Heathen’s Progress: Julian Baggini on Atheism & Nihilism

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I just finished writing a post over at A Borrowed Flame about John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, so it’s apt that I write here about Julian Baggini’s refreshlingly honest piece about contemporary Atheism in the Guardian which is part of his series entitled “Heathen’s Progress”:

Atheists have seemed rather keen in recent years to stress their jolly side. As well as the whole “brights” movement, there’s the “happy human” logo used by the International Humanist and Ethical Union, the British Humanist Association and several other humanist groups. Then there were the atheist bus posters telling us that we should stop worrying and enjoy life.

Given how the atheist stereotype has been one of the dark, brooding existentialist gripped by the angst of a purposeless universe, this is understandable. But frankly, I think we’ve massively overcompensated, and in doing so we’ve blurred an important distinction. Atheists should point out that life without God can be meaningful, moral and happy. But that’s “can” not “is” or even “should usually be”. And that means it can just as easily be meaningless, nihilistic and miserable.

Atheists have to live with the knowledge that there is no salvation, no redemption, no second chances. Lives can go terribly wrong in ways that can never be put right. Can you really tell the parents who lost their child to a suicide after years of depression that they should stop worrying and enjoy life? Doesn’t the appropriate response to 4,000 children dying everyday as a direct result of poor sanitation involve despair at the relentless misery of the world as well as some effort to improve things? Sometimes life is shit and that’s all there is to it. Not much bright about that fact.

No one that I know of is saying that Atheists can’t have meaningful lives, but the point is rather that in such a view, any meaning is illusionary, and not grounded in anything concrete. If Atheism is not as commonly Nihilistic as Nietzsche might have suggested, it’s because most Atheists (like most people, in fact) are not always consistent in matching their worldview and philosophies to how they live.

As an interesting continuation he writes:

Stressing the jolly side of atheism not only glosses over its harsher truths, it also disguises its unique selling point. The reason to be an atheist is not that it makes us feel better or gives us a more rewarding life. The reason to be an atheist is simply that there is no God and we would prefer to live in full recognition of that, accepting the consequences, even if it makes us less happy. The more brutal facts of life are harsher for us than they are for those who have a story to tell in which it all works out right in the end and even the most horrible suffering is part of a mystifying divine plan. If we don’t freely admit this, then we’ve betrayed the commitment to the naked truth that atheism has traditionally embraced.

What I would like to know is why we should, on Atheism, be concerned with and committed to ‘naked truth’, especially over and above a rewarding feeling and existence? After all, nothing in the Atheistic naturalist worldview gives any good reason for thinking we can know truth, let alone that we ought to strive for it; at least, not that I can see anyway.

But it is the ‘moral nihilism’ which Baggini deals with, which I find most interesting:

Even more disturbing, perhaps, is the threat of moral nihilism. Atheists are quite rightly keen to counter the accusation that life without God cannot be moral. The British Humanist Association, for instance, claims that “Right and wrong can be explained by human nature alone and do not require religious teaching”. But, just as with happiness, there is a need to distinguish the possibility of atheist morality from its inevitable actuality. Anyone who thinks it’s easy to ground ethics either hasn’t done much moral philosophy or wasn’t concentrating when they did. Although morality is arguably just as murky for the religious, at least there is some bedrock belief that gives a reason to believe that morality is real and will prevail. In an atheist universe, morality can be rejected without external sanction at any point, and without a clear, compelling reason to believe in its reality, that’s exactly what will sometimes happen.

Again, I don’t know of any serious theistic thinker who claims that non-believers cannot be moral (on the contrary, that they generally are makes sense of the theistic moral compass framework, actually). What they do argue is that if God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist. In other words, non-believers who act as if moral values and duties do exist (i.e. that some things are wrong, and others shouldn’t do them either) are basically spending left-over Christian capital.

