Are you an a-zeusist?

Here’s a great article from Sam Harris, which I have re-posted from The Huffington Post.

It’s five years old, but the logic is still solid. Especially in light of the recent tragedy in Haiti.

What do you think of his logic and conclusion?

Sam Harris

Sam Harris

Posted: October 6, 2005 04:31 PM

THERE IS NO GOD (AND YOU KNOW IT)
Somewhere in the world a man has abducted a little girl. Soon he will rape, torture, and kill her. If an atrocity of this kind not occurring at precisely this moment, it will happen in a few hours, or days at most. Such is the confidence we can draw from the statistical laws that govern the lives of six billion human beings. The same statistics also suggest that this girl’s parents believe — at this very moment — that an all-powerful and all-loving God is watching over them and their family. Are they right to believe this? Is it good that they believe this?

No.

The entirety of atheism is contained in this response. Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply a refusal to deny the obvious. Unfortunately, we live in a world in which the obvious is overlooked as a matter of principle. The obvious must be observed and re-observed and argued for. This is a thankless job. It carries with it an aura of petulance and insensitivity. It is, moreover, a job that the atheist does not want.

It is worth noting that no one ever need identify himself as a non-astrologer or a non-alchemist. Consequently, we do not have words for people who deny the validity of these pseudo-disciplines. Likewise, “atheism” is a term that should not even exist. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make when in the presence of religious dogma. The atheist is merely a person who believes that the 260 million Americans (eighty-seven percent of the population) who claim to “never doubt the existence of God” should be obliged to present evidence for his existence — and, indeed, for his benevolence, given the relentless destruction of innocent human beings we witness in the world each day. Only the atheist appreciates just how uncanny our situation is: most of us believe in a God that is every bit as specious as the gods of Mount Olympus; no person, whatever his or her qualifications, can seek public office in the United States without pretending to be certain that such a God exists; and much of what passes for public policy in our country conforms to religious taboos and superstitions appropriate to a medieval theocracy. Our circumstance is abject, indefensible, and terrifying. It would be hilarious if the stakes were not so high.

Consider: the city of New Orleans was recently destroyed by hurricane Katrina. At least a thousand people died, tens of thousands lost all their earthly possessions, and over a million have been displaced. It is safe to say that almost every person living in New Orleans at the moment Katrina struck believed in an omnipotent, omniscient, and compassionate God. But what was God doing while a hurricane laid waste to their city? Surely He heard the prayers of those elderly men and women who fled the rising waters for the safety of their attics, only to be slowly drowned there. These were people of faith. These were good men and women who had prayed throughout their lives. Only the atheist has the courage to admit the obvious: these poor people spent their lives in the company of an imaginary friend.

Of course, there had been ample warning that a storm “of biblical proportions” would strike New Orleans, and the human response to the ensuing disaster was tragically inept. But it was inept only by the light of science. Advance warning of Katrina’s path was wrested from mute Nature by meteorological calculations and satellite imagery. God told no one of his plans. Had the residents of New Orleans been content to rely on the beneficence of the Lord, they wouldn’t have known that a killer hurricane was bearing down upon them until they felt the first gusts of wind on their faces. And yet, a poll conducted by The Washington Post found that eighty percent of Katrina’s survivors claim that the event has only strengthened their faith in God.

As hurricane Katrina was devouring New Orleans, nearly a thousand Shiite pilgrims were trampled to death on a bridge in Iraq. There can be no doubt that these pilgrims believed mightily in the God of the Koran. Indeed, their lives were organized around the indisputable fact of his existence: their women walked veiled before him; their men regularly murdered one another over rival interpretations of his word. It would be remarkable if a single survivor of this tragedy lost his faith. More likely, the survivors imagine that they were spared through God’s grace.

Only the atheist recognizes the boundless narcissism and self-deceit of the saved. Only the atheist realizes how morally objectionable it is for survivors of a catastrophe to believe themselves spared by a loving God, while this same God drowned infants in their cribs. Because he refuses to cloak the reality of the world’s suffering in a cloying fantasy of eternal life, the atheist feels in his bones just how precious life is — and, indeed, how unfortunate it is that millions of human beings suffer the most harrowing abridgements of their happiness for no good reason at all.

