Bruce Charlton’s case that atheism is incoherent

In a recent blog post, Bruce Charlton makes the case that Atheism is always incoherent, incompetent or unserious; coherent thinkers *must be* theists. Now I am no longer the atheist I once was — I am willing to entertain theism as a working hypothesis (which is of course still a long way from actually believing it). However, I do think that atheism is a reasonably coherent point of view — or, at any rate, that its inherent problems as a philosophy are no worse than the problems inherent in theism. I therefore want to go through Dr. Charlton’s points one by one and analyze them.

In what follows, italicized paragraphs represent summaries or paraphrases of points made by Dr. Charlton. Paragraphs in roman type present my own ideas.

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1. The terms of the debate

Theism and atheism are metaphysical assumptions, not empirical conclusions. They should be judged not by comparing the evidence for and against each view, but by comparing the positive and negative consequences of believing them.

I think it is probably true that there can be no empirical evidence for or against theism simply as such, because it is such a vague proposition. However, the more specific theological claims of individual religions often do have implications which are subject to empirical testing and/or logical disproof.

Where empirical evidence is unavailable or inadequate, it is indeed appropriate to evaluate competing beliefs by their probable consequences — i.e., by criteria of expediency as opposed to truth. This is what lies behind the principle of presumption of innocence without proof of guilt; lacking conclusive evidence, we judge it more expedient to risk one kind of error than the other. My assumption that I have free will (see You should believe in free will) is also based on expediency rather than evidence (since there can be no empirical evidence regarding the ontological status of things that don’t happen). Pascal’s wager is yet another example of this kind of reasoning.

Bare theism, though, is a very vague proposition indeed, and just as there can probably be no real evidence for or against theism-as-such, it’s not clear that theism-as-such has any particular consequences, either. Specific religions have specific consequences and can thus be judged as expedient or inexpedient belief systems, but I confess to being at a loss to think of any specific practical consequences of “mere theism.” Rather than passing judgment on theism first and only afterwards (should the judgment be positive) considering which brand of theism is the best, perhaps it makes more sense to consider specific religions right from the start.

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2. The pathology of sub-replacement fertility

One of the negative consequences of atheism is “sub-replacement fertility under modern conditions (where there is access to a range of fertility regulating technologies).” This is objectively pathological, and seriously so. Dr. Charlton admits that most religions also lead to sub-replacement fertility; however, there are a few religious exceptions to this rule (e.g., Mormons, Orthodox Jews) but no known non-religious exceptions. (Some individual atheists may be exceptions, of course, but no predominantly secular society is.)

Well, the fact that atheists and the vast majority of theists suffer from this pathology is a strong indication that belief in God is not the determining factor. That every member of this tiny group of élite cultures — those which reproduce themselves under modern conditions — should be theistic is hardly a surprise, since virtually all cultures are theistic. To understand the secret of their immunity to the otherwise universal plague of Malignant Modernity, we should be looking at what they have in common which makes them different from other cultures — not at the near cultural universal of theism.

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When I look at the modern pathology of voluntary infertility — and, as Dr. Charlton says, it is very definitely a pathology and a serious one — I see a pathology of motives, not beliefs. It’s not that our fundamental motives have changed, but that our technology has changed the world in such a way that the old, one-serviceable motives are no longer productive of fitness. (See my discussion of this in The Genie scenario.)

Consider the situation with food: We still have the same old food-motives as before — a desire for sugar and fat and salt and so on — but those motives, which once kept us alive, are now fitness-reducing in a world where technology has made these things too readily available, and in refined form.

A similar pathology of outdated motives seems to be in play vis-à-vis reproduction. Most people do have a natural desire to have children — but compared to our other natural desires, it’s not a very strong one. Other desires — for sex, status, comfort, security, pleasure — are much stronger and more immediate, and when they are pitted against the desire for children, the latter tends to lose out. In pre-modern times, those stronger desires tended naturally to lead people to have children — either as side-effect of pursuing sex, or as means of acquiring wealth, status, and security. Under modern conditions, these indirect inducements to reproduction no longer work properly. It is quite easy to have plenty of sex without ever having children, and children tend to be a net negative in economic terms. As for security, the modern welfare state makes it unnecessary to have children to provide for one in one’s old age; and easy divorce means that women cannot feel secure without a “career” — which generally entails a ridiculously protracted period of education, with predictable consequences for fertility. Without the assistance of these ancillary motives, modern people are inadequately motivated to reproduce.

