Friday, March 21, 2008

E2.0: Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: Atheism from the Inside Out

This is the 26th in a new series of weekend posts taken from the presentations at the Salk Institute’s “Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.”. I have placed an index of essays in this series in an introductory post, Enlightenment 2.0: Introduction.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein did not give a presentation to the Beyond Belief 2. She gave a reading from a work in progress called 33 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction. The reading was from the first chapter of this work, a story about a professor in the psychology of religion who had just become world famous for a book that examines 33 arguments for the existence of god, and then refutes them.

It is, as I said, a work of fiction. In this story, our hero, Cass Seltzer is standing on at 4:00 am in Boston on a cold February day reflecting on his sudden fame – a fame that can be compared to that of Sam Harris or, perhaps, Daniel Dennett who obtained popular standing because of something written critical of religion that happened to become very popular.

The story provides a homage, of a sort, in favor of certain arguments in favor of the existence of God. Though it denies that they have any intellectual weight, they have a certain amount of emotional weight. Those arguments, at least in this reading, concern the marvelous fact of our own existence. I am here. I am participating in the world, writing my blog, interacting with others in a way that I hope will have some positive impact on current and future events. Within the story, Seltzer cannot help but feel an immense sense of gratitude for all that he has. All of this gives emotional weight to a set of rather loose and informal arguments that, somewhere out there, there is a God.

does not use this as an argument for the existence of God. She does not say that this immense sense of gratitude that manifests itself in a desire to thank something for the gift of life and to think that there must therefore be something capable of receiving his gratitude. She puts these emotions in their proper place. To the degree that they generate a sense that there is something out there to be grateful to then these are cognitive illusions. Like optical illusions, they look real, and they are even replicatable, but there is a fact of the matter and the fact is that what we see (or sense) is not real.

Yet, still, the illusion persists.

I certainly hold that there are some ideas that a person can communicate better in a work of fiction than in a scholarly treatise. I have written my own Perspective on the Pledge both in the form of a formal argument and in the form of a short story about a student who is grappling with a very similar prejudice in an alternative universe. In fact, the book that I am writing has both of these approaches. While it discusses the ‘under God’ issue in the form of a short story, it presents the ‘In God We Trust’ issue in the appendix on the form of objective argument.

The point is that when we make the transition from ‘outside and above’ the phenomena that we are studying to ‘inside’ that phenomena, there is information to be gained. Think of a house. Think of having all sorts of information that describes what the house looks like from ‘outside and above’ the house. We may even have pictures. Yet, there is a great deal of information that we do not have. We do not know what the inside of the house looks like. We do not know what it feels like to be inside of the house. We cannot know this until we add something to our ‘external’ description of the house and say something about what it is like to be inside that house.

This is what provides us in her presentation. We have had a number of presentations that look at atheism from the outside – objectively, rationally. We have had little that describes what atheism is like on the inside.

One of the biggest problems that a lot of people have with atheism has to do precisely with what it is like to be an atheist on the inside.

People imagine the atheist life, and they imagine a person in a cold, dark, and lonely place with no possibility of joy and no sense of purpose or meaning in his existence. Those of us who live this life know that it is not true. Well, it is not necessarily true. There are probably some atheists living cold, dark, and lonely lives just as there are probably many theists living similar lives. However, many of us, most of us, are not like this. Our lives are filled with warmth, light, social interaction, joy, and purpose.

Whenever somebody protests that our lives must be cold, lonely, dark, miserable, and empty, the common response is to deny it. Yet, this denial itself comes from the ‘above and outside’ perspective. We claim that our lives have value. However, can we describe that value from the inside? Can we communicate with others what it is like to live within an atheist house? Or within an atheist mind?

Of course, in addition to fiction - in addition to describing what something is like in the form of a story with a character who is living that life - there is the option of explaining the same thing through the living of an actual life.

