Sunday, May 30, 2010

Facepalm: Theism and Nihilism

Religious blathering about atheism--especially the "New Atheism"--is only good for generating facepalms. Father Edward T. Oakes thinks he's got the mean ol' atheists all figured out by quoting...

wait for it...

Friedrich Nietzsche:
In his book On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense, Nietzsche gives us this ultimate atheist scenario: “In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the highest and most mendacious minute of 'world history'—yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die.” He continued:
One might invent such a fable and still not have illustrated sufficiently how wretched, how shadowy and flighty, how aimless and arbitrary, the human intellect appears in nature. There have been eternities when it did not exist; and when it is done for again, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no further mission that would lead beyond human life. . . . There is nothing in nature so despicable or insignificant that it cannot immediately be blown up like a bag by a slight breath of this power of knowledge; and just as every porter wants an admirer, the proudest human being, the philosopher, thinks that he sees the eyes of the universe telescopically focused from all sides on his actions and thoughts.
This atheist scenario undermines science itself. If the “knowledge” delivered up by “science” only serves to puff up a pathetic animal doomed to die in an uncaring universe, why bother with science anyway? If the search for knowledge is nothing more than a vain attempt to puff oneself up like some miles gloriosus in a Falstaffian comedy, what’s the point?
I posted the following comment as a response:
This seems a bit like asking why one would use a rhetorical question. We do science because we're curious. We search for knowledge because we can.

Nihilism is theism's child, not atheism's.
What makes Oakes's rant facepalm-worthy is the grandiose claim that Nietzsche's text, here cast as The Atheist Scenario™, undermines science. Wait...undermines? No, not at all.

Oakes is just flatly wrong. He uses dead and irrelevant Nietzsche as an atheist straw man so that he can make an objectionable appeal to consequences. Even if science were merely a vain (in both senses of egotistical and trivial) enterprise of a doomed humanity, it would still be worth pursuing.

I don't doubt that there's some vanity involved in the scientific enterprise, as in all human enterprise. But who says we're doomed? Yes, the universe is uncaring, but people seem to have the capacity to care. So do other animals. People seem to be able to make judgments and to establish values. Within our own little world we seem to be able to have a great impact, for better or worse.

There's a common prayer that goes:
Grant me the serenity;
To accept the things I cannot change;
The courage, to change the things I can;
And the wisdom, to know the difference.
We certainly can make a difference here and now. This is not a matter of free will or control or inspiration; this is a matter of fact. The fact is that we are here. The fact is that our actions have material effects in the world. The fact is that these effects are consequential. Atheism helps us to understand and deal with the facts as facts.

Only theism sees Atheism as nihilism. Only theism fears the night. Only theism hates the question. Only theism seeks to enslave the fact.

And one important fact is that God is the product of science. God (like all gods) became established to explain natural phenomena and to authorize the religious power structure. Oakes, however, turns this around and tries to make the ridiculous claim that "If God is 'our most enduring lie,' science is inevitably founded on that same lie." No, science is not founded on God at all and has absolutely no dependence on God.

Are not the fear-mongering and irrelevance of theism becoming ever more obvious? A facepalm no longer does justice to their inanity.


  1. I recently defended the whole atheism equals nihilism nonsense too.

    It seems there is a willingness to overlook the definition of nihilism and conflate atheism with it because from the theist point of view they possibly couldn't see how it could possibly be otherwise.

    I call this an unwillingness to engage the material and learn the difference, quote mining doesn't help, along with the added propensity of semantic manipulation to change meanings of words which are unrelated to thereby allow one to conflate their meanings more easily. Presto! It's magic.

    Sometimes I wonder if theists are even reading what they write, because much of the time it's so painfully obvious that they're speaking about two entirely different issues that I get a headache trying to figure out how they put them together in the first place.

  2. Tristan,

    Thanks for the link. That's a nice essay explaining the differences between atheism and natuarlism.

    What galls me most is that folks like Father Oakes should know and respect the differences. I think he could have made a case for some overlap between atheism and nihilism--an ultimately doomed case, but a case nonetheless. Instead, he just blithely conflated the two, and it's a short step from there to the atheists-as-mass-murderers trope.

    I think your term "unwillingness" might not be strong enough. Folks like Father Oakes are fighting for their livelihood. They are fighting to keep their "phoney baloney jobs," by which I think I'm alluding to the movie Blazing Saddles.

    The Father Oakes crowd reminds me of a very large Government Contractor. In many projects, these contractors provide no real value and ONLY function to have the people/company doing the actual work generate reports and updates. In this case, the large contractr justifies its existence by making the lives of the subcontractor miserable through administrative burders.

  3. " The fact is that we are here. The fact is that our actions have material effects in the world. The fact is that these effects are consequential. Atheism helps us to understand and deal with the facts as facts."

    So explain, what says scienceI´m living for?

  4. "So explain, what says scienceI´m living for?"

    No, I won't explain. Atheism is not science, and science is not atheism. Go ask a scientist. Better yet, think for yourself what you are living for.

  5. "No, I won't explain. Atheism is not science, and science is not atheism. Go ask a scientist. Better yet, think for yourself what you are living for"

    So, you speak about Facts, Facts and Facts that science has and are not able to show one.
    You cannot answer the oldest question of the human history and still wasting your time telling so stories that worth nothing.

  6. Blas,

    As usual I don't understand how you draw the interpretation you do from what I wrote.

    What is "the oldest question of the human history"?

    By what standard do you judge that my "stories" are "worth nothing"?

  7. I really chafe when people - and not just theists - start "interpreting" Nietzsche. It's like a 5 year-old child playing with his daddy's gun.

    Nietzsche decried the nihilist philosophy, and even identified both Christianity and Buddhism (and Schopenhauerism - if I may coin a term) as nihilistic philosophies.

    Nietzsche doesn't deny the arguments of the active nihilist, though. He is very much aware of the inevitability of death and the ultimate meaninglessness of life. But he sees also that a worthwhile life is possible in the face of such facts, provided that one can become so well-disposed to life that one smiles at the notion of “eternal recurrence.”

    And his whole concept of the Übermensch was precisely to argue that life IS worth living.

  8. Juno,

    The name/word "Nietzsche" has, unfortunately, become a brand (cf. Tennyson's Ulysses crying, "I am become a name"). The brand instantly calls of a vague notion of modern desperation and depression. It's virtually an automatic turn-off to traditional American sensibilities.

    It's similar to calling someone a socialist in current political discourse. Once you call them that, they're automatically bad. It doesn't matter that no one pauses to understand what socialism might actually be, what its history is, and how that history influences us today. It's just bad.

    Boo, socialists. Boo, Nietzsche!


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