Damon Linker and “Honest Atheism”
by Benjamin Studebaker
I ran across an interesting piece by a fellow named Damon Linker. Linker attacks a form of atheism which he considers dishonest–the belief that the absence of god in the universe is a desirable or preferable metaphysical state. He argues that honest atheists accept that their metaphysical position is necessarily a bleak and unpleasant one, and claims that all atheism that does not accept the position’s inherent sadness is not especially useful. Linker identifies several atheists whom he considers honest, including Nietzsche, Camus, Woody Allen, and a variety of others. Today I wish to respond to his argument.
It should be noted that Linker avoids a very common fallacy–he does not conflate a depressing position with a wrong one. Often times, philosophers condemn positions purely or mostly for their unpleasantness, the sense of visceral disgust they get when they contemplate the possibility that the position could actually be true. Linker is not arguing that atheism is wrong because it is unpleasant, he is arguing that it is unpleasant, but may nevertheless be true. The area of contention is whether or not the atheist state of affairs is necessarily unpleasant.
Here’s the segment of Linker’s piece upon which I would like to place my focus:
If atheism is true, it is far from being good news. Learning that we’re alone in the universe, that no one hears or answers our prayers, that humanity is entirely the product of random events, that we have no more intrinsic dignity than non-human and even non-animate clumps of matter, that we face certain annihilation in death, that our sufferings are ultimately pointless, that our lives and loves do not at all matter in a larger sense, that those who commit horrific evils and elude human punishment get away with their crimes scot free — all of this (and much more) is utterly tragic.
I think Linker makes a couple serious errors here:
- He violates Hume’s Guillotine.
- He sees the deity as the only potential author.
Both points require further elaboration. First, Hume’s Guillotine.
I find Hume’s Guillotine arising more and more often in discussions in which metaphysical and moral questions come near to one another. I have once stated this in great detail, but I will state it here again: we cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”. The philosopher David Hume identified two categories of information, the empirical or metaphysical world (questions of “what exists?”) and the moral and political world of ideas (questions of “what is good?” or “what should people do?”). Hume notes that the two questions are non-overlapping. What exists often influences what it is possible to do (water needs to exist in order for a person to be morally obliged to drink it or not drink it), but existence itself does not answer any moral or political question (water’s existence does not provide reasons for drinking it or not–some principle would need to be appealed to depending on the situation, be it fairness, or the value of life, or what have you).
The important way in which Hume’s Guillotine plays into religious debates is that it invalidates all metaphysical justifications for moral or ethical systems. The existence or non-existence of deities can have no impact whatsoever on moral or political questions. Regardless of whether a god exists or not, the same things remain right or wrong or somewhere in between. Now, it may be possible that a god exists who inflicts terrible punishments on people for some behavior or other, but this would not change the morality of those behaviors, it would only change their likely consequences. If say, a king decides to make kissing illegal, there may be negative consequences to kissing should you decide to do it, but the act of kissing is not in itself any more morally right or wrong as a result. Even if there is a god who sends people to heaven and hell, that god’s moral beliefs are not infallible.
It is often argued that god is by definition infallible, but since moral and political ideas are not part of the metaphysical world, they do not exist on a metaphysical level, and cannot be made true or false by any entity, regardless of its spiritual or temporal power. A god could make you go to hell for kissing someone, but that god could not make kissing wrong. If kissing is wrong, it is wrong independent of the deity’s opinion. If it is permissible, it is permissible regardless of what the deity thinks. Beings cannot will moral principles true or untrue, not even gods.
So when Linker makes it sound as though god is necessary for us to have meaning or to delineate good and bad, he is attempting to cross Hume’s Fork and violate his guillotine. He is wrongly connecting answers to moral and political questions to the metaphysical quandary of god’s existence. The two things can never touch.
The second trouble is that Linker seems to believe that human beings are incapable of providing their own answers to the questions he wrongly believed god’s existence answered. God’s existence could never have answered moral or political questions because of Hume’s principle. There are many billions of people operating as if god’s existence answers moral questions, but it doesn’t, and they’re philosophically mistaken. Those questions are, by their very nature, questions about the relationships among ideas. They can only be answered by the beings that have those ideas. If a god exists, that god is one being with a set of opinions, but every individual’s opinions are also potential contenders for truth. God is not the only author of meaning or morality. These ideas only exist in the first place because there are intelligent beings in the universe that think them. The beings that generate the questions also generate the answers.
This is not to say that the answers are subjective, or that all answers are equally valid. The right answers are the answers that produce the best outcomes for all. There’s much debate on what those “best outcomes” are and much debate about which answers produce which outcomes. Within that territory there is room for immense philosophical debate. A great many people have written on those subjects, and many of their ideas are quite fascinating. Many of the answers they provide to the questions of what we should do and what we should take our purpose to be are not only not depressing, they’re positively pleasant. There are so many conceptions of the good and beliefs concerning how we ought to pursue it, and while many of those ideas are mutually exclusive, many of them are intellectually beautiful things. We don’t have one answer on which we all agree, because the question of what produces the best results for all of us is a very difficult question to answer. But we continue to work toward answering it, and even our wrong answers are often brilliant in their own way. Whether we believe there’s a god or not, we and the people who have come before and will come after us have the answers to moral and political questions within ourselves and within each other. There’s nothing bleak about that.
Even if there is a god, he can’t give our lives meaning. We have to find that meaning for ourselves, and a meaning we determine and earn intellectually is itself more meaningful than one that is handed down to us from on high.
Great article, as usual. I happen to think that secular society offers many comparable cultural substitutes for religion. The problem I think is that some people do not always know how to access and organize the cultural resources on hand in a way that fulfills a human being’s “spiritual” diet – i.e. the desire for culture, for friendship, for community, for beauty, and for purpose. Mr. Linker’s assumption that an honest atheistic life must be a squalid depressing nihilistic existence is itself pretty dishonest, as you aptly argue.
At the core of the issue are the dual suppositions that, on the religious hand, spirituality is somehow tied to religious practice, and on the other atheistic hand, that spiritual experiences are themselves invalid hallucinations that human beings do not ever require. It has been noted that atheists do not have a handbook of how to live a meaningful godless life, and that this fact is holding back its wider palatability, but I think Sam Harris’ next book is going to seek to parse “spirituality” from religiosity while simultaneously arguing for the validity of “spiritual” experience to his incredulous atheist audience.
Definitely–there are a lot of people who go to church not necessarily because they have genuine belief in all of their respective religion’s various elements but because of the sense of community and social relevance they gain in the churches. The new atheism has been somewhat dismissive of that need for communal connection, in part because many of its lead writers have strong individualist streaks and consequently feel that need less strongly themselves, or because they gain that sense of community from their academic communities. For the wider population, it’s often a much stronger need, and the alternatives to the churches are not organized in such a way as to fully sate that need, particularly in the rural communities where church life remains more or less central, not entirely unlike the rural communities of medieval Europe.
You know what, I’m very much inclined to agree.
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