Friday, August 13, 2010

Apologia Italiana

I mentioned in a recent post that most of my cousins in Italy are generally on the far left of the political spectrum. Many of them also happen to be self proclaimed atheists (No necessary connection, by the way). Unfortunately, it seems to be quite common among Italians of my generation—the forty to fifty-somethings. When I mentioned to a friend back home that most believers in Italy are found among the older and the younger generations, he very adroitly pointed out that atheism has difficulty thriving for more than a generation or two. Life happens, and belief in God mysteriously revives by the next generation.

I recently had a wonderful opportunity to brush up on my rusty Italian and at the same time engage two of my Italian cousins (whom I will call “P” and “M”) on the subject of atheism vs. theism. It all started when cousin P. posted a link on Facebook with a quote from Margherita Hack, an Italian astrophysicist and popular science writer.

We atheists believe we should act according to conscience based on moral principle, and not because we expect some reward in paradise.

Predictably, a few more cousins chimed in their agreement by clicking the “Like” button. I couldn’t resist chiming in myself with a provocative question:

What moral principle is she talking about? "Survival of the fittest", perhaps?
Cousin M. was the first to reply: “I think in terms of respect for the weak.”

Me:  "Where did you get this idea of respect for the weak? If we are all here by pure accident and are nothing but biochemical matter which will one day die and turn to dung, then there is no logical basis or reason for respecting the weak. For that matter, there is no logical basis for any moral principle. The only principle that has any basis in logic is (perhaps) survival. Morality makes no sense."

Cousin M: "Oh well. I prefer to think in terms of not doing anything bad to anyone, and to try not to suffer any harm myself but I otherwise accept whatever life gives me, because I know I will eventually turn to crap and fertilize the ground."

Me:  "Not do anything bad? 'Bad' according to whom? In the realm of biochemistry, there is no such thing as good or evil.

At this point, cousin P’s brother chimed in and asked, “What have you unleashed?”

Cousin P. did not answer the humorously rhetorical question but he asked me: “You aren’t saying that God has a copyright on morality, are you?” At the same time, Cousin M also responded to me with the first of several red herrings designed to either divert or shut down the discussion: “I am really happy for your faith, but atheists also have a right to not believe. Have patience.”

Me:  "Of course, everyone has the right to believe or not believe, and who am I to deprive you of that sacred right? I am just having a friendly discussion and trying to follow the line of reasoning to its logical conclusion. But I should also ask, if you indeed insist on this right, where do rights come from? Just as is the case with morality, rights have no basis in the realm of biochemistry."

I also took the time to answer Cousin P’s query: “I don’t think there is a divine 'copyright' in the literal sense; after all, with so many centuries that have passed, by now it has expired and in the public domain! But I do believe that there is a moral sense imprinted on human nature, part of the Imago Dei. Even though it is corrupted, everyone has a conscience that informs them if something is right or wrong. Atheists might say that conscience is culturally derived and has evolved throughout history, but I repeat: There is no biochemical basis or explanation for morality.”

“At least Friedrich Nietzsche, the notorious atheist of the nineteenth century, had the intellectual honesty and courage to confront the true implications of atheism. Knowing full well that if there is no God there is no logical basis for morality, the only thing that remains is the Darwinian dynamic of 'survival of the fittest'. From that starting point, Nietzsche developed a philosophy which, unfortunately, became a precursor to Nazism. (If I am mistaken, please say so. I won’t pretend that I am some expert on Nietzsche and his philosophy, of which I know relatively little.) “

“By contrast, superficial atheists like Margherita Hack will insist that God does not exist and at the same time they appeal to a morality based on remnants of the Judeo-Christian ethic (that is, the parts of it that they like). But this ethic makes no sense if we are nothing but a cosmic accident.”

Cousin M. responded with several more red herrings and a veiled ad hominem attack, trying to get out of corner into which she had painted herself:
Unfortunately, I am not a philosopher and don’t know about any of them, not having studied the classics. I admire Dr. Margherita Hack because she is one of the greatest scientists we have. I don’t base my thinking just on reading the Bible because the translations are controversial and you Christians cannot even agree among yourselves. Here is the difference between believers and non believers. We atheists couldn’t care less what you believe but for you it is fundamentally a matter of proselytizing. I am not being critical but just trying to explain my thinking.
Me: Interesting thoughts, cousin. I hope you don’t find me obnoxious if I feel compelled to respond. (And I am also thinking of poor cousin P as I am crowding his wall with these discussions. But truth be told, he started it!) In any event, let me respond to the various questions and issues you raised;

1. "I admire Dr. Margherita Hack because she is one of the greatest scientists we have."

Perhaps so. To tell you the truth, I had never heard of her before, but that doesn’t mean much. I know there are a lot of atheist scientists like Hack, but there are also a lot of scientists who are at least deists if not theists. It was evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, also an atheist, who was honest enough to say, “Either half of my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs—and equally compatible with atheism.” The problem is that true science is limited to that which can be observed, measured or replicated; therefore, the God question cannot be resolved on solely scientific grounds. But it should also be said that Einstein, arguably the world’s best known scientist, was at minimum a deist, and he came to this conclusion quite reluctantly when he determined with his general theory of relativity that the universe is not eternal, but began some 14 billion years ago with the so called “big bang”, before which there was NOTHING: no matter, no space, no time. The idea sounds suspiciously similar to what theologians call creatio ex-nihilo: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” It was Einstein who said, “I want to know how God created this world. I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know his thoughts. The rest are details.” He was also quoted as saying: “In the view of such harmony in the cosmos which I, with my limited human mind, am able to recognize, there are yet people who say there is no God. But what makes me really angry is that they quote me for support for such views.”

2. “I don’t base my thinking just on reading the Bible because the translations are controversial and you Christians cannot even agree among yourselves.” In the art of debate, this is what is known as a red herring, a rhetorical device designed to distract and change the subject. I am not talking about the Bible or Christianity at this precise moment. The discussion was about whether or not there is a logical basis for morality or conscience if the world is indeed nothing but physical matter, if indeed we humans are nothing but biochemical material, part of a giant cosmic accident. If you can explain to me from where this morality otherwise derives, then we can talk.

3. “Here is the difference between believers and non believers. We atheists couldn’t care less what you believe but for you it is fundamentally a matter of proselytizing“. I will take your word for it, cousin, even if I cannot think of a single time we have talked about “religion” when it wasn’t you who brought up the subject. Not necessarily talking about you, but I can tell you from my navigating the blogosphere that I find atheists all over the place who feel a great need to preach their “gospel” of atheism, and I wonder why. If they are truly correct and we are nothing but a cosmic accident that will eventually die and turn into manure, then why this quasi-religious fervor with which they attack the religious faiths? VIVE LA DIFFERENCE! Right? I am almost convinced that certain atheists feel a compelling need to not only convince others but to also convince themselves, perhaps because they fear they are mistaken. Sorry, cousin, if I am sounding polemic. I just wanted to clearly explain my thinking.

Cousin M's only response was flippant:  "We atheists dish it out and you believers have to take it.  Ha ha!"
I am still awaiting a substantive response.

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