Bottom of the Firkin Barrel

What is it to be offended? Not a seemingly difficult question, but one for which the surrounding issues seem as well understood as a quantum mechanical unicorn. Theists in particular seem to be unreflectively convinced (gasp) that offence is something requiring immediate acknowledgement and redress, and that it overrules almost any other principle imaginable. A state of affairs which is instantly made worse by their somehow thinking their own beliefs and feelings have a kind of innate sanctity lacked by others.

Being offended is little more than the emotional correlate of disagreement. Disagreement with a statement, if it contravenes one’s sensibilities, or disagreement with a state of affairs, if it departs from one’s ideal. Little enough, but clearly sufficient to warrant an only weakly-challenged torrent of words and action against freedom of expression and action (to the extent that is free). As if harbouring a feeling of offence will cause the self or mind to unravel the way they presumably imagine society will if such transgressions are allowed to continue.

But the fact is nothing happens. It might be psychologically unhealthy to carry this permanent sense of furious indignation, but considering how unlikely it is the entire world will conform to one’s utopia I would think it more sensible to aim for a sense of perspective than burning cinemas or bowdlerising books.

Having mentioned perspective something else rarely injected into this debate is the side of the atheist, or relativist. As if not subscribing to an absolutist worldview renders one unable to recognise or decide that something causes offence. I, for example, am mortally offended by each and every single theistic concept, multiplied by the billions of instantiations they have by running as cretinous software in the brains of those so deluded. And yet I would disagree with a ban on religion (perhaps the idea offends me…) since I cannot bring myself to the cyclopean arrogance to assume that my personal sensibilities must dictate the world of others.

Further, a world without offence, without the possibility of offence, seems one anodyne and devoid of any intellectual challenge. A bland, cloying reality where boundaries aren’t even approached let alone crossed. Stultifying and stupefying. And depriving intelligent people of the chance to finding the right way of acting and the right things to say, in a world where anything can be said and done, and especially one in which there is no Right thing.

It is said that offence is taken, and not given. An idea which is very true, if not literally so. I have often tried desperately to give offence, and have little idea of my success rate. It would be pleasing to imagine this is because I live in an environment of balanced and reasonable people. But, being balanced and reasonable, I expect it’s simply because I don’t matter. Something the offended should perhaps try on.

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Demi-Sec(ular)

Secularism is a worthy notion, even if it does end up surrounded in slightly odd perceptions. It is quite common to read accounts of secularist atheists which mention the valuable support and accord of secularist theists but, while I have no doubt there exist such, I expect it is a far less common convergence of commitments. This is one of the oddest perceptions: that secularism is somehow a threat to religious belief. Considering that in general secularism is not just about holding religious belief separate to any political power, but also about enshrining freedoms to believe and practice and religion, or no religion, ‘odd’ barely covers it. Why object to anything that protects your own freedom?

As usual, though, that is not what is going on. Evangelism (or the nagging fear that people elsewhere might not believe what you do) has a much higher incidence among theists than atheists. I was once told by a pair of evangelists at my door that they were as happy as any non-evangelist atheist such as myself to live and let live, to let people be. This seriously invited the question of why they were waving their Bronze Age documents in my face. The point here is that there is a tendency among people who believe in absolutist notions (which is inextricably linked with most religion) not just to want their own freedom to carry on such belief, but freedom to diminish and outlaw any dissent. It has been said that wherever religion acquires political power, atrocity, or at least oppression, follows.

Very few, if any, theists would accept this. But thankfully there is a less disputable reason to mock general religious attitudes towards secularism. In most cases wherever secular systems end up holding sway either formally or informally, religious observance tends to decline noticeably. A superficial reading of that sort of statistical conclusion is that secularism is therefore some kind of attack on religious belief, and this is why it must be opposed. But there is a much better interpretation of why this happens. And, possibly, why it does not happen in the few anomalous cases. When religion loses its mandate to inveigle its way into all aspects of life, to indoctrinate at all stages, and alternatives are allowed, that section of the population who observe religion out of indifference, or peer pressure, outright fear, or any other reason aside from actual faith, fall away from it. The anomalies presumably occur where one or more of these other reasons still possesses enough force to coerce the agnostic middle into identifying as a theist.

So secularism is a problem for the theist, not because it undermines any of an individual’s beliefs or (within legality) right to practice. It explicitly protects that. It is a problem because it detracts from religion’s own inherent need to proselytise its own rectitude. Or, rather, its natural desire to impose its own structure on others and not to tolerate difference, dissent or criticism.

