Friday, January 27, 2006

Cure of the soul, part 2

Part 1 was posted long ago! — I'm definitely tardy in following up.

A recap is certainly in order. I introduced the topic, the cure of the soul, by quoting an Orthodox priest:
According to Orthodox tradition, after Adam's fall man became ill; his nous [mind/heart] was darkened and lost communion with God. Death entered into the person's being and caused many anthropological, social, even ecological problems.
Orthodox tradition claims that humanity suffers greatly from a sickness of the soul. If so, we need to obtain a healing for that malaise:  i.e., a cure of the soul.

I posed three questions for your consideration:
  1. Do human beings suffer from a spiritual or psychical malaise?
  2. If so, what precisely is wrong? (What is your diagnosis of the malaise?)
  3. How can the malaise be remedied? (What treatment would you prescribe?)
In my opinion, the answer to question #1 is Yes, human beings suffer from a spiritual malaise. I provided evidence to support my position in the original post. Here I want to press on to answer questions 2 and 3.

Diagnosis

It may seem simplistic to reduce "what ails all human beings everywhere" to a single problem, and yet I believe it can be done. In fact, I believe it can be reduced to a single word:  what ails us is that we are self-centered.

"Self-centered" does not necessarily imply "conceited". People can have a very low opinion of themselves but, if they are constantly thinking about what worms they are, they are still pathologically self-centered.

I believe our self-centeredness is responsible for many of the problems mentioned in my earlier post:  an inequitable distribution of wealth (selfish acquisitiveness); racism, hate speech, and attempted genocide (failure to understand and accept others not like ourselves); environmental degradation (failure to live in a way that is sustainable for the sake of succeeding generations).

Moreover, to be self-centered is to be estranged from God and from fellow human beings. This estrangement or isolation is the source of much of our chronic discontent. As I pointed out in the previous post, depression is widespread in modern, Western societies. It persists even in the midst of material affluence and good health relative to previous generations.

At this point I want to discuss a mythological account of human origins. The account is found in the Hebrew scriptures, in Genesis 3, where the serpent tempts Eve. The author of that text offers his or her account of the sickness of the human soul.

Until the first sin, Adam and Eve led an other-centered life:  God was the focal point of their existence. In Genesis 3:5, the serpent says to Eve, "when you eat of [the fruit] … you will be like God". Thus the first sin may be described as Eve's attempt to exalt self in the place of God.

At that point, human beings ceased to be other-centered:  self became the focal point of human existence.

It doesn't matter to me how you regard the text. You may believe that Genesis is the word of God and records historical events. Or you may believe that Genesis came from a human author, who used myth to communicate his or her opinion. Either way, the text lays out a theory about the human condition:  an account of the sickness of the soul (self elevated to the place of God) that afflicts all human beings everywhere.

Treatment

Now we move to question #3:  How can the malaise be remedied? (What treatment would you prescribe?)

Regular readers are aware that I am a Christian, but I don't want to get evangelistic on you. Instead of presenting Christian doctrine in isolation, I want to compare it to two other worldviews.

a) Buddhist worldview

First, a Buddhist worldview. Over the years I have engaged in a little study of Buddhism. By no means am I an expert on it, but I find Buddhism particularly instructive because it differs so profoundly from the Judeo-Christian worldview.

The diagnosis outlined above offers a point of contact between Buddhism and Christianity. Consider this statement by Dr. Walpola Rahula:
According to the teaching of the Buddha, the idea of self is an imaginary, false belief which has no corresponding reality, and it produces harmful thoughts of "me" and "mine", selfish desire, craving, attachment, hatred, ill-will, conceit, pride, egoism, and other defilements, impurities and problems. It is the source of all the troubles in the world from personal conflicts to wars between nations. In short, to this false view can be traced all the evil in the world.1
Dr. Rahula here echoes the argument I made above. He claims that self-centeredness is the root cause of "all the evil in the world".

But the sharp-eyed reader will notice there is also a conflict between Buddhism and Christianity on this topic. Christians believe that the self is real, but the Buddha denied it. Our subjective experience is that we have a self; but Buddhists claim this is "an imaginary, false belief which has no corresponding reality."2

Treatment, from the Buddhist perspective, is a matter of enlightenment. We must arrive at a deep realization that our subjective experience of self is merely a false consciousness. Again, I want to stress that I am no expert on Buddhism. But my understanding is that enlightenment is achieved partly through education (taking hold of the Buddha's teaching) and partly through meditation (breaking through to a different sort of consciousness).

For the Christian, treatment is necessarily different, because Christians accept that the self is real. Again, I want to avoid preaching an evangelistic message here. But I will observe that Christianity tells us we need to be resurrected or reborn or regenerated. These are different metaphors for a single idea:  that the individual needs God to intervene to effect a fundamental change inside of him or her.

(I believe this perspective is shared, at least to some extent, by Judaism. Certainly the perspective is rooted in the Hebrew scriptures:  e.g. Ezekiel 36:26. Admittedly, however, Judaism places more emphasis on human obedience to God's law.)

Here, too, Buddhism stakes out a starkly different position. The Buddha taught that each person must
develop himself and work out his own emancipation, for man has the power to liberate himself from all bondage through his own personal effort and intelligence. … If the Buddha is to be called "a savior" at all, it is only in the sense that he discovered and showed the Path to Liberation, Nirvana. But we must tread the Path ourselves.
Perhaps I may be permitted to register an objection to this Buddhist teaching. Dr. Rahula tells us that the self is illusory; but then he tells us that "we must tread the Path ourselves". Thus the individual is thrown back on self as the vehicle of liberation. If the objective is to escape self, it is paradoxical to rely on self as the means of escape.3

b) Secular worldview

Finally, I must briefly address the secular worldview. I assume that secular readers will be drawn to the Christian assertion that the self is real. On the other hand, they will be drawn to the Buddhist doctrine that "man has the power to liberate himself from all bondage through his own personal effort and intelligence."

