According to Oprah, I’m not an atheist.

Oprah recently hosted Diana Nyad on her Soul to Soul show on the OWN network. Diana made a bit of history recently by swimming from Cuba to Florida without using a shark cage. An impressive feat made even more so by the fact that she’s 64.

The interview, as you can imagine based on the title of the show, involved a discussion about God and spirituality. Diana considers herself to be an atheist ‘who is in awe’. Based on Diana’s explanation of what she means by that, Oprah proceeds to tell her that she doesn’t consider Diana an atheist at all. You can see the clip below:

It’s clear from Oprah’s description of what she believes God to be — he’s “not that bearded guy in the sky” but rather the belief in “the awe and the wonder and the mystery” — that she’s got a very different concept of God than most folks.  By that definition you could say I’m not an atheist as I have no problems with the concepts of awe and wonder and mystery, though I’m not sure how those things could be a God of any kind.

Apparently this has caused a bit of a stir in the atheist community. Personally, I’m not really bothered by it, though I am amused. I certainly consider myself an atheist and yet I’ve felt awe and wonder on an uncountable number of occasions throughout my life. Others such as the Boston Atheists have started a Facebook campaign seeking an apology and affirmation from Winfrey for her comments:

In response to Oprah Winfrey’s biased comments against atheists in an October 2013 interview, the Boston Atheists are asking for support in asking her for an apology and some gesture of acknowledgment and affirmation toward the secular community. Whether that means inviting she invites Josiah D Van Vliet on camera for a sit-down on camera to talk about atheist community organizing, or about how atheists can listen to and understand and appreciate music, depends entirely on how much noise we can make about this!

Additionally, American Humanist Association President David Noise wrote an article for Psychology Today about how Oprah’s comments confirm the negative image of atheists held by believers:

What is most alarming about Oprah’s revelation is that she doesn’t even realize its invidiousness. Atheists, to her, don’t feel that deep, emotional connection to the universe. She has drawn a circle that includes people of all faiths, but excludes atheists, thereby confirming negative attitudes toward nonbelievers.

To those among Oprah’s legion of loyal viewers who may have held anti-atheist prejudices, this now validates their bias. That’s right, those atheists just aren’t like the rest of us, they can now say, nodding their heads.While we religious people of the world are appreciating the wonder and awe of life, those atheists are just one big buzzkill!

dont-give-a-fuck-girlI suppose that may be true for some believers, but I seriously doubt Oprah is adding all that much fuel to the anti-atheist fire among believers. She didn’t say anything particularly disparaging, she just applied her vague and ham-fisted definition of God to someone who considers themselves an atheist. I suppose you could infer that Oprah is saying that atheists are incapable of feeling awe and wonder and mystery, but knowing that I am an atheist and that I have experienced those emotions shows me that at worst she’s just ignorant.

I’ve seen a few folks criticize Diana as well because she seems to believe in a soul and an afterlife. While it’s true that most atheists don’t believe in souls or afterlives, there’s nothing about the word “atheist” that rules those ideas as out of the question. An atheist is simply someone who does not believe in God(s). That’s it. That’s all that’s required to be an atheist is a lack of belief in God(s). Diana says she thinks collectively humanity and love of humanity is what she’d call God and some folks think that means she’s not really an atheist, but Einstein said more or less the same thing about nature as God and it’s pretty clear he was an atheist as well even though he disliked the term (he often used “religious nonbeliever” instead).

Meh, I think if she considers herself an atheist then she probably is. Oprah doesn’t think she is, but then the definition Oprah is using makes me think Oprah is closer to atheism than she realizes. Either way, I don’t think this is an issue worth getting all upset over. Especially in comparison to the likes of Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association. Now there is an anti-atheist bigot.

15 thoughts on “According to Oprah, I’m not an atheist.

  1. Theism has gotta’ be something to do with an inadequate imagination, but if it works for Oprah, fine, when her life functions end she’ll never know the difference. As for me, if there’s an afterlife, I’ll feel hard done by, isn’t one enough? BTW, I’ve been accused of some nasty things, even a “Faux” news viewer, life=abuse far too often.

  2. “asking for support in asking her for an apology and some gesture of acknowledgment and affirmation toward the secular community”

    What happened to ‘growing the fuck up’? This is as bad as when Clinton said “We don’t welch on deals” and had to apologise to the Welsh-American* ‘community’. Or the outrage over ‘snigger’

    *Don’t get me started on ‘country hyphen country’.

  3. ‘who is in awe’.

    Well, I not sure how Atheists can be in “awe” of anything when Atheist Pope Dawkins says: “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. 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.”