Good News Everyone

In my capacity as a practising smartarse I often get drawn into debates with evangelical types. Which is, of course, pointless: arguments don’t sway faith, and evangelists have no arguments to sway infidels such as myself. Nevertheless, it can be useful to a) prove that a secular outlook means wildly different belief sets can co-exist and b) remind oneself that religiosity is certainly not the result of reasoning.

In a recent encounter I opened with a reliable shocker on the theme of not only do I not believe, but I would be horrified to find out there was a god. Atheists tend to be viewed as actually lacking something (‘atheist’, however, is just a word, and one that would have been unnecessary if god-concepts hadn’t been brought up in the first place) and I often find the assumption in theists that most of us would welcome a divine presence if only we could open up our minds (which is, I assume, to crack open our skulls and reap the rewards that lavishes on our intelligence levels).

There are many reasons to be horrified by god, but I went with the divine tyranny option. I value being able to choose (whatever that means) and create values. I value using my own brain and experience to make sense of the world and its inhabitants. If there is a divine provenance to the universe, it typically is characterised as a moral one as well as a physical creation one. Which means there is a correct answer. And judging by holy texts and the behaviour of adherents to them, the correct answer would not be mine. It is tempting to say therefore there is no god, to paraphrase someone I always paraphrase. But it is not so much the being rendered Wrong that I dislike so much, it is the very meanness of there being a single correct way. As with the dismal paucity of the answer ‘god did it’ when talking about the intricacies and wonders of the physical universe, this impoverishes the experience of being human.

It is also slavery and compulsion. And a bizarrely unfair halfway house: we are not free to choose what is right, but we are allowed to choose whether we do what is right. And if we do not, we are punished to an insane degree (eternity is a lot longer than most people seem to think). The response I received to that was that god is a benevolent guide, we are free to follow his guidance or not, and his Christian holy book does not threaten punishment. No argument needed there, it simply does so threaten. A lot. Also, god is evidently not much of a guide. If one went to a tourist information desk and their one pamphlet was a collection of millennia-old places and events, and the person on that desk said they were not actually the guide pamphlet source, nor had they ever met, seen or heard anything from that source, but nevertheless following the pamphlet to the letter was the only guaranteed way of navigating the city, one might think of at least raising an eyebrow.

Which is the point. Religiosity is not about reason. It can be about ignorance. But often it is about whether it satisfies a psychological or social need. But in either of those cases, to lower all standards of evidence and to blindly hold to what one wants to be the case are very poor endorsements of that mode of being. The evangelists at my door wanted a Father. I’d say he would be found wanting, for absenteeism at the very least.

Reflections on a Sixpence

Anyone who may have read any posts written by me might have detected a hint of… antipathy towards religion and theistic thought (for example, to me that is an oxymoron). This is for many reasons, many of which have been covered or at least broached. The one I am addressing here relates to standards of evidence, or more broadly the modes of rationality allowed or employed. Religion frustrates me because as a deeply rational empiricist the haphazard, tissue-thin, rarely even internally consistent modes of thought or standards of evidence employed in theistic traditions both galls and frightens me.

Partly this is because the standards of reasoning are typically so bad I cannot help but worry that it opens the door to all poor standards in all areas of thought. To subvert a famous sentiment: ‘with God, anything is permitted’. And I would maintain that there is some truth in this. Although many religious traditions officially reject what they think of as superstitions (you know, crazy ideas such as breaking mirrors being bad luck, not sensible ideas such as virgin birth) once you have lowered your standards of evidence and reasoning, especially for classic religion-centred reasons such as believing what you want to believe, deluding yourself into believing you matter more than you do etc., there will be some cognitive creep.

However, more broadly the utter deluge of cognitive crap actually does not occur to the degree that I sometimes fear it will. Otherwise, the general mass of theists would not actually manage to function at all. In the general run of life, even theists expect demonstrable evidence to accept things are the case. Hopefully, if I maintained that there was a lovely sandwich in the fridge, but it couldn’t be seen, felt or tasted, but would definitely nourish them if they had faith it was there, they would feel they were being treated like an idiot. The terrible standards of evidence and reasoning seem largely confined to matters pertaining to religion.

On the one hand this is a relief. The world would be even worse if people reasoned in the theistic mode in general (or perhaps, briefly, a lot funnier, before becoming far less densely populated, and then by only the rational). But for me this brings an additional frustration. Because it indicates that the people concerned are not incapable of being rational, and yet there is almost blanket refusal to apply a consistent level of intellectual integrity.