Thus a secular worldview cannot adopt the Christian way of escape (regeneration via God's intervention), nor can it adopt the Buddhist way of escape (a shift of consciousness which recognizes that self is an illusion).

More than this:  it seems to me that the secular worldview is inescapably self-centered. Modern Westerners deny God's existence, so God cannot serve as the focal point for an other-centered orientation. Moreover, there is no such thing as objective, absolute truth, which might provide common ground to lift us beyond our narrow individualism.

Arguably the noblest achievement of modern Westerners is our human rights codes. But note that such codes enshrine individual rights and freedoms. There is no corresponding legal doctrine of social responsibilities or obligations. Again, I am led to suspect that a secular worldview offers no way to cure the sickness of the human soul, the root of all our problems:  our intractable self-centeredness.

Of course, I am biased because I am deeply committed to a Christian worldview. I invite my readers to set the record straight if I have misrepresented the secular position.

What are your answers to questions 2 and 3?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~
copyright © 2006, Stephen Peltz

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


1Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, 2nd ed., 1974.

2I am aware that this is a somewhat simplistic account of what Buddhists actually teach. In a sense, there is such a thing as "self". But it does not correspond to what Christians mean by the term, since self is neither the pure essence of the individual, nor constant. Instead, the self is understood as an aggregate which changes from one moment to the next:

According to the Buddha's teaching, it is as wrong to hold the opinion "I have no self" as to hold the opinion "I have self", because both are fetters, both arising out of the false idea, "I AM". … What we call "I", or "being", is only a combination of physical and mental aggregates, which are working together interdependently in a flux of momentary change within the law of cause and effect. … There is nothing permanent, everlasting, unchanging and eternal in the whole of existence.

3It may appear that Buddhist thought is hopelessly contradictory at this point, but the fault perhaps lies with my simplistic presentation of the subject. I will clarify the Buddhist teaching by again quoting Dr. Rahula:

There are two kinds of truths:  conventional truth and ultimate truth. When we use such expressions in our daily life as "I", "you", "being", "individual", etc., we do not lie because there is no self or being as such, but we speak a truth conforming to the convention of the world. But the ultimate truth is that there is no "I" or "being" in reality.

31 Comments:

At 11:12 PM, January 27, 2006, Blogger Jewish Atheist said...

Good post, Q. Thanks.

Although I come from a Jewish background and am now secular, I tend to agree that "self-centeredness" as you describe it rather than in how it's normally used is a big part of, if not the whole of the problem.

I completely disagree that "the secular worldview is inescapably self-centered." Many secular thinkers have reached the conclusion that "salvation" lies in helping others. Secular humanists, for example, are largely committed to helping others as well as developing themselves.

Auden said, "We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for I don't know." Twain wrote, "The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up." John Stuart Mill wrote, "Ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so."

It's common for religious people to think that the great ideas in religion are unique to religion, but this is rarely the case. Outside of religion, there is morality, there is philosophy, and there is selflessness. Religion teaches some or all of the same things and too often combines it with a bunch of dogmatic nonsense, hoping that because the former make sense, people will buy the latter as well.

 
At 2:19 PM, January 28, 2006, Blogger Juggling Mother said...

I have to agree with JA, that the secular world has infinite ability to become other-centred. You are absolutely right that we are not currently so, but there is no reason why we can not change our perspective, indeed I think we are starting to see the first signs of a shift in emphasis from the rights of the human to the rights of humanity.

I consider myself to be a small part in the enormous chain that is humanity - from pre-history to a future so far removed from now I can't imagine it. This is how I always saw the concept of "enlightenment" - a personal understanding of your place in the grand scheme of things:-) (I am not claiming that I am "enlightened" and have reached Nirvana, because that is patently untrue, but I understand the concept).

 
At 8:11 PM, January 28, 2006, Blogger M said...

This is hardly original, the idea of two "selves" within the person, but please let me contribute it here. First, there's the self that's usually equated with the ego, the worldly identity, the physical-emotional body and its needs and desires; and, second, there's the inner Self that's a divine spark, that realizes the oneness of all beings and all creation. When we are self-centered, we care just for ourselves and our welfare (and perhaps that of our immediate family and loved ones). This is the "normal" human consciousness, the consciousness of those who are "ignorant" and "asleep." These words may sound harsh and derogatory, but they are literally true. More "awakened" individuals are other-centered, or maybe Self-centered--heck, these are just terminologies. Being attuned to the Self, which is a spark of the divine, these "awakened" beings not only exhibit great compassion and wisdom, but they at times have abilities like the power to heal, and to almost magically manifest resources when needed (usually to help others or to advance their noble cause). And they have great charisma. Many saints from different religions are examples of such beings.

I look at life as the process of learning and evolving from being a self-centered individual to a Self-centered being. I believe all of us are undergoing this process. Life's lessons are our teachers. Sometimes they are cruel, but perhaps we learn best in that way.

 
At 3:50 AM, January 29, 2006, Blogger McSwain said...

I'm too tired for answers, but must say thank you for this post. I wholeheartedly believe that so many problems Western Society faces today are due to self-centeredness. And contrary to your other readers, I believe that secularism is by nature, self-centered. But how to change that, as society slips further into secularism?

 
At 7:57 AM, January 29, 2006, Blogger Juggling Mother said...