    It is high time you accept the consequences of your world view.

  4. Les Jenkins,

    “Oh no, I’d definitely say I’m an atheist. I don’t let Oprah define who I am for me.”

    You are an Atheist believer. Can you prove your Atheism? Atheism is certainly a belief and a religion. Even the courts agree Atheism is a religion. Let me know if you need some back up like Atheist Jihadists to Atheist priests and much, much more……

  5. Zac writes:

    Well, I not sure how Atheists can be in “awe” of anything when Atheist Pope Dawkins says

    It is high time you accept the consequences of your world view.

    I did that a long time ago. It was very liberating.

    You are an Atheist believer. Can you prove your Atheism?

    Depends on what you mean by “atheist believer.” I’m betting it’s not what you think it is. As for proving my atheism, I’m not sure how one would do that. You ask me if I believe in God(s) and I say no. What would you consider proof of that statement? Would you have me burn a bible? How about committing the “unforgivable sin?” Here we go then: The idea of a Holy Spirit or Gods or Jesus being the son of God are all nonsense. Divine miracles are fantasies that never actually happened. There is no divine power. It’s all myth and wishful thinking.

    Will that do?

    Atheism is certainly a belief and a religion.

    Wrong on both counts.

    Even the courts agree Atheism is a religion.

    No, the courts recognize it as equivalent to a religion for purposes of First Amendment protections. That’s not the same thing as declaring it a religion.

    Let me know if you need some back up like Atheist Jihadists to Atheist priests and much, much more……

    There are no such things. You should really lay off that crack pipe you’ve be sucking on.

  6. I’m not entirely sure why this is apparently such a difficult concept (for many on both sides of the theistic/atheistic divide) to grasp, but spelled out in simple terms that the religious should be able to fully understand, Zac: atheism is not a religion, it is a tenet.

    It’s rather simple to understand in parallel.

    Ask Christians what religion they are, and they (generally) will answer “Christian.” Ask whether they believe that a god exists, and they will respond in the affirmative – because this is one of the tenets on which their Christian approach to viewing the world rests.

    Ask Jews what religion they are, and they (generally) will answer “Jewish.” Ask whether they believe that a god exists, and they will respond in the affirmative – because this is one of the tenets on which their Jewish approach to viewing the world rests.

    Ask Muslims what religion they are, and they (generally) will answer “Muslim.” Ask whether they believe that a god exists, and they will respond in the affirmative – because this is one of the tenets on which their Muslim approach to viewing the world rests.

    Ask atheists what religion they are, and they (generally) will answer “I have no religion.” Ask whether they believe that a god exists, and they will respond in the negative – because this is one of the tenets on which their non-religious approach to viewing the world rests.

    Theism is a tenet shared by various theistic religions. Atheism is a tenet shared by various groups that adhere to atheistic world views. To help you understand Les’s reply, Zac: while they are both tenets, they are not both beliefs. Theism is a belief in the existence of one or more gods. Atheism is the lack of that belief, and is rarely the core of an atheist’s world view.

    My own world view, for example, is built on a healthy dose of skepticism; confidence in the scientific method; a devotion to compassion, fairness, truth and justice (in that order); and a constant need to create, explore, observe and discover – I happen to lack any god-beliefs, but that lack isn’t remotely the core of my world view. Take away, for example, a Christian’s theism…and you’re left without a Christian. Big difference, and a large part of why: no, atheism is simply not a religion by any useful definition of either word.

    (I’d be willing to provisionally grant the hypothesis that many groups originally formed by people sharing this atheistic tenet could come to be considered religions, in the classical sense of “sect, organized community,” and so on – re ligere, “to bind back together” and all that. However, conflating this sense of religious community with the sense that all mainstream religions have religious beliefs – which are those not based on evidence – is a semantic game that you really just can’t win, man. The redefinition of terms “on the fly” is a tactic as old as religion itself, and it doesn’t win you any debates against actual, factual rational thinkers. If you refuse to define and accept mutual “rules” of the game ahead of time, I reserve the right to ignore your game and do something more productive with my time.)

    On a similar note to the above, although this may be difficult for religious believers to wrap their minds around: there’s no “Atheist Pope,” whether Dawkins or otherwise. There are certainly many people who adore Dawkins and everything he says. They are likely atheists. There are also many people who adore Carl Sagan and everything he says. Most of them are likely atheists, as well. There are people who adore Joss Whedon and everything he says. Er…odds are, a great number of them are atheists, while a great number of them are not. Many atheists really dig what the Reverend Martin Luther King, Junior said (he wasn’t an atheist). Or Isaac Newton (also not an atheist). Or classic Greek naturalists (where the issue gets fuzzier).