Of course, people of faith regularly assure one another that God is not responsible for human suffering. But how else can we understand the claim that God is both omniscient and omnipotent? There is no other way, and it is time for sane human beings to own up to this. This is the age-old problem of theodicy, of course, and we should consider it solved. If God exists, either He can do nothing to stop the most egregious calamities, or He does not care to. God, therefore, is either impotent or evil. Pious readers will now execute the following pirouette: God cannot be judged by merely human standards of morality. But, of course, human standards of morality are precisely what the faithful use to establish God’s goodness in the first place. And any God who could concern himself with something as trivial as gay marriage, or the name by which he is addressed in prayer, is not as inscrutable as all that. If He exists, the God of Abraham is not merely unworthy of the immensity of creation; he is unworthy even of man.

There is another possibility, of course, and it is both the most reasonable and least odious: the biblical God is a fiction. As Richard Dawkins has observed, we are all atheists with respect to Zeus and Thor. Only the atheist has realized that the biblical god is no different. Consequently, only the atheist is compassionate enough to take the profundity of the world’s suffering at face value. It is terrible that we all die and lose everything we love; it is doubly terrible that so many human beings suffer needlessly while alive. That so much of this suffering can be directly attributed to religion — to religious hatreds, religious wars, religious delusions, and religious diversions of scarce resources — is what makes atheism a moral and intellectual necessity. It is a necessity, however, that places the atheist at the margins of society. The atheist, by merely being in touch with reality, appears shamefully out of touch with the fantasy life of his neighbors.

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8 Comments

Filed under Athesim, humanism, religion, science, skepticism

8 responses to “Are you an a-zeusist?

  1. Eli

    Regarding the non-astrologer thing Sam Harris keeps talking about… I’ve been thinking about that a lot, and made a short tumblr post about it: http://ziltoidia.tumblr.com/post/674224425/to-use-or-not-to-use-the-a-word

    While I think Sam Harris is right, I think coughlan666 is correct as well. Because, well… we are defined by what we are not, if the majority is the opposite. It might be a handicap, but it’s also an advantage when it comes to growing in numbers.

  2. Daniel

    I’m not really sure about the solid logic and conclusion. This is only a rehash of the same hopeless rantings of atheists (I guess it’s also a re-rehash, since Sam wrote this 4 years ago). Below are my remarks on Sam’s article:

    1. His definition of ‘atheist’ and ‘atheism’ is so broad that it becomes moot and even silly. He’s making me, a Christian, an atheist just because I make ‘noises’ at the face of religious dogma, or urge Christians, and theists, to have solid reasons for believing in God. Atheists need to seriously quit using simplistic and condescending straw man arguments by making atheists the sensible smart people, and religious folk to be naive and stupid. It is also sad that Sam is still struggling with his definition of atheism. All you have got to do is to write a book about it, like any other religion. Don’t like it that I’m calling atheism a religion? Well stop making metaphysical claims, and contend with being an agnostic existentialist!

    2. I’m sure it annoys the heck out of Sam and most atheists that the “Washington Post found that eighty percent of Katrina’s survivors claim that the event has only strengthened their faith in God” (well unless the atheist thinks he is so handsomely sensible and those 80 percent can’t feel or think). I think the atheist needs to ask himself why such a huge number is reverting to an all-powerful and good God even though they went through a horrible tragedy. There could be many reasons for that: maybe the alternative, atheism, is not exactly relieving or encouraging. Or maybe it is even counter-evolutionary (I think Dawkins agrees with me that religion was ‘invented’ for survival purposes. What happens to atheism then? Whatever happens to a repressive recessive gene… ops, I can’t believe I just said that!).

    3. “Only the atheist recognizes”… “Only the atheist realizes”… Oh, get over yourself already! We get it: it is awesome to be an atheist! It is really interesting, though, that Sam would boast about the grandeur of him who is an atheist while talking about the “boundless narcissism and self-deceit of the saved.” Maybe then it is only the atheist who doesn’t recognize his own “boundless narcissism and self-deceit.”

