Yesterday an apologetic article popped up on my feed alleging to expose three paradoxes of atheism by an apologist named Neil Shenvi. Since I’m not used to hearing theistic challenges refer to paradoxes of atheism, I clicked through for a read. I ended up finding the article so laughably bad that I decided I wanted to write a response to expose all the problems contained within.
Seeking the Truth
Neil’s first paradox relates to truth seeking: “it is very hard for atheists to explain why seeking the truth is intrinsically good or why we are obligated to seek it.” He goes on to emphasize “If Christianity is true, then I understand why I am obligated to seek the truth. But if atheism is true, why am I obligated to find out?”
Is there an overriding obligation to seek the truth? In very many cases yes, but it is trivial to find a variety of life experiences where we would consider it morally obligatory or at least laudable to not seek the truth, or even find a variety of situations where we are morally obligated to lie. Atheism and atheist compatible ethical theories can easily accommodate this, whereas traditional deontic theistic ethical systems will struggle.
In many everyday cases, we need to seek the truth because knowing the truth is vital to achieving many practical goals. When it comes to building shelter, eating food, etc. – truth is integral to the enterprise. I need to know the truth of what the environmental conditions are to build a viable shelter, I need to know the source of my food to know it is safe to eat, etc. This would be the case where Neil brings up the idea of us revolting against the idea of being told we should “believe a religion “not because it’s true, but because it’ll help your marriage and career”. That’s because we would have to try and force ourselves to believe something we know to be false only to achieve another goal that requires we believe it to be true. Doxastic voluntarism is false – we can’t choose to believe something. I can’t choose to disbelieve in gravity any more than I can choose to believe Christianity is true, I need to be convinced.
I have to give Neil some credit here, he at least has done his homework and acknowledges that many atheists hold human flourishing to be one of the highest goods, but then goes on to say that this view has the untoward consequence that instances where seeking the truth would lead to a lack of flourishing (or languishing) then seeking the truth would be evil. He gives an example of a Christian woman on her deathbed who is cheerily facing her demise because she thinks she’s going to be with god and her loved ones. He asks if we assume that atheism is true, is it good for her to seek the truth of atheism in that situation.
Presumably we’re supposed to answer “no” because it would deprive her of happiness and she’s going to die soon, but given the question I have to answer the answer is either “Yes or it’s morally neutral”. Unless she’s going to start having lingering doubts about the truth of Christianity (which seems unlikely given the scenario of her cheery disposition on her own death), then I don’t see why she should suddenly start pondering the question then or that she has some overriding obligation to do so. She’s already a Christian, she’s theoretically pondered the question before and has reached her conclusion, however erroneous. Given that, there are better things to be doing with her little remaining time. But if she does have doubts, if she wants to know if atheism is true or not, then yes of course she should seek the truth – that is her goal after all! This would answer Neil’s question of what a random atheist should do if this Christian asks them about atheism: she clearly wants to know, so answer her! Perhaps you may ask if she is sure she wants to have this conversation, but if she presses then clearly you ought to answer.
Aren’t we supposed to be revolted at this conclusion that perhaps she shouldn’t always be seeking the truth? Am I just walking into Neil’s trap here?
Well no, because the idea that we have an overriding obligation to always seek the truth in all matters at all times is obviously false. Consider your friends, your relatives even. There are many facts about their lives that you not only don’t know the truth of, but you’re better off not knowing the truth of, or at least you correctly assess you’re better off not knowing the truth value of. For example, we are not obligated to imitate Tommy Wiseau in “The Room” and start asking people how their sex life is.
In almost every case, I’m better off not knowing the status of someone’s sex life, despite the fact that there is a truth value about that fact of their life. In fact it’s considered morally obligatory to not to seek the truth of such questions in most inter-personal relationships.
That amusing anecdote aside, there are more serious cases where we are morally obligated to tell a lie: the classic example of lying to the Nazi’s banging on your door asking if there are Jews hiding in your home (presuming there actually are Jews hiding in your home).
Clearly, in some instances telling a lie to save a life (at least when you’re quite sure that action will actually save said life) is morally obligatory. This is why I find virtue ethics so compelling compared to more rule based systems.
To sum up – this is a false paradox because Neil’s underlying premise is false. We are not obliged to seek the truth in all matters, all the time. In very many cases we ought to seek the truth and we are wired to do so because of our biology, but it is trivial to find cases where we are not obliged to seek the truth or even cases where we are obligated to tell a lie. Neil’s badly construed example doesn’t really help his case here.