Baggini is right, that ethics is not easy – even Sam Harris’ recent attempt to ground objective morality within his naturalistic worldview was met with a great deal of criticism for having fallen foul of Hume’s Is-Ought problem. It’s also refreshing to see his recognise that on Theism, there is a basis for objective moral values and duties which Atheism simply does not have, and moreover, that this will sometimes mean that we’ve no grounds on which to hold anyone accountable for their actions. Why should they not reject our claim that doing a particular thing is wrong?

Baggini’s suggestion then? Just get on with it, even if it turns out miserably. Not a particularly appealing worldview, is it?

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15 Responses to Heathen’s Progress: Julian Baggini on Atheism & Nihilism

  1. tony says:

    I have never heard a Christian ever say, ” You know I have no idea if God is good or bad as I only have Gods word for it, God being the only basis for such a judgement”. So either they are not living consistently with their philosophy or they are making A LEAP OF FAITH that God is good. By leap of faith I’m including following their gut, receiving a conviction, blind guessing etc.

    Yet Christians repeatedly deny this Leap and disallow any similar leaps at all for atheists. Bad philosophy.

    “Anyone who thinks it’s easy to ground ethics either hasn’t done much moral philosophy or wasn’t concentrating when they did.” Religious or not.

    • AndrewFinden says:

      Actually, I read something just this week which pointed out the logical inconsistency of the 'evil God' argument – if we understand God in the sense of a maximal being – that we exist is not logically consistent with a maximally evil (which would entail selfish) God. Interesting argument.. if I can find the link I'll share it.

      Your objection strikes me as a little odd – like saying to someone "I don't know what you're like apart from what you've told me and what I've seen you do".

  2. tony says:

    Theres no evil god hypothesis to prove. You just can’t claim that god is necessary to underpin morality and then claim that Gods goodness can be established.

    The former claim means there is no morality God can be subject to.

    The latter means there are means of establishing goodness… by intuition, pleasure, notions of fulfillment, loves consequences, whatever, other than God.

    If the latter is true Atheists must be afforded access to these ways of knowing the Good.

    If the latter is false Christians have made a logically unfounded choice to follow God which Atheists can make to do Good.

    • AndrewFinden says:

      Theres no evil god hypothesis to prove.

      It was recently made as an attempted rebuttal to the ontological argument.

      I'm not sure I've quite understood what you're arguing though… are you positing the Euthyphro dilemma perhaps?

      You just can't claim that god is necessary to underpin morality and then claim that Gods goodness can be established.

      The former claim means there is no morality God can be subject to.

      The latter means there are means of establishing goodness… by intuition, pleasure, notions of fulfillment, loves consequences, whatever, other than God.

      Let firstly point out that your objection presupposes the objective nature of goodness – I'm not sure if you meant to argue against non-objective morality, but you have done implicitly.

      Euthyphro's dilemma is a false one:
      Is something good because God says so – then it's arbitrary
      Or, does God say something is good because it's good – then there's an external standard to God.

      It's a false dilemma, as a third horn is available, which is that God's moral pronouncements are grounded is his very nature, which, as the ontological argument show, is necessarily good (maximally great). It is neither external nor arbitrary.

      If the latter is true Atheists must be afforded access to these ways of knowing the Good.

      As I said, in Christian theism this knowledge of moral law is accounted for. The problem which I bring up is that in Atheism, there is no grounds for having any kind of objective moral values and duties in the first place – so from whence cometh 'the Good' you refer to? Your own objection has done away with non-objective moral values and duties…

      If the latter is false Christians have made a logically unfounded choice to follow God which Atheists can make to do Good.

      Third horn. And the problem from my previous paragraph remains.

      • tony c. says:

        If by ontological argument you mean this sort of thing…."If therefore that than which nothing greater can be conceived exists in the understanding alone [and not in reality], then this thing than which nothing greater can be conceived is something than that which a greater can be conceived. And this is clearly impossible. Therefore, there can be no doubt at all that something than which a greater cannot be conceived exists in both the understanding and in reality." -Anselm
        You are kidding right? Does anyone (since Wittgenstein at the very least) still believe that logic games like this are about anything other than the structure of language?