    4. “Because he refuses to cloak the reality of the world’s suffering in a cloying fantasy of eternal life, the atheist feels in his bones just how precious life is — and, indeed, how unfortunate it is that millions of human beings suffer the most harrowing abridgements of their happiness for no good reason at all.” I have to admit, Sam is adorable! He surely knows how to appeal to emotions (another logical fallacy maybe?). I really think he should join a Christian relief agency or a church ministry and go serve his community and this broken world.

    5. “If God exists, either He can do nothing to stop the most egregious calamities, or He does not care to. God, therefore, is either impotent or evil. Pious readers will now execute the following pirouette: God cannot be judged by merely human standards of morality. ” It never ceases to fascinate me that atheists can prove that ‘God’ is either impotent or evil using only two lines. God is so easily made into a whipping boy because the atheist doesn’t understand who he is or how he behaves. I need to admit that the problem of suffering, and the ensuing theodicy, is a hard issue that faces all of humanity, but surely atheists can expand their thinking beyond a two-liner. If God exists, there must be profound reasons for his interventions or lack thereof. When an atheist, or a Christian, understands God’s thoughts and behaviour, he ought to speak up, either in frustration, or in humble adoration. If he doesn’t understand, the wisest thing to do is to humbly and persistently wrestle with the problem, and not be too hasty to pick up the whip from the drawer.

    6. “There is another possibility, of course, and it is both the most reasonable and least odious: the biblical God is a fiction.” Or maybe there is another possibility: the atheist is a fiction, or maybe the period of gestation for tables is only 56 weeks. Be it as you like, both atheists and Christians are atheists with respect to Zeus (though a problem of definition rises here again), but that is only because Zeus is proven to be delusional, impotent, and unnecessary in the pantheon of gods that infest our world.

    An atheist can respond to the problem of pain by rejecting God’s existence. So she says “If this is how things are to be, then I will simply reject God. And by rejecting God, someway or another, I have dealt with the problem.” All of us could get angry, disgruntled and confused, yet no one solves the problem of pain and evil and suffering by asserting that God does not exist. All that they do is remove the possibility of providing a meaningful answer to the predicament. If there is no God, who is wise and in control, then the events of life are purely happenstance. They take place as a result of blind chance and we then live on our own unable to make any sense of suffering at all. Indeed, without the presence of a personal creator God, who has fashioned all of His creatures, and who loves them, even through their experiences, dark and difficult as they might be, without a belief in such a God, we can never be sure that anything has any ultimate reason or meaning, not least of all, our suffering. We merely add to the issue of pain total meaninglessness, hopelessness, and despair. That is inevitably where atheism leads us! A Christian simply refuses such an arrogant and frustrating stance, and lives life with joy and hope despite its agonies and trials.

    • theformerfundie

      Hi Daniel. Thanks for your response.

      Your comments, however, are largely just an attack on Sam and we atheists rather than an engagement with the arguments. You simply state that you disagree with us without giving reasons for your claims.

      For instance, you state that Sam’s definition of atheism is broad and that he continues to “struggle” with it. I have never seem his struggle with it. He simply doesn’t like it as the primary moniker in defining his worldview. His definition of atheism is simply the regular one – the belief that there is no god.

      Furthermore, you make the claim that atheism is a religion. This is something I hear a lot from theists and it seems to suggest a very different definition of religion than mine. For instance, the primary entry for religion in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language is: 1. a. belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe, b. a personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.

      How does atheism fit that definition????

      His point that Christians are all atheists in regards to Zeus is that Christians don’t believe in Zeus because they see no evidence that Zeus exists. Atheists see no credible evidence that any god exists. If there is solid evidence, I’m ready to look at it. But I have found all the arguments from Christians and other theists lacking (in fact I used to believe and preach these arguments until I really examined them).

