Two Questions From
A Youth Minister
To: Positive Atheism
Sent: Saturday, May 12, 2001 12:26 AM
I assume that you, the editor, are the man I met in the Portland Post Office a few months ago. We were standing in a long line and you shared with me your philosophy as well as a couple back issues of your publication -- does that sound familiar? If not, I apologize for not e-mailing you sooner as I had hoped to talk with you more from that point forward. I have had your back issues beside my desk for some time now and have been intending to look at them and get back to you. I finally decided to make good on that intention today by sending this e-mail.
I must first say that it is refreshing to see there are still people in the world who are willing to put time, effort and strong devotion into something they believe in; people just don't seem to care one way or the other about much of anything anymore. You have obviously been born with a gift to write, encourage, organize, develop and lead publications as well as people -- and you have an amazing enthusiasm for doing those very things. In each of those areas you have my respect. That said, I hope you will show me equal respect as I hope we can begin to dialogue via e-mail about spiritual matters.
I can remember from our short Post Office conversation that you have little to do with Christianity, let alone Christians and their ideals. I must be honest with you and confess that I am a Christian before this e-mail goes any further. My agenda is not to come in the back door, pretending to be someone I'm not, and then play the "guess what, I'm a Christian!" card on you down the road. I have been a Christian for about 12 years now and I am fully confident that Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, is our risen Savior. Please don't misinterpret that statement as arrogant or critical, I merely want to be honest with you, myself and my God.
I would like to hear back from you concerning the following when you have the time:
Again, please do not view this e-mail as an attack on your belief system or your organization. I hope the intent and wording of this e-mail has been done in an honest, kind and tactful manner. Should we be able to initiate an e-mail correspondence I promise to act in this same manner. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me at the Post Office and for taking the time to read this e-mail. I hope to hear from you soon.
From: "Positive Atheism" <email@example.com>
Subject: Re: Positive_Atheism_Letters_Section
Date: August 11, 2001 8:12 AM
Thank you for your letter.
Although I don't hear from many Christians of your caliber, I must presuppose, as part of my role in the Positive Atheism project, that there are more Chrisians like yourself than there are like the majority of Christians who do write to our Forum.
I also assume from your e-mail address [suppressed] that you are a youth minister, if not ordained then at least active and worthy of the title in the informal sense.
I apologize for taking so long to get back to you. This is not stuff that I can copy and paste from the FAQ section, but had to be thought up piecemeal. I do not wish to short-change you by giving you less than all that I have to give, so the payoff is that this letter is quite late.Enjoy!
I can remember from our short Post Office conversation that you have little to do with Christianity, let alone Christians and their ideals.
I have more friends who are Christians than who are atheists. It's just that when a Christian is an Evangelical or a Fundamentalist, their religion often (but not always) forbids them from getting too close to non-Christians. However, several years ago, I came very close to marrying a Noah's Ark-believing Fundamentalist Christian.
I also share many ideals with most Christians. Unfortunately, many Christians, particularly Evangelicals and Fundamentalists, think it's more important that I come over to their way of thinking on the subject of religion than that we join forces and address what we both can agree are extremely grave problems in this world. Their loyalty to their religion invariably gets in the way. Since I have no loyalty (I have no creed or beliefs, if you can see that: atheism is simply the absence of a certain class of beliefs), then it matters naught what I do or with whom I do it.
My agenda is not to come in the back door, pretending to be someone I'm not, and then play the "guess what, I'm a Christian!" card on you down the road.
I detected you were a Christian with your very first question -- suspecting it even before, by your body language and your interest in the return address on the envelopes I was holding. You came off as the kind of Christian who would become friendly with someone in the hope of eventually seeing them become converted. No offense intended, that's simply my first impression -- my explanation to myself for your response to my friendliness. Most strangers remain aloof even if they don't know I'm an atheist (although that won't stop me from putting on at least a superficial sense of friendliness simply because I try to be friendly with all people when I can). As skeptical as I tend to be (and sometimes outright cynical), I still hold a high level of admiration for humans, and try to give each human at least an initial benefit of the doubt.
Two letter writers, Greg Auman and Chad Baxter (who, interestingly, wrote to comment on my response to Auman's letter -- which, by then, had been posted unchanged for years!), have actually tried to tell me that they weren't Christians -- only to reveal later that they were lying to gain my confidence. (Auman went so far as to call me a liar for calling him a Christian! but I could tell he was just by the way he acted! I knew it all along with both writers and revealed my suspicions early on in both dialogues.) Many others have given initial lip-service to logic or reason or even science (rather, what they call science), only to reveal a pronounced disrespect for those things to which they had initially given their praises (respectively using false or tortured logic, ultimately advocating the supremacy of faith over reason, and grossly misrepresenting what scientists have said and what science is).
In all this, I treat every new writer with a clean slate. There is nothing wrong with being a Christian in my eyes. I hold Christians and non-Christians to the same standards.
What makes the Atheistic viewpoint more believable to you than that of Christianity?
[Portions were revised from the original to improve clarity.]
