There’s nothing quite like a set of loaded questions from a believer to illuminate what being an atheist really means. For all the increased and increasing visibility that celebrity nonbelievers like Daniel Radcliffe and Jodi Foster are getting us, and for all that atheist thinkers like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett have rendered an exemplary case for non-belief as a philosophical position, we continue to suffer from a litany of stereotypes. (Often, our most visible proponents do little to disprove them…)
And no set of questions is likely to be more loaded than the set that BornAgain_Believer (sigh) posted on MyNews24, reproduced here:
1. Where do you come from?
2. What is your purpose on earth?
3. Does life have a meaning?
4. What is just and fair for you?
5. God forbids, if your child is murdered and the person is never caught and brought to justice, how would you handle it, seeing that life has no meaning and we are just here on earht [sic] to live and die. Where would you get justice from?
6. An intelligent, thinking child brought up by atheist parents becomes a Christian how do you respond? Oh and becomes preacher and starts a new church, would you say your child has a problem?
7. What about all the injustice in the world that goes by unreported, where must everyone else get justice from?
8. How do you answer your own child that is searching for meaning and purpose in life?
9. Why does research, discovery, diplomacy, art, music, sacrifice, compassion, feelings of love, or affectionate and caring relationships mean anything if it all ultimately comes to naught anyway?
10. Is death the end of life?
I’d like to give this questioner the benefit of the doubt and assume that they’re asking purely from a position of ignorance. But when it comes to the privileged and often oppressive end of an unequal societal dynamic, that’s not a warranted assumption. This fellow’s username says it all. The Digital Cuttlefish and Nate Hevenstone (if you’re not reading him yet, start) have already taken this on, so I’ll add my two cents.
1. I came here from Miami. Before that, I was in New Jersey. My cultural inheritance is Enlightenment-based democracy, General Tao’s Chicken, the Cold War, cheeseburgers, salsa dancing, reciting the unconstitutional version of the Pledge of Allegiance daily for years, buying tamales from a cart next to the grocery, spaghetti with kielbasa, and the rest of the great American melting pot. (Seriously, Polish sausage in Italian food? Stark raving genius and classic US Northeast.) My heritage lies in Cuba and Puerto Rico and, through the steps of history, Spain, the Roman Empire, and ancient Greece. Follow them back far enough, and the line of my ancestry passes through one of the various migrations out of East Africa, where Homo sapiens evolved from an earlier species of hominid. In the fullness of billions, we go back to an explosive mix of chemical reactions that created self-replicating molecules out of an organic soup. Those molecules encased themselves in various levels of structural complexity and became the riotous effusion of living things that fills our world. Such is our origin.
2. Purpose is what we make it. We were not “put here” by some outside agency to fulfill its goals. We simply exist, and do with that incontrovertible fact what we can and what we will. We find our own meaning and our own fulfillment.
3. See above.
4. Well, justice and fairness. Those basic notions are built into our instinctive mental frameworks, shared to various degrees with other primates and even with other social animals. They form the core of any ethical framework worthy of the name, and lead to far greater human flourishing than mere submission to authority, submission to imaginary authority, or the various other systems humankind has passed off as “ethics.”
5. I wouldn’t have to “handle it seeing as life has no meaning,” because that’s not true. (See above.) The loss of a child is a tragedy, and the grief would rock me to my core. That pain would not be mitigated by years of rehashing and reliving the crime before a gawking audience, and it would not be quenched by seeing even the most monstrous killer put behind bars for it. That pain would be mine, and my family’s, to carry with us forever. For we know that this loss is permanent, and that the only eternity our slain child will ever attain is through our memories, and through the mark that child made on the world during hir too-short life. That mark would be on us, and it would be our cursed honor to carry it forward, and to experience pangs of sad, sad recollection when we walk past hir friend’s house or hear hir favorite music from a passing car. I sometimes imagine that I might execute a daring feat of vigilante justice to bring hir killer down, akin to Taken or The Next Three Days. But justice is not a property of our world—it is a notion we carry with us, part of how our minds work. The world is not obligated to do right by us, so we must strive to do right by each other. Sometimes, that means letting someone get away with murder, so that our jails are not glutted with people wrongfully accused and then convicted on flimsy evidence. Our justice system is all we have—so we must make it the best it can be, and far, FAR better than it currently is.
6. If my thinking, intelligent child became a Christian, and this conversion were more enduring than my brief flirtation with Randian philosophy, I would be intensely disappointed. I like to imagine that I would be a competent enough parent and teacher to prevent any offspring of mine from being enthralled with such transparent falsehoods for very long. It would be hard for me not to regard such an event as a personal failure. Still, xe will have religious family members who plan to poison my efforts to give my offspring a good foundation of critical thinking and respect for the concept of truth, so such an idea isn’t beyond the pale. More importantly, xe would still be my child and I would still be hir father, and they would retain my love and respect. Ideas do not have feelings, people do, and I would act accordingly. My child becoming a cult leader would be a stabbing repudiation of everything I have ever stood for—but it would not make my child any less mine, and I would be a monster to think so.
7. It’s up to usto make sure that the victims of this world’s vicissitudes get justice. The world does not provide it by itself.
8. The wonders of this world, from its supernovas and diamond stars to the whirling infinity of dinoflagellates and zoea, from the furthest ocean depths to the boundless frontiers of the imagination, shall be wonder enough. Wonder will, as ever, prevent the strawman nihilism that the religious constantly accuse atheists of promulgating, and freedom will leave my child the space to find their own path through this world. Xe will exist, a fact as intrinsically “meaningless” as it is liberating. Xe will exist in a world with a family that would give anything to see hir well, and which will endeavor to give them every chance to discover the highs and apprehend the lows of this chaotic, complex, endlessly fascinating world of possibility.
9. Even having to ask that betrays a disturbing inability to see “research, discovery, diplomacy, art, music, sacrifice, compassion, feelings of love, or affectionate and caring relationships” for the amazing, magnificent, life-affirming, world-altering fonts of meaning that they are. In what way do they “come to naught”? All of these things are the defining means by which humans improve our collective lot and contribute to the continued flourishing of our species. All of these are the places where people find the joy and satisfaction and promise and truth that allow someone to look back on their prior days and pronounce that that was a life well lived. Is it any more “for naught” to imagine that we were all toiling for the “glory” of an omnipotent being that couldn’t be arsed to achieve any of those things with its own supposedly boundless power?
10. Death is the end of life by definition. We persist after the loss of our brain functions as the memories of those who knew us and the ways in which the world is different for our having lived. Our immediate existence is temporary, but by leaving the world better than we found it, we attain a sublime immortality.
You think BornAgain_Believer will figure out how far beyond hir insulting strawmen the atheist worldview extends?
I’m not holding my breath.
But my parents might learn a thing or two.