But, evidently, to theists they feel the same standards of reasoning and evidence are not to be used in such different magisteria as the phenomenal and the noumenal. My final thought, then, is to wonder why, in what is supposedly the realm of actual Truth and meaning, the ordinary hugely successful methods of science and general empiricism are anathema, and blind faith, refusal to acknowledge evidence and non-questioning of authority are so highly prized. I suppose we all worry the ropes we cling to will unravel. But empirical industry tends to provide gradually better ropes as the old ones fray.

The Loss That Keeps Giving

I wrote some time ago of the statistically provable increase in happiness a sure and certain belief in a god and provident universe could confer, and how this was about as relevant to the truth of such beliefs as intellectual integrity is to… such beliefs. Still, not everyone values integrity over lackwit miserable ease, and so those beliefs are still touted with astonishing persistence at all of us when we are least able to filter out nonsense.

A personal idiosyncrasy is that I find the harm caused by the removal of something even ostensibly positive is harm of a particularly insidious kind. And it is something I had to go through at a fairly young age, once I’d realised the actual nature of the world. It is not a comfortable realisation when not even out of single figure age, having to consider if the adults were lying to you, or just stupid. And, since what atheist literature there is about this loss is sparse and generally intellectually difficult, it leaves a serious and despairing gap. A gap capacious in both darkness and duration.

I’m sure it would generate no dissent to say that religion persists in the more intellectually deficient in society. There are many routes to atheism, but a major highway is simply being unable to swallow the utterly inconsistent and irrelevant claims and commitments all religion requires, and this is the function of a functioning brain. And it is this thought which makes it surprising to me that even parents who are unconvinced by religion often still allow it to indoctrinate their children. Perhaps they hope that those children will find and retain the comfort of believing there is any point to anything. But in doing so they seem to be making a somewhat unfortunate bet: that their children will be too stupid to think their way out of delusion.

And, if those children turn out to be sufficiently intelligent to make this escape, they are automatically condemned to have a wrenching loss of worldview. Religion never stopped with wanting to explain the provenance of the universe, it had ambition and reached into everything.

It is almost as if there is no real upside to allowing the memetic corruption of minds.

Off The Main Sequence

Around a year ago I wrote an all-too-purple piece about the death of God in Nietzsche’s writings, starting from his famous madman in the marketplace scene. Perhaps a more considered treatment would while away part of a grinding Friday afternoon (for me, if no one else).

It was a prophetic point the like of which I am not familiar with elsewhere. The imagery is of the light of dead suns still falling upon us as a metaphor for the apparent continuance of God as our ground and our goal while in truth the source has long since ended. His madman spoke of how even a hundred years hence no one would yet understand the truth of this. By which he meant that no one but himself truly knew what it would mean for humanity when its previous foundation of God for all things was revealed to be vacuous. And he was right. No one truly understands it, more than a century on. Especially those people who still do not realise the truth of the death of God.

Even for atheists, all conceptions of morality (for example) are rooted in this. It could not be possible for pre-religious sources of morality to have survived the millennia of monopoly religion has ground into us that it has on such matters. Although the evident nature of evolution gives us a much clearer insight into our origins, and has removed the idea that there is a goal, we are still mired in narrative that may as well have issued from the throat of a bronze age pontifex. After all, our religions and their mythologies stem from us and our nature, rather than being in-the-world discoveries that apes of utterly neutral nature happened upon.

Even could we understand what it means for our once-eternal source of normativity to be gone (or, with boring accuracy, to have been shown never to have been what we believed) we would have no stomach for it. Nietzsche knew that. In fact, in stark contrast to most philosophers, he felt that beautiful, useful lies were preferable to truth. His focus on individuals of higher nature was not just (not just) soaring elitism, and not just part of the idea that not everyone, only the few, could ever grasp his ideas and make proper use of them, but that such people should become their own mythologies, ones that could essentially be their own self-sustaining sources of normativity. Though, a source conceived of differently than before, not being in any sense objective.

Or so I believe. I don’t believe Nietzsche had any other recourse. Because a central part of the death of God, this loss, this realisation that all never was, is that there is no replacement. No scientific basis, no aesthetic theory, no historical sense, can take its place in this void. It is one reason most find Nietzsche so difficult. He offers us nothing, having torn away all of our illusions. Somehow we find this… obscene. But he had no place or authority to do so. All we are left with, in darkness and cold stellar substance, is ourselves. And we simply forge ourselves, and our own ways, if we even recognise that this is what we do. For now the light of dying suns continues to blind us, and we do not listen to those we can only see as madmen.