Most of the answer to this question involves understanding what atheism is and is not. After you learn a little about this, you will word your question differently next time you pose it to somebody.
The whole theism-atheism discussion revolves entirely around theism, specifically around this thing called the god-claim. The theist claims that one or more gods exist. That's the one thing upon which we can both agree in this discussion. We do not agree as to what the theist even means when she or he utters the sound "god" (we don't know if the theist even knows what the word means). All we know is that the theist tells us that a god or gods exist. The moment a theist holding this discussion starts talking as if the god really exists, or the moment an atheist holding this discussion begins to speak as if the gods do not exist, our discussion will start to take on very strange characteristics: at minimum, we will probably stop communicating. But as long as we keep the fact of the god-claim in focus, the theist and the atheist can get along just fine in a philosophical discussion of this nature.
A person either is or is not a theist; either one has a god-belief or one does not have a god-belief. If somebody does not have a god-belief (for whatever reason), that person is an atheist. This is the passive sense of atheism: I am an atheist because I lack a god-belief. Even though there is more to my atheism than this (particularly in my case as a full-time atheistic activist), the absence of theism is the minimum that all atheists have in common: We are that segment of humankind who are not theists -- whether or not we're even aware of our atheism.
Some of us go so far as to call ourselves atheists (or we use other terms, such as Humanist, Secularist, Agnostic, pantheist, Unitarian, Satanist, and the many other terms people use to dodge the vicious stigma which has for centuries been leveled against atheists). If I am aware of my atheism, if my atheism is the result of philosophical thought, I am an atheist in the active sense.
Most atheists never put much thought behind their atheism. They lack a god-belief and that's that; the subject of religion rarely if ever occupies their minds. An agnostic who does not know if gods exist (or someone who is not even aware of god-claims) has no god-belief and, as such, is technically an atheist. Infants and imbeciles lack the cognitive powers to put together a god-concept. (Ever since it stopped being a capital crime to describe atheism as anything short of a great evil, atheistic writers have tended to call infants and imbeciles "atheists" simply because they lack a god-belief.) Still others think the very concept of a deity, when examined for what it is, is pure nonsense -- that is, they think nobody can make sense of any god-claim. Theists, they say, were taught to repeat god-claims and then to tell people that this is what they believe, but that there is no real meaning behind the god-claims. Thus, the statement "God exists," they tell us, is neither true nor false. These atheists are called noncognitivists. All the above varieties of atheist are called "negative" or "weak" atheists.
Still others (a minority among atheists, in fact) know why they don't believe the god-claims. They consider the statement "God exists" to be a false statement. These are called "positive" or "strong" atheists.
[Note: Positive Atheism Magazine -- PAM -- shuns the terms "negative atheism" and "positive atheism" in this discussion and prefers the terms "weak" and "strong" atheism. When we use the term "Positive Atheism" as the title of our magazine, we mean something completely different: "Positive Atheism" (capitalized), as we use it, is a Westernization and modernization of a philosophy that comes from India and is derived, loosely and in part, from the original meaning of Gandhi's Satyagraha as an emphasis on truthfulness (as opposed to the popular understanding of Satyagraha that involves passive resistance). In the Sanskrit, Satyagraha literally means "force born out of truth." Thus PAM emphasizes truthfulness and personal integrity as the highest ethics, and suggest that atheists, particularly atheistic activists, cannot afford to compromise on this particular ethic.]
These are the different major expressions of atheism:
As you can see, some of these lines are quite fuzzy. Agnosticism is probably a sub-category of "weak" atheism, although agnosticism itself contains at least three different varieties (one of which is actually a form of theism!). Noncognitivism could be seen as a variety of agnosticism; agnosticism could be seen as sub-category of noncognitivism. I prefer to distinguish the two. "Strong" atheism and noncognitivism are mutually exclusive because noncognitivism does not pretend to know what the word God means. Obviously, "strong" atheism and agnosticism are likewise mutually exclusive.
Here's how confusing it is: I am both a "weak" atheist and a "strong" atheist.
Yes, to add to the confusion, let me point out that we use the term "weak" atheism two different ways. To distinguish the two different senses of "weak" atheism, I'll mention that all atheists, "weak," agnostic, noncognitive, or "strong," are, in different sense, also "weak" atheists. This is because we all at minimum simply lack a god-belief. Even though many of us carry it further than this, we all have the one thing in common that we lack a god belief for whatever reason. This is unfortunately called by the same terms, negative atheism or "weak" atheism.
I am sorry the descriptions of the overall, big-picture atheism and the descriptions of the sub-categories of atheism are so tedious. However, the Roman Catholic Church has successfully usurped our self-definition as a people group by popularizing their own definition. This has reached the point where almost every week an individual will write to me and castigate me for what amounts to refusing to go along with the Roman Catholic definitions of what we call ourselves, what we do, what we think, and what we say. This is how thoroughly the false definition of the word atheist has become ingrained in our culture.
I do not like bringing up the fact that the all-inclusive, overall group of atheists fits into the "weak" cagegory even though some simultaneously fit into the "strong" category. To do so seems to deliberately introduce confusion into the dialogue, and I would never willingly do that unless I felt it absolutely necessary to do so.
