A Curious Girl

The musings of a girl who is curious in both senses of the word. Life, God, and York. Oh, did I say York? I meant Bradford!

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Trouble with Atheism

One of the things that always amuses me about atheists is when they claim to have the moral high ground. Certainly they'd be right in asserting that followers of many religions can be morons (I heard on the radio this morning that Buddhist monks have been forbidden getting too excited over the World Cup, because apparently cheering is inappropriate behaviour. It seems even peace-loving vegetarians have a mean streak!). Christians spend much of their time bemoaning the stupidity of even their dear brothers and sisters in Christ. (See Stupid Church People, or maybe take an anti-depressant and read Slice of Laodicea.) Richard Dawkins said something rather profound - "To make good people do evil things takes religion". I actually agree, but think it's hilarious that he's saying so, especially since he apparently then endorsed "Do as you would be done by" as a moral code, which is a variant on one of Jesus's most well-known and practical teachings - see Luke 6:31.

If you're an atheist, what is evil? There can be no absolute standard. If one is an atheist, in the sense of believing that we are merely a product of evolution filling a human-shaped niche, with things only surviving because they're really good at surviving... then how can it be asserted that morality is anything other than a human construct that continues to exist either because it's useful or because getting rid of it would be too troublesome? A "meme", as Dawkins might call it - an idea that is passed along and reproduced. Answers in Genesis (a creationist website) quote the following of Charles Darwin (from The Descent of Man):

The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered in the manner previously indicated more tender and more widely diffused. Nor can we check our sympathy, even without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature … We must, therefore, bear the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind.

The curious thing is, even here Darwin, though asserting that our commonly held notions of morality are a sort of evolutionary accident, he himself describes a sort of morality, making sympathy "bad" and survival of the fittest "good". The weak should die, the strong should live, that's the way it is.

I suppose there are really two basic theories as to why anything exists - either something has always existed, or something came out of nothing. The trouble is that both theories seem utterly ridiculous to human thinking. It stands to reason, we think, that nothing is completely permanent. Even things that seem utterly fixed, like the rocks or the stars, are eventually destroyed, and moreover can be proven to have been created - we understand through geology and astronomy possible mechanisms by which both are created. Can the universe itself really be considered a permanent fixture? But it stands to reason, we think, that something cannot come from nothing. Matter is conserved, energy is conserved. Something cannot be spontaneously created.

The first position is held by Christians - that God, who is permanent, created our temporary universe. He was, and is, and will be, forever. Atheists, on the other hand, tend to believe that only things like matter and energy are conserved, or perhaps that everything did simply come from "nothing". The evolution of the universe was merely a process of physical interactions with no meaning or purpose, and the only "order" that exists within the chaos is coincidental - after billions of years, enough "coincidences" have occurred in order for some highly ordered entities to exist within the chaos. In a sense the universe is just an extremely complex chain reaction and the only true "closed system" for the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

In a sense, according to the atheist, everything exists "by accident", and the fact that there are creatures called humans who discuss "meaning" and "purpose" is also "by accident" - reproducing memes that are too useful to die or perhaps merely too troublesome to get rid of. Humans exist because they keep having babies, because they're good at fighting disease and animals, because they haven't all killed themselves yet, and because they're very good at staying alive. The universe doesn't have to have meaning and purpose because humans invented meaning and purpose and the universe was here before they were. The universe doesn't have to satisfy human scruples because it was here before they were. The explanation as to "why" the universe is here does not have to satisfy human morality because, again, humans invented morality and the universe is bigger than they are. It can't be appealed to, questioned, or reasoned with - those are all human concepts. The universe can go on doing immoral things and allowing immoral things to happen and it can't be called unfair because, again, humans invented fairness.

It's a bittersweet symphony, that's life
Try and make ends meet, try to make some money
Then you die
- The Verve

Depressing, isn't it? Moral scruples an evolutionary fluke. Religion's a meme. And everything really boils down to coincidences. While, I confess, I find it a less troubling idea than the thought that my dearest friends and family might end up in torment without hope of salvation for all eternity (I think I succeeded in believing this for a few days. I lost my appetite and spent much of my time crying. Really I can't see how anyone could get by without either ignoring it or rejecting it altogether), I must say I find atheism a horrible thought. I suppose there's always the Pascal's wager type advantage that if you don't want to believe in Dawkins' reality, even if it actually is reality, then you don't have to believe it.

I knew someone who was the victim of an anti-miracle. He was 17 and had leukemia. His fraternal twin brother was tested to see whether he was a suitable bone-marrow donor. It turned out that his brother also had leukemia. Unfortunately I'm not well read on the genetic relationship with leukemia, but I understand that the odds against were fairly steep. It sometimes seems to me that Christians often make excuses for God, saying the reason that he seems cruel or even absent is generally due to some more complex motive, that it's goodness in disguise, that natural disasters are really our fault, or just that "he moves in mysterious ways his wonders to perform." It seems that horrible coincidences are just horrible coincidences but that good coincidences are the hand of God.

And now I'll get to the point: it just sometimes seems to me that in reality life is as chaotic and accidental as one might expect if we were, not being watched over by a great and mighty God who created us all for his pleasure, but trying to find purpose and meaning in a universe where there is no purpose and meaning - and that we just find God because we want to, when in reality we're just talking to ourselves. The brain can do powerful things.

I don't want to depress anyone, but I thought I'd post this rather sad display of doubt and existential angst because I really hope that there is a point to life, and I was hoping that anyone who's made it to the end of the post might have some helpful insights. Please pray for me, I really want to know God but I'm beginning to wonder if he's actually there, and not just a product of my imagination. It feels like I'm all questions right now. Ironic when many Christians claim to have all the answers!

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  • At 10:16 pm , Blogger Dave K said...

    Phew! You will have to permit me some time to think about a decent comment on that post. I guess I just want to remind myself (as well as you) that questioning evil is at the heart of Christian living in a cursed world. The question is about what is the appropriate response to God in the light of it. Hmmm.... I may be on the wrong track, but I'll think some more.

    In the meantime I wonder what you make of Lesslie Newbigin (e.g. this essay).

    Glad you're hanging around York. And I'm sorry I am quite a lazy and sporadic commenter.


  • At 1:50 pm , Blogger BruceD said...

    Maybe the point to life is trying to figure out what the "point to life" is.

  • At 6:05 pm , Blogger Helen Louise said...

    Bruce, wouldn't that be a sort of recursive "point to life"?

    "I've discovered the meaning of life!"

    "What is it?"

    "To discover the meaning of life!"

    "Which is?"

    "To discover the meaning of life!"

    "and the meaning of life is?"

    "To discover the meaning of life!"

    My head hurts :)

    Dave, no worries about your laziness or sporadicity... to be upset about it would be something of a pot calling a kettle a kitchen appliance. Thanks for commenting, and thanks for the link to the essay. I haven't finished it but I like what I've read so far :)


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