So I was watching Kung Fu Panda just now (with my sons), and it got me thinking about faith and human value. What faith means to many religious people is that in order to feel valuable, eventually there comes a point in one's reasoning which even we atheists come to, which is that you have to believe you are valuable in order to BE valuable. Faith just makes it an objective fact for them, because it allows them to build their entire metaphysical edifice on it and the result, god, is all-powerful and so can simply grant them this value. But the basic point remains. If value is just believing that you are valuable, and we atheists do this too, then aren't we just having faith in the idea that we are valuable?
Its not an argument to be taken lightly, but there are some things we could say. First of all, we like to think that there are differences between just thinking we are good and then proceeding to behave in any way imaginable. We want to act creatively and not destructively. We want to support others and bring people closer together rather than break social ties and pull the rug out from each other. We want to be liked by and attractive to others rather than being despised and abhorred. And so on. But none of these things have any import without eventually coming back to the idea that we must think our lives, or human lives in general, are valuable in order for helping others and such to mean anything. This brings us back to the problem of faith in a hurry.
And back to Kung Fu Panda. So Jack Black's character has to read the Dragon Scroll to become the Dragon Warrior, but it turns out the scroll is blank (hope you see where this is going). So, just like his father's Secret Ingredient Noodle Soup, there is no secret ingredient, just thinking you are (or it is) special is what makes you (it) so. Religious people will jump up and shout that this is what faith is! We of course would first argue that just thinking something does not make it so. This is a great strength of atheistic thinking in my opinion, because it calls for some serious deep introspection and "soul-searching" to find out what it really is that makes someone a truly good person, and what being good is really all about, in a profound way that self-satisfied religious people just don't get. But where does all this thinking lead us?
I would make the further argument that faith is just another so-called secret ingredient, a ruse or ploy to prop up one's system of values, at which heart lies of course the self. And when you add in the whole religious framework on top, it becomes even more transparently so. After all of their maneuvering, all they end up doing is becoming masters at self-deception. We atheists generally realize that there is no objective set of values in the universe, that values are ultimately subjective in nature. But this, more often than not, leads atheists towards great confusion, resulting in nihilism, or cynicism, or simply a vague, general notion of what ethics should be but no real handle on just what it really is, if it is anything. This for me is why I think the biggest obstacle facing atheists is formulating a system of values/ethics that doesn't fall into the dual problems of pure relativism on one side (rendering ethics impotent) and what amounts to authoritarianism on the other (you should do something because some moral authority says it is best).
After all this, it seems we are left with a major problem. We can try to make the case that there is no objective reason to believe for the sake of believing, that faith of any type is simply unjustified belief for the sake of feeling better about oneself, but if we cannot replace it with something that is capable of reintroducing the concept of value into our lives (absolutely essential for any belief system), we cannot hope to convince religious people to trade in their beliefs in their own self-worth for a set of beliefs which ultimately tells them that they are worthless.
Ultimately, we are worthless. This is the whole point. Existence is, for all intents, quite pointless and totally accidental. A cruel joke almost.
I'm going to find time soon to discuss the ultimate progression of the memory complex/memoryplex issue and how that relates to "everlasting life" (which it can in a sense) although this idea is in the realms of science fiction right now. Someone else might want to explore it first because the idea is simple - if we can copy our memories into a "computer" that is capable of feeding them with natural sensory information then where are "we"?
The "me" in the computer is still "me" - in the right environment, I could not even know the difference - except that perhaps, the "me" wandering around in a body is also "me" - so there are two Marcs - one of which will die when the biological support system ceases to function. The personalities of those two Marcs will diverge slowly as each gets different information, but at least in the early days, they are essentially the same person.
The concept here is interesting in that the computer copy (which, remember, FEELS that IT is the original) can exists as long as the computer bank is running, i.e. until the power is shut off. In that way, that me is essentially eternal - so who needs a God?
We don't have this tech yet, but who's to say we never will - and if we ever do, what does that mean for existence?
This one is harder to resolve than a first glance might suggest, too - a perhaps it would deliver what cryogenics has always promised - only at what cost to the original me - the biological one?
Having children is a way of passing on your DNA. It's possible that your drive to want to replicate yourself as a computer program, might have roots in your drive to procreate. Having children certainly is satisfying to that drive to leave a mark on the world.