    But that’s all a red herring. Religious people and fanboys alike adore the person, and put them on a pedestal. That’s quite religious, in the sense of “faith-based” as opposed to “evidence-based.”

    Personally, I adore the work, and respect the person. I do not revere Dawkins. (As an aside: whether you quote-mined him or not, how could you not be in awe that all of THIS [points at the universe] came about through very well understood physical laws rather than some magic dude with a cosmic LEGO set?) I do not celebrate Darwin Day, and the only reason I’m ever even aware of President’s Day is that there are suddenly a lot more ads for car dealerships. I respect these people for the good work they’ve done, while recognizing that they are/were human and – therefore – fallible, which means that just because they’ve done one thing worthy of respect, it does not follow that everything else they do must be worthy of respect and/or adoration. (I dig Pi Day and Tau Day, as they celebrate the ideas rather than the people who concocted them; rather like how I dig Christmas, because I celebrate the idea of being cheerful and good to my fellow human beings, rather than the mythological figure whose birth, if he did exist – I suspect he did, though not in the popularly understood form – was almost certainly not on that date.)

    (Also, I like the lights and music. And gifts are awesome. Both giving and receiving.)

    Religious people may have difficulty grasping all this because, in religion (which does not necessarily exclude certain groups that claim atheism as a tenet): a person is correct because they are revered (e.g., the Catholic Pope, the prophet Muhammed…I’ll grant that perhaps, in some circles: Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, or others!).

    In more rational modern circles (which tend towards atheism and away from theism, but I wouldn’t categorically state that as definitive) it is ideally the other way around: a person is revered because they are correct (e.g., Euclid, Darwin, Newton, Einstein, Godel, Bill Watterson…).

    Correctness is not limited to scientific knowledge. Bach, Beethoven or Mozart damn well nailed chord progressions and that ephemeral something that is “correct” about music. (You can like or dislike it, just as you can accept or reject evolutionary science or the lack of existence of gods, but they still got it “right.”) Anthony Hopkins damn well nailed how certain kinds of human beings behave in unusual circumstances and is quite likely “correct” about acting. In a sense, many people outside of science “got it right” – and I respect them for that, while I adore the “correct” work that they’ve produced…just as I do regarding those within the scientific community. But while that gives me confidence that their subsequent work will also be of high quality, I reserve judgment until I am able to observe and assess that work, and I have no qualms about pointing out when they sucked a big fat one – whether it’s Hopkins, Mozart, or Einstein.

    Note that: yes, I clearly believe that many groups who share atheism – a lack of theistic belief – fall down rather spectacularly on this issue. That’s my own observation of the matter. Your mileage may vary, but that’s one reason why I’m not a fan of most atheist “groups” (while still respecting many of their members).

    Les, I believe Zac’s rather silly “Can you prove your Atheism?” challenge was meant to be interpreted as “Can you prove that your belief [that there is no god] is correct?” That doesn’t change how silly it is (we’ve all been down this road before), but to be fair, I don’t think he was asking you to prove that you’re an atheist. (Which you did quite deftly, regardless!)

    And incidentally, Zac: even had you cited it correctly, citing legal decisions is an extremely piss-poor way to “prove” one’s point, as such decisions are made by fallible human beings in specific contexts for particular motivations using intricate justifications. By design, the legal system errs on the side of “Let’s not screw anybody over who might not deserve it, just in case.” The realm of critical thought is more ruthless and demanding than that, and holds evidence to a higher standard while not giving a damn whose toes might be stepped on.

    As for the consequences of such a world view:

    1. I will be highly irritated, often to the point of outrage, by people (well-meaning or otherwise) who not only believe in something purely because others believe it, based on no solid foundation of evidence, but also insist that their arbitrary, near-meaningless beliefs should be given center-stage in legislation, education, civil rights, and many other fields of human endeavor.

    2. My carefully applied open-mindedness, my unquenchable curiosity, and my true enthusiasm will frequently leave me in awe of the amazing and wonderful aspects of our universe that scientific discovery reveals in every generation, and I will happily benefit from the positive developments of those discoveries while striving to understand and hopefully alleviate the negative developments of those discoveries.

    I think I can accept those consequences. If we could work on eliminating the external factors contributing to #1, though, that would be keen. If you are, as you seem to be from your writing, a religious adherent, that ball’s at least partially in your court – could you get on that? Thanks.

  7. “I did that a long time ago. It was very liberating.”