I would have to say that the best account of atheism from the inside out that is available today in the non-fiction category is Possommama, a.k.a. Atheist in a Minivan. This blog is not dedicated to looking at the most recent follies of creationists or the crimes committed by priests or an examination of contradictions in the Bible or the different arguments for or against the existence of God. It is a look at an atheist life from the inside. There; are more than enough blogs that describe atheism from outside and above, looking down on the atheist life. We could, perhaps, use a bit more work done on the atheist life as seen from the inside looking out.

There is a need for more atheism from the inside out.


Steve Solis said...

"Our lives are filled with warmth, light, social interaction, joy, and purpose."

Of course you know that this abstracts only make sense in a Christian worldview. Atheists as well as all of humanity are made in the Image of God. Human dignity dwells inside of every human being.

Why does an atheist need to feel this "need"? Because they have this innate desire to do these things. Otherwise how can Atheists account for this goodness? They always mention this mantra of the Problem of Evil to Christians. Well, Atheists not only cannot account for the problem of evil, but also the problem of good.

What does it matter anyway if evil or good are done to each other? We're just bags of protoplasm and molecules-in-motion. Products of the animal kingdom. What does it matter if what one animal, good or evil, does to another animal according to the Atheists worldview?

You beg the question when you acknowledge such generic goodness as your life being filled with warmth, light, social interaction, joy and purpose is a good thing. Your worldview, where we came from one big explosion, cannot account for such concepts. It obviously confirms what the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 1:20-22 " they [unbelievers] are without excuse. 21For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22Claiming to be wise, they became fools,"

Alonzo Fyfe said...

that's a great question

You are new here.

I have nearly 900 posts in this blog dealing with the nature of goodness.

Do you think that I need an account of God to have a reason not to stick my hand in a bed of hot coals?

Do I need an account of God to feel comfortable in a warm blanket cuddled with my wife in our house in front of a fire, as opposed to shivering, alone, outside, in the full force of an arctic wind?

The idea that we need God to explain good is absurd - that an atheist can put his hand in a bed of hot coals and not care about the results, or is indifferent to the cozy fire as opposed to the arctic blizzard, is nonsense on its face.

No person who has given the issue a moment's thought - or who is not looking for excuses to believe nonsense - would think that such a claim makes sense.

Anonymous said...

Samuel Skinner
I swear, I could set my clock by the consistancy of these Christians. The moment someone says "we don't need god for morality or purpose" they go nuts.

On the list of invaribly Christian (heck, invaribly theist), that takes the cake, right next to avoiding stating arguments as much as possible and of course bible quoting.

Remember- fight the good fight! Or failing that... win a lucrative lawsuit!

Anonymous said...

I could go either way on the Theist / Atheist worldview. Prove to me, without any room for doubt that there is no God. Objectively, Rationally, and scientifically prove to me that God is not even possible.

Belief and disbelief carry the same emotional weight and neither side has been able to convience me in my 40 years. Agnostic is the only position that makes rational sense.

Theo said...

Belief and disbelief carry the same emotional weight and neither side has been able to convince me in my 40 years. Agnostic is the only position that makes rational sense.

Not true. Probability theory is a completely rational science, even though human beings find it very difficult to relate to uncertainties. Still, I bet (!) you listen to the weather forecast and don't play the lottery, so I'm sure you understand that probabilities come in flavours other than 0%, 50% and 100%.

The late Douglas Adams probably (!) described it best in an interview with American Atheist, when he said the following (apologies for the long quote):

AMERICAN ATHEISTS: Mr. Adams, you have been described as a “radical Atheist.” Is this accurate?

DNA: Yes. I think I use the term radical rather loosely, just for emphasis. If you describe yourself as “Atheist,” some people will say, “Don’t you mean ‘Agnostic’?” I have to reply that I really do mean Atheist. I really do not believe that there is a god - in fact I am convinced that there is not a god (a subtle difference). I see not a shred of evidence to suggest that there is one. It’s easier to say that I am a radical Atheist, just to signal that I really mean it, have thought about it a great deal, and that it’s an opinion I hold seriously. It’s funny how many people are genuinely surprised to hear a view expressed so strongly. In England we seem to have drifted from vague wishy-washy Anglicanism to vague wishy-washy Agnosticism - both of which I think betoken a desire not to have to think about things too much.