That is the whole po9int. Ultimately, objectively, in any absolute sense of the word, there is no value to our existence. How could there be? Nothing is absolute, even the universe itself seems to be a transitory state, eventually crumbling into nothingness. From the point of view of the universe, the objective point of view, nothing matters. But does this mean that values are whatever we decide they are? I think the natural response for the religious person is to ask if this means that values, and therefore ethics, are completely relative and subjective, completely up to the "will" of the individual, and then that would mean that ethics and values are essentially a ruse, amounting to nothing other than personal gain or pleasure. Then nobody can be trusted, and society breaks down at the fundamental level, and so on. Nothing matters? Isn't there a way out of this reductio ad absurdum? Don't we really care about our lives? Shouldn't we care about others as well? Shouldn't things matter on a "grander" or "bigger" level than just our own personal profit? Aren't we less selfish, more "altruistic" than that?
I think the question of what it is that values are, what ethics is, what it means to be Good, is the most important question to ask, not only for our own good but because it would allow us to answer the biggest questions religious people have.
Understanding the causal web, I don't think any realisation would lead to this total break down of society. The fact is that we are in societies because they work, not because we have imposed ethics or morals on them. Humans might think that their brains are quite cleaver, but in fact, our brains spend most of their time make stuff up. See the book 'the man who mistook his wife for his hat and other stories', it talks about a person who had their brain cut in two and so would just make up stories about why and how the other half of the brain had done things with their other hand. It is quite a natural thing to do and we all do it all the time. I think because we are not one being, but more of a collective of cells with the same DNA all co-existing together.
So the idea that society would break down if we all suddenly by miracle realised at the same moment (which isn't going to happen), that ethics and values were meaningless. They are meaningless in the bigger picture, but they are also linked into our genetic social instincts. We care about others because they help us get food, look after children, care for us when we are sick. There isn't any 'good' in it, it is a simple survival tactic. As are our 'good' feelings when we do such things for others. It's natural. I don't see anything macabre in it - like we are all just selfish beings and somehow evil will take over if we realise that morals are null and void.
I know that I'm quite intense with my ideas, but I really expect that you are robust with your replies - as challenge is what makes us evolve and without it, for me, life becomes quite meaningless! LOL.
I wasn't saying that "any realization would lead to the total breakdown of society", but merely suggesting that this is what religious people or others might argue would happen without there being a purely objective and absolute meaning to the word "value".
Sorry I don't have time as yet for a more in-depth response. Mostly I agreed with everything else you said.
I agree that many people have these fears about the break down of society if they see the reality that there is no ultimate value or morals guided by a God. I suppose for those who don't believe in God also have these fears - but have other cultural learnt behaviour that keeps them adhering to their cultural values of good and bad. I've found my culturally learnt values of good and bad constraining to my being, so realising that there isn't an ultimate right and wrong is liberating. It gives me freedom (in a caused sense) to generate my own values. We all drive to have autonomy over our choice of values - I think it is a natural instinct - that is perhaps sublimated by members of conformist groups. Although I do tend to be the person at the party who comes out with the shocking and inappropriate comment, leaving everyone feeling like they have to avoid me now... I aim to keep myself in check - I don't even drink alcohol much and not at parties as I'm usually driving with kids. So lets just say that it comes naturally to me!
This is a worthwhile and interesting subject IMO. Faith, belief, ethics, value, self esteem...
It's something I've been and still am grappling with and would enjoy to thrash out the ideas with others.
There is most certainly a placebo factor - but we are left with the fact, that if you are an atheist then you probably don't go for believing in something because you were told to - meaning that faith just won't cut it with you. How can you go believing in yourself, that you have value, when underneath you know that you're kidding yourself? I don't reckon it would work.
I used to feel valueless - when in fact I did have value and potential. As I've got older I feel more valuable to society, because I've developed skills and acquired knowledge that I believe are valuable to myself and others.
I think the school system is quite oppressive and causes many of us to feel valueless, because of the way it uses right and wrong, good and bad, rewards and punishment to coerce and 'motivate us' us into being good people - by the time you've reached university level 90% of people in society have failed! Not a particularly 'good' start in life.
At the end of the day - there is no point in us being here - all we really know is that we are here, we were born, we will have this live and then we will die. We can experience attractive and not so attractive emotions, we can look after our health. We are all fully caused to be and do and think what we do. There is no right/wrong/good/bad/evil as such, only contextualised to our personal experience or belief. So we may as well enjoy our lives as much as we are able with consideration to keep in balance with the planet as a whole - to increase our chances of general survival and good health and enjoyment into the future.