Of course, looked at another way, Theism is inherently self-centred as the emphasis is on living a "good" life so that your soul can be saved (from hell/original sin/earthly toil etc). Not anybody else's soul, just yours. How much more self-centred can you get?

 
At 8:24 AM, January 29, 2006, Blogger H said...

Weighing in here Q. (Actually someone gave me a poke!!)

The root cause to suffering is desire, through desire, a self was created in which to create a basic ground from which to operate. I think you have nicely identified the ramifications of that (suffering). I am not comfortable, however, than Buddhism's path is a means of escape. The dharma, meditation, are, from my understading a path to help us see things as they are, and how to develop compassion from that view. Meditation is not a method to try and break through to a new level or realm of conciousness. All of reality is empty, so therefore, there is no definate place to go.
Meditation is a method to develop mindfullness, a method of looking at the mind, a seeing what is always there. Samsara and Nirvana are insperable, so there is nothing new to see. There is no where new to go. there is no escape. Making sense of that paradox is my garden of earthly delights!

The heart sutra nicely discusses the nature of emptiness.

http://members.ozemail.com.au/
~mooncharts/heartsutra/
english.html

 
At 8:40 AM, January 29, 2006, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

Jewish Atheist:
It's common for religious people to think that the great ideas in religion are unique to religion, but this is rarely the case.

Agreed. I believe truth is often found in unexpected places, and we stand to learn most from those with whom we disagree most. To quote the title of a Tony Campolo book, "We have met the enemy, and he is partly right."

Outside of religion, there is morality, there is philosophy, and there is selflessness.

Again I agree with you, but this time with a major qualification. There are good people in every group, including atheists, and bad people in every group, including Christians. The question is, are atheists being consistent with their worldview when they are selfless? (And are Christians being consistent with their worldview when they are selfish?)

This is a serious question, and I would love to see you post on it. I've been criticized before for my cynical attitude to a secular worldview: in specific, for denying that secularists have an adequate source for meaning in their lives.

For example, you quote from Auden: "We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for I don't know." I'm sure Auden was making a joke, but he has put his finger on a serious issue. How can I give meaning to my life by helping someone else whose life has no intrinsic meaning? Nothing plus nothing is still nothing.

I'm holding your feet to the fire here, but with great respect. You and I disagree in how we understand the world, but I think we're working toward very similar objectives from opposite sides of the fence.

Religion teaches some or all of the same things and too often combines it with a bunch of dogmatic nonsense.

I emphatically agree. Frankly, my experience of churches has been negative more often than positive. You can probably see that I strike a very independent line when it comes to my faith, which is partly my reaction to some very negative experiences. (Though I am part of a very admirable church just now.)

Mrs. Aginoth:
I think we are starting to see the first signs of a shift in emphasis from the rights of the human to the rights of humanity.

I hope that's true. I know I often give you and other secularists a hard time, but I am happy to join cause with anyone who works to better the lot of the human race.

I understand that humanists place great value on the whole human race, not merely self. But, as I said to JA, I would like to read an account of humanism that sets the philosophy on an adequate foundation. Probably there are dozens of them out there, and I'm just ignorant because I haven't gone looking.

I would also like examples of great philanthropic humanist organizations. What institutions have secularists created to rise above the individual self and cooperate to accomplish great good in the world?

MJ:
I look at life as the process of learning and evolving from being a self-centered individual to a Self-centered being.

I am very impressed by your comment — welcome to Simply Put!

I'm sure you're right, the concepts you share are not original to you, but they are new to me in the way you combine them.

I tend to judge any philosophy by whether it gives life or robs us of life. My immediate impression is that your philosophy is life-giving. Thanks for sharing it.

• Cheryl:
I'm glad you posted a comment, if only to express support for my position.

I'm not fatalistic about the future. I think Western society will eventually reverse its trend toward the enthronement of the individual as god. What scares me is, what kind of irreversible damage will we do, with our vast technological power, before we recognize what a deadly course we're on?

 
At 8:54 AM, January 29, 2006, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

Two more comments were posted while I was drafting my novella-length comment.

• Mrs. Aginoth:
God, not self, is at the centre of a theistic worldview. Anyone who thinks Christianity is about "living a 'good' life so that your soul can be saved … not anybody else's soul, just yours" profoundly misunderstands Christianity.

• Heather:
Thanks for the comment. For those of you who haven't figured it out from Heather's comment, she is a Buddhist. I was hoping she would comment on my (mis)presentation of Buddhism.

The root cause to suffering is desire, through desire, a self was created in which to create a basic ground from which to operate.

Thanks for that. It clarifies the self/no-self paradox I was struggling with.

I am not comfortable, however, that Buddhism's path is a means of escape. The dharma, meditation, are, from my understading a path to help us see things as they are, and how to develop compassion from that view.

Yes, I've read that before, and my post shot wide of the mark there.

Buddhism is often misrepresented as "life-denying". I can understand why people misinterpret it that way, but nonetheless it is a misinterpretation.

I have always admired Buddhism as a life-giving philosophy.

 
At 9:25 AM, January 29, 2006, Blogger Jewish Atheist said...

The question is, are atheists being consistent with their worldview when they are selfless?

Well, sure, they can be. There's no single atheist worldview of course.

I'll give you several rationales behind atheist selflessness.

1) The simplest way to put it is that there's no reason within atheism that one being is worth more than another, so selfishness is simply unfair. The philosopher/ethicist Peter Singer elaborates on this at great length.

2) Atheists (almost always) don't believe in the soul, and (mostly) believe that the mind arises entirely out of the brain. The distinction between me and not-me is artificial so in an important sense, there is no self. If there is no self, there's no sense in being selfish.