      These are just a few examples of the approach you take in your comments. I’d encourage you to offer defenses of your position rather than just rhetoric (e.g., “This is only a rehash of the same hopeless rantings of atheists”) and to respond to the actual arguments presented rather than sarcastically decry what what you don’t like about those of us who are atheists.

      • Daniel

        Hi Daniel. Thanks for your response.
        Your comments, however, are largely just an attack on Sam and we atheists rather than an engagement with the arguments. You simply state that you disagree with us without giving reasons for your claims.
        For instance, you state that Sam’s definition of atheism is broad and that he continues to “struggle” with it. I have never seem his struggle with it. He simply doesn’t like it as the primary moniker in defining his worldview. His definition of atheism is simply the regular one – the belief that there is no god.
        Furthermore, you make the claim that atheism is a religion. This is something I hear a lot from theists and it seems to suggest a very different definition of religion than mine. For instance, the primary entry for religion in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language is: 1. a. belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe, b. a personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.
        How does atheism fit that definition????
        His point that Christians are all atheists in regards to Zeus is that Christians don’t believe in Zeus because they see no evidence that Zeus exists. Atheists see no credible evidence that any god exists. If there is solid evidence, I’m ready to look at it. But I have found all the arguments from Christians and other theists lacking (in fact I used to believe and preach these arguments until I really examined them).
        These are just a few examples of the approach you take in your comments. I’d encourage you to offer defenses of your position rather than just rhetoric (e.g., “This is only a rehash of the same hopeless rantings of atheists”) and to respond to the actual arguments presented rather than sarcastically decry what what you don’t like about those of us who are atheists.

        Dear theformerfundie (I hope it’s ok that I’m calling you as such. I couldn’t find your name on the ‘About’ section of the blog),

        Firstly, I apologize for the late response. I was planning on writing back earlier, but totally forgot about it. Thankfully, Mike commented and reminded me to write back.

        I really appreciate what you wrote, and I reckon that atheists keep demanding Christians to provide arguments (I rather go with Christians than theists. I don’t know many non-Christian theists who are interested in these topics). Of course my contention is that Christians do in fact have strong arguments for belief in God. Atheists aren’t convinced for two reasons: 1. Many Christians aren’t providing the arguments rationally and coherently, 2. Atheists are refusing the arguments, either because of their stubbornness, or their anger or hate with or of God. Anyway, that is a discussion for another time.

        Let me now try to answer what you said. What I wrote was essentially a critique of what Sam wrote. You required me to provide evidence for my position, yet that wasn’t my intention from the get-go (I’m not trying to evade the matter, just clarifying my objective). I just wanted to analyse Sam’s presuppositions and arguments. However, I am really surprised that you said that I didn’t engage with the arguments (I’m starting to think that is a tactic atheists use to undermine the arguments Christians use). I just read what I wrote and found a few arguments that you missed or ignored. Let me first highlight my arguments in response to what you wrote, then discuss the other matters.

        1. The definition of atheism: You disagreed with me saying that his definition is too broad but didn’t address my argument (aaaah, is it that I’m not presenting an argument, or that it is ignored? Please check what I wrote). Let me explain: Sam defined atheism as “nothing more than the noises reasonable people make when in the presence of religious dogma.” But I’m a Christian, and I make ‘noise’ in the presence of religious dogma. Further, Christianity speaks to the matter of religious dogma (you are an x-preacher. I’m sure you remember Jesus’ encounters with the Pharisees). So m I an atheist now that I speak against religious dogma? Is Chris an atheist? No of course not. Sam then says that the atheist is the person who believes that Christians “should be obliged to present evidence for [God’s] existence.” But I want that for all of my brothers and sisters (and so do many like William Lane Craig, Alistair McGrath, and OS Guinness). The Bible demands that from us as well (‘search the books’, ‘seek me’, ‘to give a defence of the hope we have’…). Does that make me an atheist? No! Does that make the Bible an atheistic book? No! Sam’s definition is ‘moot and even silly’.