I disagree that Religious people think that the secret ingredient is nothing. They seem pretty fixed on there being a god and heaven and angels and other such mythical beings and places....
Thanks for the clarification.
I agree with you, I think it was painful for me to realise that there was no meaning in our lives and really my life was totally irrelevant – well that’s what I felt at the time – when considering the whole of time before I was born – incomprehensible – but I’m not even a blip relatively, never mind a speed hump! And then realising that eventually the human race will die out, and the sun will burn up and die, and it will all probably get sucked into a black whole again at some point.
This is in the back drop of my long term depression – searching for meaning was probably what lead me to having these realisations. Probably not a good combination.
But once I’d been able to regain physical and mental health again through practical measures addressing my health concerns, I now am back to my natural human sense of contentment, when all my needs are met, and so the prospect of nothingness and meaningless, sit fine with me. I’m happy about it, because it allows me freedom (in a caused way :)) to create what I will of this frivolous existence.
When I hear you talking, I suspect you may live in America. My Dad lives in the UK and is an atheist also. He said he finds American atheists strange. I don’t know fully what he means by that, but I suspect that it might be connected with the, from my understanding, heavy focus on God and religion, in personal and public life.
I read somewhere that countries without a welfare state (side note: have you ever seen Ali Gee? Comedian who does gay hairdresser and guy from middle east… anyway, as Ali Gee he reckons that a welfare state is well fare – LOL – hope the humour translates!) so anyhow, without a welfare state, the proportion of the population having supernatural beliefs rises hugely. In Australia, England and other European countries God isn’t too important. We currently have an atheist prime minister (Australia), and other than a few initial comments, nothing much has been made of it here. Whereas in the US, belief in a God is a real support to people. Belief in a God gives hope where fear of unmet basic needs looms near. I can’t imagine the US electing an atheist President!
Thus I sense your need to come up with ideas of how to show religious people what morality IS, and not just what it isn’t. Living in Australia I don’t have that same continual pressure, as I can’t remember the last time I was harassed by a God believer regarding my lack of faith. Also, Australians don’t really talk about Politics or Religion, it’s culturally avoided. England is the same – their thing is avoid politics, religion and sport. Whereas I’ve heard that it is culturally encouraged to have vigorous social debate about these things.
I can help you with some good arguments about why a Christian would be a hypocrite to attack you in any way. Would that be useful? Jesus was basically about overturning oppression and domination through nonviolent resistance. Turn the other cheek was about making it difficult for a master to backhand a slave or servant – by turning the other cheek the master would have to punch the slave or servant – this was culturally inappropriate, because fist fights were only had between equals and such an act would be acknowledging equality with a slave or servant.
I’ve got a whole lot of stories that I won’t bore you with, unless you’d like more ammunition in this vein.
The point is that Christian values based on the teachings of Jesus are about changing the system in a nonviolent way, realising that everyone is a child of God, and loving your neighbour and your enemy. So if they are judging you as being bad, they are not being true to their faith of loving everyone as equal. They have actually missed the point of their own faith.
I can’t stand the word morality, so I’m having trouble addressing your desire to show religious people what morality IS. My dictionary tells me that ‘morality’ is in accordance with the rules of right conduct. ‘Right’ meaning in accordance with what is just or good. ‘Just’ meaning actuated by truth, justice, and lack of bias. ‘Good’ meaning a number of things including ‘morally excellent’ but I’ve chosen ‘beneficial’.
With that lot of definition I would say that morality is – honesty, fairness, treating people with equality, and acting in a beneficial way towards self and others. This seems to me, to be the essence of human nature and it is natural for us all to have this basic compassion and care for ourselves and others. I see it only as being interrupted by fear and ignorance of the unknown.
Funnily enough these ideas of morality remind me of my understanding of the teachings of Jesus. (I wasn’t raised Christian, so don’t have much knowledge, but have since read some bible interpretation books) I reckon he was quite a forward thinking and compassionate person – on his own, without all the other supernatural paraphernalia. Other people with similar passions are Gandhi, M L King and N Mandela – John Lennon had a go too. We can see here how this nonviolent resistance didn’t go well for many of these people. One crucified and three shot. Mandela was lucky that he only got locked up for 25 years.
Come and join the Nonviolent Communication group that I’ve sent up. As it’s a forum to talk about Naturalistic morals – and how they are formed from compassion, honesty, fairness, treating people with equality and attending to our own and others’ needs with equal consideration and care. I’ve written out the basic ideas of nonviolent communication in a discussion post in the group. I would love to hear your thoughts on that.