I feel this subject is crucial only because the Roman Catholic Church and a certain variety of agnostics (what I call "strong" agnostics) have popularized the definition of atheist as "one who asserts that no gods exist." This definition has never been popular among atheistic philosophers and writers, but the Roman Catholic position becomes much easier to defend if all atheism is seen as "strong" atheism. Similarly, the "strong" agnostics (those who assert that none of us can know if gods exist) lose their entire justification for existing if atheism and theism are anything but "strong" and dogmatic. But you know as well as I that theists cover a wide range from those for whom God's existence is "more real" than "waking reality" itself, to those who would cry out, "Help thou mine unbelief!" Similarly, atheists range from those who insist that it's impossible for gods to exist to those of us who deliberately fall short of asserting that no gods exist to those of us who simply don't know to those of us who are unable to form a god-concept in our minds. When I talk about atheists, overall and in the big picture, I mean those who simply lack a god-belief for whatever reason.
So allow me to explain this next part very slowly and to say certain things several different ways. I'll try not to sound too pedantic; these questions don't normally come up in everyday conversation, and this particular explanation is a first for me. I don't care if you agree, as long as you at least hear my statements clearly and have an accurate understanding of my position in this respect.
Christianity is a philosophically positive viewpoint in that it makes specific claims and advocates a specific world view. The Christian faith makes the existential claim that a god exists and that Christ (at minimum) is an important spokesperson for God and advocate to God, or is (at maximum) the Son of God (whatever that means). Atheism is a philosophically negative viewpoint in that atheism is (at minimum) the mere absence of a certain class of viewpoints, namely, the theistic viewpoints. Thus, unless one of the theistic viewpoints is convincing enough for me to hold (positively), I am left with the default, which is called atheism (in the philosophically negative sense). Theism is positive in that the belief has an object: God. Even if I am a "strong" atheist, one who positively asserts that no gods exist, my atheism is still negative in the sense that my belief (that no gods exist) has no object.
Atheism (passive atheism) is the default human condition in that we're all atheists until we convert to theism. But in the context of comparing atheism with Christianity or in the context of calling myself an atheist, atheism (active atheism) is every bit a response to theism. Atheism says, "I am not one of those." Christianity has no passive state (except in the sense that some sects baptize their infants). Christianity always stands on its own accord and is the result of a decision having been made by the individual (or by the parent, in the case of infant baptizers). Usually, this decision is made with much fanfare and solemn ritual. A Christian always knows she or he is a Christian; most atheists are not even aware that they're atheists.
I call myself an atheist only when comparing myself to theists. The term atheist does little more than distinguish me from theists. Were it not for theism, I would not be an atheist. But a Christian is not a Christian in comparison to anything; nobody else affects a Christian being a Christian or calling herself a Christian. A Christian is somebody who commits the self-contained act of believing in Christ. An atheist, on the other hand, is somebody who does not act the way a certain segment of humanity acts. To me, my atheism no big deal at all. Except when I'm sitting here at the terminal working on PAM, I'm not thinking about theism or atheism or anything along those lines. To me, atheism is the default human condition: there is nothing in atheism to distinguish me from that default human condition. It is the theists who have added something to their humanity by converting to theism. So I sometimes don't understand why we even need a word like atheism.
Imagine if nobody had hair on their heads, pretend that hair just didn't grow there. Would we still talk about a bald man? No. We wouldn't distinguish this trait with a descriptive word. What would you call it if some people did not have a forehead (just to be "out there" enough to prevent someone from digging up an actual case)? If this trait existed and were common enough, we would devise a word to distinguish this trait from those of us who do have a forehead. But since everybody has a forehead, we don't have a word for people who lack a forehead. The word atheist exists because some people have god-beliefs and others do not, so we need to distinguish between the two classes of people.
It's okay for a Christian to say "I am a Christian"; even I have no problem with that, because the Christian is telling me something positive about himself. But I should never be put in a position to have to say, "I am an atheist." It shouldn't matter. People will usually tell you if they have children. I don't go around telling people that I don't have any children -- and you know what? I don't like being asked if I have children. I shouldn't really have to distinguish myself for this lack. I hear lots of people lately talking about this or that tattoo. I never hear people talking about being without tattoos. If you don't have a tattoo, the subject just doesn't come up. (There isn't even a word for it, is there? Perhaps there is in the tattoo trade, but I doubt you'd find it in the dictionary.)
Unfortunately, I was born into a world where being an atheist was still considered very evil. You just didn't admit this fact in the 1950s. If somebody asked (they usually didn't), you called yourself a Unitarian or something along those lines, perhaps an agnostic. You didn't get asked much back then because in the 1950s and '60s, people just didn't talk about religion. (Even agnosticism can be uncomfortable because a few religious folks see it as an invitation to straighten you out. I can remember my Mom telling people, "Oh, we're not religious." I can see today that this was a bold step for her to have to take back then. I now resent people who'd put her on the spot like that; I know what it's like today even though times are much better in this respect.