Neil’s second alleged paradox really takes the cake in terms of its absurdity. He alleges that “The paradox of atheism is that the atheist, while usually committed to living a life consistent with reality, cannot bear reality as he believes it actually is.” Going on to say “So while the atheist can only preserve his emotional stability by either hiding from reality as he believes it actually is or by hardening himself to it, the Christian gains emotional stability, empathy and hope as he exposes himself to and embraces reality as he believes it actually is.”.
I’d just like to point out that Neil’s paradox consists of alleging atheists can’t preserve our emotional stability without hiding from reality or “hardening himself to it” which…would be facing reality as it is and preserving our emotional stability. It seems he’s already solved his supposed paradox for the atheist while he was summarizing it, but let’s leave that aside since there are better responses.
The crux of Neil’s argument is that atheists can’t truly bear the emotional weight of all the suffering in the world, stating that both atheists (and he admits Christians) are tempted to build an emotional fantasy wall constructed of games, hobbies, sports, fashion, romance, etc. to isolate ourselves from all the suffering. He alleges that Christians can avoid the life of existential despair and hopelessness, but atheists are condemned to either the fantasy wall or despair.
The first reply is that yes, no human being has the mental capacity to truly empathize with all of the suffering and tragedy in the world. In fact the breadth and scope of suffering in the world is evidence that there is no all-good god overseeing the universe; it’s the impetus behind the argument from evil.
Still, this doesn’t mean we must be condemned to hopelessness or despair as atheists. If anything it is motivation for us to alleviate that suffering. It is the impetus for humanists to try and make the world a better place, to make sure that future generations don’t have to suffer as much as what has been done in the past.
That we have to acknowledge the fact that we can’t always work towards those goals, and that we require self-care in the form of normal day to day pleasures where we can find them is not something that counts against atheism. Atheists can use philosophies such as stoicism to manage their psychological states while still using our empathy to motivate humanistic goals.
After all, not even Christians forsake all normal day to day joys to evangelize nearly every waking hour of their lives. It’s a psychological limitation of human beings that we can’t control, but not only can we manage it, but the tools are readily accessible to an atheist.
That said, what really takes the cake for me with this paradox is how Neil tries to allege that Christianity can deal with this kind of suffering by offering hope. This is utterly laughable, especially given Neil’s brand of traditional Christianity where he believes in the existence of an eternal hell. It is in fact Neil’s Christianity which offers the bleaker outlook compared to atheism, for on atheism at least all the suffering comes to an end!
Conversely on Neil’s brand of Christianity we’re told that the road to damnation is wide and well-traveled, but that few will find the narrow path to salvation. The ratio of saved to damned is rather clear in the bible. So all of that suffering going on in non-Christian places, say the devout low-caste Hindu’s who have lived hard lives as ‘untouchables’ – they’re burning in hell for all eternity with no hope of escape or end to their torments.
If anyone is going to ‘wrap themselves in a false emotional wall’ to avoid the harsh reality it is Christians, not atheists. They’re the ones who will be supposedly living it up in heaven, without a care of sorrow to spare for those burning in hell. I don’t understand how one is supposed to be happy in heaven, knowing the vast majority of humanity that has lived to this point (or really any number of people for that matter) would be suffering eternal conscious torture – but hey that’s the insane kind of afterlife envisioned by the Christianity Neil endorses.
I’ve said it before: the cold silence of non-existence after death is infinitely preferable to the screams of anguish coming from an eternal hell. If Neil wants to compare which of our worldviews is bleaker, atheism will win that comparison every day of the week!
Neil’s last attempt at a paradox is amazingly dismal. Here he alleges that atheism has a dampening effect on our moral motivation, saying that "would reflection on the ultimate meaninglessness, transience, and unimportance of your moral actions in a godless universe make you more likely to resist temptation? I think the answer is obviously no."
I find Neil’s examples to be most illuminating on the vacuous nature of his question so I want to quote him in full:
“Now let’s imagine we face a moral choice. The opportunity to cheat on a test. The chance to make a little extra money in a slightly dishonest way. The ability to cheat on our boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse when we know it will not be detected. Or, given the last section, let’s imagine making major life decisions. Which career to choose: one that is lucrative or one that will benefit others at our own expense? Which house to buy: one that is large and expensive, or a modest one that would allow us to give generously? If we have spent the previous month reminding ourselves that our choices have no eternal moral consequences, are we more or less likely to resist our temptations and make the morally right choice?”
Neil gets it wrong here on so many levels it’s hard to know where to begin.
First off, there is precisely one motivation for action in each of these moral dilemmas that is morally praiseworthy: doing the right thing because it is good.