        2. Atheism as religion: you are right, my definition of atheism doesn’t agree with the definition of the American Heritage Dictionary. But that’s ok, there are many definitions of ‘religion’ and I don’t think we came up with one definition of it –it really depends who is defining it. I like the definition of my anthropology professor (paraphrasing): religion is any system of thought that makes claims of a supernatural deity/deities, has a group of spokesmen (shamans/priests), and makes rulings about personal and community conduct. The reason I am saying that atheism is a religion, which I mentioned in my post (and you didn’t address) is because it makes claims of the supernatural. It says that there is no supernatural, metaphysical entity as God, or anything of that sort. Further, it says what kind of god that doesn’t exist, why doesn’t he exist, and how he could be compared to other things like spaghetti and Thor. Atheism then lays down a way of conduct, where to go, what to say, and who to associate with. It even makes claims about the afterlife… that there isn’t any. Of course, it could easily get dogmatic by judging other people who don’t belong to their sect to be irrational, delusional, and lacking any arguments (kinda like that Bible-thumping evangelist that many atheists detest). I reckon atheism is not a ‘religion’ in the same sense of Christianity or Islam, but it surely provides a strong foundation for dogmatism, makes unsubstantiated assertions (i.e. there is definitely no God, life has no intrinsic meaning, there is nothing after death), and doesn’t hesitate to calling those who disagree with it to be wrong and stupid.

        Subjectively, where does that come from? From the proud decision that an atheist makes: he knows these things, he is better, smarter, and definitely more rational. You see maybe that’s why the Bible opposes pride to such a great deal. Atheism encourages it. Oh incidentally, you repeated the same mantra: “I have found ALL the arguments from Christians and other theists lacking (in fact I used to believe and preach these arguments until I REALLY examined them)” (emphasis mine). Please don’t take this as an attack on your character. I’m just trying to highlight this ‘snobbery’ that I find so rampant with atheistic thinking.

        3. Christianity as atheism: Yes this is still a silly argument. I’m a Christian and I don’t says that Muslims or Hindus are atheists to me since they don’t believe in my god. No Muslim or Hindu would call me an atheist either. Sam needs to stop speaking in our name. Besides, this shows a very weak understanding of Christianity or any other religion. Christians believe in God not because the Bible says so, or because that is what we taught (though that might be the condition of many). We are Christians because of the work of the historical figure of Christ and what he has done. Where other religions try to understand God (or make up God; bottom-top approach), Christianity is that top-bottom approach God becoming man. I don’t need to believe in God because it makes me feel good. I do because of Christ. Of course this might require a long discussion, but you are probably familiar with what I’m saying.

        So is this all rhetoric like you said? But since you ignored my arguments and repeated what Sam and Richard and Dan keep saying, could be that what you wrote was ‘just rhetoric’?

        Here are some other points I made:

        point 2.: Sam asks the questions but seems unable to answer it (why the faith of 80% of Katrina survivors was strengthened). I proposed that their faith increased because they found in God something rational and comforting. Atheism, on the other hand, didn’t not help them, didn’t provide the adequate answer for their predicament. Maybe that’s why 80% of them didn’t turn into atheists: when the rubber hits the road, atheism becomes that hopeless, dark, and cold dogma that only self-professed ‘rational’ people believe in.

        point 3.: Already addressed that issue of pride. I don’t know if I’m making this a big deal just because I’m a Christian. But you know how dangerous and harmful pride is. You might have even preached that from the pulpit. I just think it harms Sam’s position a great deal.

        Point 4.: I apologise for the sarcasm there, but my point was that what he ascribed, exclusively, to the atheist is false and arrogant. How dare he say that millions of people suffer for no good reason? Who does he think he is? Where does he get this information from? Application: instead this proud assertion of meaninglessness, he better look around him and see what difference people of faith are making around the world. It is because of the efforts of believers, notably Christians, that most of the relief work is done in the world. Last time atheists try to ‘fix’ their societies, they killed 10 million in USRR, and 2-3 million in Cambodia.