    How did you know it is liberating? What standards did you apply?

    You are an Atheist believer. Can you prove your Atheism?

    Did I ask you anything about the Bible? No. You guys claim reason and logic is on your side. Now all I am asking you to do is prove your Atheism.

    >Atheism is certainly a belief and a religion.

    “Wrong on both counts.”

    How? If you are going to post your opinion, there is no reason why I should take you seriously. May be you shouldn’t be discussing serious issues. Back it up with genuine evidence.

    “No, the courts recognize it as equivalent to a religion for purposes of First Amendment protections. That’s not the same thing as declaring it a religion.”

    Wrong! “Atheism is [the inmate’s] religion, and the group that he wanted to start was religious in nature even though it expressly rejects a belief in a supreme being,” the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals said.

    The Supreme Court has said a religion need not be based on a belief in the existence of a supreme being. In the 1961 case of Torcaso v. Watkins, the court described “secular humanism” as a religion.

    >Let me know if you need some back up like Atheist Jihadists to Atheist priests and much, much more……

    “There are no such things. You should really lay off that crack pipe you’ve be sucking on.”

    That’s just your opinion. Crack pipe? Is that how you seriously back up your case. Well, Atheists can be on any sort of pipe they want. There is nothing that will stop them. 19th and 20th century is evidence to it.

    Check out this Atheist Jihadist:

    he said quote I am …… “a cynical existentialist, anti-human humanist, anti-social social-Darwinist, realistic idealist and god-like atheist. “I am prepared to fight and die for my cause,” he wrote. “I, as a natural selector, will eliminate all who I see unfit, disgraces of human race and failures of natural selection.” Finnish Atheist Pekka Eric Auvinen, he killed 5 boys, 2 girls and their principal in Jokela , Finland.

  8. Jeff,

    A quick question:

    “…a devotion to compassion, fairness, truth and justice (in that order);”

    What underpins your compassion, fairness, truth and justice? It is based on what? How does this fit in your Atheistic world view?

    Some Atheist may devote himself/herself to murder, genocide and brutal injustice; why are they wrong?

  9. Les – I owe you an apology (holy crap, sincerely!) for vampirically sucking off this whole thread, and taking up so much screen real estate: sorry! Of course, you know from noble and tireless experience how long I can write! I did the same thing to Doubting Tom a short while back, probably because I’ve been out of the “scene” for so long – the verbosity just starts pouring out….

    Zac: I’ve been out of the “loop” (this whole atheo-skepto-blogosphere) for quite a while, which is why you’re getting such an easygoing side of me. Les has been in the thick of it without any real break for – what, Les, over a decade now? – which is why you’re getting wholly appropriate annoyance and dismissal from him. If I hadn’t been away for so long, and this weren’t someone else’s blog, I’d have torn you to dripping, grisly shreds with some choice invective by now on the basis of the obnoxious redundancy and arrogant presumptuousness of your comments alone. Les is way more patient and polite than many of us (like me) were in the Old Days. So try not to do the really, really stupid thing that so many have done before you and pretend that insults, dismissals, and intolerance are a sign of weak arguments or ineloquence – you won’t do yourself any favors, and you’ll just come off looking like an ass. That’s nothing new, because neither is any of what you’ve posed above – hence the intolerance and impatience, if you weren’t quite catching that.

    Atheism is, quite definitvely, a null hypothesis – the burden of proof simply doesn’t rest on those who make the null hypothesis. (If we’re just sitting around one day and I declare “There is a purple goblin waving a magic wand at us from orbit around a star a million light years away,” that’s a hypothesis, and your opposing view that there is no such goblin is now automatically the null hypothesis – you never had to declare it, nor do you have to “prove” it.) So you should probably stop pestering Les (and invoking reason and logic in the same breath), because you sound ridiculously ignorant doing so. Your new comment to Les has once again conflated the sense of religious “grouping” (community, organization) with religious belief, even though you said outright that a “religion” (in the organizational sense) need not be based on religion (“belief in the existence of a supreme being”). Define your terms and use them consistently, or don’t expect to even understand any of this (let alone “win” your argument).

    Legally, a tomato is classified as a vegetable (for tax reasons – see Nix v. Hedden). Scientifically, a tomato is classified as a fruit (for botanical reasons). The courts did not magically transform the characteristics of a tomato by declaring it a vegetable. They’re just trying to get their job done. Stop making them look as silly as you.

    Quick point: I am, of course, guessing you are Christian, though it really doesn’t change any of my points if you’re not. So don’t quibble the point if it nettles you. Just apply all of this to your nearest Christian, and watch the logic hold up quite steadily.

