05 January 2010


Death, pessimism, and realism

I've mused about death often enough on these blog pages, especially since I developed cancer in 2006 and it spread into my lungs since 2007, and now that it's gotten worse. I've also discussed my atheism and how that affects my attitude about death.

Some people think that without any belief in an afterlife, or a soul, or Heaven, death for me must be a scarier or emptier than for those who believe in such things—that somehow I must face death without comfort or solace. But that's not true. I have tried to explain it before, but yesterday blogger Greta Christina did a better job. She calls it "the difference between pessimism and realism," and it's worth a read, whatever you believe.

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I think its the real miracle, that people can and do believe in what they wish.
Derek, have you ever read Krishnamurti? Might not hurt to give it a look. Helped me a lot on my deployments to Iraq when I felt in greater mortal danger.


If you email me your mailing address, I'll send you a book. As you know, I'm not religious in the traditional sense. You are in my thoughts.
I admire the strength and courage to make your illness public.

I would like to share my experience about spirituality and religion, maybe it will help, maybe not.

I come from an atheist family, and I was raised to believe in logic, the scientific method, and so forth.

We all had great contempt for beliefs and superstitions, as well as religions.

Those did not fit into our view of the world as something obeying to logic and the exact laws of physics, being thereby primitive and inferior ideas.

I was a follower of Christopher Hitchens and I was modeling my own proof of the truth of atheism.

So, feeling that my ideas were mature enough to withstand critique, I dared, as an intellectual challenge, take a look at the other side, ready to demolish their childish views.

Well, it turns out, when you really apply logic and the scientific method to atheism, you realize it's a thin veneer over a much more complicated set of ideas, a rough simplification ad absurdum, and to harsher scrutiny, it melts into something not logical and not scientific.

One key point for me was that the atheistic answers to a few fundamental questions about life directly contradict themselves, instead of resolving back to "since we don't know whether God exists, we choose not to believe".

Take for example the notion of future.

We cannot see nor experience future, nor future has an influence on our lives. Same thing with God.

Yet BELIEVING in future becomes an all different matter.

I suppose not all atheists will abort all of their fetuses since they cannot directly experience future and they choose not to believe in it.

Nor all atheists will reverse mortgage all their belongings, nor take up diving with sharks, for the same reason.

So we go back to believing in something we cannot directly experience nor control. Where is coherence then?

I also read Greta Christina's article. Very nice piece.

One must also say that it's completely focused on the self and on the existence of an afterlife.

It completely ignores the effects of not believing in religion and afterlife in one's environment (family, friends) and present life (society at large), which, paradoxically, are what we live with right now, direct experience, which is all an atheist should be concerned anyway.

So we have somebody who is an atheist, only concerned about tangibles and provables, never talking about the tangible and provable consequences of replacing religious ethics with atheist ethics in the whole of the society at large, with catastrophic and immediate consequences on very large swaths of population (see America's underclass incarceration rate, abortion rate, murder rate, drug addiction rate, single parenthood rate and so forth).

What a pesky detail!

And when we go to the drawing board, trying to make up an ethics replacement system, it doesn't stick and people take shortcuts, so we need more and more police, more and more tasers, more and more "three strikes laws" and death penalty.

So, I came to believe through logic reasoning, only reasoning a bit harder.

Strange ain't it?

Hope that helps, or at least provides entertaining reading.
Certainly entertaining, but I don't think your conclusions follow logically from your premises, or that your premises are on solid footing either.

A rational atheist can't formulate a "proof of the truth of atheism," not in absolute terms. It is possible for a god or gods to exist (just like many other things), but the evidence makes it extremely unlikely, so it is reasonable to live as if they do not.

Conversely, it is reasonable to believe in a future, since experience and evidence show us that the future usually comes along—unless you get into the sort of philosophical whirlpools of thinking that our memories have just been implanted and everything has just begun brand new right now. We may not be able to prove it absolutely, but evidence indicates it rather likely that there will be a future, so it's reasonable to live as though there will be one.

And I also think the evidence indicates that having a religious belief system doesn't provoke people to have particularly good systems of ethics, certainly not better than those of us who lack religion and supernatural beliefs. Slavery, the Inquisition, large-scale human and animal sacrifice, wars—all existed and continue to exist in societies that believe in gods and spirits.

Certainly, to cite your direct example, the death penalty is not a new thing created by secular societies. Indeed, secular societies tend to be the ones that abolish it.

Finally, even if your path of thought did lead you to believe in something, which of the thousands of contradictory religions and spiritual systems do you choose, and why? I don't find the arguments for any one much better than any other. And even if the sort of nihilist interpretation you seem to be drawing from atheism (and with which I disagree) were true, would that matter if it were still true?

I'm more interested in what is likely to be the actuality of the universe and of my life and death than in a (purely potentially) more comforting set of falsehoods.

In other words, piero ds, I think your train of thought is mistaken, and it hasn't convinced me that there is anything supernatural in our universe. Which, to me, is still just fine.