Arnold Kling  

Ya Gotta Believe

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Michael Brooks, writing in The New Scientist, says,


Bering considers a belief in some form of life apart from that experienced in the body to be the default setting of the human brain. Education and experience teach us to override it, but it never truly leaves us, he says. From there it is only a short step to conceptualising spirits, dead ancestors and, of course, gods, says Pascal Boyer, a psychologist at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. Boyer points out that people expect their gods' minds to work very much like human minds, suggesting they spring from the same brain system that enables us to think about absent or non-existent people.

The ability to conceive of gods, however, is not sufficient to give rise to religion. The mind has another essential attribute: an overdeveloped sense of cause and effect which primes us to see purpose and design everywhere, even where there is none. "You see bushes rustle, you assume there's somebody or something there," Bloom says.

...even adults who describe themselves as atheists and agnostics are prone to supernatural thinking. Bering has seen this too. When one of his students carried out interviews with atheists, it became clear that they often tacitly attribute purpose to significant or traumatic moments in their lives, as if some agency were intervening to make it happen. "They don't completely exorcise the ghost of god - they just muzzle it," Bering says.

Brooks has been known to comment on Robin Hanson's Overcoming bias blog.

I should mention that I think that atheists are susceptible to state-worship. As a result, the disposition to believe in the supernatural gets exploited by politicians.


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COMMENTS (44 to date)
stephen writes:

the only problem with your conjecture is that most religious people seem to be prone to state worship as well. it seems, at least in this country, insufficient patriotism is basically heresy, citizenship is salvation, etc.

the difference between the two is orthodoxy vs. reform. thats the reduction that makes sense to me anyway.

Brandon writes:

"After Buddha was dead, his shadow was still shown for centuries in a cave - a tremendous, gruesome shadow. God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown. -And we- we still have to vanquish his shadow, too."

Nietzsche, Gay Science s.108

Troy Camplin writes:

I think you're absolutely right with your last comment. The difference between religious people's statism and atheistic statism is that for religious people, the rulers are placed there by God, and the ruler is therefore answerable to God. With atheists, the state and the ruler are God and, to paraphrase Dostoevski, if there is no God, then everything is permissible. Now, whether you believe the last to be true, you have to agree that too many treat it as if it were. Especially once they get the reigns of government.

I fear that Obama, who admitted he went to church for show, is in fact himself an atheist. I fear that only because that means he doesn't think he has anyone to answer to but himself. He has already expressed the opinion that the Republicans should submit to his will simply because he won the election.

chaz miller writes:

"I should mention that I think that atheists are susceptible to state-worship. As a result, the disposition to believe in the supernatural gets exploited by politicians."

And the shrewdest of the shrewd make themselves into the mirrored surface of the water that beckons both sides to drink from the same well?

Zac writes:
I should mention that I think that atheists are susceptible to state-worship.
I think most people are susceptible to state-worship. The implication is that atheists are more susceptible, which is a wild conjecture that I can't buy. Take Christians for a counterexample: people proven to be so easily malleable that the only thing they need to convince them that a man not only rose from the dead but is also an omnipotent deity is to read it in an ancient text. Not only that, but their book tells them explicitly they should bow to state rule (Render unto Caesar... turn the other cheek..)

At least if you are talking to a statist atheist you know that they have some grounding in reality. They have questioned authority, orthodoxy, and traditionalism in going against the harsh grain of popular opinion. People of religious faith have unequivocally abandoned the faculty of reason on some of the most important philosophical issues, so why would they be any more likely to embrace it any other time?

@Troy Camplin: Sure, I agree that many atheists are known to act as if everything is morally permissible. Yet even more religious people are known to do the same, often committing horrible acts contradictory to common sense morality (suicide bombings, genoice, etc) simply because, they claim, it was ordained by their imaginary gods.

Scott Ferguson writes:

The accusation that atheists are prone to state worship is a gross exaggeration. I desire that the government act to correct societal ills, however unrealistic, is nothing compared to belief that God is in complete control and will comfort our afflictions and smite our adversaries. This is a difference in category.

As to the claim that "anything is permissible" to atheists, I need data. In my observations I see that some humans will justify their actions using whatever philosophy is at hand. However, the vast majority of people, atheist or pious, are living their lives roughly within whatever moral framework they were raised. Human beings have a need for morality and order at least as strong as their tendency to assign causes to effects indiscriminately.

Brad Hutchings writes:

Arnold, you need a bigger sample of atheists. Or perhaps I fit into this theory by "worshipping" chaos. Or perhaps the label I used to like, "agcarestic" (as in, I don't care whether there is a god), really signifies that the part of the brain under discussion is missing in mine. I have many very fond (and many not so fond) memories of people who have died and I miss some of them, if that's a data point.

I read this whole thing as, "hmmm, that's how religious people think and how they rationalize non-believers.". What. Ever.

dontstealmyidea writes:

"the disposition to believe in the supernatural gets exploited by politicians"

there's an insinuation here that this is the province of atheism, and more vaguely humanism, and even more vaguely by extension liberalism.

contra your subtle suggestion, the past two decades of American politics has shown those on the right side of the spectrum abusing supernatural beliefs far more extensively than those on the left.

of course, you would think otherwise if you were convinced that there was nothing supernatural about the judeo-christian god. that appears to be the case here.

chaz miller writes:

Those that believe in economic theories would be among the persons I would most expect to understand that the traditional arguments for the existence of God and the evidences of Christianity, while not coercive, are absolutely sufficient to make Christian belief rational.

