Thursday, January 3, 2019

Responding to Critiques on Grief

The response to my video/post about grieving as an atheist has been overwhelmingly positive. I've had a lot of messages come back to me privately and on the various platforms I've posted it on and I've appreciated all of the wonderful feedback.

What surprised me was to see that the infamous Calvinist blog mentioned briefly in the original post decided to do a response/takedown of my post.  It's a bit rambly and it gets an incredible amount wrong, though it does so in a way that allows me to expand on some key points I made in the original post, so I'm going to do a rebuttal.


The piece weirdly begins by attacking my mentioning of my parental/protective instincts being set off at the idea of sending my daughters to a Christian church:

"One problem with an atheist appealing to or relying on instinct is that in naturalistic evolution, instincts are amoral. Some animals instinctively protect their offspring while other animals instinctively eat their offspring–or eat the offspring of their rivals. 
So there's the question of what lies behind the instinct. In Christianity, we have some God-given instincts. Transcendent wisdom lies behind the instinct. But naturalistic evolution is a fumbling, pitiless process."
First, it's odd that he tries to say how instincts are amoral because unlike humans, some other animals instinctively eat their offspring, but then he says on Christianity we have god-given instincts.  But on Christianity, that same god gave those other animals the instincts to eat their offspring!

Second, he doesn't even actually refute any appeal to instinct, he only says that on naturalistic evolution there is a fumbling, pitiless process behind our instincts. So? That has zero bearing on whether or not we should follow the instincts, or if we have those instincts for a reason. On naturalistic evolution we have those instincts because they directly contribute to the propagation of our species.  For humans and our biology, we instinctively protect our young. That's "good-for" humans both individually and collectively in that it contributes to our flourishing.

Steve gets this wrong in a further appeal, later in the post when he attacks my preferred meta-ethic:

"In naturalistic evolution, there's nothing things are for. Natural selection isn't goal-oriented. It's a blind lumbering process."
Here he illustrates his misunderstanding of how natural selection works. It does have a goal: the survival of a species to procreate the next generation, which must in turn be able to do the same. That's literally what is "selected for" by the blind, pitiless process.  Still, that isn't necessarily related to my point or to my meta-ethic which is about what is "good-for" humans. There I'm talking about what contributes to our well-being or flourishing. There are very many objective facts about that which are determined by our biology and yes, by evolution.  Yes, evolution is amoral, but what I've appealed to isn't a system where evolution determines what is right in a naturalist-fallacy (ie. what happens in nature is what is good).

What I'm saying is that evolution has largely determined what is good or bad for us, and acting in accordance with those brute facts in a way that contributes to our flourishing is what is good or moral.

Dealing with Death

Steve attacks my appeal to the words of Epicurus, misrepresenting the entire point.  In case you didn't see, here's the quote I appeal to:
"Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And once it does come, we no longer exist.” – Epicurus (paraphrased)
First Steve accuses me of holding a double standard in saying that instincts can't be normative while at the same time appealing to Epicurus to hold off an instinctive fear of death.

Second he alleges that this outlook on death means that there's nothing tragic about dying young, or that a murder victim isn't really harmed.

This is incredibly wrongheaded. I think instincts can be normative, such as our protective instinct towards our children, while at the same time realizing the limitations of our instincts. We do have an instinctive fear of death which is rather useful, but the point of the quote is that we shouldn't be troubled by the fact that we will inevitably die. 

Secondly just because the fact that we shouldn't be afraid of the fact that we will die has no bearing on whether or not dying young is a tragedy or that a murdered person is wronged. The dead do not suffer, but we see that had misfortune not fallen on someone they would have lived longer, presumably happy lives (or at least a life they'd want to continue living).

But wouldn't some prefer to live forever? Sure, but that's impossible. What someone can reasonably expect is to live 6-8 decades, possibly more. Ideally in such a way that they'd want to continue living. To have that taken away from them, while they could still realistically achieve that, is what makes a premature death a tragedy.

Next Steve alleges I've contradicted myself by admitting that I'm not afraid of death because I'm privileged  enough to think it very likely I won’t be dead for some time:
"But that's a tacit admission that the Epicurean argument is a failure. What's comforting isn't the Epicurean argument but the buffer between life and death provided by relative youth."
The Epicurean argument is only there to stave off any existential fear based on the fact that I know I will someday die. What I meant to convey with my comment about privilege was about how I can expect a long life given that I live in an area with good medical care and I have the means (insurance) to afford it. Barring something completely unforeseen (and unlikely), I will not face some kind of debilitating disease, and I don't have to fear about a random illness being the cause of my death in the near future (as opposed to pre-modern times).

