Thursday, September 17, 2009

What Works and Sentiment

A few years back, Taner Edis reviewed Michael Martin's Atheism, Morality, and Meaning, and came to some rather odd conclusions for an avowed non-believer:

For all its intellectual defects, religion does appear to help many of us cope with such [existential, meaning-of-life] worries. And it does so within the context of a religious life ... [which provides] the satisfactions of approaching the Perfect Good by cultivating a religious way of living, and the assurance that good will eventually prevail. Atheism denies this view of cosmic harmony, and it is no wonder religious people are inclined to ask whether the loss is too much to bear. [emphasis mine]
"Too much to bear" in what sense? Sadly, it seems to mean: too much to bear emotionally. The world will seem unbearably indifferent and unwelcoming without the delusions of god-belief.

For many people, this is undoubtedly so. It is nevertheless a fallacy of reasoning, the sentimental fallacy to be exact, and the identification of this fallacy is among the starting points of the atheistic view, not a rebuttal to it -- or certainly not a good one. Edis continues in this fashion, piling on the appeals to sentiment:
This is not to say that a more skeptical life does not have its own satisfactions. No doubt many atheists feel better off for their lack of faith. But again, those of us who do not feel troubled by the lack of a full-blown objectivity with regard to morals will also suspect that religious skepticism makes sense only within some ways of life, and that going without God will not work as a coping mechanism and an avenue to finding "meaning" in life for everyone. Some of us will go so far as to wonder if religiosity remains the most pragmatic, even rational, choice for many.
How's that? How rational and pragmatic is it, really, to ground one's emotional life in falsehoods? A little self-deception is arguably necessary to make it through life, but surely realism must enter in.

I think it's worthwhile to step back and observe that the human experience of sentiments is exactly what it is, nothing more and nothing less, in this god-free universe of ours. God does not exist, and yet people find life either unbearable or joyful; they either dread the future or eagerly anticipate it; they feel surrounded by love, awash in indifference, buried in hatred, or points between. These emotional states happen, and we have every reason to expect them to continue.

We demonstrably have never needed the crutch of god because that crutch has always been non-existent -- this is the consistently-atheistic position, for whatever good that particular "hobgoblin of little minds" may be.

Cultivating a realistic understanding of what has promoted happiness and banished sorrow in the past is the best way to continue doing so. We should pursue what truly works in advancing human happiness and flourishing, in much the same way that we stopped the prayers and rituals and started pesticides and fertilizers to ensure bountiful crops.

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