Were it not for the extremely intrusive expressions of religion which abound where I live, I would not call myself an atheist. I first became aware of my atheism in the early 1960s when the phrase "In God We Trust" began to appear on our money. I was a little boy, and most of the money did not say this but the newer money did. When I found out what it means, I didn't think it was fair that the opinions of the religious people got to be on our money. Ever since then, the Christian religion keeps giving me the impression of a haughty, arrogant, condescending, holier-than-thou first-grade teacher standing over me and reminding me that I know better. Better than what!? I keep trying to think more highly of the religion, but it keeps giving me this particular impression. Both my column and the Letters responses contain numerous stories of what it was like for me to grow up being different from the others because I was not religious. Most of my friends didn't say anything, but occasionally someone did -- usually it was an adult. If most people minded their own business on the subject of religion, nobody would know that I am an atheist.
The main reason I am not a Christian is because Christianity has numerous problems with it which prevent me from granting to it my assent. These problems exist at all levels, ranging from its dubious origins to its moral outlook being so abhorrent that I would never even want to go along with it. My studies of the claims and the history of the Christian religion, particularly those claims made both by and about the Bible, prevent me from calling it true and still being able to consider myself an honest man. This is why I'm glad I never got around to pursuing the ministry as a career, which crossed my mind during the brief moment that I spent as a Fundamentalist Christian. What a waste that would have been! I could never tell somebody that a claim is true unless I had strong reasons for thinking it is true. So I spent just short of three years desperately trying to find reasons to believe the Christian religion, as expressed in biblical fundamentalism, was true and valid and worthy of my assent.
If the Christian viewpoint (or any theistic viewpoint, for that matter) had a convincing case to make, I would drop my skeptical stance like a hot potato. As a man of truthfulness, I follow truth wherever it may lead -- even if truth led me to the misery of having to practice the Christian religion. But I am fortunate in this because much of what I considered miserable about being a Christian was the fact that I was expected by my peers and by my religion to make claims for the religion that I could not validate, claims which part of me, even then, suspected were pure fiction. My reasons for becoming a Christian were purely emotional, and my reasons for remaining one as long as I did were based in it taking about that long to examine the claims of the Christian apologists -- which my pastors and peers had assured me would vanquish my many doubts. In other words, the ultimate misery, to me, would be to have to lie in order to accomplish what is expected of me. This I could never do, which is why I could never be a used-car salesman, an attorney, nor a Christian evangelist.
For these reasons I advocate absolute government neutrality in religious matters, forbidding both the law and on-duty civil servants from either advocating or interfering with any views either in favor of or against any religion -- and religion in general. Madison spoke of the "separation of religion from government" -- not a religion, as in a state church, but religion itself. I wouldn't want you to have to spend currency that says, "All Gods Are Make-Believe." Our government has no business advocating any religion over another, advocating any religion over no religion, or urging people to abandon the religious roots of their heritage, the faith of their fathers, or the convictions of their own hearts.
In short, the atheistic viewpoint is not really a viewpoint, but is, to me, the default -- what's left over when none of the religious claims hold water. It's what we had when we came into this world and where we would be were we not convinced by others to adopt religious faith ("Faith comes by hearing").
Religious tenets are an added attraction, usually being instilled at a very early age, long before a child has developed the capacity for critical thought, and almost always instilled by people whom the child naturally trusts: the parents.
The child is taught to repeat certain articles of faith (such as "There is one God, Allah, and Mohammed is His Prophet"). Then the child is taught to tell others that she or he believes this to be true. The child is rewarded for so doing, and any child who refuses is dealt with very sternly. Very few people ever critically examine these tenets, even after they grow up. Some atheists suggest that this is not true belief, but is simply the parroting of the tenets followed by the almost mechanical assertion that one believes these tenets to be true. Often this is so deeply ingrained that I shun discussions of these matters except on our Forum. I often will try to avoid such discussions on this Forum. This is not the purpose of our Forum; rather, it's here to discuss what it's like to try to function as an atheist in a world dominated by, and similar issues of interest to atheists. These are not really discussions, anyway. Rather, they're more like me quizzing an apologetics book or asking questions of an evangelism video. Can you imagine holding a dialogue with the television show Unsolved Mysteries?
Besides, the "God question" is, to me, one of the stupidest topics over which to get into an argument: there are so many crucial problems which deserve our cooperative attention! Nevertheless, I will point out that "In God We Trust" was placed on our currency during the McCarthy Era, when America was in the grip of a fearsome anti-atheist hysteria: "Today we are engaged in a final, all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity" (Senator Joseph McCarthy). I will point out that the words "under God" haven't always been in our Pledge of Allegiance, but were placed there during my lifetime -- during the McCarthy Era, again. I will answer questions when asked for my opinion. But the one thing I will not do is approach theists with the hope of seeing them deconverted to atheism. I don't avoid this behavior simply because it is one of the surest ways to lose friends and embitter people, I avoid it because it is wrong for me to do this. I sometimes respond when challenged with a god-claim, but I will never initiate the conversation.
What do you feel is the primary reason for our existence?