Hugo Pottisch writes:

Oh God - the realization that the world is bigger than oneself and influces us probably slightly more than we influence the world. Strange are the moments when your private movie breaks down and one does not feel like the sole director anymore. Rare and precious glimbses that should remind us that there is more than us... but is it supernatural. And indeed - what does it say about our upbringing and culture when we...

This should also work on a macro level and in favor, not against, atheims. How dare we assume that our petty human god and supernatural imaginations... well - we HAVE eaten from the Tree of Knowledge and this suparnatural arrogance does make sense.

Arrogance in the sense - that 99.9% of the time we do not respect that infinity and power of nature. We think we are bigger than nature. Then nature reminds us of how dependent and tiny we are and... we, of course, call it "super"natural. No - it is superstupid, superignorant, superchildish, superembaressing... superarrogant.

I would like to point out that atheism can stand perfectly on its own and without any reference to the state (humanism is based on free markets, individual rights and democracy and does not quite apply here). When it comes to the "supernatural" - there seem to be many definitions of atheists but... old school atheists ala Epicurus were different.

In fact - the first Atheists where NOT fighting God - as a single all encompassing God has not even been invented yet. They were fighting all supernatural believes.

Epicurus (ca 300BC):

If you arbitrarily reject any one sensory experience and fail to differentiate between an opinion awaiting confirmation and what is already perceived by the senses, feelings, and every intuitive faculty of mind, you will impute trouble to all other sensory experiences, thereby rejecting every criterion. And if you concurrently affirm what awaits confirmation as well as actual sensory experience, you will still blunder, because you will foster equal reasons to doubt the truth and falsehood of everything.
If we were never troubled by how phenomena in the sky or death might concern us, or by our failures to grasp the limits of pains and desires, we would have no need to study nature.
One cannot rid himself of his primal fears if he does not understand the nature of the universe but instead suspects the truth of some mythical story. So without the study of nature, there can be no enjoyment of pure pleasure.
One gains nothing by securing protection from other men if he still has apprehensions about things above and beneath the earth and throughout the infinite universe.
To be frank, I would prefer as I study nature to speak in revelations about what is of advantage to all men even though it be understood by none, rather than to conform to popular opinion and thus gain the scattered praise that is broadcast by the many.

This is why all the religions and all the churched have spend considerbale time burning these arguments wherever they could find them.

The original strong non-believers like Epicurus have fought both interventions from the gods and politicians.

“People ask the gods for health in their prayers, but do not realize that the control of their health lies with them; through lack of self-control they act in opposition to it and so themselves betray their health to their desires.” - Democritus

Democritus is known to have said the same about the state. Epicurus adds:

Among actions legally recognized as just, that which is confirmed by experience as mutually beneficial has the virtue of justice, whether it is the same for all peoples or not. But if a law is made which results in no such advantage, then it no longer carries the hallmark of justice. And if something that used to be mutually beneficial changes, though for some time it conformed to our concept of justice, it is still true that it really was just during that time – at least for those who do not fret about technicalities and instead prefer to examine and judge each case for themselves.

But the whole article reminds me of Koko the talking Gorilla (she learned American Sign Language as her vocal anatomy does not allow for the noices needed to speak human). When her kitten All Ball died - she was very sad. This is what she had to say:

When asked, "Do you want to talk about your kitty?"
Koko signed, "Cry."
"What happened to your kitty?"
Koko answered, "Sleep cat."
When she saw a picture of a cat who looked very much like All Ball, Koko pointed to the picture and signed, "Cry, sad, frown."

Koko's mourning attracted a great deal of attention from the scientific community. Debates raged over whether or not animals have "emotions" in the human sense.

Debates now rage over whether or not humans have "intelligence" in the rational or merely ratinalizing sense.

PS: Epicurus also stated that "freedom is the greatest fruit of self-sufficiency". Today we often turn it around and it does not work...

fundamentalist writes:

Science has a hard time explaining a lot of things with the blunt tool of natural selection. Christian philosophers have pointed out for at least a century that natural selection can’t explain religion, morality, self-awareness, love, meaning, and other human traits that distinguish us from animals. Even the great atheist philosophers of the 19th and 20th centuries insisted that without God, morality and meaning don’t exist.

The most logical explanation is that those traits were placed in us by God. After all, the chief principle of cause and effect is that the effect cannot be greater than the cause. Trying to make natural selection the cause of personality violates that principle. But as the Apostle Paul states in Romans, people will go to great lengths to suppress uncomfortable truths.

chaz: "the traditional arguments for the existence of God and the evidences of Christianity, while not coercive, are absolutely sufficient to make Christian belief rational."

Traditional Christianity is the only rational system. As the late Dr. Francis Schaeffer used to say, true atheism denies the validity of love, morality, meaning, etc., but the atheist has to live as if those are real because humans can't live otherwise.

8 writes:

An objective examination of Christians in the U.S. would show that on net, they view the government with distrust. If you made a continuum of religious belief and state worship, you'd find the stronger the religious conviction, the weaker the trust in government. At one end are cafeteria Catholics and the vestiges of the Episcopal church and at the other are the homeschooling fundamentalists who fear the government will put GPS chips in their kids. (This is why I think libertarianism is only likely to succeed through a Christian libertarian movement.)

The most simplistic way to express the difference in state worship by religious/atheists is that religious states have a blueprint for action, atheist states do not. The 20th Century is a clear example of the difference in outcomes.

Alex J. writes:

I think we can all agree that SOME atheists fill a god shaped hole in their hearts with the state. The question is, does having god in your heart displace the state there? People are prone to magical thinking about both god and the state. Displacement is plausible, because differing conceptions of god most certainly displace each other.