In all of this there is no indication that people’s incorrect beliefs (about the existence of God or about anything else) are at the root of the pathology — just as the obesity epidemic probably cannot be attributed to incorrect beliefs about nutrition. In both cases, once-effective motives are wreaking havoc in an environment which no longer resembles the one in which they evolved.

Certain beliefs may turn out to be effective antidotes to these motivational pathologies — but these need not (indeed, probably will not be) factually correct beliefs. Wrong beliefs can be tailored to fit wrong motives so as to produce the desired result — throwing Br’er Rabbit into the briar patch, as it were. To use a hypothetical example, a firm belief that eating refined grains results in eternal damnation would probably lead to better health consequences than true beliefs (coupled with woefully inadequate motives) would. Those few religions which succeed in motivating their adherents to choose above-replacement fertility may be not-so-hypothetical examples of the same thing.

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3. Justifying norms

Another consequence of atheism is that laws and other norms have nothing to back them up. They are either confessedly arbitrary — enforced by bare, unjustified power — or else they are justified by utilitarian criteria (maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain “overall”). However, there is no intelligible calculus for summing up individual pains and pleasures and deriving the overall hedonic value of any particular state of affairs, so in practice utilitarianism is used as a post hoc justification for whatever those in power find expedient.

Yes, but the “will of God” is no more provable than the “greatest good for the greatest number,” and both of these principles have been used to justify all sorts of different norms — including ones which strike most people as grotesquely evil.

In theory, theists humble submit to the will of God. In practice, they simply assume that God agrees with their own conscience, or their own culture’s norms, or whatever happens to be expedient at the moment — which is pretty much the same thing that utilitarians do. (See my old post Arrogance and humility, which was also written in response to Dr. Charlton.)

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4. Objective meaning and purpose

Under atheism, there is no objective purpose or meaning of life. Atheists respond that they can create their own meaning and purpose. However, if this is true, it means no particular meaning or purpose can be objectively right or wrong. This implies either solipsism or nihilism — but nihilism is self-contradictory “because it is a non-arbitrary metaphysical belief which claims that beliefs are arbitrary.”

Actually, this form of nihilism is not technically self-contradictory. It states merely that all “meanings” and “purposes” — not all beliefs — are arbitrary. But that’s of little importance; I think most people will agree that solipsism and (any form of) nihilism are things to be avoided, and that atheism has serious problems if it entails either of the two.

However, it’s not clear to me how theism saves us from this species of nihilism. Various intelligent beings have various goals and purposes, and if God exists then he has goals and purposes as well — but why should God’s purposes be considered the purposes, inherently valid in a way that others are not? Is it because he is so powerful? (Might makes right?) Or because he is good and wise? (See the Euthyphro dilemma.) Or because he created us? (But if we had been created by a mad scientist instead, would his mad purposes therefore be automatically and uniquely valid?)

In fact, non-theistic Darwinism also proposes that there is an objective “purpose of life” — namely, to maximize our inclusive fitness, i.e., to keep copies of our genes in existence for as long as possible — but that is obviously an inadequate reason for any human to accept that as his own purpose in life. Theists accept the purposes attributed to God, not because they are the purposes for which life was created and as such necessarily valid, but because they are purposes which humans already find attractive for other reasons. Whatever “objectivity” those purposes may have is derived from their status as human psychological universals, a status which is unaffected by the existence or nonexistence of God.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Bruce Charlton’s case that atheism is incoherent

  1. Your rebuttal of the pathology-of-infertility argument is weak. In demonstrating that theism is not a sufficient condition for overcoming the pathology, you’re still a long way from showing that it isn’t a necessary condition. It’s also, to me, inexplicable that you separate out religion from motives. If religion affects fertility, it’s pretty likely that it does so in part by supplying felt motives that non-religious and other religious lives do not. This may be directly, or indirectly if the religion supplies a motive for behavior (such as strong community support or lifelong marriage or early marriage) that in turn makes children more likely.

    • Adam, perhaps I did not make myself clear. I agree with you that religion affects fertility by supplying effective motives (as opposed to by providing accurate beliefs) — and that therefore fertility is only an argument that certain religious beliefs are expedient, not that they are true. There is no reason to expect much overlap between the two sets “beliefs that motivate people to reproduce under highly abnormal (i.e., modern) conditions” and “beliefs that reflect reality.”