        Point 5.: This one is about suffering. There is a great deal that could be said about suffering and we could discuss the matter if you wish. But I’m just really displeased with the constant usage of Epicurus’s one-liner about suffering. Christians have answered that problem so many times (starting probably with Polycarp). David Hume’s objections have also been answered by the Free Will Defence people (notably Alvin Plantinga and John Hick). What I’m trying to say here is that the Christian tradition is potent with answers to the problem of suffering of evil: starting from Job and Genesis, Jesus and Paul, to Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Schleiermacher, Tennant, de Chardin, and CS Lewis. The answers are there. They are rational, versatile and satisfying. Is it true that you, or any other atheist, have found ALL of these arguments lacking? My plea in the post was that we all, Christians and atheists, need to wrestle with the matter, instead of just repeating a one-liner that was answered 2,000 years ago.

        Point 6.: All I’m trying to say here is that we need to be more critical, humble, and willing to challenge our thoughts when we discuss these matters. Christians find it ridiculous that atheists compare Zeus to God of the Bible because Zeus, like the FSM, fails at providing good justification for his existence. In other words, we don’t hypothesize that God exists to fill a gap and explain the origin of the universe. If so, we could invent any sort of entity. However, such entities can not justify their existence (i.e. why is it a FSM and not Zeus) nor are they able to satisfactorily answer various questions pertaining to the divine. William Lane Craig wrote an excellent article about that. I could send it to you if you are interested.

        OK that is all I’ve got for now. Please read my first post and respond to it point-by-point instead of using the sweeping conclusion: “it’s just rhetoric”. You might disagree with me, but please don’t trivilise what I’m saying.

        Regards,
        Daniel

  3. David

    Sam is mah boy (excepting the recent comments on the NYC mosque, but that’s neither here nor there). Didn’t reread the article but remember it and yes, it was fantastic. I also hate the designation ‘atheist.’

  4. Charles

    Sam said:

    And yet, a poll conducted by The Washington Post found that eighty percent of Katrina’s survivors claim that the event has only strengthened their faith in God.

    Ebon has a good essay on Hurricane Katrina. Here’s an excerpt:

    Governor Kathleen Blanco, for example, declared August 31 to be a day of prayer in Louisiana, asking citizens to pray for the safety of rescue workers and survivors and for the strength to work through this crisis. The irony of this request does not seem to have occurred to her: if God is omnipotent and in control of everything, then she is asking people to pray for God to grant them the strength to survive the disaster which he sent upon them. Similarly, asking God to protect the people still in New Orleans seems an exercise in futility. If God were truly concerned about people’s safety, he would have prevented the storm beforehand.

  5. Mike

    Daniel’s comments are indeed riddled with what theformerfundie correctly calls “…just rhetoric.” Yet another example is the statement, “If God exists, there must be profound reasons for his interventions or lack thereof.” Where is his evidence for those “profound reasons” (as opposed to divine apathy, impotence or callousness as possible explanations)? He is just adding an evidence-less assumption to his original evidence-less belief that there is a god. I suspect that those who fervently believed in Zeus, Odin, etc., confidently offered the same facile but empty response when confronted by skeptics who questioned those gods’ omnipotence and benevolence.

    • Daniel

      Hey Mike,

      your sentence ‘evidence-less assumption’ doesn’t make sense. Assumptions don’t need to have evidence in order to be an assumption. In the context of natural deduction systems, an assumption is a proposition that may be used to prove further propositions. If the Christian God does indeed exist, who is sovereign and relational, there ought to always be a rational reason for everything that happens (see work of Alvin Plantinga), especially since this is a rational and law-governed universe.

      Instead of accuse me of using evidence-less assumptions, you are better off showing me why or how there doesn’t have to be a profound reason for God’s intervention of the lack thereof.

      It’s further fallacious to say that there is no evidence for God. There is evidence. It’s just that you don’t like it. If you haven’t seen the evidence, I highly suggest you look into the work of William Lane Craig, Alister McGrath, or the debates of John Lennox with Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

      Oh and do you know any fervent believers of Zeus or Odin? Do you know how they justify their belief in their gods, and how that compares with the Christian position?

      Facile and empty? Hmm, I could call the arguments that atheists make facile and empty, but that won’t take us anywhere.

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