Some examples: Lots of communists replaced god with Marxism in their hearts. Despots placing themselves in the role of god on Earth. Randian desire for the state to be the "final arbiter". Who arbitrates between the state and the individual? The wrath of Gaia. "Pacifists" who want gun owners forcibly disarmed; the state transmutes violence into non-violence, etc.

If you're going to worship something, why not the division of labor. "As if by an Invisible Hand..."

Alex J. writes:

Something to rule out before leaping to the state-as-god theory is the state-as-tribe. Modern Americans most certainly have a tribe shaped hole in their hearts that they fill with the state. How often does a contractor get to feel camaraderie?

8, I think that belief in the Christian holiness of our current government does not long survive close contact with it. It's possible the distrust of the state by fundamentalists is contingent only on their current incompatibility.

Dave writes:

Nah, atheists aren't susceptible to state-worship. Well, they could be, but how could anyone answer that question without detailed surveys. Anyway, atheists I know have all sorts of attitudes toward the state.

Personally, I have religious emotions and experiences, but do not ascribe to any religion. I don't believe that my thoughts can influence reality directly or through supernatural beings. I don't believe any existing holy books were written by gods or are particularly accurate. I don't know the meaning of life and death but I don't think one needs verbal "knowledge" like that in order to live--emotion and experience are enough. Not surprisingly, I don't worship legal holy books or presidential god-kings either.

I would suggest that I'm an existence proof that all the "hard-wiring" and religious feelings don't necessarily make humans religious. I believe that religion as usually understood is a social phenomenon that brought unity, order, and, later, education, to groups. Beliefs in gods are a "natural" place for such a system to cluster around because gods are more powerful than any humans and last forever, so they can potentially command respect from everyone for a long time.

But if you don't believe book X was written by a god just because random guy Y says so (or 10,000,000 regular people also believe it), then beliefs in gods and such are exactly *not* a likely place to cluster a moral/ritual system around. I suppose a state sounds like it could be, but in practice it usually seems not to work out. Personally, it seems to me from the way politicians talk, they are barely aware that people like me even exist, which pretty much kills any prospect of my worshiping the state.

The article was kind of interesting if mostly familiar. I found it funny that the article kept talking about how humans so easily attribute purpose to stuff without it, which reminds me of some scientists attributing reproductive-fitness purpose to everything under the sun in exactly the same way. Oops. I also think the death anxiety aspects are overrated. Empirically death anxiety doesn't appear to be a major factor for religious people, and I also suspect that high levels of death anxiety are a pathology that tends to be caused by stress and isolation, and not a standard thing that had to be dealt with in ancient times.

Randy writes:

Belief in god is imprinted in family and church. Belief in the state is imprinted in the public schools. It is easier to discard the religious imprint than it is to discard the state imprint because much of the state imprint is mandatory. But neither is "true" and the discarding process is exactly the same.

voxpo writes:

another atheist libertarian

fundamentalist writes:

randy:"Belief in god is imprinted in family and church. Belief in the state is imprinted in the public schools."

The belief in imprinting is just another way of advocating some type of determinism. I neglected to include free will as an aspect of human nature that natural selection can't explain. The belief in natural selection and a materialistic view of mankind destroys free will and makes man just a collection of chemical reactions and nothing more. That, in turn, destroys morality. If a person commits murder, then it's not because he has chosen to do so, but because of a failure in his "wiring". As we would destroy a piece of electronics that wasn't properly wired, for quality control purposes, we can destroy humans who aren't properly wired.

Next, proper wiring becomes more widely defined until eugenics becomes popular again.

Jim Glass writes:

"I should mention that I think that atheists are susceptible to state-worship."

I tell my evangelical athiest religion-bashing friends to beware what they wish for.

Experience shows religious belief emerges in all societies -- as the article says, it's in our code. So it is going to come out one way or another.

During the last century religious religions have produced the like of creationism. Athiestic religions produced fascism and the Black Book of Communism.

pjcalafi writes:

Jim, you took Middle Eastern countries off your list.

b. writes:

As a scientist and a student of religion for more than half my life, I quite agree with your observation that atheists are more susceptible to state-worship (or perhaps state-worshipers are more susceptible to atheism?). I'm sure that any good study would find a high correlation between strength of atheist belief and statist beliefs.

It is illustrative that state-worship got its big boost with Marx shortly after Nietzsche observed that "God is dead" amongst the intellectual class. The similarities between classical theological teleology and the Hegelian teleology that informed Marx (and implicit in the label "progressive") should be clear upon consideration.

"Social justice" replaces "divine justice"; the latter was of course compatible with a free society (in being realized in the afterlife), the former is not.

The radical environmentalists clearly display some of the classic religious patterns: The fall from paradise (industrialization), diabolical forces (corporations), original sin (pollution), etc...

The mainstream so-called rationalist atheist, similar to theists, clearly suffers from blind faith in many areas (the few meta-rationalists out there tend to be a bit better at recognizing the limits of rationality). Typically faith in incorrect ideas such as that rational control over society is possible (contra Hayek).

A strong faith in atheism is almost always a requirement to be in the cool kids statist club, where "non-rational" things like theism, religion, and free markets are rejected.

Historically, the anti-statist natural rights philosophies were often based upon the idea that these rights were divinely bestowed and thus beyond the pale of the state.

Of course statism can use, and often has used, religiosity to bolster itself (especially where the religion includes a legal component, as sharia); but of course religiosity has often undermined statism (especially nationalism) by providing a competing tribal identity separate from the state (or nation).

And finally, on the practical level, religious organizations and communities have classically provided (more successfully) many of the public goods that state-worshipers use to justify a powerful state.

