Thursday, November 25, 2004


In a rare and wonderful event, many philosophy boys and beautiful girls were sitting together at a piano bar tonight. American Pie was being played, and my friend Howard stuck up his middle finger and yelled when the singer left an opening for "The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost". Kaitlin (who is in her 2nd year at MSU law school) was a little taken aback. "Sometimes Howard's atheism gets in the way," I said. There was an expression of distaste on her face, and I continued, "I'm an atheist too, but it doesn't get in the way of me enjoying the song."

"Are a lot of philosophers atheists?" she asked.

"Well, you sort of make a list of the things you can say exist," I replied. "And for many philosophers, God doesn't make the cut."

She got an amused smile, as if this way of regarding religious belief was something peculiar and amusing. Does this attitude towards religion seem peculiar to a lot of non-philosophers? For me, it's always been the way to evaluate the belief in God. You treat it as any other belief and reject it if it's ill-supported by evidence. For a while in college, I tried to see if I could induce religious belief in myself, thinking that it would be a happier and more meaningful way to live. I now have firsthand knowledge that desiring to believe p does not cause one to believe p. But even this took place against a general background of knowing that there weren't any good epistemic reasons to hold metaphysically outlandish theistic beliefs, and that that was the proper form of evaluation for such belief.

Most atheists I know come to their position simply because they don't see good evidence for belief. It's not that they dislike the idea of a God. (Some, like Nietzsche, do. Personally, I'd think it was really nice if some powerful being were to give people a pleasant afterlife.) Gallup recently asked Americans the following question: "If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be a 'X' would you vote for that person?" For x=atheist, only 49% said yes. This was worse than gay people, who were accepted by 59%. I wonder how much of this comes out of confusion about how atheists come to their beliefs. There may be a perception that atheists are generally hostile to religion, that we're anti-theists rather than mere nonbelievers. (Howard, I guess, is. My point is that he's the exception rather than the rule.) What's really important to me, as a hedonic utilitarian, is how much pleasure and pain are in the world. If you want to help me crank out the hedons and you've got a good plan for doing so, I couldn't care less what kinds of other beliefs you tote along. I imagine that most atheists are similarly welcoming to theistic allies who will help them implement their ethical programs. Our concern about religion is merely that theism motivates people to fight against our ethical programs, as in the gay marriage issue.

(In other news, I had a wonderful conversation with a sweet girl named Colleen, and passed up my golden opportunity to get her phone number. But my relationship-starting incompetence is a far less interesting topic.)


Mary said...

I'm sorry; I'm very ignorant about philosophy. As far as I'm able to tell, when you call yourself a hedonic utilitarian, that means you want to spread positive experience to the greatest number of people. Am I even close to what that means?
What I find intriguing is that you give yourself that label, and it helps you define how you relate to the world. It seems similar to defining oneself as a Christian, or a Buddhist, or whatever--a subscription to a body of belief, in your case based on evidence or logic.
For some of us, religion could not NOT be a part of us. In my case, I think it makes me a better person than I would be without it. I think I'm basically probably pretty selfish, and religion (faith is probably a better word) reminds me of my connection with and duty to all of God's children (not just the ones I approve of or agree with.) I think I have learned to tolerate a certain amount of cognitive dissonance, and there are a lot of us like me. We are just not as vocal as some people of faith, which is why I felt compelled to respond to this post. Anyway, it just seems to me you basically have something that is very similar to religion.

Neil Sinhababu said...

You're right about hedonic utilitarianism, Mary. It's the view that pleasure is the good thing and displeasure/pain is the bad thing. The morally good person goes around trying to maximize the quantity (pleasure minus pain) in the world.

Anyway, it just seems to me you basically have something that is very similar to religion.Yes, I have something that plays the role in my life that religion plays in lots of people's lives. But I think that for a belief system to count as a religion, it has to include the claim that some kind of God exists. That's why I don't call myself religious.