This question is unclear because it can be taken at least two different ways: If what you are asking is, "For what purpose was humankind brought into being?" then you are asking a trick question that needs to be unraveled before I can give you an honest answer. If seen a second way, if what you meant to ask was, "What is your purpose for living, for remaining alive?" then it was too vague to answer because it was imprecisely formed. Far superior wording is available to make the question clear and unambiguous (if indeed this second way is what you meant). I don't think you are asking, "Does humankind have a consensus as to what our purpose for pursuing life and longevity?" so I will ignore that one altogether.
There could be other possibilities that I have missed. In lieu of a clear understanding of what you're trying to get at, I will address the question twice, once for each possible interpretation of the question.
'For what purpose was humankind brought into being?'
I. Perhaps you meant to ask,"For what purpose was humankind brought into being?"
Phrased this way, it's a trick question because it presupposes an answer to the very question you appear to be asking. To eliminate this problem, we would need to subdivide the question into three parts:
1. "Was there a sentient being who brought us into existence?"
2. "If so, did that sentient being have a motive?"
3. "And if so, what was that motive for bringing us into existence?"
As an atheist, I am unable to get past the first part of this question. I am an atheist because I have encountered no reason to think that humankind was brought into being by the direct agency of any sentient being.
Notice the difference between my saying this and my having said, "I think that humankind was not brought into being by the direct agency of any sentient being." The former acknowledges that we're dealing with a god-claim and then describes me as not convinced by that claim. The latter is itself a claim that, were I to make it, I would be obligated to back it up with evidence and strong argument. The former is more honest because it keeps the conversation focused on the fact that we're dealing with a claim made by theists: namely, that a god exists and has brought us into being.
I accept the prevailing views of science.
Back to our question, I have every reason to accept the prevailing views in the field of particle physics, the Inflationary Big Bang Theory, which suggests that zero energy went into the Universe coming to be. The Inflationary Big Bang Theory further suggests that this event resulted in an initial state of pure chaos, eliminating the need for any ordering or organization on the part of an intelligent being. What little order we do see in the Universe came much later, as a result of the Universe's constant expanding. This expanding makes room for tiny pockets of order to form within open systems (such as our Earth in relation to the Sun). The Universe appears to be orderly only because our senses evolved to see only that order; the majority of the Universe, being mostly in a state of entropy, cannot be seen without sophisticated instruments. Even then, much of it must be detected by the effect it has rather than being directly detected or measured. See my "Interview With Particle Physicist Victor J. Stenger" for a brief overview of this model from the particle physicist's perspective.
I also have every reason to accept the Theory of Evolution as being adequate to explain the appearance of design. Natural selection, as a designer, uses only hindsight. All the design I see in organic life displays hindsight; nothing I see in organic life appears to have been designed with anything even remotely resembling foresight or planning.
Design? Yes! Foresight and planning (particularly involving the compassion one would expect from a sentient being)? Absolutely not! I don't see it, but see just the opposite: small changes being built onto last year's model, changes that work long enough and well enough to keep a gene pool going amidst the various environmental catastrophes that have come crashing down upon our planet over the eons.
For example: Why would a Designer with intelligence, foresight, and especially compassion toward what is alleged to be the main point of the Universe -- the human being (according to the Anthropic Principle) -- create the human spinal column? Starting with a spinal system adapted first for horizontally mobile sea vertebrates, this Creator then slightly revised the same system for horizontally mobile land animals (or so the theory goes, of course, combined with our observations). This makes sense, at first; but why would a compassionate Creator, with intelligence, foresight, suddenly adapt the very same basic design for vertically erect primates? Ask any back specialist to explain this one in light of the notion that this was the work of an intelligent and compassionate Designer who utilized foresight!
My back is in fine shape except for one thing: this type of spine was suited for its user to keep it horizontal, being developed over hundreds of millions of years in species which thrived horizontally; thus, my spine has been crumbling since my late 20s or early 30s. All the bones are intact, but the doctors and chiropractors cannot get them to line back up. Because they did not catch this in time, I must endure either constant and often debilitating pain or the side-effects of pain medication. I did the former for eleven years and have done the latter for the past about 18 months.
But, if the spinal column first evolved in worm-like organisms, and later developed in fish, amphibians, and reptiles, and finally animals and primates, and if those primates who stood up did so with the same basic spinal column that everybody else already had (hot having had a new back designed specifically for vertical mobility), with natural selection making only a few changes here and there to the system which already existed, then this is not a problem. I have a problem, to be sure, but it has nothing to do with trying to explain my back situation in light of a Creationist viewpoint. This situation fits neatly into any number of evolutionist' models.
For example: Why would a Designer with intelligence, foresight, and especially compassion place all the blood vessels and nerves between the photosensitive cells of the eye and the retina? Why not, as was "done" in the squid, place those structures behind the photosensitive area? Were this the case, the only visual problem I'd have would be that relating to my inability to focus the lenses and properly adjust to light levels (two other stories which point away from design involving intelligence, foresight, and compassion). Again, the lack of foresight and planning which characterizes the natural selection model very neatly eliminates this enigma generated by the notion of creation.