    Now then! You’re asking the entirely wrong questions (though I’ll happily answer after correcting your misconceptions), and this error shows in the fact that you can’t help but capitalize the first letter of “atheist” as if it were a proper noun. Do you correspondingly capitalize the “t” in “theist”? If not…why not? If so…uh, yeah. You’re getting sillier.

    My world view is not “Atheistic.” Nor is it, in fact, “atheistic,” at least in the sense you would use even eschewing the capital letter. My world view is many different things, and a full description would lack the word “theistic” – because I do not have a belief in gods. If there is any proper noun for my world view, it would be…Jeffishness or some such. But please don’t roll with that one. More simply and wholly, it’s just “how Jeff sees the world” – no proper noun required, ’cause I’ve got no newsletter for you to subscribe to (and wouldn’t want you to anyway).

    The trap that you (and numerous religious adherents – like most human beings!) fall into is in assuming that what holds for you, holds for all, regardless of other factors. So if the question of the existence of a deity is the central tenet of your world view, then (at least as demonstrated by your comment) the question of the existence of a deity must be the central tenet of my world view despite the fact that my answer to that question is the opposite of yours.

    And that’s just silly. As I explained (at length, so it’s irksome – though, sadly, no surprise – that you didn’t get it): my lack of theistic belief is not the central tenet of my world view. It’s not the cornerstone of the building blocks that make up who I am. I don’t even dwell on it, and I wouldn’t even think about it much if theists didn’t exist and incessantly whine at the rest of us about it. It really is a complete non-issue to me, other than the problems in Consequence #1 as I described above…which are more about theists themselves than the question of any deities existing (which, keep in mind, has long since been resolved and set aside in my mind and my world view).

    Is your world view powerfully influenced by the fact that you don’t believe in Santa Claus? Or the tooth fairy? Or unicorns? (Boy, I hope I haven’t misjudged your levels of credibility there.) Neither is mine. As with yours (I hope), such thoughts aren’t even really a factor. Thing is: the existence of a god (any god, including the Big Three’s Monotheistic Mufasa) is the exact same thing to me. It amounts to the same thing, which is to say: nothing at all.

    The tired old go-to analogies are…well, tired and old, but they’re go-to analogies for a reason. To wit: are you someone who collects stamps? Or bugs? (Or stamped bugs?) If not – do your endeavors (personal, professional, recreational, any and all) revolve around the fact that you don’t collect these items? If someone asks you to describe yourself and what you do with your life, would you tell them: “I strongly value honesty and hard work, I am a carpenter [or whatever] by trade, I play football on the weekends, and I don’t collect stamps or bugs.”

    (If you do collect stamps and/or bugs, pick something you don’t collect, something that is entirely outside the realm of your interests, and do an easy search-and-replace – this is not exactly difficult stuff for anybody with two neurons to rub together, so don’t go arguing about the specific examples if you refuse to supply your own in place of them. Again, if you’re not going to bother with any “rules” for this discussion, I won’t continue to “play” without them, as you’ll prove yourself a bit of a time waster…and a disingenuous tool.)

    The correct answer is: no. You don’t bring up not collecting stamps when you describe yourself under normal circumstances, nor do you bring up any of a million other things that you have no interest in. (Even if you want to pretend you do to “support” your argument. No cheating here, man.)

    If someone blabbed at you non-stop about stamp collecting, and talked about how your life must be so empty (or sad or meaningless or take-your-silly-and-arbitrary-pick-of-dumb-assertions) because you don’t collect stamps, and even had a history of trying to get stamp-collecting practices written into the laws of your homeland, and then asked what you’re about…it would then make sense for you to include the fact that you don’t collect stamps in your description, as a sort of “Yeah, I’m not into that, but here’s what I am into, and these are the things that do fill my life and give it meaning.”

    (Worse yet, imagine if someone tried to define you, without your agreement at all, as Someone Who Doesn’t Collect Stamps…and all other stuff you actually do is the afterthought. How stupid is that, man? Yeah, I know! And – wait, does it sound at all familiar…?)

    By the same token, I already summarized the basis of my world view above; and notice that atheism – a lack of god-beliefs – was tacked on as an afterthought, and it is only included because it is the subject under discussion. I don’t list it among my most prioritized values and interests if it isn’t the subject of a discussion, because it isn’t the focus of how I think, act, speak or behave. End of story. Stop including this erroneous assertion (that I do derive everything in my world view from atheism) in your premises, because it’s where all of your arguments start tumbling down into a deep, dark pit of complete wrongness.