  2. I’m feeling a bit zonked after a prolonged migraine – but I’ll try to refute the main points.

    1. “bare theism, though, is a very vague proposition indeed, and just as there can probably be no real evidence for or against theism-as-such, it’s not clear that theism-as-such has any particular consequences, either.”

    I think the terms of debate are ‘some kind of theism’ rather than bare theism – i.e. all possible/ coherent/ valid answers involve theism.

    2. “Certain beliefs may turn out to be effective antidotes to these motivational pathologies — but these need not (indeed, probably will not be) factually correct beliefs. ”

    Well, this is just a theory – in practice there just aren’t any non-theistic belief systems which maintain fertility. In practice (at the group level) all seculars, atheist, and indeed liberal theists are committing genetic suicide for no objective reason.

    (Quite the opposite – modern people *could*, biologically, be having larger numbers of surviving children than ever before in the history of the world. Resources are no object at the individual level, since the state will rear any kids which the parents cannot – with no upper limit.)

    Also there are two aspects – secularization seems to have allowed reproductive self-suppression to emerge; but also, some types of theism are the ONLY actually existing effective antidote to it.

    3. “In theory, theists humble submit to the will of God.”

    This is not what I am arguing – it is that all coherent answers involve theism. Determining the will of God could be very varied, but all parties might still agree there was a will of God, and without such a will nothing made sense.

    (Much the same applies in science – each individual scientist may disagree about the value some measurement – but they all agree that there is such a thing as that which is being measured.)

    4. “Theists accept the purposes attributed to God, not because they are the purposes for which life was created and as such necessarily valid, but because they are purposes which humans already find attractive for other reasons. Whatever “objectivity” those purposes may have is derived from their status as human psychological universals, a status which is unaffected by the existence or nonexistence of God.”

    What you are describing here is the Jungian interpretation of religion – that it is wholly reducible to psychological states of individuals – individual understandings being united by an underlying (and hard to access) commonality of psychological states.

    But the essence of real theism is precisely that there is a purpose which is distinct from psychological states – in fact it is possible that every single human might be wrong in their psychological attributions of God’s purpose (as in an evil and corrupt society) – but for a theist, God’s purpose would still be real.

    And it is that which forms the basis of objectivity – the objectivity is precisely that God’s will is regarded as independent of human understandings.

    I could say more, but will leave it at that.

    • “Also there are two aspects – secularization seems to have allowed reproductive self-suppression to emerge; but also, some types of theism are the ONLY actually existing effective antidote to it.”

      I would guess that fertility-regulating technology, the welfare state, and general prosperity have allowed reproductive self-suppression to emerge. It is true that certain religions are the only known antidotes — but effectiveness as an antidote to a motivational (as opposed to an epistemic) pathology is not an indication of truth.

      “Determining the will of God could be very varied, but all parties might still agree there was a will of God, and without such a will nothing made sense.”

      Just as all utilitarians would agree that there was a summum bonum and that without such a concept nothing made sense.

      “But the essence of real theism is precisely that there is a purpose which is distinct from psychological states.”

      No. The essence of theism is that there is one particular mind (God’s) whose psychological states are the “right” ones and to which other minds ought to defer. (Darwinism, on the other hand, does provide a “purpose of life” which is not based on psychological states.)

  3. Pingback: Life, or knowledge of good and evil: choose one | Boisterous beholding

  4. The idea of atheism is the cold, robotic universe where man is an accident, otherwise it is all a random fusion of gasses, rocks and chemicals, no discernible intelligence, no congruence at all!

    Is that you? Are you a bad accident, waiting to end?

    If you “happened” once would it be more likely that you could “happen” again? This is what observation of Nature tells us, all things are cyclical. Even stars and whole universes come to life and die. After a while death is followed by some kind of new life. This indicates that we are not some accident.

    The personal, external God is a man made nonsense! This is the Western idea of God. This notion is very similar to a king or ruler who rules his subjects with firm grip and iron hand.

    Both notions (atheism and personal god are the Western mind’s fallacy.

    Both notions make no sense under scrutiny thus causing anxiety and unhappiness throughout the Western world. The symptoms are materialism and rampant drug use, as we cannot feel at home in our own skin.

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