Perhaps we'll eventually find new evidence that would force us to abandon our current view, but for now, the natural selection model so neatly explains this and many other situations that only pose problems and enigmas for the creationist model, that I prefer it without having to give it much though.
For example: Why would a Designer with intelligence, foresight, and compassion design, in the human, the canal which drains fluid from the ear at an angle best suited -- again -- for those species whose necks are behind their heads, rather than below them? Had my canals been "designed" at the same angle relative to the position of my neck that my cats' canals were "designed" relative to the position of their necks, I wouldn't have caught so many infections in early childhood, seriously impairing my ability to resist disease in that part of my body. Then I would never have caught that big infection in July of 1986, which immediately caused me to become almost completely deaf for about a year, and which still renders me unable to hear without a great deal of effort -- and effort on the part of the other members of the conversation.
Lack of foresight and planning, one more time characteristic of natural selection, explains the problem handily. Creation raises doubts as to any intelligence and foresightedness -- and particularly any compassion on the part of the Creator.
For example: Why would a Designer with intelligence, foresight, and compassion wrap the seminal and urethra passages up around the bladder, passing through both the urogenital and the pelvic diaphragms, and then back down to go through the penis? Why does this system in warm-blooded animals take the same route as that of cold-blooded animals -- with a single twist: the testicle system of warm-blooded animals usually reside outside the torso, whereas those of cold-blooded animals reside inside the body, up near the prostate equivalent. It's almost as if the testes were simply moved downward and the tube extended as the various improvements were made, rather than created anew with a completely different (and vastly superior) route. Were the latter the case, I wouldn't have to call relatives and ask them if my Mom and Dad are telling me the truth about Dad's current state of health (they prefer to hide bad news from certain relatives so we won't worry -- and I'm one of those relatives).
Lack of foresight, anyone? Yes, natural selection building upon existing models and using the path of least resistance explains the situation much better than the notion that an intelligent, compassionate Designer with foresight and the ability to plan ahead. After all, Dad conceivably needed only to live long enough to bring us to an age where we can support ourselves and procreate in order to meet the demands of natural selection. Bobbi is younger than I and her boys are both adults. That gives you an idea of how much natural selection thinks about whether or not my Dad needs to live any longer to meet the bottom line. The faulty prostrate system of the male human brought my father much further than natural selection needed him to go, so this is not likely to be selected out of the gene pool any time soon. This doesn't make me very happy, but then, I don't give my assent to a proposition because I want to be happy or escape pain, I give my assent to a proposition because I think it's the one most likely to be true.
For example: Why would a Designer with intelligence, foresight, and compassion simply slap a neocortex directly upon the midbrain, growing, on an evolutionary scale, much like one would expect a tumor to grow? Would not an intelligent, compassionate Designer with foresight rather have made some effort to better integrate the neocortex with the midbrain, resulting with a species with much more emotional stability than we observe in the human? The midbrain of mammals remained virtually unchanged for millions and millions of years, taking that long to develop to where it was in the primates who were our immediate predecessors. But the neocortex of homo sapiens has been around for only a few million years and didn't take much longer than that to develop by blind trial and error.
Every indication points toward "design" involving a pronounced lack of foresight -- and definitely a lack of compassion!
For example: My pharmacist tells me that most of the lower-grade short-term narcotics prescriptions he fills are written by dentists. Why? Because our "Designer" had the "intelligence," "foresight," and "compassion" to place very sensitive nerves inside our teeth! Can you believe that? Can you believe that from the perspective of a sentient, intelligent, compassionate Designer who knew exactly how much pain and misery this one move would eventually cause the crown of His creation (pun intended)?
Why do so many Yellow Pages ads under "Dentists" prominently feature the words compassionate? Because the "designer" obviously lacked any compassion whatsoever, that's why! How could a "designer" lack compassion? The same way it could lack foresight: this "designer" appears, in all respects bar none, to be the blind natural selection of any traits which do not prove disadvantageous toward maintaining the various gene pools amidst environmental challenges, rendering members of a species only good enough to pass the DNA on to the next generation -- keeping the parent long enough for the offspring to reach the age of procreation. Only after the science of medicine develop beyond the Dark-Ages level of bloodletting and similar religious superstitions, only after human politics stopped believing that pain, suffering, and death were our lot as humans due to a curse placed upon us by the Christian godhead -- only after we overcame these two hindrances did our life expectancy move beyond what it takes to bear and raise children to a maturity sufficient to survive without our direct support and supervision.
I reject the creationists' alternative proposals.
But that's not all: the positive claims that we were designed border on the bizarre. I have listed several incongruities in just the Genesis accounts of creation (there are two). Here are a few of them (some cribbed from McKinsey's Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy):
Did God divide the light from the darkness on the first day (Gen. 1:4-5) or on the fourth day (Gen. 1:14-16, 19)?
Was the earth first covered with water with land appearing later (Gen. 1:2, 1:9-10) or was the earth first dry land with water later appearing (Gen. 2:4-6)?