        Regardless my objection is what I would call more existentialist. Whether or not God is good because the good is there for God to know and so she does it or because what God does is good by decree or as you say the third horn, God and Good are of one nature is irrelevant. Yes, irrelevant!

        The question remains how am I to determine any of this. I can either obey God (usually a fairly vaguely applied maxim) ASSUMING they are good (by nature if you ilike) or I can TELL that God is good by some way of knowing the good and subsequently obey them. (Maybe I can partly tell God is good and must assume the rest? Mostly assume but can tell a little?)

        Of course the option remains that I can obey God because theyre God and not even recognise Good but i don't think your proposing that.

        • AndrewFinden says:

          While the ontological argument is, of course, not an argument for God's existence, it is useful for thinking about the nature of God if he exists – that is, if God exists, then he does so a necessary maximal being, which was the point of my reference.

          Interesting that you would appear to pose the euthyphro dilemma and then say that it's irrelevant.. (though I do tend to agree that the issue is, like most of the naturalist-theist debate, about epistemology.) You seem to be drawing too large a wedge between experience and revelation.

          To borrow your line – I think your question is actually irrelevant until you get past the point of explaining how, without God, we can even talk about objective standards of 'good'. Perhaps you think that a moral quality of 'goodness' is a brute fact?

          • tony says:

            How to establish good is… an ongoing project is perhaps the best way to describe it. I make tentative guesses at my blog. Particularly in my last post. However you seem to want to talk about what good IS (a brute fact?) Whereas I would rather phrase the question and answer in terms of how can I know what is good. Any “good” after all is contextualised by our choices. It makes no sense outside of that to me. Ie a tree is just neutral. it is tending or chopping it down that is good or not.

            So other than a few ideas I can’t ground my morality logically.However my quandary is your quandary. Theism doesn’t solve anything. We have to make a radical choice to be good or follow god.

            Nothing Ive seen removes that choice from us entirely.

          • AndrewFinden says:

            However you seem to want to talk about what good IS (a brute fact?) Whereas I would rather phrase the question and answer in terms of how can I know what is good.

            Hmm… not really. I don't think talking about 'good' as an ontological "thing" is particularly helpful, which is why I use the terms moral values and duties.

            Any "good" after all is contextualised by our choices. It makes no sense outside of that to me. Ie a tree is just neutral. it is tending or chopping it down that is good or not.

            Of course, something can be 'good' and be amoral. As Lewis put it – a drawing of NYC can be 'good' if it represents the actually city (a hlepful analogy for thinking about objective standards), but I don't think he would say that a less accurate drawing was immoral. Again, speaking of moral values and duties is more the focus of the issue.

            In fact, if we take, for example, the idea of torturing a child – and we agree that it is immoral, it is already a contextualised action of sorts. Causing a child pain would not be considered immoral in the case of a doctor performing some medical procedure, for example.

            So while the questions of what is 'good' in the sense of what are 'good' moral values and duties, the issue is more fundamental – does the naturalistic worldview give any justification for thinking, and acting as if objective moral values and duties exist, to which I say no. Whatever other questions might be raised about theistic framework and morality, at the very least can account for and justify objective moral values and duties. So no, your quandry – in the sense I've been talking about – is not my quandry ;)

  3. tony says:

    But if we were to speculate about an evil god vanity rather than selfishness would be the more obvious vice.

    • AndrewFinden says:

      The 'evil god' argument is about a maximally evil being. Any maximally evil being would be maximally selfish and self-interested and therefor, the creation of and interest in other entities is inconsistent, even if it were for torture e.g.

      Anyway.. not the argument you're making, or that I'm making.. was an interesting aside to your claim that theist haven't thought about these things – they have.

