Atheism: Instrumental versus Intrinsic

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I have taken a number of shots at religion, and specifically Christianity over the years, partly because I think there is often an underlying agenda, but mostly because a lot of it seems off-base to some degree: flawed or maybe false, or maybe just incomplete – man’s attempt to make sense out of something we don’t, or can’t, understand – it’s hard to say. But to say I believe nothing is going on is too extreme. Remember, perception is the only reality we have.

Let’s face it – most atheists, theists, agnostics act as though the truth is a good thing. As if it’s intrinsically good (not just instrumentally good). Most people feel morally obligated to spread what is true. However, on atheism (or naturalism), truth only has instrumental value; for one to believe that truth exists intrinsically somewhere out there would make one a Platonist, which would be a position held on faith. (Can you prove that truth exists intrinsically?) I’ve spoken with atheists, and their first reaction has often been that they did not want to believe truth is instrumental only to the person on atheism. After I explained this to them, they usually agreed that truth only has instrumental value (since evolution is about ‘the survival of the fittest’, which would only place instrumental value on things, and intrinsic value would not line up with evolution; and they did not want to hold anything ‘on faith’). The paradox is that nearly all atheists, act as though truth is intrinsically good.

Where do agnostics fall? If you don’t know if God exists, then you would be agnostic that truth is intrinsically or instrumentally good, though you may act as though truth is intrinsically good. Now you have the knowledge that on atheism (naturalism), nothing has intrinsic value, and now you know that truth would only be instrumental to each individual person (how persuasive can someone be trying to persuade others of the truth with that kind of position?), and under atheism (or naturalism), no one is morally obligated to spread the truth.

 

Three Paradoxes of Atheism

Historically, one of the most attractive features of atheism has been its claim to stark realism. No matter how unappealing a godless universe may turn out to be, atheists claim to be committed to adhering to the truth at all costs. However, at the very heart of atheism there are several extremely unexpected paradoxes; areas in which atheism is shown to be in tension with a commitment to realism and a life consistent with truth. The three big ones are: truth-seeking, moral reflection, and moral motivation. Hard to apply any kind of “morality” to atheism, but in this context you will see that it makes sense. Comparisons are drawn against Christianity because it provides a tangible contrast, but they work reasonably well for most religions.

1. Truth-seeking

One of the most interesting paradoxes inherent to atheism involves the intrinsic value of truth-seeking. All of us seem naturally inclined as human beings to seek the truth for its own sake (intrinsic), not merely for what benefits the truth can provide (instrumental). For instance, if someone told us, “Believe this religion not because it is true, but because it will improve your marriage and help your career,” most of us would be unimpressed to say the least. But herein lies the first problem: it is very hard for atheists to explain why seeking the truth is intrinsically good or why we are obligated to seek it.

Most atheistic theories of morality appeal to human flourishing as the ultimate good. On this view, what is good is whatever leads to human flourishing. And while that definition does solve some problems, it leads to the very difficult conclusion that truth and truth-seeking are not ultimate goods. Indeed, if seeking the truth on any given subject would diminish human flourishing, then seeking that truth would be evil; we would be morally obligated to avoid or suppress knowledge of that truth. A simple example is an elderly Christian woman on her deathbed who faces death joyfully because she believes she is going to be with God and her dead loved ones. Assuming for the sake of argument that atheism is true, is it good for her to seek to know the truth of atheism? It would seem that the answer is no. Learning that atheism is true would only make her miserable without providing tangible good (i.e. flourishing) to anyone else. Moreover, it seems that if she were to accost a passing atheist with the question,”Is atheism true after all?”, that atheist would be morally obligated either to lie to her or at least to steer her away from the truth of atheism, lest he lead her into misery.

Examples can be easily multiplied, but the essence of the problem is that it would be impossible for an atheist to claim that truth-seeking is an intrinsic good or a moral obligation. A Christian can affirm that truth is good and morally obligatory because God loves the truth and commands us to seek it (though there are numerous exceptions and paradoxes within). But if an atheist were to urge one to throw off religious delusions and embrace the truth of atheism, one could respond, “Why? I am happy as a Christian and Christianity has made me into a more loving, compassionate, and generous person. If Christianity is true, then I understand why I am obligated to seek the truth. But if atheism is true, why am I obligated to find out?”