3) "All we've got is each other."

4) Lincoln: "When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad, and that is my religion." In other words, helping others makes us feel good. Somehow being selfless accomplishes our selfish goals better than being selfish does.

 
At 1:40 PM, January 29, 2006, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

JA:
You've made a case for not being selfish; but have you made a case for being selfless? You write,

There's no reason within atheism that one being is worth more than another, so selfishness is simply unfair.

That's true. It's equally true, or so it seems to me, that other people are of no importance whatsoever. The only person who is of any ultimate importance to me, is me.

There may be philosophical grounds for cooperating on a goal that will serve my ends, if it will also serve your ends.

But what are the philosophical grounds for selflessness? Why, for example, should an atheist forgo a lucrative career in North America to work with Doctors Without Borders in Ethiopia or somewhere?

That sort of behaviour is better attested among Christianity-based relief organizations. I know that some atheists do it. But I don't understand how it is consistent with an atheistic worldview.

Your point #2 is interesting, that atheists do not believe in a self — not in the Christian sense. I'm still thinking through the implications of what you've said.

 
At 3:10 PM, January 29, 2006, Blogger Jewish Atheist said...

Q,

I just finished a post about the self and free will: http://jewishatheist.blogspot.com/2006/01/on-free-will.html

 
At 10:59 AM, January 30, 2006, Blogger Sadie Lou said...

I am doing a post today linking and using much of what you said here.
There is a lively discussion going on at cyberkitten's about this very thing, really--it self centeredness that led me to want salvation...

 
At 3:24 PM, January 30, 2006, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

Sadie Lou:
I'm glad you found the post so helpful.

To my other readers:
You may want to visit Sadie Lou's post. I think she's going to have quite a lively debate over there; perhaps you will have something to contribute to it.

 
At 5:31 PM, January 30, 2006, Blogger Juggling Mother said...

As for non-religious philanthropic organisations - um most of the charities in the world? My personal favourite is Medicine Sans Frontiers/Doctors without Borders, but I'm sure I could come up with another few hundred if you want:-)

 
At 6:13 PM, January 30, 2006, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

• Mrs. Aginoth:
Most of the charities in the world are non-religious? Please be serious and don't make stuff up. Most of the people in the world have always been, and still are, believers in one faith or another. Likewise, most charities are faith-based, and most of the people who work in them are motivated to do so by their faith.

Even if you could prove the assertion to be true, it wouldn't address the real problem I've put my finger on.

I invite you to answer the question I posed to Jewish Atheist. How does a secular worldview provide a foundation for selfless behaviour? — i.e., making a personal sacrifice for the benefit of someone with whom you have no personal connection.

I applaud atheists who behave in a selfless manner, but I think such behaviour is inconsistent with their worldview, not a rational outgrowth of it.

I've put forward a serious argument in my post, saying that nothing exists in an atheist worldview that might lead to an other-centered orientation. If there is no God at the centre of the cosmos, and there are no objective, absolute moral standards, then the rational way to live is to put your own welfare ahead of the next guy's.

If our self-centered orientation is at the root of human misery, atheism exacerbates the problem instead of correcting it. Hence the chronic dissatisfaction in the Western world, despite material affluence.

 
At 7:22 PM, January 30, 2006, Blogger Sadie Lou said...

excellent reasonings, Q *applauding*
but can the atheist simply say that they help others out of some sort of moral obligation or that they feel it is their duty as humans sharing the planet--to help other humans? I mean, it seems to me that there are seemingly endless reasons as to why atheists can serve others like humans--even though many of the reasons are selfish at their core.

 
At 7:23 PM, January 30, 2006, Blogger Sadie Lou said...

I meant "serve others--like Christians, not 'humans'.

 
At 8:07 PM, January 30, 2006, Blogger aaron said...

We seem to go in circles on this matter Q -- what you seem to think of as rational behavior on the part of atheists seems anything but rational to those of us who are atheists. You can't see a reason to be selfless without religion, but we find plenty of reasons.

Perhaps what we see as selfless is selfish in your eyes. Perhaps we think of humanity as one tribe, and so by helping others we help (an extension of) ourselves. Maybe we have guilt that we are better off than others, and so by assuaging our guilt any charitable works we perform are selfish in nature. Or maybe we're scared that the needy will rise up against us if we don't provide at least a modicum of charity for them, so we act in self-preservation. Perhaps we are environmentalists because we are concerned for our children (e.g., an extension of self), or because we want to live long healthy lives ourselves. If you like, anything we do can be ascribed selfish motives. Perhaps because I am of limited philosophical bent, however, I don't see where that gets us. As others have implicitly suggested, many atheists find such activities fulfilling, and so are not afflicted by sickness of the soul.

Even if you are correct in your contention that atheism is incompatible with selflessness, and Christianity (and arguably, religion generally) is compatible (something I by no means am sure of), I contend that the vast majority of people's actions are self-centered regardless of purported religion/philosophy -- they compartmentalize their faith to the point where it doesn't impose on their daily routine. Perhaps philosophy/religion is all that is finest about humanity, but I don't see philosophy/religion guiding most people on a daily basis. Maybe I feel this way because I live in a country where the majority of people simultaneously consider themselves religious but are more concerned with tax cuts than with providing health care and other social services for the poor. I look at the person Jesus was purported to be, and see his message subverted by so many of his followers in this country. See, e.g., http://obsidianwings.blogs.com/obsidian_wings/2006/01/one_in_hope_and.html for something that recently struck me. The answer to the question posed by their WWJD paraphenalia is completely at odds with their "bomb the towelheads" and "fags are sinners" mentality.