The point is that I am privileged enough to think that I won't be dying sometime soon. Part of that is relative youth, part of it is my situation. That said, I don't believe I'll be any more afraid of death when I'm in my 60's or 70's.  I may be more likely to die then, but I will have had a pretty full life by that point, especially given my current position.

After all, though I'm not an Epicurean (I just liked this particular bit of wisdom), they did fear having a painful or agonizing death. The quote doesn't address that at all, it's not even meant to.  This would refute Steve's examples of knowing I'd end up in a vegetative state where my mind was active but my body was paralyzed.

Ironically in those cases the philosophy I do align with (Stoicism) speaks about suicide as an answer. In those cases I would want to end my own life.  In these cases the fact that I will experience nothing after death is a comfort all its own! The worst thing isn't experiencing nothing, it's experiencing unending, hopeless pain. The fact that "the door is always open" to end my existence is itself comforting in the face of such contingencies.  This is why I will have a living will about ending my life if I were to end up in that kind of state.

Finally, what gets me is that Steve disdains appealing to philosophies like Stoicism:

"Notice that he's grasping at the secular alternatives. Epicureanism plus Stoicism."
"Except that like most atheists, he's in denial. He takes sedatives like Epicureanism and Stoicism to numb the gnawing pain of his position."
What is so strange is his painting of Stoicism or Epicureanism as a "secular alternative" or as a salve.  Atheism is one singular position on one metaphysical question. It is not equivalent to nihilism, nor does it entail nihilism.

In fact Stoicism, Epicureanism, or even a host of other philosophies are compatible with atheism. Those are indeed full fledged philosophies, which address things like what it means to live a good life. These aren't "alternatives" to atheism. They're philosophies. If you want to address atheism, you're going to have to deal with atheists who hold to these philosophies, but poor Steve doesn't want to do that. That'd be hard.

It's much easier for him to build a strawman of atheism entailing nihilism and burning that rather than dealing with positions atheists actually hold.

This ties in to the next topic where Steve goes off the rails.


Steve alleges I've got a cartoon version of hell that is "theologically immature" (LOL). He goes on to furnish his own idea of what hell is supposed to be like:
"Although I think damnation is conscious and eternal, I doubt it's uniformly "torture". I think hell is probably an extension and intensification of what we find in this life. People make their own hell. Consider nightmares, which are a product of our own imagination. Hell may well be like a bad dream that you never awaken from–which makes it worse. A projection of your own character and imagination. The more evil you are, the worse hell will be for you because your evil imagination will furnish the infernal dreamscape.
Indeed, it's like a collective nightmare which you share with others. It mirrors their character. Externalizes what lies within.  
It wouldn't surprise me of hell is compartmentalized. In some cases there may be solitary confinement. In other cases, people of the same kind may share the same space. Worse people with worse people. It may also be the case that all the damned become progressively worse over time.  
That's theological speculation, but if an atheist is trying to make me squirm, that's only effective if his objection matches my idea of hell. If he's operating with a different idea of hell, then his objection bounces off my own position."
Elsewhere he goes on to say:
i) It doesn't bother me if some of the damned are screaming in hell. Some of the damned took fiendish delight in making their victims scream when they were alive. So their eternal fate is poetic justice. 
ii) I doubt all the damned are screaming in hell. That's a cartoon version of hell. 
First off, Steve immediately admits that at least for some, hell is eternal conscious torture - and he likes that fact! He's glad that some of the damned will scream forever because of how bad they were in life!

This is incredibly immoral by any standard. Here on earth, in the USA, we have a constitutional amendment banning the use of torture as punishment. We consider it immoral to torture, even the worst offenders among us.  Are we more moral than Steve's god, who supposedly will torture at least some of the people in hell?