Zac writes:
I'm sure that any good study would find a high correlation between strength of atheist belief and statist beliefs.
Where do people come up with these sort of statements? Are you just kidding? Or by "good study" do you mean one with results that conform to your personal hypothesis?

What's all this talk about "faith in atheism" ? Atheism is the lack of religious belief in a deity. It is a religion like "off" is a TV channel. "Faith in atheism" -- are you really serious?

Of course statism can use, and often has used, religiosity to bolster itself
See: the history of civilization. These aren't isolated cases: religion has long been the primary method of state control over the populace.
Swimmy writes:

Of course atheists are susceptible to government worship, as is everyone else. See Klein's "The People's Romance." Whether they are more likely to be particularly statist or centrist is an empirical question, and even then, correlation does not equal causation. Those of you who are taking Arnold's comment and turning it into "RARARGH ATHEISTS ARE EVIL and STALIN AND HITLER WERE ATHEISTS SEE WHAT I MEAN!!!" need to offer some actual data. Until then, the proper response should be extremely tentative, especially since we'll never have such data for the period of history during which there were no outspoken atheists and extreme statism was thought to be justified by "divine right."

In the mean time, Jon Haidt's work on moral dimensions between liberals and conservatives is very interesting.

The dangers of blogging even for one sentence about religion. . .

b. writes:

"Where do people come up with these sort of statements?"

By observation and reflection.

"Are you just kidding?"

No, are you?

"Or by "good study" do you mean one with results that conform to your personal hypothesis?"

By "good study" I mean one that shows with high probability the existence of a relationship between observed variables when such a relationship exists, and one that with a high probability does not show the existence of a relationship between observed variables when such a relationship does not exist. I'm surprised that someone would need this explained to them.

"What's all this talk about "faith in atheism" ? Atheism is the lack of religious belief in a deity. It is a religion like "off" is a TV channel. "Faith in atheism" -- are you really serious?"

Atheism has several accepted definitions, including some that posit the (unobservable, untestable, and unprovable) lack of existence of certain entities or phenomena. As an atheist myself, I feel comfortable saying that atheism is the belief that there is no deity/supreme being. Such is a faith-based belief, regardless of how unaware you may be of your implicit assumptions.
All beliefs and systems of thought are faith-based at some level, if you don't realize this, I'm not going to waste time trying to demonstrate it here.

"See: the history of civilization. These aren't isolated cases: religion has long been the primary method of state control over the populace."

See: a selective, distorted, and generally uninformed reading of history, likely combined with an ignorance over the nature of the modern state. Both of which are often inculcated by the statist secular humanist faith which dominates the public school system and mainstream media.
Force of arms and threat of violence has long been the primary method of state control over the populace.

Taimyoboi writes:

Professor Kling,

I think that Atheism is both over- and under-inclusive. I would say that people susceptible to state-worship are those that lack a well-developed set of priors.

Orthodox Christians and Jews (who are also more likely to be libertarian/conservative) as a religious example, or mature libertarians as a non-religious example. I'm not sure how Orthodox Muslims would fit in, since, as I understand, they don't conceive of a state separate from their religion.

Atheists, on the other hand, may or may not have a well-developed set of priors. Based on the article on what the article says, though, if Atheists have to fill a void that others do not, I can see that as making them more susceptible to filling it with the state.

Snark writes:

"The mind has another essential attribute: an overdeveloped sense of cause and effect which primes us to see purpose and design everywhere, even where there is none."

So an overdeveloped sense of causality misleads us into believing in gods? By suggesting this, doesn't Mr. Brooks imply that if our sense of cause and effect were less developed, we would cease to ascribe omnipotence to our reasoning?

If the wind is blowing, logic would require that we reject the notion that purpose and design exist in a rustling bush. But logic is fallable and occasionally leads us to the wrong conclusion (wind does not preclude the prospect that something else is causing the bush to move). In any event, how would logic, short of acacia, reconcile us to the possibility of a burning bush?

AB writes:

Could the former Soviet Union, or Maoist China contain the most striking examples of state worship?

Randy writes:

fundamentalist,

Our lives are sacred, not because of some grand objective, but precisely because there is no grand objective.

Hugo Pottisch writes:

Taim: "...if Atheists have to fill a void that others do not..."

What void is that Taim? Are atheists not animals just like believers. And do not all animals feel the same emotions and experience life the same? They might use different forms to communicate their experiences - but their senses and emotions - what really counts for life - are the same?

So, again, what is that magic void that atheists have to fill?

PS: I do not think that the really interesting discussion is centered around: supernatural vs state.

It is about how one perceives the natural, aka non-supernatural, world. From my point of view - many religious conservatives, islamic fundamentalists and secular communists are more or less the same and fare VERY POORLY in my opinion regarding this.

Communists (Stalin) and Lamarck. The GOP and creationism. All the same. First comes God (or the leader), then the rest of humans and only then nature. Man and his gods and leaders are always above nature. Nature their dominion. Made for man. Men is bigger than nature and only the supernatural is bigger than man.

No - please do not distract from our widespread problem regarding our relationship with nature by discussing the supernatural and the state.

My family grew up in Eastern Europe during Communism. We were all atheists in the sense that my parents had never read or heard of a religious or supernatural text. They did not and do not know there is a void. But they hated and fought statism with their lives. Back then - I would have said that standing for self-sufficiency and eventually freedom is the most important thing in life.

When I later, in the West, discovered how people who support individual rights and "freedom" thought of "nature" - I understood the biggest, global problem for the first time. Only 200 years ago - it would not have mattered to me so much because humans were still few and our only habitat not threatened.