BTW, from what I understand about Buddhism, it's more a philosophy than a religion. Many feel that it is compatible with atheism, as it doesn't involve worship of god(s). One could argue that even though Buddhism can be described as atheistic, it nevertheless is profound rather than secular. Again, I read your use of the word secular as atheistic, but perhaps I misconstrue your point on this matter. If I'm right, however, here's an example where you have accepted atheistic selflessness.

And I could be wrong, but I think mrs.a's point is that most charities are not religious in nature (though I am less confident than she is whether this is so). Regardless whether the motives of some/many/all of those participating in them are religious, organizations such as Doctors without Borders are not religious. http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/aboutus/charter.cfm. Similarly, I don't think it's reasonable to suggest that everyone of faith who participates in a charity does so because of their faith. Additionally, many that you automatically have categorized as "believers" for being affiliated with an organized religion do so out of convenience more than personal conviction. For example, my sister-in-law is an atheist, but she's also an active Quaker because it's part of her heritage and because she believes in their charitable goals, not because she shares their faith. Moreover, as I know you are aware, many who align themselves with a religion do little more than provide lip service to the tenets of their alleged faith.

Sorry for the long-winded rant -- I'll go quietly now.

 
At 10:03 AM, January 31, 2006, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

Sadie Lou:
it seems to me that there are seemingly endless reasons as to why atheists can serve others.

That's what my atheist readers are telling me, too. I keep looking for an explanation that I'm not getting, but perhaps the problem is entirely mine.

Aaron:
Thanks for taking up the challenge. I regret that you feel we're going around in circles on this issue. I suppose that's true, but it's because I still haven't received a coherent explanation yet. (At least, one that seems coherent to me.)

I must emphasize that I'm conducting this ongoing dialogue on atheistic grounds.

What I mean is this. Atheists tend to regard Christianity, and other religions, as vain superstitions. They think theists should cast off the superstition and live a life based on fact and reason.

All I have done in this post, and in my comments above, is hold that mirror up to the atheist.

Atheists generally stake everything on the theory of evolution as an alternative explanation of the origins of the cosmos and everything in it, including human beings. So far, so good; we're in the realm of fact and reason. (Even if I disagree with the atheist's conclusions.)

But atheists also insist human life has value and meaning. And here I fear the atheist has abandoned fact and reason and embraced an empty superstition.

According to the atheist, there is no governing intelligence behind the cosmos. Evolution depends on random mutations. I understand the process is not entirely random, insofar as only the mutations which are best adapted to environmental conditions prosper in succeeding generations. Nonetheless, the existence of human beings is entirely happenstance; we are an accident of the cosmos.

I fail to see how, on those assumptions, human beings can be said to have have any value, or human life any meaning.

For atheists to presume that human beings have value and meaning is precisely that — a presumption — and one that stands in contradiction to their own worldview.

Of course, my subjective experience tells me that I am important. My life is meaningful to me. And I can extrapolate from there and say that other people's lives are just as meaningful as my own.

Or are they just as meaningless as my own? On what grounds have I concluded that my life has meaning? On the basis of fact and reason? No — on the basis of my feelings of self-importance.

It's akin to a Christian who says, "I know that Jesus lives because he lives in my heart. I've got a personal relationship with him."

From the atheist point of view, that Christian is spouting superstitious nonsense. But that's the mirror that I'm holding up to the atheist. Isn't your conviction that human life has meaning, based on your own subjective sense of self-importance — isn't it just an empty superstition?

As I said to Jewish Atheist, there may be practical grounds for the two of us to cooperate: I may work with you toward a goal that will serve your ends, if it will also serve my ends.

But what are the philosophical grounds for truly selfless behaviour? Why, for example, should an atheist forgo a lucrative career in North America to work with Doctors Without Borders in a third world country?

Or another illustration. Let's suppose that I could steal a hundred dollars from a colleague at work, and I am virtually certain the theft will never be traced back to me. Why shouldn't I do it? Why shouldn't I put my own welfare ahead of my colleague's welfare?

You, and others, keep asserting that atheists do find meaning in life. But I need more than an assertion. What I need is for someone to begin from atheistic evolution and work outward from there, to demonstrate why human beings on the far side of the globe from me have any intrinsic value, so that I should be prepared to make a personal sacrifice for their benefit.

I continue to be sceptical that it can be done.

I believe this is an important issue, for the reasons I have outlined in the post: humanity needs a cure for the "sickness of the soul". I argue:

• all human beings, whether they are raised by believing parents or unbelieving parents, are innately self-centered;

• Christianity offers at least the potential (even if it often doesn't happen) to shift the individual to a different, other-centered orientation;

• atheism attempts to do the same thing, but it isn't likely to make much of an impact because the atheistic worldview is hollow at its core.

Re Buddhism. As I understand it, Buddhism is agnostic about God's existence. Some Buddhists are atheists, some are theists. It's legitimate to practice Buddhism within either belief system.

The post explains that Buddhists deny that human beings have a self, which seems to offer a way out of a self-centered orientation. (Though I raise one objection to the Buddhist way.)

If you do not believe in the self, that's one thing. But to be an atheist who believes in a self — it is possible to act selflessly only in defiance of one's own worldview.

Or so it seems to me.

 
At 5:54 PM, January 31, 2006, Blogger Juggling Mother said...

Phew, that'll teach me to tqke a dy off blogging:-)

Atheists believe that all life is accidental. true. But we are self aware, and therefore do not believe that life is inherently worthless, rather that every life is vital to the continuation of the species, growth & progress, so by helping others, we are helping ourselves.

