Sense and Goodness Without God
Presented by Richard Carrier, Author of Sense and Goodness Without God, Columbia University
Presented on Wednesday, January 24, 2007 in Grand Rapids, MI.
Is there good and evil? Should we care? If God does not exist, then what does? How do we know what is true anyway? Can we make any sense of this universe, or our own lives? Does religion provide better reasons for living a moral life than no religion? Mr. Carrier will discuss these and other topics from the standpoint of a Secular Humanist.
About the Speaker
Author of Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism and contributing author to The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave. Richard has also appeared in the movie The God Who Wasn’t There, is a contributing editor for the Secular Web (www.secweb.org), and is pursuing a PhD in ancient history from Columbia University.
About the Event
Summary, commentary and partial upcoming events calendar for the Freethought Association meeting # 222, held January 24, 2007 at the Women’s City Club in Grand Rapids, MI.
We have roughly 100 events, meetings and occasions for this year! For a more complete and up to the date calendar listing for our organization, please visit our website: http://www.cfimichigan.org. Also, if you sign up (on the website or on paper at our regular meetings) you may partake in our eNews service where upcoming happenings of interest to the FA are sent directly to your e-mail inbox. For general queries or further information not addressed satisfactorily on our website, inquire to: .
Don’t miss the Three Beer Discussion on January 26 at 8PM. This is a new, casual philosophy discussion group that will meet initially at the Seaver Farm (10721 52nd Ave., Allendale). BYOB and a snack to share. For additional information, contact Jeff or Cathy at 616-892-9300 or e-mail to or .
Freethought Association on Campus will be held at the Grand Valley State University Kirkoff Center, Rm. #005 on the Allendale campus, on January 29 at 8PM. For more information contact Steve Iveson: or check the website: http://www.cfimichigan.org/oncampus. The next two Freethought Association on Campus meetings (same location, time, and contact information) will be on Feb. 5 and February 12.
The next Freethought Movie Night is February 7; 7PM at Jason’s house, 740 Lockwood Street, NE in the heart of the Freethought Commune. The featured film will be: An Inconvenient Truth (the Al Gore movie regarding global warming). BYOB and a snack to share. Please RSVP (or for details and/or directions) to or call 616-634-2471.
The next regular Freethought Association meeting at the Women’s City Club (254 E. Fulton Street, lower level; 7PM) will be on the topic: Mate Choice & Sex: Getting into Someone’s Genes, and will be presented by Dr. Gregory Forbes, Professor of Biological Sciences at GRCC, Director of its Science Education Center and Educational Director for the Michigan Evolution Education Initiative and Evolution Education Institute. Dr. Forbes is also a Board member of the Skeptics Society and Advisory Board member of the Freethought Association and the 2006 Freethinker of the Year Award recipient. The meeting date is, appropriately enough, February 14 (Valentine’s Day).
We are accepting applications/resume’s for the new paid part time position of Assistant Director for the Freethought Association. Check our website or write to for details, requirements and procedure.
Today’s Topic was: Sense and Goodness Without God, presented by Richard Carrier, author of the book Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism and contributing author to The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave. Carrier has also appeared in the movie: The God Who Wasn’t There, has served as Editor in Chief of the Secular Web (http://www.secweb.org) and is pursuing a PhD in ancient history from Columbia University. He has appeared on the national television program, Faith Under Fire, and debated issues relating to religion, ethics and the philosophy of secular humanism before large audiences at UCLA and in Michigan and has published articles for the Skeptical Inquirer.
Earlier this day he gave a presentation called A Colloquium with Richard Carrier- Sense and Goodness Without God, to the Grand Valley State University’s freethought- on campus group, in which some 50 students attended. His presentation dealt with questions such as: Is there good and evil? Should we care? If God does not exist, then what does? How do we know what is true anyway? Can we make any sense of this universe or our own lives? Does religion provide better reasons for living a moral life than no religion? He addressed these from a secular humanistic standpoint. Richard’s presentation to our group was to a packed house as he examined many of these same questions and others and explored with us film portrayals of life where big questions are raised in a cinematic and creative manner.
The stereotypical portrayal of the person who rejects god concepts and religious dogma is often one that includes saddling the freethinker with some personal angst against religion or rebellious anger toward his/her religious upbringing. It is difficult for one immersed in one’s religious indoctrination to conceive of people calmly exploring and THINKING their way out of the narrow and primitive strictures of the religious belief system they are surrounded by, or considering that their upbringing in a home with religious faith was not something that the individual ran wildly away from. Many (if not most) people who become non-believers begin a slow and steady reflective journey into the nature of things whereby religious notions simply lose their power and meaningfulness while new thoughts replace them; the fruits of this new intellectual journey being more grand, wondrous and edifying in scope and explanatory power.
