Much has already been made in the atheist press, such as it is, about a recent Huffington Post article by Pastor Rich Henderson proclaiming that, “there is no such thing as a good atheist.” Most of the criticisms are spot-on – that his piece is an abuse of logic, that his terminology is sloppy, and that he himself is so patronising that he thinks “worldview” is a complex term. However, there are aspects of his critique that I agree with. So, in a departure from my usual bilious torrent of cynical criticism, I want to take each of his points as it comes and rebut or agree wherever is appropriate. This is all while acknowledging his clever “Vegas hustler” prestidigitation, which seems to regard a no-lose argument as a strength rather than a weakness.
In addition to the familiar definition of atheist – which for my purposes is simply a non-theist, someone who does not hold a theistic belief – Henderson adds three additional necessary beliefs that must be held to qualify for this label.
1. The universe is purely material. It is strictly natural, and there is no such thing as the supernatural (e.g., gods or spiritual forces).
2. The universe is scientific. It is observable, knowable and governed strictly by the laws of physics.
3. The universe is impersonal. It does not a have consciousness or a will, nor is it guided by a consciousness or a will.
Henderson seems to have in mind a more specific kind of nonbeliever, namely a rational, skeptical atheist. I personally have no problem in acquiescing to this definition, as it fits me to a T. I suppose that atheistic Buddhists, Raelians, and Jedi can indeed be good people, though evidently they cannot be atheists. And god forbid that you believe in ghosts, homeopathy, and your own imprisonment within the Matrix. But Henderson needs a scientific atheistic materialist in order to form his argument, so we’ll just disregard our less skeptical atheist brethren.
Anything and everything that happens in such a universe is meaningless. A tree falls. A young girl is rescued from sexual slavery. A dog barks. A man is killed for not espousing the national religion. These are all actions that can be known and explained but never given any meaning or value.
I wish that Henderson had elaborated on this point, because it really does merit a better defence than bald assertion. Indeed, if his argument had been phrased thus:
These are all actions that can be known and explained but do not possess any inherent meaning or value.
I would have no problem with this statement. From the perspective of the universe, a barking dog and the liberation of a sex slave have precisely the same lack of meaning. This is, of course, due to the very salient point that the universe is a gigantic physical phenomenon lacking its own consciousness, and therefore the very tools to make a value judgement. Where Henderson’s assertion falls apart, and likely the reason that he neglected to phrase it that way, is his failure to notice that there is something within the universe that does possess a consciousness, and therefore the tools for the job – humans. We make dozens, if not hundreds, of value or meaning judgements every day, whether about war crimes or the quality of our morning coffee. Such value judgements, imposed as they are from the exterior of an object or event, are instrumental, rather than inherent. Henderson’s article fails to make this crucial distinction, and so he only argues as to the impossibility of the ascription of inherent meaning by atheists. Instrumental meaning is still our plaything.
A good atheist — that is, a consistent atheist — recognizes this dilemma. His only reasonable conclusion is to reject objective meaning and morality. Thus, calling him “good” in the moral sense is nonsensical. There is no morally good atheist, because there really is no objective morality.
Again, I agree with Henderson in his conclusion, with the qualification that I agree only is his use of “objective meaning and morality” means “meaning and morality independent of the status of conscious creatures”. I doubt Henderson would object to my reading of his words. Objective meaning, in Henderson’s view, demands some medium through which such meaning can exist, which does indeed seem to demand at least a universe-wide force with the ability to make value judgements. (It ought to be noted that I don’t see exactly how the morality imposed by a god is any less subjective than that imposed by a human – it remains subject to one particular entity. He’s just bigger than you.) But yet again, Henderson neglects to mention a version of objective morality and meaning that seems quite at home in this materialistic, scientific, and impersonal universe. This objective morality is objective insofar as it is applicable to all conscious creatures in an objective way – see Sam Harris’ book The Moral Landscape. In a universe of unconscious rocks, this morality, unlike Henderson’s morality, would no longer exist, but as long as there are conscious creatures capable of flourishing and suffering, objective morality is possible. Objective meaning, in this sense, is more problematic, and I confess that I have thought far less about this side of the issue. However, meaning is of less pragmatic value than morality, and therefore it seems less imperative to argue for objective meaning than for objective morality.