Each human being has no special role, purpose or interest to the universe as a whole. indeed, the whole of humanity is very likely to be an un-noticeaboe blip in the history of the universe, although no-one is writing (or reading) that history. However, from our point of view we are vital to the present world, which is the only one that has any significance. therefore, our actions and impact on the world are of utmost importance to ourselves and to everyone else.

We ahve only got each other, and sometime I may need some help from you, so I should offer you help now. simple logic.

I guess you could say it is still selfish. Whats good for the world is good for me. Not necessarily true to a theist:-)

One final point. these are my own personal beliefs, opinions & incoherant thoughts. trying to summerise atheists is like trying to summerise theists - how do you marry together the Christian, islamic & Druidic faiths to form a cohesive worldview that you can explain to others? You can't, and that's not even entering the realms of divisions within religions. atheists are equally diverse.

 
At 5:55 PM, January 31, 2006, Blogger Juggling Mother said...

sorry for all the spelling mistakes - it's late here:-) I'm sure you get the gist of my comment.

 
At 8:25 PM, January 31, 2006, Blogger aaron said...

Q, thanks for providing (for me anyhow) a better explanation of where you're coming from. You've undoubtedly said it before, but the discussions that come out of your posts take place over lengthy periods of time, and I confess I haven't been taking notes. I'm not the most philosophically minded, for whatever it's worth, and I haven't been dwelling on this matter as you have, so forgive me for my simplistic responses.

Essentially you're asking several questions at once. Here are the ones that stand out to me --
1. Why do atheists believe life has value?
2. Can atheists be other-centered?
3. (a) Do human beings suffer from a sickness of the soul, and (b) if yes, is other-centeredness the cure?

I think the answers are, roughly,
1. You only get one crack at life, so you better make the most of it (something scarce has great value?). Doing a google search revealed this nice brief essay on the subject: http://www.abarnett.demon.co.uk/atheism/life.html.

2. No(?). In your post, you state that "to be self-centered is to be estranged from God and from fellow human beings." So using this definition, atheists have no hope of overcoming an estrangement with God, but what of estrangement from human beings? Your post doesn't really say how one would overcome estrangement from fellow human beings, but I would think that being active in one's community, helping one another, or engaging in charitable works, inter alia, would address such estrangement. You seem inclined to agree, but state that such selfless acts are contrary to the atheist worldview (never mind that I'm not even sure I have one). FWIW, the essay I just linked to appears to agree with you -- whatever you do, including good deeds, is for one's self, not for others. Thus, perhaps atheists aren't other-centered.

3a. A qualified yes. On a societal level, I would generally agree with you that human beings suffer from a sickness of the soul. Look at the examples you gave in your first post:

Why then is depression so commonplace among us? Why haven't we achieved anything like an equitable distribution of wealth? Why is the incidence of murder so high in our cities? Why do racism and hate speech continue to sprout up like bad weeds? Why is it still unsafe for women to walk alone at night? Why are totalitarianism and attempted genocide still recurrent themes of geo-political history?

Or perhaps I should narrow the focus to just one straightforward illustration. Many of us North Americans drive cars and live in homes that are far bigger than we need. Sometimes it's a matter of "conspicuous consumption": i.e., consuming more resources than one needs just to impress one's neighbours. Other times, it's just a matter of thoughtlessness: e.g. when people who ought to know better put things that could be recycled into the trash.

Whether or not you believe in global warming, everyone knows that the West's bloated way of life is unsustainable. It is not possible for everyone in the world to live as we do without rapidly despoiling the environment, resulting in a global ecological disaster.


The first paragraph identifies societal problems -- these aren't things that most (let alone all) people feel, support, or engage in. I actually take issue with the "everyone knows" assumption of the other two paragraphs -- granted there's some element of willful blindness, but I find a surprising number of people who think that rather than conservation, science/technology will find the solutions to these problems.

As for sickness of the soul in individuals, the point you make that most strikes me (beyond the crimes, of course) is the one of buying more than we need. Shopaholics buy stuff in an attempt to fill voids in their lives, and of course material possessions can never fill that void. I suppose that feeling of void exists for other types of -holic (alcoholic, etc.). That void is what I perceive to be symptomatic of sickness of the soul in an individual. So I do agree with you that many individuals have sickness of the soul, and it's even common, but by no means does everyone have it.

3b. I don't dispute that other-centeredness can be a cure for those with sickness of the soul, but I don't believe it to be the only cure. Finding meaning in one's life, even if it's a "self-centered" meaning, heals the individual. An atheist doctor leaves his lucrative practice to work with Doctors without Borders because it's what he wants to do -- it makes him feel good helping others.

--

• Christianity offers at least the potential (even if it often doesn't happen) to shift the individual to a different, other-centered orientation;

• atheism attempts to do the same thing, but it isn't likely to make much of an impact because the atheistic worldview is hollow at its core.


I think your language provides a clue as to why you don't "get" atheism, and why all our attempts to explain it will be for naught. Atheism isn't trying to "do" the same thing as your religion, or any "thing" for that matter. Your religion is very important to you, but my absence of belief is less important to me than, e.g., my political viewpoints. You see God as the center of one's existence, and one who lacks God has a hole in her/his life. It's like you've got a Picasso, and I have a blank wall -- every day you take some time to admire that amazing work of art, and every day I walk past that blank wall without thinking about it. You don't understand how I couldn't be thinking about the Picasso I don't have, but of course it doesn't even cross my mind to think about it. There's no sense of absence (or hollowness).

 
At 9:03 PM, January 31, 2006, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

• Mrs. Aginoth:
the whole of humanity is very likely to be an un-noticeable blip in the history of the universe … However, from our point of view we are vital to the present world, which is the only one that has any significance.