    Your mistake lies in assuming that the lack of this particular belief must be central to my world view, because the presence of this particular belief is central to yours. But that’s your mistake. My lack of belief in gods is no more central to my world view, nor more pressing on my typical daily (weekly, monthly, yearly) thoughts, than my lack of desire to eat human flesh, my lack of desire to force another person to participate in a non-consensual sexual act, or, for that matter, my lack of desire to eat broccoli (can’t stand the stuff) – all things that are, like atheism, the result of my world view (and/or preferences), rather than the foundation of it.

    Since none of those other things are central to how you approach life (I’m guessing – let’s assume for the sake of argument that you’re relatively sane), you therefore have no trouble waving them off as factors the absences of which aren’t central to my approach to life. However, since theism is central to your life, you therefore appear to have trouble grasping that the absence of that factor is not central to my life.

    But that’s your problem, and – really, truly – not mine, nor anyone else’s when you “demand they defend” the atheistic null hypothesis. If you can get past that, it should be remarkably easy to see why atheism isn’t a belief (it’s a lack of one) or a religion (it’s a potential tenet of certain groups or communities that may come to strongly resemble organized religions, if they haven’t already).

    Incidentally, the “tit for tat” game of “a Christian was evil” v. “an atheist was evil” (which you’re farcically lobbing at Les) is even older and more tired than the non-stamp-collecting analogy, and entirely pointless. I’ll guarantee you that those arguing “fewer bad atheists” and “more bad Christians” could rack up more “points” there – but that’s simply because the number of avowed Christians on historical record far outweighs the number of avowed atheists on historical record, which gives us far more raw material to work with. (We’ve got the advantage, and it wouldn’t be pretty when my team stomped yours.) Expand that to “fewer bad atheists” and “more bad theists” and it’s really just completely unfair for your side.

    Of course, that’s only because the fact that somebody is a theist or an atheist, a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist, whatever…doesn’t really dictate whether they’ll be into murder, genocide and brutal injustice, or prefer compassion, fairness, truth and justice. Try to declare otherwise, and you’ll just come off looking like even more of a fool than you already have by subtly implying it, guy (deliberately or non).

    So, the answers to your multi-pronged questions:

    What underpins your compassion, fairness, truth and justice?

    In simplest terms: mutual interest and my emotional responses to the results of these principles when they are applied or rejected, either successfully or unsuccessfully.

    There is an obvious mutual interest in treating others with compassion and fairness, and in seeking truth and requiring justice – if I do not strive to make sure others are treated well, then they have no vested interest in striving to make sure that I am treated well, and I prefer to be treated well rather than otherwise. Kinda simple.

    But also, for whatever electrochemical reasons exist in the underlying biology of my humanity, I feel what I would describe (and I’m fairly certain that you would, too, if you experienced it) as “good” when I successfully achieve these principles (among the others I described in my previous comment), and I also feel what I would describe as “good” when I see others achieve these principles with regard to myself or third parties. I also get this feeling when I learn something new (whether scientific research, musical pieces, physical skills, jokes…anything, really) or tackle a challenging task or accomplish something that fits my particular talents and skills quite well…generally, whenever I do something that – should you ask – I would label as the “right” or “good” thing.

    That good feeling is a great reward for my behavior and actions, and may be that way for the same (biological) reasons that an orgasm is a great reward for having sex – in either case, it keeps me coming back for more.

    It is based on what?

    Observation, experience, and analysis – all repeated too many times to count, in pretty much every context I’ve had the privilege or burden of encountering. When I uphold and/or achieve these principles, I feel good, and others I care about benefit; when I ignore or fail to achieve these principles, I do not feel good, and others I care about do not benefit. This has been a consistent observation since the earliest stages of my own cognitive awareness that I can remember, and shows no sign of changing any time soon.

    This result is supported and perpetuated by mutual reinforcement – those that also uphold these principles tend to agree with me on key issues of behavior, and we work to each other’s benefit. Those that do not uphold these principles do not offer me (or others) a benefit, and do not even offer each other much benefit without blatant and frequently undue costs in resources and/or obligations. (There are, of course, degrees in all of this – it’s not an all or nothing deal every time.) Therefore, my (casual and applied) analyses result in a simple conclusion: it is better for all of us if we all uphold these principles, and I will attempt to do so in my best effort to show others that I am willing to pitch in (and reap the mutual benefits), ideally encouraging them to do the same.

