As always, my posts shouldn’t be taken to be representative of Chris’s views, and remember to help out the Values in Action project, which will be packing 40,000 meals today for food insecure children.
Zach Alexander left a few lengthy comments in response to my discussion of his review Chris’s book. I don’t think either of us was convinced by the other, so rather than enter into a lengthy back-and-forth in the comments section, I decided it would be more productive to take a few of the points he addresses and open them up to broader discussion.
To counter Zach’s still unfounded idea that Chris doesn’t (Edit: seriously) value truth, I wrote:
Zach complains that Chris focuses too much on eliminating suffering but not ignorance, and to that I ask, if eliminating ignorance doesn’t make the world a better place then what’s the point?
Zach says that “these don’t sound like the words of someone with a passion for knowledge and truth.” He writes:
Eliminating ignorance is an inherent good. That doesn’t mean it’s the only good, or that it outweighs everything else. But it is a good in its own right, contrary to the implication of your question. I would therefore go even further – we should reduce ignorance even at the cost of slightly increasing the suffering in the world. Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied; better to gain knowledge of the universe and be a bit depressed by its vastness, coldness, and ultimate meaninglessness, than to be ignorant and a bit happier. If that statement sounds bizarre (which seems like your favorite word), I rest my case.
Putting aside the slight mixture of condescension and presumptiveness (I studied almost exclusively philosophy and psychology in college, am doing neuroscience research now, and plan to go to graduate school to pursue a career in academia. If Zach doesn’t think I value truth or knowledge, he may be overestimating the pay and prestige that comes with a job as an assistant professor), there’s an interesting point raised.
Saying knowledge is an inherent good certainly sounds appealing, but it’s much more difficult to justify in practice. Having anything as an inherent good is a tough sell in a naturalistic framework. Most atheists seem to subscribe to some kind of Utilitarianism, though, where something like pleasure, well-being or preference-satisfaction serves as the fundamental good–the thing that is good in and of itself–and what is moral is what maximizes that good. In this type of system, anything else can only be instrumentally good–not inherently good, but good because it tends to bring about the fundamental good. It seems clear to me that knowledge is an instrumental good in this case, which means we should only be be pursuing it if it makes the world a better place (lucky for us, recent history seems to validate this for the most part, but of course we have limits–things like ethics rules for research exist for a reason). Knowledge as a fundamental good is a hard case to argue, and I’m having trouble thinking of any ethical system that might allow it. As always, I’m curious and open to be proven wrong.
But there is something uncomfortable about living, in Zach’s words, as a “fool satisfied,” rather than “Socrates unsatisfied.” I think part of this can be explained by noting that curiosity and a striving for self-improvement are instrumental goods and thus should be encouraged, but there are nonetheless some tough cases like the experience machine or willfully accepting a comforting illusion. But I think a lot of this confusion boils down to our ability to decide for ourselves. There’s something noble about a scientist or philosopher forgoing material wealth and happiness to uncover some deep truth about the universe, but it seems perverse to force that decision onto someone else. That is to say, I’m more than happy to live a life as a scientist and accept all that comes with it, but it feels wrong to knowingly make someone’s life worse just so that they can have less ignorance. It just doesn’t seem like our choice to make (whereas I would have no qualms at all about going out of my way to help make a stranger’s life better).
I think this has implications for how we enter into debates or arguments–we should always be striving to make the person we debate with better off. Though I still struggle to apply this in my own life, it seems clear to me that we shouldn’t be arguing to boost our ego or make ourselves feel smart. Rather, we should aim to sincerely help and better our partner. In this case, I think some of Chris’s arguments against a subset of New Atheists hold: it’s not hard to find blogs posts or submissions to r/ atheism that seem to aim primarily to degrade believers, rather than address them with their well-being in mind.
Epistemic concerns are obviously important, but, to me at least, they seem necessarily grounded in ethics. That Chris and I might put moral concerns prior to epistemic concerns isn’t a bug that displays a disdain for knowledge, but rather a feature that properly grounds knowledge in human well-being. And I don’t see anything wrong with that.
Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He is also someone that you can follow on twitter.
Please check out my new post over at Tikkun Daily on the new initiative I’m heading up for the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue (JIRD), in partnership with the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions. The project, called State of Formation, will be a forum for emerging religious and ethical leaders to engage the pressing issues of our time. The deadline for nominations is October 15th, so if you are or know an emerging ethical or religious leader, please don’t hesitate to fill out the nomination form here.
“What qualifies you to do this?” I asked myself as I rode the train home one day to write my first contribution to the Washington Post’s On Faith last year. I listened to the wheels rumble beneath me, looked at those sitting around me, and knew I was headed in a new direction.
I was 22-years-old, an atheist, and a seminary student. Though I don’t believe in God, I decided to go to seminary because I wanted to find a way to bridge the divide between religious and secular communities. The summer after my first year at seminary I began interning at the Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that aims to mobilize a movement of young people positively engaging religious pluralism. The organization’s founder, Eboo Patel, maintained a blog for On Faith and invited me to submit a guest post for it.
At the time, I was beginning to recognize that the organized atheist movement often talked about religion in ways that created more division instead of less. As an atheist, I was frustrated by what I saw as a total lack of interest from my fellow atheists in respectfully engaging religious identities. So I sat down and wrote about it.
As I was working on my essay, I began to browse the rest of the site. On Faith features a panel of contributors that are among the most respected and knowledgeable experts in the fields of religion and ethics. But I didn’t see many blogs on their site by people who weren’t already established as authorities. I wondered if I was actually qualified to write for the website.
After my submission was posted, I started getting some unexpected feedback. “This is exactly what I think, but I didn’t know anyone else agreed with me,” wrote one reader. “Thank you for saying something our community really needs to hear,” wrote another. These readers happened to be young people.