I don't really want to continue a potentially endless debate, but I will quickly call attention to one point. You are assuming that the present world has significance. How so? One comes to that conclusion only by working outwards from personal feelings. I feel important, at least to me; the earth sustains my life, so it is also important to me.

As I've already explained, I don't think the argument is sustainable on atheistic grounds (i.e. that we should doubt everything unless it can be demonstrated via facts and reason).

• Aaron:
I would think that being active in one's community, helping one another, or engaging in charitable works, inter alia, would address such estrangement. You seem inclined to agree, but state that such selfless acts are contrary to the atheist worldview (never mind that I'm not even sure I have one).

I agree, the activities you mention would cure the self-centeredness of the soul. In the end, my disagreement with you (and Mrs. Aginoth, and Jewish Atheist) is more philosophical than practical. And my philosophical arguments have obviously fallen flat.

In practice, all three of you seem concerned to avoid living a selfish life. And, as I said to Mrs. A. several comments ago, "I am happy to join cause with anyone who works to better the lot of the human race."

When you talk about atheism as a blank wall — one that you pass every day without paying it any mind whatsoever — I must admit I find that disappointing. I have always agreed with the statement attributed to Socrates, "an unexamined life is not worth living".

Or, at the very least, I would say that a life is impoverished by virtue of being unexamined, or enriched by grappling with the "big" questions of human existence: the whence, whither, why questions. If your image of a blank, ignored wall is accurate, that would indeed account for much of our failure to understand one another's perspectives. My approach is so much the opposite — I am under an inner compulsion to wrestle with those issues.

 
At 9:27 PM, January 31, 2006, Blogger aaron said...

When you talk about atheism as a blank wall — one that you pass every day without paying it any mind whatsoever — I must admit I find that disappointing. I have always agreed with the statement attributed to Socrates, "an unexamined life is not worth living".

I'm not sure you should take the analogy that far! Still, I have pondered the issue, and drawn a conclusion. When there are additional considerations that I need to take into account, I gladly do so (and thanks to you and your blogs, I do that more than I might otherwise). I confess, however, that I do not generally seek them out of my own accord.

I guess the bottom line is that as a beergeek, I abide by a very simple philosophy, bibo ergo sum -- I drink, therefore I am. ;)

 
At 9:04 AM, February 01, 2006, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

'Tis a worthy philosophy, one which I will not gainsay!

btw — more seriously — you do, of course, have a worldview. Everyone does, however much (or little) they subject it to conscious examination.

And despite your self-deprecating remarks, I know there's more to your worldview than beer and a blank wall.

 
At 6:50 PM, February 02, 2006, Blogger snaars said...

I'm throwing my two cents' worth in very late here ...

I just read the entire thread, and I appreciate this dialogue, especially the comments from the atheists.

Q wrote:
You, and others, keep asserting that atheists do find meaning in life. But I need more than an assertion. What I need is for someone to begin from atheistic evolution and work outward from there, to demonstrate why human beings on the far side of the globe from me have any intrinsic value, so that I should be prepared to make a personal sacrifice for their benefit.

Q, I think your demand for this explanation is a bit unfair. You say you are holding atheists to the same standard as theists, but I don't see it that way. I believe you are exercising a double standard in favor of theism.

Imagine a creature that was created, and imagine another creature just like it that came into being according to the fixed, non-random, unthinking, unfeeling laws of the universe. Aside from their origins, they are identical in every respect. Why does the life of one have meaning, and the life of the other does not?

If your answer is, "because one was created by God!" then, please explain how you come to that conclusion logically.

Selflessness is taught in a number of religions, but its justification is not strictly logical - it stems from value judgments.

If I value someone or something more than my own comfort, convenience, or welfare, then I am free to act selflessly.

Some people understand values within the conceptual scheme of their religion, but it is quite possible to have values apart from religion.

 
At 9:55 AM, February 03, 2006, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

Hi, Snaars, glad you weighed in. That was quite a reading assignment, since you read all the comments, too!

I insist that I am applying the same standard to atheists that atheists apply to theists. You sidestepped my argument altogether in your comment.

First, let me respond (briefly) to what you said.

Christians believe that God has innate value, since God is eternal, perfect, etc., etc. God chose to create human beings; God created us in his image; and when he evaluated what he had just created, he pronounced it "very good".

Moreover, God further dignified humanity by becoming incarnate in human flesh. The human form was seen as a fit vessel for the person of God himself. (Though I must admit, I doubt the doctrine of the incarnation.)

I think what you're saying is that I can't prove, based on fact and reason, that God has innate value. But at the very least, Christianity tells a coherent story.

The atheist begins by asserting that everything must be doubted unless it can be demonstrated to be reasonably possible (or even probable).

Then the atheist says (a) that human beings are an accident of the cosmos and (b) that human beings have value and human life has meaning.

If proposition (a) is true, proposition (b) cannot be demonstrated on the basis of fact and reason. And that's all I meant by saying that I was holding a mirror up to the atheist. I can't demonstrate the fundamentals of my faith on that basis, it's true: but neither can the atheist.

Thus you have sidestepped the core of my argument.

And, as I said, at least Christianity tells a coherent story at this point. Whereas the atheist believes human life has value and meaning in stark defiance of his or her own working assumptions.

That said, I know you have a philosophy that makes room for transcendent values. And I respect your argument — it's the closest thing to a coherent account that I've heard from an atheistic perspective.

But you're still taking a very large leap of faith. And that is what it comes down to for me: if we want to believe that life has any meaning, we must take a leap of faith of one sort or another. Let's recognize that Christians and atheists alike are taking such a leap of faith.