  4. tony says:

    You claim not to share my quandary so…Is Abraham right to move towards sacrificing his child? What objective value or duty exists for him other than obeying God? If anything where does it go when God changes his mind.

    How can Abraham other than by radical choice make a decision here? Can he even guess with better than average accuracy he is doing the right thing? Isn’t he in quite a pickle?

    This is not abstraction. Modern Christians feel obliged to disaprove of homosexuality because the loss of the anchor of revelation makes morality meaningless and arbitrary to them. I merely point out that no morality perfectly establishes a necessary starting point. In fact a necessary starting point is contradictory.

    I heartily recommend reading Kierkegaard. Even if you have a paper solution to grounding morality it doesn’t change your existential dilemma.

    • AndrewFinden says:

      Again, the 'quandry' in question is finding justification for objective moral values and duties. The issue is not how we might come to understand of them, so I don't quite see what Abraham has to do with the issue that I'm actually raising. Using that example is further complicated by it's nature as a test, and while it's certainly worth thinking about, any kind of exploration of that needs to take such things into consideration.

      What objective value or duty exists for him other than obeying God?

      Moving away from a complicated specific and back to the issue I raised, the idea of authority is one of the reasons why theism has a valid basis for objective moral values and duties, and naturalism doesn't. (Hume's is-ought problem).

      If anything where does it go when God changes his mind.

      Which classical theologians have suggested he does?

      I merely point out that no morality perfectly establishes a necessary starting point. In fact a necessary starting point is contradictory.

      I don't understand what you mean by that.

      Even if you have a paper solution to grounding morality it doesn't change your existential dilemma.

      It's hardly a 'paper solution'. To which existential dilemma do you refer? Surely not the one we already discussed as being false? Again, talking about the epistemology is pointless until you can show a naturalist can even make any statements about moral values or duties to which other people are bound to adhere. Our society certainly doesn't operate as if there are no objective moral values and duties to which we are accountable.

    • AndrewFinden says:

      Thought you might be interested by this little exchange: http://veritasforum.tumblr.com/post/19244720299/p

  5. tony says:

    All I’m saying is exactly expressed by the Is-ought divide.”That God Is” does not equal “I ought to obey God”. The third horn doesn’t solve this or rather if it can (I think It’s just a language trick) then do you recognize the Is ought divide Is potentially breachable. That value can be located intrinsically in somethings nature? If so the value of human life is able to be drawn from the commonalities of our existence. Yes this crosses the Is ought divide but so do you.

    Authority; Is that an IS quality or an OUGHT one? Or are you fudging the boundaries? Is it both? How?

    Basically I am simply applying the IS -OUGHT divide to Theology or metaphysics as you do to the physical world.

    This is an old post that covers what I’m saying.. .http://humblewonderful.blogspot.com.au/2011/07/whether-you-believe-in-god-or-not-is.html?m=1

    • AndrewFinden says:

      Thanks. I left a comment, which is worth repeating here (with some alterations):

      I think you're playing a bit too fast and loose with 'is' and 'ought' (equivocating) instead of understanding them the way they are meant i.e. descriptions and prescriptions.
      To say that the is-ought applies to God is equivocation as it's not a description in the sense of 'that action causes pain'. Rather, we must consider the idea of authority. The argument is not that God "is" therefore we "ought" to obey him, but rather because of who God is, and the authority he has, we have an obligation to obey. You can't get prescriptions from descriptions, only from having the authority to make prescriptions in the first place.

      If I'm driving along and see a person try to wave me to stop, it's impossible from that description (that "is") to draw any kind of prescription that I 'ought' to pull over. However, if that person were a police officer, by virtue of their authority, there would be an obligation – I 'ought' to pull over according to the law. It's perhaps a subtle, but very important distinction, and when we talk about authority we're not talking about 'is' in the way Hume was – the point of the is-ought problem is that without authority, you can't get from a description to a prescription.

      So, I contest that the is-ought applies to God. It is the problem that remains when you remove a moral law giver from the picture.

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