Maybe another reason religious people fear atheists is that they think atheists are denying way more than the existence of God. Maybe they think atheists deny that life is meaningful or that there is an objectively true morality. While atheists are probably more likely to deny these things than theists, most philosophers who are atheists don't deny them. I, for example, think that the goodness of pleasure and the badness of pain can be discovered by attending to one's experiences, and that this grounds the moral facts regardless of God's existence. I regard it as a significant philosophical insight that God isn't necessary (or even very helpful) in helping one discover the facts about morality or about what kind of life will be meaningful.

Brandon said...

I go back and forth between being a Nietzsche-style atheist and being a Neil-style atheist. My reason for disbelieving is more Neil-style - I take belief in God to be on the same epistemic footing as other things insofar as the proper reason for belief must consist in evidence rather than expedience. So "it makes me a better person" is no more reason to believe in God than it is a reason to believe that I am the King of England.

But once you come to the Neil-style state of disbelief, I think it is easy to become inclined to the Nietzsche-style stance of contempt for religion. It is the quintessential short-circuiting of the epistemic system, and as such it plays havoc with our ability to make rational decisions. Witness the present administration. Plus, if there is a God, there's the whole Problem of Evil business to reckon with. It would be nice if there were an afterlife - I'm all about living forever and death is a Very Bad Thing, Bernard Williams and Tom Nagel be damned. But if there is a God, She ought to have stepped in a few times by now to set things right. So, far from being an amoral or immoral position, I think most atheists who "hate God" do so for moral reasons.

Still, it is good to keep the Nietzsche at bay in order to be sociable with folks who've drank the Kool-Aid. They're generally good folks, delusions notwithstanding. :)

Anonymous said...

The thing is, the human brain was never designed for ascertaining the true nature of the universe. It was designed -- like the pancreas, liver, etc -- to keep its owner alive and make him reproduce. We have certain heuristics that are non-rational. Some of these heuristics are pretty universally accepted (inferring like effects from like causes, for example). Some aren't (sympathizing with strangers less than people you know). I don't know whether religious belief is a hard-wired part of the brains of a large fraction of the human population, a small fraction (the fundamentalists), or none at all, and it's all just our brains operating with the same processes as non-religious thought without any special faculty for religion. Still, maybe we just believe stuff that isn't true because that's how our brains work, and it keeps us alive and makes us likely to have kids.

Julian Elson

Rebecca said...

>But I think that for a belief system to count as a religion, it >has to include the claim that some kind of God exists. That's why >I don't call myself religious.

>I regard it as a significant philosophical insight that God isn't >necessary (or even very helpful) in helping one discover the facts >about morality or about what kind of life will be meaningful.

I am curious whether you would consider Buddhism a religion since while Buddhists may believe in gods they do not consider them as pocessing any special moral knowledge/connection to the meaning of life.

Neil Sinhababu said...

I don't have much of a definition of pleasure -- apart from picking it out as the good experiential state, I don't think any real analysis is possible. It's an experience, just as visual perceptions of red are experiences, if that helps.

I'm a hedonic utilitarian about morality (though recently I've been wondering if hedonic altruism about morality is the better position), and I'm also thinking about becoming a hedonic utilitarian about value. If there is any sense in talking about epistemic normativity, there are reasons not to believe in God. Hedonic utilitarianism might command me to take a pill that removes belief in hedonic utilitarianism from my head, but just about any consequentialist moral theory has this characteristic, and I agree with Parfit that it's no problem. I don't think one can generate beliefs by choosing to believe, at least in non-crazy-pill cases.

Julian is right about all he really intends to say, but I shiver at talk of evolutionary 'design'. I'd rather talk about what evolution 'squirted out,' or some other messy metaphor -- it prevents us from finding nonexistent purposes in purely natural processes.

I don't think that one needs to have special moral knowledge or connection to the meaning of life, in order to be a God. Each of the following are probably sufficient:
-creating or preserving or being able to destroy the universe
-being omnipotent,
-having really awesome powers and immortality and mostly living on a separate plane from humans.
Other ways of being Gods may be possible.

Bertsura said...

I actually hate the idea of worshipping gods, especially horrible ones like Yahweh, who would kill you for not worshipping him or Jesus, who would send you to hell if you don't follow him. Besides, groveling before omnipotent beings just isn't my idea of fun. Good thing there isn't any evidence for any of them or it would be sad universe indeed.