“Do you hope you’re wrong?”

Jewish religious writer Dennis Prager is interested in “understand[ing] the atheist as a person and as a thinker.” Because of this, he wants to ask us two questions:

1. Do you hope you are right or wrong?
2. Do you ever doubt your atheism?

He has some… weird opinions about what these questions imply. Here is his analysis of question 1:

I respect atheists who answer that they hope they are wrong. It tells me that they understand the terrible consequences of atheism: that all existence is random; that there is no ultimate meaning to life; that there is no objective morality — right and wrong are subjective personal or societal constructs; that when we die, there is nothing but eternal oblivion, meaning, among other things, that one is never reconnected with any loved ones; and there is no ultimate justice in the universe — murderers, torturers and their victims have identical fates: nothing.

Most of that is just plain wrong. Atheism in itself does not imply that existence is random, that there is no ultimate meaning to life, no objective morality, or that there’s nothing after death. Prager is confusing the atheistic culture, which is areligious and pro-science, with atheism, which is just a lack of belief in gods. You can lack belief in gods and belong to some denominations of Buddhism, Hinduism, Satanism, be a Subgenius, or be a follower of certain secular cults, which all do impart an ultimate meaning to live, an objective morality, and so on. So this is simply sloppy reasoning.

All that being an atheist implies is that any conclusion based on the existence of God is incorrect. This does imply no divine creation, no divine judgment, and no divinely appointed afterlife. However, I don’t see this as a “terrible consequence of atheism.” First of all, it’s not a consequence of atheism: the fact that I don’t believe in a god does not cause the non-existence of an afterlife. The only consequences of atheism are changes to the person who lacks belief, and the people who care about that person’s belief or lack thereof (such as religious family or clergy).

Our thoughts do not cause external things to exist or not exist. To say otherwise is magical thinking. There already is no ultimate justice and no afterlife. The number of atheists in the world, no matter how small or large it is, does not change that.

That being said, I personally do agree that there is no meaning to life, that there is no afterlife, and no ultimate justice (I have no idea what “existence is random” is supposed to mean, and it seems meaningless to me). Do I wish I was wrong about those things? No, because a god would need to exist for these things to exist. The idea of a supreme dictator which created all the evils in the world and who is the supreme arbiter of morality is a horrific one. Such a profoundly evil being is not worthy of admiration, let alone worship, and it is so unreliable that it makes the supposed upsides questionable: what kind of ultimate justice or afterlife would such an immoral being devise, and do we really want it? I sure as Hell don’t (pun intended).

Anyone who would want all those things has either not considered the consequences of atheism or has what seems like an emotionally detached outlook on life. A person who doesn’t want there to be ultimate meaning to existence, or good and evil to have an objective reality, or to be reunited with loved ones, or the bad punished and the good rewarded has a rather cold soul.

I know what being a cold person means, but I don’t know much about cold souls. Either way, I can’t blame anyone who wants there to be objective morality, but there already is, so that’s not a problem. As for ultimate meaning, an afterlife, or ultimate justice, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with someone who doesn’t want any of those things. I also don’t blame people who do want those things, especially if they are coming off of religious indoctrination.

Within the Christian or Jewish worldview, for example, these things are taught as being extremely good, but they are also taught as extremely simplified concepts and with the (false) belief that God is infinitely good. Ultimate justice is not so attractive when you consider that the judge also created a world with profound evils. The afterlife is not so attractive when you consider the length of eternity and who you get to spend it with. Ultimate meaning is not so attractive when you consider that it means that every life can be judged on its basis, and could be found wanting.

Someone who rejects these things, in my opinion, is not a “cold soul,” but rather a realistic person who’s able to see through the ultra-simplifications of the religious believer.

That’s why I suspect atheists who think that way have not fully thought through their atheism. This is especially so for those who allege that their atheism is primarily because of their conclusion that there is too much unjust human suffering for there to be a God. If that is what has led you to your atheism, how could you possibly not hope there is a God? Precisely because you are so disturbed by the amount of suffering in the world, wouldn’t you want a just God to exist?