Times have changed. Back 200 years ago - I would have preferred a religious libertarian (if such thing can actually exist) to an atheist communists. These days, if "natural" libertarians cannot be found, I would prefer a communists who recognizes that nature is bigger, smarter and stronger than humans to the religious libertarian. Although I am libertarian myself.

I would wish for more Henry David Throeau in both theists and non-believers. There is NO EXCUSE for not believing in nature.

By this I do not mean what many religious people have been associating with nature. Dry boring scientists who cannot possibly understand the feelings one has when reaching the mountaintop. Or the idealization of a nature which is actually dirty, tooth and claw compared to the "clean clouds" in heaven.

Why do most Buddhists believe in the scientific theory of evolution but the other religions barely reach half of their people? Why are buddhists not afraid to lose something and to create a void?

What's the void that one has to fill? Is it not filled up... naturally?

fundamentalist writes:

b. “I'm sure that any good study would find a high correlation between strength of atheist belief and statist beliefs.”

Exactly right! Religion has been used as a tool of the state, especially in Europe from Constantine until the Reformation. But the Protestant Dutch Reformation gave us the Dutch Enlightenment and most of the modern ideas about liberty. The atheist/deist French Enlightenment gave us socialism. Hayek has a great chapter on that in his “Fatal Conceit.”

Capitalism and liberty flourished while traditional Protestantism dominated in the 18th and 19th centuries. But as the 20th century dawned, Europe had abandoned all religion and the US was close behind. Mainline churches, such as the Lutheran, Episcopal and Presbyterian, deserted tradition Christianity for pop psychology. As a result, capitalism withered and socialism flourished.

Randy : “Our lives are sacred, not because of some grand objective, but precisely because there is no grand objective.”

That’s very Zen sounding but it doesn’t make any sense. The idea of something being sacred is a religious concept. It frequently comes with the word holy and carries the idea of belonging to God. The whole point of anything having no grand objective is that it is not sacred. There is no one to care whether it exists or not because it is useless. If humans are nothing more than an accident, then it doesn’t matter whether they continue to exist or not. In fact, like many environmentalists, it appears that the planet would be better off without us. Yet most people, even atheists, would find that conclusion repulsive. If no God-created meaning exists, people will invent a purpose. Why is that if it’s true that no purpose exists?

Randy writes:

fundamentalist,

"The idea of something being sacred is a religious concept."

No, religion just uses the concept for propaganda. The basic meaning of the word sacred is "worthy of respect". We respect our own lives because we are aware that life is all we have. We respect the lives of others because we are aware that their life is all that they have. Or, as it is said, do not do to others what you would not have them do to you.

"If no God-created meaning exists, people will invent a purpose."

True. And so they do. The phrase I use is; "Life has no meaning - the purpose of life is to create meaning".

Randy writes:

fundamentalist,

To illustrate, from "Unforgiven";

Will Munny: It's a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he's got and all he's ever gonna have.

The Schofield Kid: Yeah, well, I guess they had it coming.

Will Munny: We all got it coming, kid.

Hugo Pottisch writes:

Fundamentalist,

Where is this "purpose" stuff coming from? As far as I can see - there is plenty of purpose in life. Genes "need" to replicate, brains want to understand how nature works so that they can better please their senses while experiencing life (for better and worse as we can see) etc.

Leonardo Da Vinci explained the difference in "purpose" between plants and animals for example beautifully.

"Though nature has given sensibility to pain to such living organisms as have the power of movement, – in order thereby to preserve the members which in this movement are liable to diminish and be destroyed, – the living organisms which have no power of movement do not have to encounter opposing objects, and plants consequently do not need to have a sensibility to pain, and so it comes about that if you break them they do not feel anguish in their members as do the animals." –– MSS. H 60 [12] r of the Library of the Institut de France

With movement comes pain and with pain the wish to avoid it and with this the wish/need/purpose to understand the environment. Finding explanations and "purpose" is natural. Animals do it. Some animals find better or worse explanations than others - every dog differs from every other dog in the way that he explains the world to himself and others. Koko, the talking Gorilla, for example believes that death is eternal sleep.

What we animals definitely all are, theists and people who believe only in the natural world, are philosophers. We need and hence love to understand how nature works. Here is Socrates on this (via Plato in The Republic Book II):

Would not he who is fitted to be a guardian,
besides the spirited nature,
need to have the qualities of a philosopher?

I do not apprehend your meaning.
The trait of which I am speaking, I replied,
may be also seen in the dog, and is remarkable
in the animal.

What trait?
Why, a dog, whenever he sees a stranger, is angry;
when an acquaintance, he welcomes him, although
the one has never done him any harm, nor the other
any good. Did this never strike you as curious?

The matter never struck me before; but I quite
recognise the truth of your remark.

And surely this instinct of the dog is very
charming; -- your dog is a true philosopher.

Why?
Why, because he distinguishes the face of a
friend and of an enemy only by the criterion
of knowing and not knowing. And must not an
animal be a lover of learning who determines
what he likes and dislikes by the test of
knowledge and ignorance?

Most assuredly.
And is not the love of learning the love of
wisdom, which is philosophy?

But maybe I am missing something. What purpose can religion give you that nature cannot?

fundamentalist writes:

Randy: “The basic meaning of the word sacred is "worthy of respect".

You’re using a common word with an uncommon definition. For example, many theologians use the word “god”, but don’t intend the common definition of it, which tends to be the Biblical concept. They mean something more like the force in Star Wars. The word, sacred, has religious connotations, and carries a lot of religious baggage in the common usage, regardless of what its original meaning was centuries ago.