If we stay strictly within the bounds of demonstrable fact and deductive logic, the only possible conclusion is to despair.

 
At 11:31 AM, February 03, 2006, Anonymous J said...

Like Snaars, I am pretty late in getting in on this discussion, but I decided I better get all my homework done before weighing in.

I hate to antagonize you, Q, because goodness only knows I support your worldview. But I sympathize with the atheists on the question of whether human life has value.

You said, Q, that human life doesn’t have value in an atheistic worldview. But think about that for a minute. What does it mean to say life has value? It means that someone places value on life. We Christians generally say that life has value because God placed value on it. But thinking from an atheist perspective, why can it only be God who places value on life? Why can’t human life have value just because we humans place value on it?

So then, if an atheist feels like valuing other humans, and likes the results that come from demonstrating selfless behavior, it’s perfectly rational to do so within their worldview.

Where I think atheism still has difficulty is that it offers no reason why people should have to be selfless if they don’t feel like it. In an atheistic worldview, there is no obligation to be selfless, because there is no one who will provide ultimate justice for those who refuse to do so. (In this sense, I think it's legitimate to say that atheism doesn't offer a very sustainable foundation for selflessness.)

So…an atheist can try to persuade people that they should be selfless, but if people don’t want to, there’s no ultimate reason why they should. The lack of justice is one area where atheism still rings pretty hollow.

 
At 12:20 PM, February 03, 2006, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

J:
What does it mean to say life has value? It means that someone places value on life. We Christians generally say that life has value because God placed value on it. But thinking from an atheist perspective, … why can’t human life have value just because we humans place value on it?

The longer this argument goes on, the sillier I feel about it! Even though I think I have a valid point, it's "merely" philosophical. (That ought to get a rise out of Snaars.)

In practical terms, you're right: that is exactly what atheists do. And I feel silly pressing them on the point, because I agree: human life has value, and selflessness is the right principle to live by. I don't want to argue the converse — but that's what I've been doing!

In philosophical terms, it's a problematic argument. If I have zero value, and you have zero value, how can we impute value to one another? As I expressed it to Jewish Atheist, nothing plus nothing is still nothing.

Where I think atheism still has difficulty is that it offers no reason why people should have to be selfless if they don’t feel like it.

Well said. But your argument grows out of the point that I'm making. What you're saying is that, from an atheist perspective, life has no intrinsic value. It has value only so long as other people say it has value.

What if all the white people decide black people are sub-human and fit for slavery? What if a consensus develops in European nations that Jews are a blight on the human race and should be ghettoized?

(Lightly dancing around the fact that the people who behaved this way were Christians!)

We need to hear from a higher authority, a third party who can provide an independent judgement about the innate worth of a human life.

 
At 8:04 PM, February 03, 2006, Blogger snaars said...

Life doesn't have "intrinsic" value. If it did, it would be wrong to spray disinfectant on the toilet seat.

I'm tempted to write a novella-length comment that would really win the argument (LOL!), but I have the sneaking suspicion Q and I will end up discussing this again, so I don't feel the need.

I still do want to comment on the original subject, which is malaise.

I think everyone suffers depression at times, and to varying degrees. Does that mean that there is an all-pervading malaise? Maybe, maybe not. Floods have happened all over the world, but that does not mean that there was a Great Flood. So, I don't know if there is a Great Malaise.

Losing my faith was a difficult process, and caused me despair, suffering and grief. But it hasn't changed me so much. It only altered my understanding of myself and the values that I held all along.

Grief is very much a part of the experience of being human. Losing God is much like losing anyone. And, there is the realization of one's own mortality. With the grief comes acceptance, then healing.

I no longer despair. I don't believe that theism is more life-affirming or healthy than atheism. In fact, I believe just the opposite. Life is infinitely more precious because it is in limited supply. Each moment is a wonder to be treasured.

I value truth, love, and hope. I value my children, and human potential. I value many (though not all) of the qualities people ascribe to God, because I recognize those qualities as being the best of ourselves.

God does not have to threaten me with eternal damnation in order for me to accept these values. They are part of my nature. Who wants to go through life without loving someone, and being loved in return? Therefore, love is valuable.

What if all the white people decide black people are sub-human and fit for slavery? What if a consensus develops in European nations that Jews are a blight on the human race and should be ghettoized?

The moral relativism you describe does not follow logically from atheism, but that is a subject for another time - I've already written a lot more than I intended.

There - I've said my peace. I'll let someone else have the last word, if they want it. (Thanks for the discussion, Q. This is one of the few outlets I have for expressing my true feelings on this subject without fear of retaliation.)

 
At 9:38 PM, February 03, 2006, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

Snaars, I am content to let you have the last word. (With an objection on just one peripheral point.) Your comment is almost poetic in its beauty, and I feel no desire to rebut it. I've said my piece, too, several times already.

The one point at which I have to correct the record? Here:

God does not have to threaten me with eternal damnation in order for me to accept these values.

Snaars, that is — how shall I put this? — stereotypical bullshit. In both Judaism and Christianity, obedience to the law / living in accordance with God's moral values is set in the context of a covenant of grace.

First, God blesses us, abundantly, when we have done nothing to merit such a blessing. Then, with our hearts overflowing with gratitude, we do our best to live lives that are pleasing to him.

"We love God because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19).

Eternal damnation has absolutely nothing to do with it. It doesn't enter the frame, not even out in the periphery somewhere. That's a misunderstanding and a distortion of biblical faith.

It's also a side issue, but I had to correct the record.

The rest of what you said is downright beautiful. You're a good man, Snaars.

 

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