2. Moral reflection

A trickier paradox has to do with deliberate, sustained moral reflection on injustice and evil in the world. All of us recognize that the world is suffused with human misery. But many of us give relatively little thought to suffering until it forces itself into our consciousness. Why is this? I hope it is more than just a lack of compassion. Self-protection? On some level we may fear that if our hearts were truly moved by every hurt, every loss, and every tragedy that we witnessed, they would break. Although we all recognize that empathy is one of the greatest moral virtues, we recoil at any level of empathy that threatens our own happiness and emotional stability. That is one reason why we vacation in luxury resorts well away from the slums, prefer romantic comedies to documentaries, or inure ourselves to violence until we can shrug off images of the maimed and weeping on television.

The paradox of atheism is that the atheist, while usually committed to living a life consistent with reality, struggles to bear reality as he believes it actually is. If all of the suffering and horror of this world is truly random and pointless, if there will be no redemption, no justice, no healing, and no restoration, then it is emotionally almost impossible to truly stare reality in the face on a daily basis. One possible outcome is to live a life of hopeless, existential despair. But it is far more likely that we will simply build a thick, protective wall of fantasy around us, constructed of hobbies, games, sports, fashion, or romance as a barrier against truths we would rather not face. The atheist will sometimes assert that he lives in that reality and accepts it, but I believe that’s only an academic and dismissive acceptance. It’s not true, deliberate and sustained moral reflection that presumably should accompany a decision about which set of beliefs one buys into.

I am not implying that avoidance of the hard realities of suffering and evil are characteristic only of atheists. Christians face precisely the same temptations. The difference is that Christianity offers resources to face the worst parts of reality with assured hope (discounting that it can manifest as a moral-feeling means to ignore them). Yes, it could be a fantasy, and a way to conveniently avoid things, but if Christianity is true, then even the most devastating horrors of this existence will be redeemed, which, I must be fair to point out, doesn’t justify or explain why some of them were necessary in the first place (one of Christianity’s nasty paradoxes). In fact, Christianity claims that the greatest tragedy ever to occur in human history -the torture and murder of God’s Son- was the very means which God used to save the world. Since I’ve made my take on this clear before, I will not venture down that rabbit hole today.

The point is that while the atheist can instrumentally preserve his emotional stability by either hiding from reality as he believes it actually is or by hardening himself to it, the Christian can gain emotional stability, empathy and hope as he exposes himself to and embraces reality as he believes it actually is. Indeed, Christian spiritual disciplines such as prayer and Bible study can be seen in this light: reminding themselves of reality as they see it and then seeking to conform their thoughts and behavior to it.

3. Moral motivation

Another paradox has to do with moral motivation: what are the effects of atheistic belief on our desire to behave morally? Most atheists adamantly affirm that they do not need God to do good. In this I agree: we do not need to believe that God exists in order to recognize that love, justice, and compassion are good or to behave morally. These values can be important to virtually anyone. So here, I am not asking whether atheists can do good. Rather, I am focusing only on the impact that atheism has on one’s moral motivation.

If atheism is true, then the universe is one without ultimate moral meaning, significance, and accountability. When you die, your body rots. When everyone you love dies, they rot. Two hundred years hence, no one – not even your own descendants – will remember you. And a few hundred trillion years from now, when the universe undergoes heat death and all the stars burn out, none of your choices will have made even the slightest difference.

Let us imagine that we spent one hour each day reminding ourselves of this reality. Now let’s imagine we face a moral choice. The opportunity to cheat on a test. The chance to make a little extra money in a slightly dishonest way, or worse. Or, given the last section, let’s imagine making major life decisions. Which career to choose: one that is lucrative or satisfying, or one that will benefit others at our own expense? Which house to buy: one that is large and expensive, or a modest one that would allow us to give generously? If we have spent the previous month reminding ourselves that our choices have no eternal moral consequences, are we more or less likely to resist our temptations? Are we more or less likely to make what society and our programming have deemed the morally right choice?