Randy: “We respect our own lives because we are aware that life is all we have.”

In other words, you respect life because you exist. One philosopher said existence is better than non-existence, but I don’t know how you can make that argument. You can choose to respect life if you want to, but it’s an arbitrary choice. Another person can choose to disrespect life just as arbitrarily. Sartre wrote once that it doesn’t matter if the Boy Scout escorts the little old lady across the street or throws her under the bus; both actions are arbitrary choices and neither is better or worse than the other from a logical atheist perspective. A person may disrespect life because it has no meaning and he would have a stronger logical foundation for his actions.

Randy: “"Life has no meaning - the purpose of life is to create meaning"

That’s nice, but one great philosopher wrote that the only question worth asking is why should we not all commit suicide? As I argue below, you’re switching definitions of the concept purpose. Philosophers mean why is anything here rather than nothing. You’re using it in the sense of an individual finding something to do while he is alive.

Hugo: “What purpose can religion give you that nature cannot?”

You’re confusing two different ideas that use the same word. What you refer to is the purpose individuals find for their particular lives. It’s more like the idea of finding something to do. When philosophers talk about purpose, they mean why is anything here rather than nothing? The atheist answer to that question is that there is no purpose, it was all an accident. But humans can’t live with that answer, so they invent individual purposes. Atheists have to lead a double life. Their philosophy says there is not ultimate meaning, but they live as if there is at least particular meaning. Christianity offers an integrated life in which one can actually life consistently with one’s philosophy.

Randy writes:

fundamentalist,

"You can choose to respect life if you want to, but it’s an arbitrary choice."

Yes it is. So what? Adding some made up purpose or entity to the equation doesn't make it any less arbitrary.

"You’re using it in the sense of an individual finding something to do while he is alive."

Yes. And again, adding some made up prupose or entity to the equation doesn't change the basic fact of existence.

Randy writes:

fundamentalist,

"Atheists have to lead a double life."

That is pure propaganda. The fact that I don't accept some made up grand purpose means only that I don't accept it. But hey, if following the path of the Christian trips your trigger, then I say go for it, and be good.

Hugo Pottisch writes:

fundamentalist: "When philosophers talk about purpose, they mean why is anything here rather than nothing?"

Sorry for the length - but what philosophers? I have not only provided one of the first "philosophical" definitions of a "philosopher" by Socrates but have quoted some prominent ones like Democritus and Epicurus here myself.

It was also Epicurus who was among the first to explain how "something vs nothing" is a discussion for the natural world and not the supernatural. His theories of atoms, gravity, relativity and even evolution - which he outlined in On the Nature of Things and which was preserved by Lucretius - would not have worked without a strong understanding of "nothing" and "something".

The opposite was true - it was the foundation of everything that lead him to believe that there are no Gods (to ever be concerned with). All existence is actually based on "something" and "nothing" existing together - not something being created out of nothing.

Read what Epicurus (via Lucretius' De Rerum Natura) had to say 300 years before Jesus was born.

So, Memmius, give me your undivided attention,
turn from business and take a look at the truth.
What I am saying I say because I’ve considered it;
At least don’t turn it down till you’ve understood,
though it is, indeed, rather a large pretension
to explain all origins, universes, divinities—
to say how nature creates, increases, nourishes,
and how she disposes of bodies when they are done.
I shall call these things material, genetic bodies
or seminal, if you like, because they are sources,
or basic matter, as the first matter of all.
Divine nature cannot be other than nature
subsisting for endless time in an unspoiled peace
far away from ourselves and the things that touch us;
For deprived of pain, and also deprived of danger,
able to do what it wants, it does not need us,
nor understands our deserts, and it cannot be angry.
.
In the time when people felt the weight of religion,
wallowing upon the ground and—a ghastly spectacle—
heaven scowled down upon them and showed no mercy,
a Greek man was the first to raise his eyes,
daring to make a stand against it.
He took no notice at all of the thunder and lightning,
religious recitations merely incited him;
He said he would expose the secrets of nature
and so, by force of intelligence, and no other,
he pierced beyond the flaming walls of the world,
paraded up and down the whole immensity
and returned victoriously with explanations for everything
—what could happen, what not, and what were the limits,
all fixed and measured, of every nature and thing.
And so he had religion under his feet.
He won, and as a result we have no superiors.
.
There is one simple point we have to start from:
The gods never made a single thing out of nothing.
Because, if one things frightens people, it is
that so much happens, on earth and out in space,
the reasons for which seem somehow to escape them,
and they fill in the gap by putting it down to the gods.
That is why, once we know that nothing can come from nothing,
we are on the right track already and likely to see
how everything starts and goes on in an ordered sequence
and nothing at all is merely the work of the gods.

.
Consider: if things could be made from nothing,
there would be no such thing as the cycle of generation,
you could breed men from the sea, and the land would produce
all kinds of fishes and birds, and out of the sky
herds of cattle would come tumbling; wild animals would
turn up in deserts or farmyards without any reason;
You could not count on an apple-tree giving you apples,
but any sort of tree would produce any fruit.
If everything did not have its seminal elements
how would we ever know what anything comes from?
But, as it is, the origins are from fixed seeds
and everything comes to the shores of light
the moment its matter has reached the right point of development.
No question of undiscriminating creation
when everything has its seeds within itself.