While Henderson cannot does not mention these nuances concerning meaning and its application, one of the three atheists he quote blatantly state the point, evidently avoiding his notice:
“Modern science directly implies that there … is no ultimate meaning for humans.” (Emphasis mine)
Provine is quite correct in his assertion that there is no ultimate meaning for humans, and thus there is no problem with this statement. One can easily deny the existence of ultimate meaning while allowing for the existence of more fleeting senses of meaning, or simply a meaning that doesn’t outlive the person providing the meaning.
“The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. … DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.”
As stated above the universe, by its very nature, is entirely incapable of offering us anything but “blind, pitiless indifference”, but Dawkins is a poor choice for quote-mining. This is a man who dedicated an entire book to finding meaning and wonder in the universe, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder. One quote should suffice to show that Dawkins is entirely capable of finding meaning in this cold, faceless cosmos:
“The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living is quite finite.”
The final quote offered by Henderson is slightly more supportive of the argument he is trying to make, but can still be broken down to a point where it too argues for personal, subjective meaning over any ultimate value.
“No species, ours included, possesses a purpose beyond the imperatives created by its genetic history.” (Emphasis mine)
–Edward O. Wilson
Firstly, this does offer a purpose or meaning for humankind, albeit a rather limited and uninspiring one – not that continuing the species is an entirely unpleasant process. But Wilson plainly states that this purpose only applies at the species level. Unfamiliar as I am with Wilson, I cannot say whether or not he would agree that individuals can have whatever purpose they choose, but his comments do not disallow this, and I’m happy to take that position myself.
Henderson next states two possible stances that atheists can take regarding a moral foundation, a socio-biological evolutionary approach and a logical approach. The short version is that is it not his readers who are guilty of strawmanning. Read his article and draw your own conclusions about the necessity of atheists taking up these positions in their attempt at “continuing the delusion of objective morality.” Once again, our definitions of “objective morality” are causing a divergent conversation. A particularly telling point about his comment is the scoffing way in which he notes that, “All logical arguments for morality assume that human thriving, happiness and dignity are superior to contrary views.” Why not assume this, at least provisionally, and wait for the results of taking this line of reasoning? To quote Sam Harris, to ask why human thriving is superior to human suffering is to, “hit philosophical bedrock with the shovel of a stupid question.” Henderson may wish to argue that there is no objective difference, as far as the human perspective is concerned, between a world of maximal human flourishing and maximal human suffering, but he might not appreciate just how this would make him look.
As the title states, I do agree with Henderson on particular points. I agree that inherent meaning does not exist, and I agree that objective meaning and morality, in the sense he is using, do not exist. The problem lies in his utter disregard for human agency in matters of meaning and morality, and in his assumption that objective has some abstract, higher meaning – meaning apparently unaffected by being the subjective judgement of the personal being in which, given he is a pastor, I assume Henderson believes. Again accepting his inaccurate definition of “atheist”, a materialistic and scientific nonbeliever is perfectly capable of ascribing any meaning to anything they wish, and can also make a good faith attempt to reach an objective morality that benefits their fellow primates, rather than merely enforcing the diktats of the god du jour (mixing non-English loan-words FTW). Because the dirty little secret of Henderson’s argument is that not only does he fail to discredit the ability of atheists to find meaning and morality, but he fails to notice that his own worldview fails to make this possible. Morality does not become objective because the one passing along the message is all-powerful, and meaning becomes merely impersonal and imposed if it must conform to the divine will. And to quote Henderson for a final time, “How do we explain objective meaning and morality that we know are true? If a worldview can’t answer this question, it doesn’t deserve you.”