Monday, November 18, 2013

Where Atheism Is Going

One of the questions Christians sometimes ask atheists is, "How can you believe that after you die you just cease to exist?" Atheists are ready for that one. It is a hard question especially for those who have had someone close to them die. Still atheists argue that it is better the face hard truth than to order your life around some future eternity that seems mostly based on wishful thinking. As atheism develops the question is changing. The question is no longer about whether we believe we will exist after we die. It is becoming a question of whether we believe we exist right now. That seems strange and most atheists have not arrived there yet but that is where the logic of atheism ends up.

What does it mean to be a person? Traditionally the answer has been that you have intellect, emotion, and will. A computer can do lots of things a person does but at its core it is just a machine following instructions. It cannot have an idea. It cannot feel love. It cannot decide to do this rather than that. It has to execute the instructions according to its program. That is all it can do. A computer can seem to have intellect, emotion and will but it is an illusion. The inputs completely determine the outputs. It does not add or subtract anything.

Scientific materialism is suggesting this is also true of human beings. That is we are nothing but complex machines. Everything we do and say and even think is completely determined by out inputs. Once we understand our genetics and our environment and how all those factors impact brain chemistry then we can completely determine all our thoughts, words and actions. So if you buy your wife some flowers it would not make any sense for her to thank you. You had to buy them given your physical makeup and the situation you are in. Your choice may have been based on something you call love but that is just a cute name for a set of chemical reactions that is not that different from any other set of chemicals. She might want to thank the cheeseburger you had for lunch. That could have impacted your brain and made a difference as to what choices you landed on. The cheeseburger can do that because it has a material impact. You can't do it because you don't actually exist. You never act. You only react. But you don't even control how you react. You are like driftwood and not like a fish.

There are two ways people can go with this. They can continue to assume atheism is true and they just have to accept the truth no matter how bad it is. It will get very bad indeed. There will be a lot of denial. Atheists will see no reason why all the good things like human rights and personal responsibility that flow from the Christian understanding of the human person won't just continue to be respected when that is replaced by a radically different understanding of what a human being is. It seems reasonable to them so why would it not seem reasonable to everyone forevermore? Because there is such a thing as evil.

The other way people can go is to question the plausibility of atheism based on this new information. That is hard to do. When people immerse themselves in a certain way of thinking they stop even realizing there are other ways to think. That is why it is important to continue to hold out Christianity as a light in an ever darkening secular reality.

Still are not the reasons for becoming atheist just as valid as before? Are we not just suggesting turning away from an unpleasant truth just because it is unpleasant? Don't we have to face reality as it is? Yes and no. There is something inherently implausible in the atheist account of things. Human beings just are a lot more interesting and beautiful then they should be if atheism was true. We have a sense of who we are. It is not irrational to trust that sense. 

You already hear that in stories. Like Jen Fulwiler saying her love for her newborn baby must be more than just one bag of chemicals being influenced by another. Like Leah Libresco saying moral goodness can't be just a purely human phenomenon that can be changed arbitrarily by humans. Like Bryan Cross saying that his son's death must have meaning even though he can't see any. These are rational minds simply refusing to go where atheism is leading them. Not because they want to wish away the facts but because they just don't believe the truncated version of the human person that atheism entails is the truth.


  1. There's another way to look at it. William James once pointed out that the big questions in life can be divided into two categories: live options and dead options. Materialism is a dead option. Even if you're right, it makes no difference because your choice was predetermined, and there is "no you making the choice" since you're just a bag of molecules. And if you're wrong, you've chosen to live as if you're dead.

    Belief in a soul, OTOH is a live option. If you're wrong, you've lost nothing since there is no you making the choice that has been predetermined anyway. But if you're right, you've gained life.

  2. Thanks for that Anil. It is a version of Pascal's wager. I was thinking of that when I wrote this but I never actually included it so thanks for bringing it up.

  3. And Pascal's Wager isn't a good argument.

  4. It is a good argument in some contexts. If you are down to two alternatives you can to a cost-benefit analysis. Where Pascal's wager fails is if you don't have 2 choices. If you have many religions and they all tell you to do something different to achieve eternal bliss. Here it is used just at the first decision point. Do I believe in a soul? Do I believe I exist and I am not just a bag of molecules that seems like a person but does not have true person-hood?