You know I have said creation out of nothing
is nonsense and so is destruction of things to nothingness.
But since you may doubt the validity of a doctrine
requiring the existence of invisible elements [atoms],
I should like to draw your attention to certain bodies
which must be allowed to exist, although we can’t see them.
...
Not everywhere, however, is crowded with matter,
for nature is such that everything has its emptiness.
This is a necessary part of the lesson,
without which nature would continue to mystify you
and my theories would in fact be incomplete.
There is the void—the emptiness of unoccupied space,
without which, clearly, nothing could ever move.
The function of matter is to get in the way;
If there were no space, nothing could ever move,
but everything would get in the way of everything else.
Nothing would ever give, and nothing would budge.
But in fact we see the seas move, the earth, the clouds,
the stars sweep by, and everything has its movement.
If there were no such thing as emptiness, none of this could happen,
nothing indeed could ever change or begin;
There would be closed-packed matter and that would be all.
.
The fact is, things which appear to us to be solid
are really made of somewhat rarefied stuff.
....
And why is it some things weigh a lot more than others
although the volume is exactly the same?
....
Here I must warn you against a plausible theory
which some people have advanced, and which might mislead you.
Its proponents say that water gives way to the fish
as it swims, and opens a passage for it to pass,
because there is a space left behind the fish
into which the liquid can flow: and this, they say, demonstrates
how other things can change place, although space is full.
This explanation rests on erroneous reasoning,
for how, after all, can the fish find a way to move forward
if the water does not give way to it? And how can the water
give way to the fish, unless the fish can move forward?
For either one has to deny that bodies can move
or else admit they contain an empty element
which makes it possible for movement to begin.
.
There is indeed nothing whatever of which you can say
that exists apart from matter and emptiness,
as if there were some third element in the universe.

For if there were, it would not exist without size
—how large or small, is a matter of indifference—
and if it were sensible, even to the lightest touch
it would be classified with material objects;
If it could not be touched it would be incapable
of offering the slightest resistance to any body,
which amounts to saying that it would be void.
.
Besides, if a thing exists it must either act
or else be acted upon by other agents,
or provide a space in which other things can exist.
But only material objects can act and be acted on,
and only void can provide a space.
Apart from emptiness [nothing] and material objects
there can be no third element in nature
—no third which could have an effect on our senses
or be the subject of any reasoning.

You will find that everything which can be named
is either inherent in the two basic elements
or is the effect of something that happens to them.

The inherent qualities are those which cannot be separated
without destroying the nature of the object:
As weight in rocks, heat in fire, and wetness in water,
or tangibility in material objects
and in space—or void—intangibility.
On the other hand, servitude, poverty and riches,
liberty, war, and settlements, and so on,
which leave material bodes unchanged in their nature
are things which happen to bodies—we might say, events.
.
Time has no existence by itself
and it is only from the perception of things
past, present, and future that the mind is aware of it.
There never was anyone who had even a glimpse of time
apart from the movement of things and the contrast of rest.
.
So it is absurd to suggest that the Trojan War
or the rape of Helen, has some sort of real existence
when the ages in which these notable things occurred
—like the people they happened to—have been swept away.
Whatever happened is no more than just a happening
—other places or times, perhaps it makes no difference.
For if there had been no matter to form the bodies
and no empty space in which they could perform,
Paris would not have been there to get excited
nor Helen in such a shape as to set him on
and the famous wars would not have happened at all.
No wooden horse could have turned out a load of Greeks
into the darkness, to set the town alight.
You can see from that, all that has gone on in the past
has no existence, as matter and void have,
but rather should be regarded as so many happenings
which have occurred to material bodies in space.
.
The bodies themselves are of two kinds:
Primary particles and complex bodies composed of primaries.
These first particles are of such an invincible hardness
that no force can alter them or extinguish them.
...
So, since what I have to say is unpleasant
to people who haven’t given the subject a thought,
and can produce a revulsion in ordinary men,
I attempt to give it a touch of aesthetic coating
and hope you may recognize sweetness when you taste it:
If I can hold your attention by such devices
so that you read to the end, you will find you have swallowed.
My whole account, so to speak, of the nature of nature.
.
My theory is that bodies of solid matter
—the particles—move through the ages and are indestructible.
The question now is: are they of limited number?
And is place, void, space, in which everything must happen,
finite itself, or does it stretch out without limit
in all directions without any end at all?


Corey S. writes:

@ Arnold: "I should mention that I think that atheists are susceptible to state-worship. As a result, the disposition to believe in the supernatural gets exploited by politicians."

What about us atheist libertarians? I don't think your co-blogger is so susceptible to state-worship.

I think this statement is one of the more careless comments I've read from Mr. Kling (someone I think very highly of). Of course some atheists are susceptible to state-worship - but they're probably no more susceptible than religious. Now, if it could be shown that atheists with economics degrees were more statist than religious believers with economics degrees, you might be on to something.

fundamentalist writes:

Randy: “Adding some made up purpose or entity to the equation doesn't make it any less arbitrary.”

If it is made up, you’re right, but if it matches with reality and follows sound reasoning then you have a solid foundation for life.

Randy: “The fact that I don't accept some made up grand purpose means only that I don't accept it.”

Accepting or not accepting is not the issue. Many people don’t accept the truth but that doesn’t make it less true. The point is to know truth and we do that by reason, not by arbitrary choices.

Hugo: “but what philosophers?”

19th and 20th century philosophers. The Epicurus believed that the universe was eternal, so there was no need for gods to create it. That belief held until scientists came up with the big bang theory. The big bang states that the universe was created ex nihilo. But I don’t see how you think Epicurus answers the question of why anything exists instead of nothing. All he says is that everything that exists always existed. It had no beginning. That is the same as saying the universe has no purpose; it just is, which is no different from what 20th century philosophers have said.