What Neil is doing is appealing to consequences, or the lack thereof, to motivate our actions to behave morally, but this is completely irrelevant morally speaking.
Consider two children who are instructed not to steal candy from a store. The first child is told that stealing food when you are not starving morally wrong, and is asked to understand how they’d feel if someone stole something from them. The second child is told that if they don’t steal from the store, they will get an even bigger piece of candy later that night at home, or perhaps that if they’re caught stealing that they will be severely punished.
If both children refrain from stealing for the purported reasons – one because it is wrong to steal in this situation, and the other because they wanted to get a reward or avoid punishment, which child is morally praiseworthy?
Clearly the answer is the first child. We don’t consider doing the right thing only because you’re motivated by reward or avoidance of punishment to be morally praiseworthy, at best it is simply a deterrent for bad behavior and we should worry what would happen if the deterrent were removed.
So in terms of our moral motivation, the lack of eternal reward of punishment for our behavior is utterly irrelevant. By Neil’s logic, an atheist who does the right thing in the situations outlined is all the more morally praiseworthy, because they do it without expectation of reward or punishment.
Conversely by this logic, the Christian might be tempted to think that they are saved, almost regardless of what sins they commit, or at least for the vast majority of sins they’d want to commit. So if one is to be motivated by the consequences of ones actions, then what motivation exists for the supposedly saved to behave morally? If the answer is to do the right thing for its own sake, regardless of the consequences – then the same answer can apply to the atheist. What are we to think of Christians who believe or behave only to avoid hell or to receive reward in heaven?
Neil gets the entire question wrong in another way as well. He appeals to the fact that there’s no eternal consequence for our actions as something that undermines our motivation. Supposedly the fact that in 200 years not even my decedents will remember me is supposed to affect my decisions here and now, but that’s nonsense.
In 200 years, I won’t be around to care about what my decedents do or don’t think of me. What matters is the meaning of my life to me now, what others will think of me, now. If we are going to forsake the only morally praiseworthy reason to behave morally and only focus on the consequences as motivation, then we are still left with plenty of reasons to still behave morally.
For the sake of argument, yes, someone who is immoral who can be truly assured they’d not be caught doing something immoral will surely do the wrong thing. But the cases where that happens is infinitesimally small, and largely are without major consequences. In most scenarios it’s exceedingly hard to continually avoid detection of consistent cheating on tests, or making money illegally, or carrying on an affair. Similarly, Neil makes a category error when he asks about what kind of job to take. We would consider it “good” to be a doctor, but it is not morally obligatory to be one. There is no moral failing for deciding to pursue a degree in finance or engineering vs. being a social worker or in medicine.
In fact, since very many atheistic humanists tend to be liberals on the left, we would consider it moral to be taxed at a fair rate given our income so that the government could take care of the poor, or donate foreign aid where it can do good. As such when it comes to buying a house, in a place like Norway or Sweden, there isn’t the imperative to donate lots of money to charity, because your tax rates determine your income which determines what you can afford while also not having to worry about needing to donate money to care for the poor.
Neil’s three paradoxes fall flat.
- In most cases, atheists are motivated to pursue the truth. Neil’s counter examples are fundamentally flawed, as is his idea that we have an obligation to seek the truth in all matters. If he were to get better examples, chances are they are indeed the cases where we are not fundamentally obligated to seek the truth, or where we are obligated to lie. This is not a flaw of atheism. It’s a feature of having a robust ethical view.
- Atheists can cope with psychological limitations of human empathy by embracing philosophies like Stoicism, and we can use that empathy as motivation to alleviate human suffering. The fact that such suffering exists only reinforces our atheism in the first place. Conversely Christians of Neil’s variety are the ones stuck with a hopeless worldview that has most of humanity condemned to suffer eternal conscious torture, while the small elect get to wrap themselves in axiomatic happiness in heaven while others, even those who have suffered on earth burn for eternity in hell. Atheism’s outlook on eternity is far preferable to Neil’s Christianity.
- Neil gets moral motivation completely wrong. There is only one morally praise worthy reason to behave morally – and that answer applies to atheists as well as Christians – to do the right thing because it is good. The fact that eventually I won’t exist doesn’t rob me of my transient motivations to behave morally, assuming I’m behaving for moral reasons, and it still doesn’t rob me of most of the practical motivations I have to avoid behaving badly should my moral motivations fail in the vast majority of cases.
Suffice it to say Neil hasn’t given us any reason to think atheism can’t support realism or moral motivation, or any reason why atheists ought to live a life of despair.