A couple of the leaders of the atheist blogsphere got into a dispute recently over the death of pastor Paul Jones.
It started with PZ Myers posting the blog entry, How Sad in which he wrote:
Paul Jones has died. I didn't know him, or even know about him, until his obituary was sent to me, but it's an utterly tragic life story. He was an ordained Baptist minister — there's a waste of a life right there — and his death was ironic and futile.
Hemant Mehta (a.k.a. Friendly Atheist) did not approve. In a post titled, How Sad, Indeed. He wrote:
Believing in God is not as bad as using God's name to advance your own political agenda. That doesn't mean belief in God is correct. But it doesn't imply a complete waste of time. We could all name plenty of religious people (current and historical) who have done wonderful things in the name of their God. It's petty to dismiss those good works because they were done in the name of a God we don’t believe in.
Fortunately, I have a theory of value that is perfectly applicable to these types of questions from which I can derive who (and to what degree) each writer is correct.
In fact, both writers are correct in their own way.
Imagine that there is a nurse who has decided to care for the health and well-being of an isolated community. However, she has come to believe (by whatever mechanisms allow people to believe in absurdities) that arsenic is a cure-all. She arrives with a lifetime supply of arsenic pills. Whenever somebody in the village expresses some discomfort or shows signs of any illness, she provides them with a little arsenic. Those who get better (as some of them certainly will – arsenic in small doses is not fatal but its effects are cumulative) then praise the nurse and the power of her medicine.
However, at the age of 52, this nurse has a tragic accident that takes her life.
This nurse has wasted her life. She has actually done worse than wasted her life. Let’s assume that there is an afterlife in which she learns the truth – that she really was poisoning the villagers and making them slowly sicker over time. If she truly cared about the welfare of the villagers, then this would be a tragic and heartbreaking discovery. She herself would come to the conclusion that, for the sake of those she cared about and, in her ignorance, were suffering harm at her hands, it would have been better for her to have died sooner – or to never have lived at all.
It does not matter that the villagers honored her and praised her, that they remembered her as a compassionate person always willing to come to the aid of those who were sick. It does not matter that she herself thought that she was doing something good. What matters is the fact that she was, in fact, doing harm.
This is the measure of a life.
We can argue that prayer, unlike arsenic, is not poisonous. It does no harm. Yet, ‘having no effect’ is not the same as 'doing no harm.' It matters whether the person is left better or worse off than she would have otherwise been.
We can imagine the villagers being given sugar pills instead of arsenic, generating a genuine placebo effect and giving them the (false) sense that they are actually being cared for. Willing to give the sugar pills a try, they put off seeking real medical care, allowing diseases to develop longer than they would have if this nurse had not given them false beliefs about its effectiveness. A few faithful might even watch their children die of diseases that could have been easily treated. In this case, even without poisoning the villagers, our nurse still made them worse off than they would have otherwise been.
She still would have reason to weep if, after death, she discovers the truth of her actions.
The obituary for Jones also said that he:
always found a way to provide for churches and charities as well as individuals in need.
Does this provide a way saving his life from having been a life without meaning?
Well, it depends in part on what type of charities he gave his aid to and the type of help he gave to people in need.
If he had limited his help to prayer then we are still left with a case like that of the nurse giving away arsenic pills (or placebos, as the case may be). It is the case of a person who produced no real-world good and may have done real-world harm.
However, even if he contributed to genuine charities – charities that did real-world good, we have two questions that we need to ask about the nature of these contributions to measure the value of his life.
First, what motivated these donations to charities?
The relevant test here would involve determining the answer to the question, "Would Jones have contributed to these charities if he did not believe that a God existed?"
If Jones was truly interested in the welfare of others then he would have cared about their welfare even in the absence of a God. He would not have been willing to abandon them to their own fates, watching them suffer with indifference, simply because no God existed to pat him on the head for his good deeds or threaten him with hell for his evil deeds. A person who responds only to these types of rewards and punishes cares nothing about other people – he cares only about his own welfare, and his concern for others only comes as a pretense.
However, if he would have been touched by the suffering of others even in the belief that no God existed – if he had genuine concern for their welfare of a form that did not depend on heavenly rewards or punishments – then he would have spent his life producing real-world good for real-world people in service to real-world people, not in service to am imaginary deity.
However, if the belief that no God exists would have turned him away from charitable work, we may assume that he real motivation was to please God or to buy a ticket to heaven, but that he cared nothing about the people around him. A person must be utterly lacking in compassion to stand around and do nothing while others suffer in a universe where no God exists.
This person, who spent his life serving God or avoiding hell, but who actually cared nothing about the people around him, has, indeed, wasted his life. The good he has provided was, at best, a fortunate side-effect of his actions – but was not a part of his intention or among his goals. He is like the person who, tripping over a shovel as he walks down the sidewalk, happens to crash into a child and knock him out of the way of an oncoming train. He deserves no credit for his actions – no praise – precisely because he did not desire the good that came from his actions. Not if, in the absence of the shovel, he would have watched the child get run over by the train with complete indifference.
Second, what were the opportunity costs of this devotion to charity?
Let us assume that, through a person's charitable activities, he raises $50 for religious efforts that do no real-world good (e.g., missionaries, churches, putting up billboards that say, "Why do atheists hate America?"), funding legislation to ban abortion or constitutional amendments to exclude homosexual unions from the definition of marriage), and $50 to charities that do real-world good (feed the hungry, treat the sick, provide shelter for the homeless, conduct research into any of a number of diseases, clean up the environment).
However, in the absence of his efforts, people would have otherwise contributed $75 to the latter set of charities.
In this case, the true effect of this person's efforts is to drain worthwhile charities of $25 that they would have otherwise gotten. This is not a person to be praised for the $50 that he gave to worthwhile charities that do real-world good, or the $100 in charitable donations that he actually made possible. This is a person who made the world worse off than it would have otherwise been, by costing charities that do real-world good $25 that they would have otherwise had.
In this case, we are talking about a life that was actually spent preventing good from being done more than it was a life spent doing good.
Finally, let us look at a more favorable case – one in which charities that do real-world good would have normally received $25. However, because of Jones’ hard efforts they received $50 instead. We would still have to weigh this gain against contributions that do real-world harm.
Many of the examples that I gave above are not contributions to waste-of-effort but harmless activities. They are contributions to activities that do real-world harm. If he spent effort promoting prayer or the teaching of creationism in the nation's schools, blocking homosexual marriage, fighting to outlaw early term abortions, and supporting the destructive policies of President George Bush because of these beliefs, these harms must be weighed against any good that might have come from the effect is efforts may have had in getting more money to charities producing real-world benefits.
It is true that the obituary does not actually give us enough information to decide which category Jones actually belongs in. The most important part of his life might well have been in giving real-world care to his friends and family. In fact, I would be willing to bet good money that Jones genuinely cared for his friends and his family and even strangers in ways that he would have continued to care for them even if no God existed. He would have still sought after their welfare. He might not have been all that political, and his contribution to the evils of religion we have seen over the past eight years in particular might have been minimal.
If this is the case, his life was not at all wasted. If this is the case, then he took care of the people he cared about and did little harm to outweigh the direct good that came from his actions. We may even call him a good man.
Or he may have been like our nurse, handing out poison and preventing the people he thought he was helping from getting real-world help that would have mitigated their real-world problems.
We simply do not know.