Second, if anyone has a cartoon version of hell, it's Steve. It's a cartoon entirely of his own making, to avoid the force of the argument from hell against his version of Christianity.  He says that it wouldn't be torture to be forced to endure an unending nightmare.  I wonder if he thinks that in the upper portions of hell where people share space if there will be any joy or happiness in there. Like the jokes about bikers saying how they're going to be drinking beer with their pals for eternity in hell.  What about sex? Will there be lots of fornication I wonder? Or is it all bad, deprived from having any joy and happiness, forever?

So at best, this would be a kind of mental torture, distinct from the burning flames Steve thinks some of the damned will suffer from. Of course mental torture is still torture, and any kind of eternal existence would be torturous if one doesn't want to live forever in any state.

I wouldn't want to live forever, heaven or hell. At some point, I'd want to have my existence end. Being forced to exist forever would itself be torture.

Thirdly, this is all the more ironic given Steve's criticism of how I'd handle hard truths as being hopeless vs. hopeful.  There is literally nothing more hopeless than the idea that the majority of humanity is going to be stuck in an eternal hell!

What Steve gets wrong again is that having no experiences at all (ie. death on atheism) is infinitely preferable to continued suffering for eternity. Much like a quick death is preferable to going into a mind-trapped paralysis where you slowly wither away for years in a bed before death finally claims you.

As I said in the original post, atheism is far preferable to his Christianity.

Before I move on, I'd just like to point out the silliness of Steve's "theological speculation" about hell.  First off, the bible is full of references to hell as including fire, burning, suffering, etc. Some Christians try to metaphor that away as best they can, but when their head honcho, one crossy-boi Jesus Herschel Christ tells a parable that includes a depiction of hell, it is someone burning, begging for a tiny bit of water to cool his tongue.

It's incredible to interpret that away as a description of hell given all the other biblical references of hell include notions of burning and despair.

But hey, it's basically impossible to argue scripture with believers. They can just adopt a hermeneutic to interpret whatever conclusion they want from their holy texts.


Steve tries to alleviate some of my criticism about Christianity having to convince you that you're sick in order to sell you the cure of Jesus.
Quite apart from Christian revelation, humans are often miserable, and make each other miserable, even when all their material needs are provided for. We need love, yet we have a great capacity to hurt and be hurt by those we love the most. Not to mention a cruel streak. Consider all the atrocities humans commit. Consider the divorce rate. Consider how often we turn to drugs and alcohol because we find life unbearable, even in–or especially in–affluent cultures. You can put humans in an earthly paradise, come back in a few years see how they made it hell on earth. Why is that? 
First off, his ideas don't map to reality. He's painting only the bad parts of our existence and leaving out the good.  For all the atrocities committed, there are still those who love and care for each other. There is still joy, people living happy, fulfilled lives. His idea that you could put is in an earthly paradise and come back to find it a hell on earth is ridiculous. The happiest places on earth right now are largely atheistic, or have majority non-Christian populations.  Entire generations of people have lived and died in those societies, many of whom have lived happy fulfilled lives. Nothing will ever be perfect, but we have have societies that generally provide for human well being, allow us to flourish, compared to other societies. On the whole we already know what those places can look like, we don't have to go much further than Scandinavia.

Hard Truths

First we come to the idea of why Steve framed his question in terms of a 6 year old girl vs. a 50 year old. I had accused him of poisoning the well by going with the framing of a young child. Here he replies:

"No, the reason I asked about the 6-year-old rather than the 50-year-old is because the original context was about talking to a child about death. Indeed, your very own child. And I flipped it around to a dying child rather than a dead grandparent because that's a more emotionally acute example."
Emphasis mine.  So he used the framing of a 6 year old because it was about talking to a child about death...and the fact that a dying child is more emotionally acute. There's a reason he didn't frame it as "what how would you tell a 50 year old that their 6 year old grandchild is dying" or the other example.  There's no clear symmetry here, he's simply admitting to doing exactly what I accused him of because it's more emotionally acute.

Next, consider where I spoke about what I'd tell my 6 year old daughter if she had a terminal illness and I thought she could handle the truth:

"If I was an atheist (which I used to be, as an adolescent boy), I'd have no hesitation in telling my dying child a comforting lie. Why does he think he has a duty to tell a dying child the truth if a lie would be more comforting? Is his priority about protecting the child's feelings–or protecting his own feelings?"