People will then often say “But surely it’s better to remain an Agnostic just in case?” This, to me, suggests such a level of silliness and muddle that I usually edge out of the conversation rather than get sucked into it. (If it turns out that I’ve been wrong all along, and there is in fact a god, and if it further turned out that this kind of legalistic, cross-your-fingers-behind-your-back, Clintonian hair-splitting impressed him, then I think I would chose not to worship him anyway.)

Other people will ask how I can possibly claim to know? Isn’t belief-that-there-is-not-a-god as irrational, arrogant, etc., as belief-that-there-is-a-god? To which I say no for several reasons. First of all I do not believe-that-there-is-not-a-god. I don’t see what belief has got to do with it. I believe or don’t believe my four-year old daughter when she tells me that she didn’t make that mess on the floor. I believe in justice and fair play (though I don’t know exactly how we achieve them, other than by continually trying against all possible odds of success). I also believe that England should enter the European Monetary Union. I am not remotely enough of an economist to argue the issue vigorously with someone who is, but what little I do know, reinforced with a hefty dollop of gut feeling, strongly suggests to me that it’s the right course. I could very easily turn out to be wrong, and I know that. These seem to me to be legitimate uses for the word believe. As a carapace for the protection of irrational notions from legitimate questions, however, I think that the word has a lot of mischief to answer for. So, I do not believe-that-there-is-no-god. I am, however, convinced that there is no god, which is a totally different stance and takes me on to my second reason.

I don’t accept the currently fashionable assertion that any view is automatically as worthy of respect as any equal and opposite view. My view is that the moon is made of rock. If someone says to me “Well, you haven’t been there, have you? You haven’t seen it for yourself, so my view that it is made of Norwegian Beaver Cheese is equally valid” - then I can’t even be bothered to argue. There is such a thing as the burden of proof, and in the case of god, as in the case of the composition of the moon, this has shifted radically. God used to be the best explanation we’d got, and we’ve now got vastly better ones. God is no longer an explanation of anything, but has instead become something that would itself need an insurmountable amount of explaining. So I don’t think that being convinced that there is no god is as irrational or arrogant a point of view as belief that there is. I don’t think the matter calls for even-handedness at all.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


You do not understand science. All scientific claims have to be falsifiable. That is to say, it must at least be possible that the statement is false. Science never, ever, proves that anything is 'not possible' in the sense you described.

Science has never proved that it is 'not possible' for the earth to be flat - only that the available evidence does not seem to support that hypothesis.

Science has never proved that it is 'not possible' for water to be made out of H2C rather than H2O, but we have got some very strong evidence in favor of H2O.

The same is true of God. You will scarcely discover an atheist who claims that the existence of God is not possible. Only, that the God hypothesis is as poorly founded as the flat earth hypothesis and the H2C hypothesis.

That is to say . . . almost certainly false.

(Note: Those atheists who do claim that a God does not exist do so using the same type of argument that one would use to claim that round squares do not exist or that married bachelors do not exist - that the definition of God contradicts itself. That method, I would claim, works only against certain conceptions of God, but not against others.)

Anonymous said...

Samuel Skinner
Actually, I'm a strong atheist and antitheist and I am more than willing to make the claim God doesn't exist. In this case god means someone who designed and made the universe and is sentient (so gravity doesn't count). Omnipotence, omniscience are included (with omnibenevolence or omnimalevolence).

My objections
-universe exists (or why would any one bother making it)
-infinite regress problem
-evidence for natural origin
-lack of evidence of supernatural
-contradictory nature of supernatural
-massive violation of Occum's Razor (between simple and Rube Goldberg, go with simple)

Anonymous said...

Prove to me, without any room for doubt that there is no God.

Anonymous said...

Prove to me, without any room for doubt that there is no invisible pink unicorn standing behind me right now.