This is a nonsensical argument, and I don’t understand why he thinks it makes any sense. Why would I hope that all the suffering in the world was caused by a god which has control over mankind? That would make things much, much worse, in the same way that human hierarchies, and the power they enable some people to wield, magnify and concentrate the evil qualities of humans.

The formulation here invites another question: what does it mean for a god who creates evil to be a “just God”? Where is the justice in this world? God didn’t create justice, it is apparent nowhere in his creation. It can only be created by human beings and other beings who have evolved as social animals. God did not evolve, and therefore has no justice in its heart.

As for question 2:

…I never met a believer who hadn’t at some point had doubts about God. When experiencing, seeing or reading about terrible human suffering, all of us who believe in God have on occasion doubted our faith. So, I asked the atheists, how is it that when you see a baby born or a spectacular sunset, or hear a Mozart symphony, or read about the infinite complexity of the human brain — none of these has ever prompted you to wonder whether there really might be a God?

This is such an old argument that it has to make you smile that a religionist seriously believes we’ve never heard such a thing before. The emotions a person gets when they listen to music, grasp something extremely complex, or see a childbirth, are strong emotions, but emotions, like beliefs, do not cause any external thing (like a god) to exist. The fact that the feelings a religious believer like Prager gets when he goes to temple and when he listens to classical music are similar does not mean that the two objects are similar as well. A sunset is nothing like a piece of music, and a piece of music is nothing like a human brain. The similarity of feelings tells us something about us, about the way our brains process stimuli, but nothing about the objects themselves.

I have no doubts about my atheism, because atheism is not an ideological position. I have doubts about actual positions that I hold, sure. It’s necessary to keep watch for possible errors in your beliefs, if you want to keep being rational. But what does it mean to doubt a lack of belief? It is a fact that I lack a belief in gods. There is nothing to doubt about that. The very idea of this is nonsensical and proves that Praeger doesn’t have the experience of communicating with atheists that he claims to have, because I think an atheist would have pointed that flaw out pretty quickly.

Now, I do also believe that there are no gods, and that is an ideological position. I don’t really doubt that, either, because gods are mythical creatures and that’s the extent of the evidence we have. I assume that Praeger does not believe in, say, leprechauns or Santa Claus, based on them being mythical. Does Praeger doubt his position that leprechauns do not exist? Does Praeger experience doubts on the issue of whether Santa Claus exists?

It is not surprising that people who believe in God experience doubts. Their belief is so irrational, so immoral, so inhumane, so disconnected from reality, that I would be surprised if someone believed in such a thing and never doubted the validity of their belief. I don’t recommend believing in things that are insane. That being said, there’s nothing wrong with having doubts, but this method has limits. Doubting everything all the time would just leave us paralyzed with indecision and confusion. I am willing to bet that Praeger, like all of us, is selective in his doubting abilities. So there really is no issue here.

4 thoughts on ““Do you hope you’re wrong?”

  1. sellmaeth July 3, 2017 at 04:43 Reply

    I want to believe in ultimate justice because I just can’t cope with some horrible people NOT being punished, but I sure as hell don’t want that justice to be dished out by a patriarchal god whose ideas on what constitutes right and wrong are completely batshit.

    Something that sticks out here is that he mentions childbirth as a reason to wonder where there is a god. That’s such a very male way of seeing things.
    As a woman, yes, watching the average childbirth as described to me by women, might prompt me to wonder whether there is a god, and the very next thing I would do would be to ask an atheist to reassure me that this horribly cruel god doesn’t exist and the pain and danger of childbirth is just an unfortunate accident of evolution. (And not, as religious men who are not engaged in trying to convert atheists gleefully claim, a cruel god’s punishment to all women for something one woman did and which he had set her up for anyway)

    .

  2. Nicole July 3, 2017 at 15:27 Reply

    This seems to be a wonderful example of how someone’s beliefs and their framework for viewing the world prevents them from understanding people who think or believe differently. He attributes good things in life to the presence of a god and when bad things happen thinks that maybe there might not be a god after all, and therefore assumes that when they see good or beautiful things atheists must wonder whether there actually is a god. It makes me wonder whether there are any issues in which my beliefs prevent me from understanding others! Also demonstrates the need to ask more open ended questions when trying to understand people.

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