Let me again emphasize that I am not asking whether the atheist can still value morality or engage in moral behavior. I am taking atheists at their word when they insist that these things are important to them. I am instead asking a purely psychological question: would reflection on the ultimate meaninglessness, transience, and unimportance of your moral actions in a godless universe make you more likely to resist what you believe to be temptation? I think the answer is no, unless perhaps your stance is so pure that you don’t even believe in the concept of temptation, which is not what atheists profess. Hence we have a third paradox. To the atheist who really does value moral behavior, it seems he is obligated to avoid thinking about the implications of his atheism, lest it weaken his moral resolve. The atheist gains moral motivation only by hiding from reality as he actually believes it is. In contrast, the Christian worldview emphasizes that every one of our moral decisions have eternal implications, that every one of our actions can bring joy or grief to the creator, and that we will one day be held accountable for our lives. So the Christian gains moral motivation by reflecting on reality as he believes it actually is.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I’ll summarize the three paradoxes into a more bite-sized form.

  1. Truth-seeking. If a truth-loving God doesn’t exist, then truth-seeking is neither intrinsically good nor morally obligatory. Therefore, paradoxically, the Christian has grounds to urge all people to seek the truth and to claim it is their moral obligation to seek the truth whereas the atheist has no grounds to urge others to seek the truth or to claim it is their moral obligation to do so.
  2. Moral reflection. Suffering and evil in the world is so prolific and horrendous that we instinctively avoid thinking about it to preserve our happiness. If Christianity is true, then all suffering and evil will one day be destroyed and healed. If atheism is true, suffering and evil are pointless and will never be rectified. So, paradoxically, a Christian gains the emotional resources to reflect honestly on suffering by reflecting on reality as he perceives it, while an atheist gains the emotional resources to reflect honestly on suffering only by ignoring reality as he perceives it.
  3. Moral motivation. If Christianity is true, then all of our moral choices have tremendous, eternal significance. If atheism is true, then none of our moral choices have any eternal significance. So, paradoxically, the Christian gains the motivation to act morally by reflecting on reality as he perceives it, while the atheist gains the motivation to act morally by ignoring reality as he perceives it.

None of these observations imply that atheism is false or that Christianity is true. But I hope that they do cause some serious reflection. At least in these three areas, there is a conflict between the general perception that atheists live a life of realism, facing the truth about reality squarely, and the philosophical and psychological reality of atheism itself. In contrast, Christianity not only provides a basis for the idea that truth is of intrinsic value (though possibly unattainable), but provides resources to enable the Christian to conform his beliefs and behavior to that version of truth. I suggest that those who value truth-seeking and realism should consider whether atheism can justify or support either of these ideals, while I also recognize that the truth of the Christian’s perception may in practice only be of instrumental value.

Though it does take more rigorous work to call out the fallacies of atheism (as opposed to Christianity being a relatively easy target), both concepts are riddled with problems and don’t/can’t hold up well to scrutiny. Unfortunately (if you’re with me so far), that leaves a vast middle ground. The unknown, and unknowable. What to do about that, I am not sure. Beyond some value in always questioning, being immobilized isn’t much better. Most of the same human fallacies and tranquilizing artifacts plague this ground as well.

We’re all in this together. What it is, we do not know.

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3 Responses to “Atheism: Instrumental versus Intrinsic”


  1. 1 Vivian S McAdams November 8, 2016 at 8:51 am

    Your picture says a lot. It is beyond difficult to separate Christianity from “the church” which has, for centuries, defined that religion. I believe that is true to some degree for every religion. Perhaps it is an example of the old saying of throwing out the baby with the bath water. We reject the positive aspects of religion because of actual or perceived actions by the established or vocal voices of religious institutions.

    Just reading the Bible or Koran or other religious writings does not do away with centuries of manipulation by the church, mosque, temple, etc which has caused many to reject religion.

    One ends up back at the core of many of your musings. What is truth? How do I as a human conduct my life and my relationships? What are my influences? People of a certain age (mine) most certainty had at least minimal religious influence. This influence is less with each generation as people move away from established churches. Does this ultimately impact morality?

    Unanswerable.


  1. 1 Is Truth Relative? | Just a job to do Trackback on November 24, 2016 at 10:45 am
  2. 2 Out of Time | Just a job to do Trackback on April 2, 2017 at 1:08 pm

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