Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Waste of a Life

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.


mikespeir said...

A protest was starting to rise in me as I read, but then I saw the last line: "We simply do not know."

That's the problem. There is no one after death to reveal to us how we've been wrong. Many competing voices either pat us on the backs or try to point out our errors while we live, but who to believe? I don't mean to sink altogether into nihilism, but the truth really isn't all that clear sometimes. Jones apparently thought he knew how to discern it. I would disagree with him. On the other hand, I have no reason to suspect he didn't pursue truth sincerely and honestly. I'm not sure what more we can expect of someone.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

A member of the studio audience left this comment on another post.

I think it was meant to go here.


Anonymous said...

Wouldn't another option be plausible: That in his case his actions depended on his belief in God, but weren't based on his reward or punishment?

Maybe he thought humans were sacred, created in the image of God, were therefore ends and not merely means, etc... and that this belief motivated him more than rewards and punsishment and a general lack of genuine caring.

Of course one could believe in many of those things without belief in God, but maybe God provides the most easy path to this kind of thinking, where without it, many people wouldn't otherwise act the way they do (as in this example).

I always find it disturbing that atheists, and I count myself as one of them, are so ready to dismiss the good deeds of the religious if religion was the motivator.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Well, the point of my post is that we do not have enough information to make a final judgment, but we do know something about a few of the parts.

The person who hands out poison to the villagers - even if she sincerely believes that she is handing out medicine - has still lived a life of doing harm to others. Even she would see hers as a tragic life in light of the truth. Ignorance of its tragedy does not change this fact.

And the person who would be indifferent to the suffering of his friends in the absence of a god does not have any friends. To care about somebody means to be somebody who would look after them even if no God exists.

These types of things we can know - and we can call others wrong when they make judgments inconsistent with these facts.

Yet, even with this knowledge, we can still not know the final total. In this case, we do not.

mikespeir said...


No, I'm not disagreeing with the main thrust of your post. (At least I don't see that I am.)

I was one of those who expressed disappointment with Meyers on the Friendly Atheist site. I think he was a little hard on Jones. Even implicit in the word "delusion" is the sincere belief that one is in the right. (There are other words to describe knowingly doing wrong.)

I just wonder if we're expecting people to act in accordance with knowledge they couldn't plausibly have. Even if the "facts" are trumpeted abroad for all to hear, how does one know they are facts? Having been raised a fundamentalist Christian, I understand all too well how hard it is to look at contrary propositions squarely when one has been trained to ride along a certain rail since before one properly knows how to think at all. At what point do we start holding people like that responsible to "know better"?

Anonymous said...

Mike - personally, I think this is yet another danger in our society's complete lack of concern for the truth. In this nation, at this time in history, we live in a state were anyone can readily have this knowledge. I reject the notion that we're "expecting people to act in accordance with knowledge they couldn't plausibly have." The problem isn't that they couldn't plausibly have this knowledge, the problem is that they don't care. They'd rather not have any uncomfortable knowledge, because so few people in our society have any respect for or love for truth.

This man may very well have done a lot of good with his life, good that outweighs whatever ill he may have contributed to. But he certainly had no love for truth, and that's a large mark in the negative in my opinion - particularly if he was looked to as a teacher and role-model by others in his community.

mikespeir said...

I'm sorry, Eneasz, but I'm not buying it. We can only work with the tools we have. Many, many people simply aren't furnished the tools necessary to see things the way they are. They've been inculcated with a world view so foreign to reality that it's amazing any of them can ever break free.

Anonymous said...

Mike - if that's the case (and I still have my doubts) then this is a major failing of society. If we want to help stop this then it behooves us to take some sort of action. To make excuses for people who are examples of what we want to discourage is counter-productive.