Did God create the heavens and the earth and herbs on separate days (Gen. 1:1, 1:11) or were the herbs created "in the day that the Lord God made the earth and heavens" (Gen. 2:4-6)?
Did God create the fowl from the ground (Gen. 2:19) or from the waters (Gen. 1:20)?
Did God make the beast, the foul of the air, and the fruit tree first (Gen. 1:25; Gen. 1:21; Gen. 1:12-13) and then man (Gen 1:27, 1:31) or did he make man first (Gen. 2:7) and later the beast (Gen. 2:19; Gen. 2:9)?
Were the fowl and the beast created separately (Gen. 1:12, 1:23) or at the same time (Gen. 2:19)?
Did God create man in his own image, male and female (Gen. 1:27) or was woman more of an afterthought, created much later, after it was discovered that man could not find a companion (help meet) among the animals (Gen. 2:18-22, see esp. 20)?
Did man die "in the day that thou eatest thereof" as God predicted (Gen. 2:17) or otherwise, as the serpent predicted (Gen 3:4, Gen. 5:5).
Was the serpent telling the truth when he said, "God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil" (Gen 3:4-5)? (God later said, "Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil" [Gen 3:22].) If so, was Jesus telling the truth when he said, "You belong to your father, the devil, [who] ... was ... not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies" (John 8:44)?
I can see these being ancient myths, either explanations for our existence given to the primitive masses or symbolic rituals of some sort, encoded to look like a primitive creation myth to all but the enlightened. More likely, these are two creation myths blended into a single narrative, one coming from the original indigenous tribe and the other coming from the larger culture into which the indigenous tribe was assimilated. But these in no way describe anything that has occurred in history. They are not science and do not describe what happened.
Attempts to bring stuff like this into the public schools and dish it out as science serve only to discredit the Christian religion and divide the communities, requiring the rest of us to spend vast amounts of energy and resources to stop these attempts. At the end of each battle, we're all way too exhausted, trembling for fear of where our country may be going, to really care about being friendly with Fundamentalist Christian creationists.
Creationists' style of presentation speaks volumes.
The most important reason I reject the claims of creationism is that creationists have had to use indirect arguments in attempting to make their case. Indirect arguments are fine and well -- if and only if a preponderance of the evidence does not point away from their position. But the evidence available to us doesn't make the creationist position look very convincing. This does not stop creationists from insisting that we teach sectarian religion in the science classes of our public schools -- despite the fact that almost all scientists in the fields in question reject the Fundamentalist Christian explanations of origins. I say "explanations" because they can't even agree on what their "Infallible, Unchangeable Word of the Living God" says or means. As a result, there are more major variants of Christian creationism (young earth; age-day; Anthropic Principle; etc.) than there are major schools of evolution (gradualism; punctuated equilibria; etc.).
In order to convince a school board to come over to their point of view, the handful of apologists for Christian creationism must resort to the very acts of treachery and deceit that they accuse the entire scientific establishment of conspiring to commit. A clumsy conspiracy wrought by a small, desperate religious sect with an agenda is much easier to explain than a vast, global, wholesale conspiracy involving the top scientists of all nationalities and creeds, covering several generations and representative of almost all the remaining religious sects not involved in Creationism.
Would that the Fundamentalist Christians simply cough up a Creator and settle the argument once and for all!
But as it stands, their case is so utterly futile that I don't sit here and wonder if perchance they might be right. I prefer, instead, to live my life as if no intrinsic "primary reason for our existence" has come to light -- in other words, as if no intrinsic "primary reason for our existence" exists. This is the best I can do unless and until some intrinsic "primary reason for our existence" comes to light in a way that satisfies for me the best methods for testing a proposition that I know of.
I see no intrinsic purpose: my life is mine to value.
Until then, without an intrinsic "primary reason for our existence," it is both my privilege and my responsibility either to discover or to develop my own "primary reason for existence" and to apply that reason to every thing I do.
'What is your purpose for living, for remaining alive?'
II. Perhaps you were meaning to ask me, "What is your purpose for living, for remaining alive?"
This would be an individual question, to be answered (or not answered) by a given individual. Since a value or purpose (in that sense) is always a personal opinion (I do not recognize any such thing as intrinsic value), the personal context is the only proper context for this question.
For me, I realize and admit that the Universe, as a whole, gives no indication of having any intrinsic meaning -- I don't see the Universe as having any purpose in and of itself. The Universe simply is, and that's all I can say because that's all I know: I can go no further without having a strong reason for doing so. Ditto for life as a whole. Life's only indisputable characteristic (which, when anthropomorphized, can resemble a purpose, of sorts) is to remain alive long enough to bring offspring up to the age of procreation. There is nothing to suggest that there was a reason for the Universe coming to be, and there is nothing to suggest that there was a reason for life coming to be in the first place.
Does this mean that my life is necessarily meaningless? Absolutely not!