    As to what lies beneath all of that: probably a genetic predisposition towards mutual cooperation, since that would be more likely to provide a better shot at procreation to warm-blooded social primates in environments with limited and/or conditional resources. But people get all hung up on stuff like this – the fact is, the chemical reactions (to physical and other stimuli) that occur in my body make the “self” of which I am aware feel certain ways, and I prefer the “good” feelings to the “bad” feelings, so I aim for those…and it all falls into place. Again – kinda simple.

    (That “self” I describe isn’t about dualism, by the way. I wish I could remember to whom it was attributed, but I recently read a quotation that I quite liked: “We aren’t the particles, we are the current state of those particles.” This is the difference between trying to figure out whether fire is solid, liquid, gas, plasma, nuclear, electrical on the one hand…and, on the other, understanding that fire is the chemical reaction, not the matter or energy itself. As self-aware entities, we’re not the noun, man, we’re the verb – not what is, but what’s happening.)

    How does this fit in your Atheistic world view?

    As my world view is not “Atheistic,” this question is misstated. Let’s try again.

    How does this fit in your world view, which does not include theism at its core?

    Much better! (I’m going to pretend you did that yourself, so I feel “good” about you.)

    The answer: it all fits quite nicely, actually. As I said, since this is all based on observation, experience, analysis, mutual reinforcement, and my own emotional state in different contexts, it works like freaking gangbusters. Reality-based thinking tends to do that. For another old and tired reference: Occam’s Razor is in full effect here. I have no reason to hypothesize or assume a supernatural being to make any of this hang together.

    You do? Weird. Well then, hmm…try harder?

    (See my lack of assuming I’m doing something you can’t do? That’s pretty fair. Your not doing it is utterly alien to me, though.)

    Some Atheist may devote himself/herself to murder, genocide and brutal injustice; why are they wrong?

    Oops. Let’s fix that one too, Zac.

    Some person who espouses atheism or at least dismisses theism may devote himself/herself to murder, genocide and brutal injustice; why are they wrong?

    Better, though not perfect. No problem; we’ll keep going.

    Your example of the Finnish atheist is completely foolish, of course. As I said, that “tit for tat” game is pointless and ends with the theist losing (every time, but only based on sheer percentages, so don’t take it so hard). But beyond that: that man can claim his atheism (lack of belief in god), in whole or in part, drove him to commit cruel acts. Just the same as a multitude of religious adherents have claimed that their theism (their belief in a god and what that god wanted them to do), in whole or in part, drove them to commit cruel acts.

    The truth, of course, is that humans are awesome at justifying whatever they did with whatever they can come up with. And humans are also notoriously poor, unless they apply a sincere effort, at seeing through those justifications when they match with the observer’s preconceived notions.

    If a Christian individual claimed that the Christian god drove them to slaughter innocents, you probably wouldn’t have much trouble seeing through that, right? “That’s not true, dude’s just nuts/evil/sick/stupid/what-have-you!” But where does that keen, incisive mind of yours wander off to when the big bad homicidal maniac…is an atheist?

    The answer there: only one thing has changed, but it’s the thing that is central to your Christian world view. So your conclusions are irrevocably altered, and while I find that unfortunate, I get why. But again – that’s really, truly, entirely your own problem. Since this one thing – theism or the lack thereof – is not central to my world view, my conclusions are pretty much the same in either case…and I don’t assume that Christianity automatically leads to such behavior any more than I assume that atheism does, which is to say, not at all. There are too many examples of “good” and “evil” on both sides of the theism/atheism divide to even pretend that god-belief or its absence is the deciding factor. Pretending so (or even implying it as if it’s a valid point) is a surefire way to indicate that you haven’t spent even one full hour of your entire life really thinking this stuff through. I would truly hope you’re not quite that insipidly incurious, Zac.

    Why is this cruel, terrible, unjust person who lacks theistic beliefs wrong? For the same reason that a cruel, terrible, unjust person with theistic leanings is wrong. And in the same sense that a cruel, terrible, unjust person with theistic leanings is wrong, which is I think where you’ve missed the boat.

    They are not wrong in some “cosmic” sense. There is no “universal” moral compass or judgment – remember, you’re couching your question in terms of my world view, which does not include any deities or other supernatural entities. This is, quite likely, the greater point Dawkins was warming up to in the context of what you quote-mined above (I say this having read some of his work, but not all, and not the source of your passage): that the universe itself is indifferent and arbitrary, so any meaning or judgment can only be applied by cognitive beings with the capacity for it (like humans).