In addition, if man evolved from animals, then as 20th century philosophy tells us, love, purpose, morals, free will, and personality don’t exist; they are illusions we have created to make us feel better.

Corey: “What about us atheist libertarians?”

Kling said atheists are susceptible to state worship, not that it is inevitable. Look around at all atheists. Are the majority libertarian or socialist?

Hugo Pottisch writes:

fundamentalist: "if man evolved from animals, then as 20th century philosophy tells us, love, purpose, morals, free will, and personality don’t exist; they are illusions we have created to make us feel better."

Because of evolution love does not exist? Who are you fundamentalist? Are you... because of evolution loves DOES exist!!! BECAUSE of evolution morals exist, etc.

Really - tell me - how does the believe in Zeus help you with your love and morals? How and why do you come to the conclusion that evolution can take the feeling of love away that most animals seem to feel without make-believe? Why do you need Venus, Mars and Ra to feel love? How strange is that? What is wrong with you?

Do you want to give religion a bad name or are you just taking the piss here?


fundamentalist: "But I don’t see how you think Epicurus answers the question of why anything exists instead of nothing. "

you really are a.. fundamentalist? where do you pull all this stuff out, really? I have just posed 1000s of words explaining that Epicurus and Democritus and other atheists do NOT believe that either something exists or nothing.. They believe that nothing could not exist without something and that something could not exists without nothing. They go so far as to claim there cannot be more than that in the universe - ONLY nothing and something. And that - by definition - something cannot come from nothing and vice versa.

You have the link and the quotes above - if you want me to take you seriously you will have to build on those arguments and not arbitrary ones.

Further - if you separated the nothingness/somethingness out of every object you get the big bang (all eternal matter in one and all nothingness in one) - which was also in a way first explained by Epicurus (and that this might repeat itself) and NOT 20th century "job", "idiot", "career" scientists. The 20th century has NOT really produced ANY real scientists and philosophers - only "engineers" and "replicators". The quantity is amazing - the quality not worth going into... the US is still religious in the worst possible sense: dogma, enslavement of the mind and no spirit!

Newton read Epicurus and could only understand gravity. Einstein followed and could only pull out relativity. At least both admitted to be standing on the shoulders of, not giants, but real genius (nothing after Jesus and also not the 20th century has been able to produce imho).

No.. we have a long long way to go and time is running out. We have to stop playing god asap by dropping the current believe in.. us. We need a more modest and realisitc image of ourselves if we want to live sustainable, confident and hence happy lives.

In short - you scare me... morally!

Randy writes:

fundamentalist,

"The point is to know truth and we do that by reason, not by arbitrary choices."

The function of the human mind is to obtain what the will desires. The mind reasons to objective, not to truth. In seeking its objective, the mind is fully aware that a lie is very often more reasonable than the truth. Religion is a case in point.

fundamentalist writes:

Hugo: “How and why do you come to the conclusion that evolution can take the feeling of love away that most animals seem to feel without make-believe?”

You don’t know that animals feel love. You’re projecting human traits onto animals. The logic goes like this: if we are nothing but animals, then the notion of love is an illusion. It is really nothing more than sex because we are nothing more than complex chemical reactions.

Hugo: “where do you pull all this stuff out, really?”

Hegel, Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus, Foucalt, Derrida and others. The ideas I have presented are themes running through all of their works. I don’t do justice to it here in such a short space.

Hugo: “Epicurus and Democritus and other atheists do NOT believe that either something exists or nothing.. They believe that nothing could not exist without something and that something could not exists without nothing.”

That’s all very zen sounding, but it’s nonsense.

Hugo: “Newton read Epicurus and could only understand gravity. Einstein followed and could only pull out relativity.”

I doubt they couldn’t understand it. It’s not that difficult and it sure ain’t rocket surgery. I imagine they saw it for the nonsense it is.

Randy: "The mind reasons to objective, not to truth."

Claiming that truth doesn't exist (or if it does we can't know it) is a typical dodge for people cornered with the truth. It's nothing but a smokescreen for a hasty retreat.

randy: "the mind is fully aware that a lie is very often more reasonable than the truth. Religion is a case in point."

Atheism is a better example. It denies that all of the attributes of man that make mankind different from animals are real.

Randy writes:

fundamentalist,

"Claiming that truth doesn't exist (or if it does we can't know it) is a typical dodge for people cornered with the truth."

My claim is not that truth doesn't exist, but that finding it is not the primary function of the mind. And of course, our minds are limited in time and space.

"[Atheism] denies that all of the attributes of man that make mankind different from animals are real."

No it doesn't. There are many ways that I am different from other animals, and for that matter, from other people as well. If, on the other hand, you mean that I don't find any meaning in classifying all human kind as somehow special in the eyes of some grand purpose or entity, then, yes, that's true. But if you do, I don't have a problem with it.

Hugo Pottisch writes:

First - I would like to appologize for putting words into the mouth of other atheists with a tad too much "atheists believe this or that". Consider me an epicurian (aka humanist). But I seem to be completely dacor with Randy.

fundamentalist: "You don’t know that animals feel love. You’re projecting human traits onto animals. The logic goes like this: if we are nothing but animals, then the notion of love is an illusion. It is really nothing more than sex because we are nothing more than complex chemical reactions.

The logic got lost on me! Love and sex have two different words for a reason and it has nothing to do with religion or the supernatural.

I would not want for you to give up anything that might take your "love" away. We can easily agree to disagree. But it makes me wonder - do you really think you can lose your love? How does that feel? It sounds scary to me. I wouldn't want to live with such eternal fears - I'd rather live with the possibility of temporary heart-break.

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