Thursday, November 29, 2012

ethics vs. atheism brought to you by the letter K

I'm proceeding leisurely through The Brothers Karamazov for the first time. (Whenever I speak the title I say "The Brothers K" so I can giggle at others' pronunciations of the full name.) The book so far contains lengthy conversations—often more like sequential lectures—about ethics, human nature, and religion. Although I haven't finished it, I feel compelled to respond to some of its ideas. By "its ideas", I'm referring to my interpretations of characters' statements in the book. I'm unsure what the author believed.
  • Atheism leads to egoism, overindulgence, and despair. Uh...no. This misconception is similar to the silly assertion that all atheists instinctively "know" about god(s) but they deliberately deny their "knowledge" in order to eliminate guilt for unethical actions. It's true that atheists don't accept the ethical authority of sundry religious hierarchies and dictates. Regardless, they're still trained by human culture to be ethical, and they certainly can experience the same moral feelings. Faith-beliefs aren't the only possible basis for rejecting distasteful and/or unproductive behavior patterns such as egoism and overindulgence. (In philosophical terms, one of the startling contradictions of American politics is the proud religiosity of so many self-labeled Randians...do they obey the master who preaches self-sacrifice or the master who preaches self-exaltation?) As for despair, an obvious question arises: why shall an atheist suffer from it? Surely the absence of needy/demanding gods has substantial upsides. The manifest absence of any afterlife is perhaps the most justifiable rationale for despair, yet I assume that atheists in good mental health usually replace it with acquiescence. I believe that humans are capable of rigorous pragmatism in their thoughts, and acquiescence is the pragmatic reaction to unchangeable realities. Finally, it's worth remembering that this is a comparison between the emotional and ethical effects of atheism or theism, and theism often fails in practice to eliminate despair, egoism, and overindulgence.
  • Humane religion approves of freedom. And so do I! Humans thirst for the power to think and choose for themselves, rather than obey mindlessly. When humans are coerced, their actions of good and evil are mostly pitiful and dehumanizing for the individual, apart from any resulting benefits or injuries to the surrounding society. Then the perennial debate question is which influences on a decision qualify as "coercion". I suppose the pragmatic distinction is whether the decision-maker self-identifies with a specific influence. For example, someone who self-identifies closely with a group may condemn one of the group's collective actions and nevertheless characterize their participation in it as "merely part of who I choose to be: a member of this group". Or someone with an addiction may experience a craving that fills every thought and nevertheless use the metaphor of a separate "monkey on my back". On this topic, I again disagree with the book's analysis of the effects of atheism. It correctly mentions that atheistic decision-makers have lots of freedom, but it also declares hastily that atheistic freedom is horrible. Without religion to cage them, atheists go berserk! For a religious follower, freedom is an essential part of their authentic humanity, but for an atheist, freedom is the signal to always make the worst self-centered decisions. This prejudicial double-standard exposes the actual intent of the book's concept of religious freedom, which is believers who absorb the religion and subsequently "freely choose" exactly what it directs. To an outsider, this goal bears an alarming resemblance to reeducation in 1984; in either case the ideal subject must both comply and eagerly choose to comply. To the contrary, since atheists are (at least a little) less likely to fall back on behavioral programming to make difficult decisions, atheism is more consistent with conscious agonizing freedom.
  • Sometimes it can be ethical to act as if something false were true. I'm being vague on purpose. This is the general method for applying many of the book's snippets of ethical advice, because the snippets are embedded in phantasmal albeit fascinating conjectures about spiritual realities. Is every object on planet Earth connected together into one grand whole through invisible spiritual threads? Is every human responsible for every other human? Is a human life one long test of the willingness to love completely? Uh...no. However, for pragmatic ethics, I wonder if poetic/metaphorical language style could be more useful than not. I admit that it's more superficially appealing than stating the bare principles. Moreover, I don't see helpful metaphors as dangers to understanding materialistic naturalism...on the condition that the audience is fully aware that the metaphors are literally false. And the wackier the metaphor, the more it surpasses that easy condition. Theism isn't necessary for pretending to talk as if we are all as closely related as "brothers". 

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