I hadn’t thought that there were others who felt the same way I did, let alone other young people. I talked to a friend who maintained a blog of his own, and he suggested I create a blog to continue sorting through this issue.
I started NonProphet Status, and suddenly became a part of a larger conversation on the issue of religion and atheism. The blog quickly began to get traction in interfaith and atheist circles, and soon I was being asked to speak at conferences, received invitations to write in other venues, and watched my blog views grow from week to week. I, a young seminary student with a small but growing vision for respectful engagement across lines of secular and religious identity, suddenly had a platform.
Emerging leaders in formation, especially young ones, deserve to have a voice. In a time defined by deep political and religious divisions, we need to hear from those who will shape our ethical future. The current American discourse on religion and ethics is primarily defined by established leaders – ministers, rabbis, academics and journalists. While their perspectives are invaluable, this leaves an entire population of important stakeholders without a platform: the up-and-comers. Continue reading at Tikkun Daily.
It had been a while since I’d stepped foot in a church. The first service was a wedding for two of my best friends from college; one is a Rhodes scholar and chemist and the other is studying at a seminary to become a Lutheran minister. The sermon focused on this distinction (that many might see as a contradiction) – the scientist and the theologian. It was a beautiful service and I was thrilled to be there for it, and since the sermon was primarily a celebration of their relationship, I was able to appreciate it.
The next morning, after a late night out celebrating their wedding, I joined my family for the baptism of my first nephew. The sermon was an amalgamation of cheesy images and Bible verses guided by PowerPoint. Listening to the preacher wax on about Jesus, I felt like I was at a megachurch listening to Ted Haggard. Needless to say, I sat there with a bit of a self-satisfied (and very sleepy) smirk on my face. Is he serious? I asked myself, happily thinking about how much “more enlightened” I was. Of course, I kept such thoughts to myself.
In both instances, I could’ve been an asshole. “No,” I might’ve said, “I refuse to go to church. Sorry guys, but I just can’t be there for these important landmarks in your lives because I don’t agree with your religion.” But because I am an engaged individual who has religious people in my life, I could not. Still, just because I was there didn’t mean I had to listen, right?
A couple days later my mom called to talk. At one point in our conversation, she brought up the sermon. She admitted that it wasn’t exactly compelling for her – she thought the presentation of bolded Bible verses and stock images of praying hands was somewhat over-the-top. That said, she also said that she had continued to ruminate on his message of giving back to the community and being a caring citizen in the days following. Though she didn’t buy a substantial amount of what he had preached, she still found a lot in what he said that was worth considering. I’ll never find a church that affirms exactly what I believe, she said, but the community and the practice of taking a few hours every Sunday morning to listen and reflect is important to me.
When she said that, I realized I could hardly remember what the sermon had been about. I was there, but I wasn’t present. I wasn’t paying attention. I wasn’t listening. The moment I saw the first PowerPoint slide and heard the praise and worship music, I tuned out.
I feel bad now for being so arrogant while listening to the Sunday morning sermon, because it is entirely possible that I missed out on the nuggets of insight that my mom, because of her open mind, had been able to absorb. As someone who believes that one can still learn a lot from the teachings of religion without following religious dogma, I wasn’t doing a good job of practicing what I preach.
After my mom finished talking about the sermon our conversation shifted, as it often does, to my work as a secular activist. I don’t know how you do it, she continued. I don’t think I could be a Secular Humanist because I just don’t ever hear Atheists having anything positive to say. Every time I hear Atheists in the news, they just seem so negative. I’m not so sure about Christianity, but at least it’s uplifting.
On the other hand, we’re a young movement and we are already doing amazing things. There are secular folks doing important work all over the place, and it needs to be heard about. This is why we need more public, positive secular stories.
Still it is true that many people, like my mom, continue to go to church even when they don’t agree with a lot of the church’s fundamental beliefs. Let’s face it: my church attendance last weekend wasn’t a fluke. Atheists sit quietly in church pews every day throughout the world. Many do so because they feel they have no choice, and that is a true shame. It’s a major problem and I hope that the more public some of us become about our secular identity, the more comfortable others will feel doing the same.
But many others do it for less obvious reasons. As far as I can tell, there are three big reasons some Atheists go to church (aside from those who continue to go because they fear “coming out”). These are:
1. In solidarity with the religious (as I did twice last weekend),
2. To learn from the insights of various religions (as I have done for much of my life), and
3. Because organized Atheism lacks a robust community and is too negative (as my mom suggested).
I’d like to see our community find ways to not only be open to the religiosity of our friends and loved ones – so that we do not miss opportunities to learn by not listening, as I did last weekend – but I also hope that we will focus less on what sets up apart and more on articulating our positive values. Maybe if we do that, fewer Atheists will feel the need to go to church to find community and positive ethics. Where Atheism is lacking, religion will continue to thrive.
I have a friend coming to visit this weekend. I’m sure we’ll have a late night out Saturday. But who knows – maybe we’ll drop by a church Sunday morning in hopes of learning a thing or two. If we do, I’ll try to be a better listener this time.
Atheists in the pews may not buy the “Good News,” but maybe, with an open mind, we can make good on shifting some of our hostile views.
A new study published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences has found that Atheists and other non-religious individuals are “just as ethical as churchgoers.” ”The research suggests that intuitive judgments of right and wrong seem to operate independently of explicit religious commitments,” said Dr. Marc Hauser of Harvard University, who headed up the study. While I’m sure this will do little to convince those who believe otherwise, it is good to see that a peer-reviewed study backs up our assertion. One step forward, friends. (source)