Unlike the Universe (and the Universe's agent of cause), I am a sentient being, with goals, emotions, and the intelligence both to keep these in focus and to put them to use. Not only have I developed an intricate set of personal ethics and values with which to live my life, I have very strong reasons (and powerful instincts) which motivate me to remain alive (as opposed to committing suicide or even living recklessly). Despite an acute and life-long depressive disorder which has forced me to learn suicide prevention techniques and practice them on myself (and to develop a few tricks of my own), my desire to live and to remain living is as strong as I've seen in anybody.
Most of this comes from two realizations:
First, the chances of me having come to be at all are minuscule beyond human imagination. I realized this at a very young age (before the fifth grade, because I remember where I was, and by the time I was in the fifth grade, that place had become a swimming pool). I had learned that of millions and millions of sexual partners my biological mother could have united with (I was adopted and know nothing of those people), she united with one man. Had she united with any other man, the resulting child probably would have been someone other than me. Also, this man had millions of sperm cells, but only one penetrated the wall of the ovum. Had any other cell penetrated, the result, again, might have been someone else. Also, had this happened on an earlier or later date, to a different ovum, the child most assuredly would have been somebody else and not me.
Furthermore, I realized that time has been marching forward for billions of years, and will march forward probably for much longer than it has been moving to date. But time happens to be now, when it's my turn to be alive, and not earlier, before I would have been born, or later, after I will have died. Finally, I had, by then, realized that my existence is wrapped entirely in the existence and health of my body: when my body becomes destroyed, I cease to be. By the time I thought all this, I had already suffered grave illness several times and had survived nonetheless. Since I could not contain this realization of just how lucky I am just to be here, I simply tried to blot these thoughts out of my mind (which was rather easy, considering that being a pre-adolescent, I had the attention span of a pre-adolescent!).
I realized all this in about the fourth grade or so. As a result of a single afternoon of deep contemplation, I developed a profound appreciation for the fact that I even exist.
When I was in the third grade, our school district tested students for certain potentials, including the arts, literacy, and science. I made the first cut and was further tested in science. Having made the second cut, I was sent to a special school (on the short bus? if I'd wanted to, but Mom conspired with the other lucky kids' parents and arranged a car-pool). There we worked on many projects in addition to the basic studies, and one was to watch a series of films featuring a character named "Dr. Baxter." I distinctly remember that very little of what "Dr. Baxter" said went over my head, and I was utterly fascinated by the whole thing.
While I never got much of an opportunity to master the smaller issues of day-to-day living, I did get this one glimpse of the grand scheme of things -- or, rather, the utter lack of a scheme. And for some reason that I cannot pin down (possibly the gentle love of life that my atheistic Mother still has), I was able to go through this realization with a profound appreciation for my existence rather than ending up with a monumental case of angst. I can see how going through the chain of thoughts that I experienced that afternoon could easily lead someone to a sense of futility. In other words, I can see how such a realization could drive someone to the more comforting explanations offered by myth, ritual, and religious affiliation.
But I am not cut out for going that route because I have very little in the way of cultural roots. I absolutely cannot relate to doing something simply because that's what my parents did -- and neither could my parents or their parents or even their parents, in most cases).
I was adopted, and Mom's Dad was British, her Mother being of aristocratic Cape Cod stock. My Dad's side weaves through a mesh of Texas and Missouri half-breeds going back to the American Revolution. Two of his Father's ancestors signed the Constitution (the Pinckneys) and one of his Mother's ancestors was John Witherspoon, the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence. This multiple clash of cultures left me with a single, long-standing cultural tradition: fierce cultural independence; no real cultural tradition (in the traditional sense); as American as America dishes out. No wonder nobody who any of the surviving members of our family can remember was religious: one great-grandfather was a Unitarian minister of the Spinoza's god variety.
So my "purpose" is mine and mine alone. I did it all by myself. I adopted nothing in particular from my parents or playmates or school or television or even Rock and Roll. I joke about atheism being "the faith of my fathers," but I am an atheist for my own reasons; unlike any of the other family members, I was a Fundamentalist Christian for about three years, and also experimented with Hinduism and the occult. My Dad's Mom was a fringe "cultural" Muslim, but remained an atheist her whole life. I'm even a completely different kind of atheist than our family has ever produced.
So, do I have a purpose for living? if my life and my work do not answer this question, I'm not sure I could explain it in words. I've spent the remainder of life since then trying to explain in words -- just to myself -- the experience I had one afternoon in about the fourth grade or so, when I developed my current appreciation for life (both my life and life in general). Perhaps some things are simply nonverbal. Perhaps my purpose for living -- which I can assure you both is, and is very powerful -- is not something that can be put into language.
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
people with no reason to believe
Material by Cliff Walker (including unsigned editorial commentary) is copyright ©1995-2006 by Cliff Walker. Each submission is copyrighted by its writer, who retains control of the work except that by submitting it to Positive Atheism, permission has been granted to use the material or an edited version: (1) on the Positive Atheism web site; (2) in Positive Atheism Magazine; (3) in subsequent works controlled by Cliff Walker or Positive Atheism Magazine (including published or posted compilations). Excerpts not exceeding 500 words are allowed provided the proper copyright notice is affixed. Other use requires permission; Positive Atheism will work to protect the rights of all who submit their writings to us.