He then addresses the immediately following section where I talk about what I'd do if I thought my daughter couldn't handle the truth about an immanent death and so I wouldn't tell her she was dying, but would just comfort her instead:

"He's right that we need to give age-appropriate answers." 
"Actually, that's the response of a conflicted parent who's torn between comforting a child and telling a child the truth."  
What Steve misses is the fact that in the case where the child could handle the truth I would tell them because we all have an overriding desire to know the truth. Most of us would rather know what's really going on if someone told us they could tell us the truth or give us a comforting lie. Of course if the child couldn't handle the truth emotionally, I would tell them the comforting lie anyway to save them from worse pain.

This paints the situation as bad (on atheism) if I were to not tell the lie to the young child, regardless of whether or not they can handle the truth. The implication is that on theism, Steve would have a reason to tell the truth.

But this is where Steve ends up in exactly the same position I espouse! He says he'd effectively lie when presented with the Christian's version of the dilemma about telling a child someone they loved was in hell:

"That depends on what the child is able to grasp at that age. No point giving them an answer they can't understand, even if that happens to be the right answer." 
So it's OK for the Christian to not tell a hard truth to a child that can't handle or understand the answer.  Presumably, if the child could handle the hard truth, Steve would then actually tell them the truth...which is exactly what I said I would do in that situation as an atheist.

Isn't this then Steve giving "the response of a conflicted parent who's torn between comforting a child and telling a child the truth?"

Steve tap dances around the idea of a child's loved one being condemned to hell, saying how a Muslim or Hindu would hate to be stuck in the Christian heaven, not quite mentioning how they'd prefer non-existence to suffering for eternity in the Christian hell.

He tries to paint Christianity as better equipped to deal with "hard truths" because on Christianity there are no "hopeless truths":

"there are some answers–if true–that no one could emotionally process if they were honest with themselves."
"There is, though, a crucial difference between hard answers and unmitigated despair. There's nothing to redeem the grimness of atheism. Atheism is unremittingly bleak all the way down."

First off, he's gaslighting by saying that I or other atheists are not somehow emotionally processing the fact that my father is completely gone, and that I will someday be gone. He alludes to this earlier by saying that a Stoic would feign resignation and resolve, but it would be play acting.

The entire point of my post was how I'm processing grief and how I'm helping my child process it as well. I'm utterly honest with myself with what the situation is and I'm OK with it. My child is also doing OK with it.

However his second point makes even less sense because as I mentioned before nothing could possibly be more hopeless than being stuck in an eternal hell which his Christianity entails!

Like I've said before, atheism is far preferable to his Christianity. There is no eternal suffering, and when there is even hopeless finite suffering in this life, there is always "an open door" to end it. This is because there are far worse fates in this life than death (suffering paralyzed and unable to communicate for years, torture, etc), and there are far worse fates than non-existence if life after death were even possible (eternal existence, hell).



  2. Quite frankly, I wouldn't spend anymore time responding to Steve's blog. Nothing fruitful can be gained from someone who even calls Christians who doctrinally disagree with him "apostates". "Can the Ethiopian change his skin color or the leopard his spots?"

    1. '...who even calls Christians who doctrinally disagree with him "apostates".'

      False. Hays does not call 'Christians who doctrinally disagree' apostates; he calls *those who depart from the fundamental truths of Christian doctrine* appstates. These aren't fellow Christians who disagree on non-essential doctrine, or adiaphora; these are people who *apostatise* from the faith and from God's truth.

      A 'Christian' who 'doctrinally disagrees' with the deity and incarnation of Christ is *by definition* not a Christian. Hays is not treading new, controversial ground here. This is a well-established biblical category. That apostates and their atheist cheerleaders don't like the term says more about them.

    2. That's what I meant. I've never seen a definition of "Christian" that demands one believe the Trinity.

      As for the last bit, I'm certain people in general don't like being called pejorative words.

    3. 1. It's a simple deduction drawn from biblical categories. Christ and the apostles teach of His deity. They also warn against deviating from sound teaching and against false teachers and *specifically* antichrists who deny Jesus has come in the flesh. These antichrists stray from the truth and thus apostatise from the faith, demonstrating they were never truly of the faith (2 Tim. 4:3-4; 1 Jn. 2:18-22, 4:1-3; 2 Jn. 7-9).

      2. 'Apostate' is not a pejorative at all! It is not meant to be abusive or derogatory. It is simply a descriptive term for those who have departed from/deny the truth. What on earth are you talking about?