that we just recognize as true, or as a free choice of human beings, i.e., we will to treat each other as equal, even though there is nothing in the constitution of the universe that demands such willing. In the latter case, the sustaining of a society of equality rests on a kind of gritty determination, a projection of a particular will into a universe that is silent on all moral and political questions, and thus seems precarious. In the first case, the sustaining of equality would have a “natural” basis, and not rely on will alone, but I would be interested in hearing the naturalistic argument for equality. It would seem to involve deducing a “value” from “facts”, which I don’t personally object to, but which most modern philosophers seem to say is impossible. So your account of why we should treat everyone as equal, in a universe in which (we believe) no God exists, would be of philosophical interest to me and to others.