    I’d suggest that the cruel, terrible, unjust people are wrong – from what I can see in my limited, human, Earth-bound perspective – in a sort of “natural” or biological sense. Our species has reached great heights – as the “dominant” (read: evidently most influential and self-directed) species on the planet – based on the evolutionary strategies that got us here, and those strategies seem to have included cooperation for mutual benefit. Killing others doesn’t seem very cooperative. On the other hand, perhaps in some contexts, killing others is cooperative, either with the victims (if, for example, they wish to die to avoid something they feel is worse) or with third parties (as in, for example, killing an attacker in defense of the attacker’s victims). And these decisions may vary from species to species, as each developed using its own strategies. For myself, I’d have to judge on a case-by-case basis, though I could provide my initial, subjective guidelines with enough precedent (which we may have, at this point in history). As an example, your Finnish atheist? Yeah, barring any additional relevant information, I unequivocally feel he was, to use the industry term, wrong.

    What, would you expect me (or Les, or any other atheist) to vouch for him on the basis that neither of us has a theistic belief? That’s a remarkably tenuous connection, man. I don’t have too much in common with the majority of atheists I’ve met, let alone some Finn who murders kids. Are you vouching for the perpetrators of the Spanish Inquisition, who invoked the Christian god? Or, say, radical Islamic terrorists, who share your theistic belief, though not your religion? Note: “No True Scotsman” doesn’t apply here, clever boy, because I’m not saying the Finn isn’t an atheist (he probably is if he says he is) – I’m saying it’s irrelevant to the question of how I should react to his behavior. But if you want to claim that atheism is a key factor tying me to others who lack god-beliefs, then it logically follows that theism is a key factor tying you to others who have god-beliefs – which means you’ve got a lot more cruel, terrible, unjust folks to vouch for than I do (again, just by sheer percentages!). Remember, though: I don’t ask you to. Extend the same courtesy, and you may start getting the whole point here.

    But back on track, and most importantly: such cruel, terrible, unjust people are wrong in a very human sense, in that we have a long-established agreement – we call it “civilization” – which, perhaps by complete coincidence (I rather think not), generally upholds the same principles I’ve already espoused for the mutual benefit of those humans who live by the agreement. I don’t need a religious text, a revelatory experience, or an imaginary voice to tell me that it sucks to kill another human being and requires very specific circumstances to justify, though not necessarily excuse, this reflexively abhorrent action (as I suggested a couple paragraphs up).

    All of this is well explained by the principles I uphold, and the basis from which they are derived (also described above). In that light, I don’t have to work too hard, and I don’t require the guidance of millennia-old texts, cloistered holy men, or extraterrestrial spirits to come to these conclusions.

    You do? Terrifying. Please try harder.

    As so many before me have already stated on the Internet, I don’t have much interest in dissuading you from your religious beliefs if they are actually the only thing keeping you from cruel, terrible, unjust behavior. My experience – living without those beliefs and still having no interest in enacting such behaviors – leads me to believe that this is not actually true; that you would continue to uphold similar principles to mine even in the absence of theistic belief. However, I have no way of knowing – you could just be a lunatic, y’know? So please, feel free to keep believing in a watchful god promising eternal reward or eternal punishment, if that keeps you on the straight and narrow.

    Me? I’ll grin and bear Consequence #1, ’cause I get to experience Consequence #2. Like I said – I can accept that. And, based on all of the above, it sure beats murdering the elderly, raping animals, eating babies, or any permutation thereof.

    Now get over it, man, and stop applying your exceedingly limited viewpoint to the whole of humanity and expecting us all to play along. Or, if you’re “Poe-ing,” or whatever the kids are calling it these days, then frankly: just bugger off. I have no interest in people who pull that crap as if it’s a worthwhile thing to do. There’s a fine line between satire and being an annoying douchebag. See People Who Aren’t Douchebags v. Seltzer and Friedberg.

    I’m off for a lovely weekend of wandering, wondering, conversation, food and excellent companionship! (There will even be a science museum involved!)

  10. Zac, I concur with everything Jeff wrote.

    Jeff, I’ve missed you. Please start blogging again. I’d be happy to let you vent here if you wanted, but I believe your site is still up and running so there would be good too.

  11. I’ll second Les: nice work, Jeff. I’ll just add that social behavior evolved, first genetically and then increasingly culturally, because it works. There are fitness advantages in pooling our resources, specializing, joining something bigger than ourselves, that have resulted in ever more complex systems: the eucaryotic cell, multicellular organisms, social insects, tribes, nations… There is no mystery about where morals come from, and what justification they have.

  12. Pingback: Atheists set up a “Megachurch” and some folks have a problem with it. | Stupid Evil Bastard

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