On the Origin of the Specious

I write a great deal on atheism, and I often do so with a tenor that goes along with what is often termed ‘New Atheism’, the sort of early twenty-first century tradition including people such as Dawkins or Hitchens. That tenor, understandably, does not sit well with opponents or atheists of differing traditions or temperament. I make little apology for it, and do not object to this tone in the mouths of those New Atheists, though I see no reason to hitch my cart to an –ism, even one of which I approve.

In the main I make no apology because the clear utility of this strident atheist voice is simply to counter the far larger and louder background of theistic ‘thought’ and tradition that will forever stand in its way. The majority will never place themselves far enough along the main sequence of belief to class themselves as atheists, but the occasional Stentor can at least call out loudly enough so that those who can realise they can. But the tenor is not the belief, and criticism of the assumed (and actual) militancy of some recent atheistic thought does not touch the thought itself.

I feel motivated to write this because of a book I recently read called ‘Atheists: the origin of the species’ which admittedly placed itself more as a potted history of Western atheistic figures and traditions from the Early Modern period onwards rather than a philosophical treatment. Yet it did depart quite markedly from a historical treatment into some questionable assumptions and conclusions.

To be balanced, it was not all questionable. Its commitment to pointing out the plurality of atheistic thought was admirable. So much of it through history stems not from metaphysical thought, or intellectual commitments (in that it echoes theistic ‘thought’), but from social and political pressures. I would quibble whether an ostensible atheist deriving his infidelity by objecting to authority claiming divine sanction really does rank as an atheist, but as the author at one point seemed content to claim anti-monarchist sentiment by itself as a mark of atheism his church was clearly broader than mine.

And it is true that there is a plurality within atheism. In a strong sense there could hardly be otherwise, as in this world it continues to be defined by what it is a rejection of. In rejecting a tradition or worldview it does not automatically follow that there be an extant or obvious replacement. This is the peril and liberation inherent in the particular tradition I most respect.

What I do not particularly respect, and what I rarely feel motivated to class as atheism either, is the tradition or traditions given a fair amount of treatment in the book, which constitute the establishing of formal societies or even ‘atheist religions’. The book alternately lauds these endeavours, while barely suppressing glee at their lukewarm reception when attempted, specifically in contrast to how easily religions gather adherents and impossible it is to eradicate them. I do not like this glee, though as I reject any desire or attempt to form some sort of atheist society, especially on the lines or practices of religious ones, I do not much object to its target.

Worse still, as the book swings from depiction to assertion, is the uncritical delineation of atheist societies in the wider sense of nations as seemingly necessarily brutal, repressive and intolerant. Soviet Russia is the main body of this, with a passing mention of North Korea. Again, this book is not a philosophical text, but one might contend that although a variety of atheism is or was promoted in these societies, it is harder to maintain that it was this very atheism which created or promoted said brutality and intolerance. Perhaps harder still to conclude from these two examples alone anything essential about atheism or groups or societies comprised of atheists (the author tried to include Hitler in this, but at least had the awareness to realise that whatever Hitler’s personal beliefs, the society he promoted was not atheist in tone or content).

One worthwhile message present throughout the book was an acknowledgement that any tradition of thought, though here focussing on atheism, tends to gain adherents and ferocity when suppressed or simply excluded. His contrast of the manner of Georgian and Victorian British atheist thought with that of the French in the same period was well founded. But even this was extended beyond its worth. A number of times he pointed out the prevalence of noted atheists who had clerical parents of some stripe. Again the glee surfaces with the feeling that so much atheism is a petty rebellion against authority, first parental and then wider.

This is the point he concludes with: that despite its manifest failures, atheism remains a present intellectual tradition, largely because theism does. A delicious irony, apparently. Why, it is hard to say. It is fairly trivial to say that an intellectual tradition as defined by its opposition to another exists only as does that opposition. Perhaps the point is more that both have their place, and as the book often touches upon times and places where the more moderate views of both sides allow coexistence, one could grant that. However, the final paragraph also states that those vanishingly small and dubious examples of atheist societies constitute a greater body of oppression than all religious examples (examples of religious oppression, aside from the occasional mention of executed freethinkers, are not given) I am not motivated to grant any more.