Such was the case with this writer and such was the case our speaker, Richard Carrier. Carrier grew up unscathed from his religious upbringing in a nice community where, as he expressed it: The religion sold at this local business [his First United Methodist Church; the type I was acquainted with as a child as well] was of a very liberal brand of Christianity. End quote. The Bible was treated as a handy collection of tales for the teaching of moral lessons. It was not regarded as a history book or used to instill fear, and Jesus was regarded mostly as a moral teacher. But the Bible is the most useful when held as an ideal rather than actually critically examined (or even read) and Jesus retains his power as a guide for virtue and righteousness when he is molded and shaped by prevailing beliefs, rather than looked at for what the New Testament actually tells us about his words and deeds. Being possessed of a highly inquisitive mind (the necessary precursor for the freethinker), he read encyclopedias at a tender age and was considered a bit peculiar for doing so, while his reading of the Bible was met with smiling acceptance. He found this strange since, as he noted in his book, the former were vastly more educational. Regarding the New Testament, he shared in his book’s introduction, that it had given him no useful information about the meaning of life or the nature of the universe. Later he learned that those who extracted such things did so by importing ideas from without; ideas which were not to be found in the pages of the Bible itself.
Not only were the morals derived from outside the teachings in the Bible, but those that were actually covered in the Bible were generally not utilized in life, so odious and unacceptable to modern society were they. This collection of ancient writings was heralded as the Good News but was chock full of horror show tales of torture and intolerance while providing no clear explanations regarding just what the good news was supposed to be. He had been instructed that he must take his own responsibility for his actions and seek forgiveness from any person he had wronged, yet was told at the same time that Jesus had been the surrogate victim of all sins for all time- he had paid the consequence for us. And, as it was for me, the tales of the afterlife- ones meant to convey that one must not despair of what occurs in this life- seemed to him childish, even while he was yet a child himself. He wrote: The Bible was confused, illogical, often unintelligible, but always irrelevant to the social and political reality in which [he] lived. Where was any explanation and defense of democratic values? Where was gender equality? What was wisdom? What was virtue? How come all my encyclopedias were full of the beautiful, wonderful things of the universe, yet not a single peep about them from the Son of God Himself? End quote. The Bible also did not satisfy his hunger for evidence or his nascent philosopher’s desire for logical argument—only vague assertions were given in its pages. This surely could not be the pinnacle of thought on moral issues and the last word on the workings of the world and universe.
Then he discovered Taoism, which he described as his first religion. It told him that, rather than wretches born in sin fit only for salvation from belief in Bronze Age myths, humanity was a good and natural thing, where all aspects and expressions of humanity had an accepted place. Sin was seen from a fresh perspective in his Taoist readings: it was merely the artificial deviation from the harmony of nature, and if one would simply stop meddling with things, one would be free of sin. He wrote, regarding Eastern religions co-existing: Instead of holy wars, condemnations and combative debates, these religions interact in dialogues, and each accepts the other as possibly different facets of the same coin. They live comfortably with doubt and uncertainty, even thriving on it. They condemn no one to eternal hell, and require no belief: they simply tell it like it is, take it or leave it. End quote. This was all quite refreshing for this seeker and led to happiness. He described this experience further as one where seeds of life were scattered everywhere in a harmonious fashion and without need of, or reference to, supernatural agency or beings. It was not an approach for one who required absolutes and dogmatic, unquestioned, and unexplored directives. Taoism was not a set of sacred commandments but the outpouring of admirable and ingenious, yet fallible, human wisdom. Instead of shutting down one’s own intellectual inspection of life, it sprinkled the ground with glowing jewels of thought, but the actual trek had to be made by the seeker.
At this time he was divided in his thinking between Confucian and Taoist ideas but instead of it being a frustrating experience, he wrote in a particularly fine phrase that: in the dance of thesis and antithesis I came to my own synthesis, which can now be described as a science- based Secular Humanism rooted in Metaphysical Naturalism. End quote. He gave the Bible another shot, however, assuming that he had been simply too young and inexperienced in life when he first read it to integrate its putative wisdom into a comprehensible worldview. Instead, his greater maturity and understanding only contrasted more sharply the brutal, ignorant, intolerant, violent, vain and jealous Bible God; one whose actions were nonsensical, overly meddlesome and unenlightening, with the simple kind wisdom of Taoism.
In the movie The God Who Wasn’t There, that Carrier appeared in, the director interviewed a number of Bible- believing Christians about the basic tenets of their faith and awareness of other figures from antiquity who, Jesus seemed to be either modeled upon, or else just another mythic creation along with the others of that time. Those interviewed were woefully ignorant of the history, parallel myths and even the specifics of the basis of essential passages in the New Testament. It was therefore galling to Carrier to be hit with the hypocrisy from others who said that he could not make an informed decision until he had read the Bible, when he had and they apparently had not—at least not with any comprehension or use of even a modicum of critical thought.
How was one to base one’s approach to contemporary life and issues from a book that he wrote was: full of the superfluous—extensive genealogies of no relevance to the meaning of life or the nature of the universe, long digressions on barbaric rituals of bloodletting and taboo that have nothing to do with being a good person or advancing society toward greater happiness, lengthy diatribes against long-dead nations and constant harping on a coming doom and gloom. I asked myself: would any wise, compassionate being even allow this book to be attributed to him, much less be its author? End quote. He further noted that far from a moral guide, the Bible was filled with incredible immorality and no instances of the creator of the universe giving kind and thoughtful instruction to His children, but instead- behavior that is more in keeping with a psychopathic monster. Rather than ideals of democracy and enlightened thought, there was the acceptance of slavery, blasphemy seen as the worst possible crime, the murder of a disobedient child, misogyny, genocide, etc. Even the system of reward and punishment was based upon blind faith belief—without utter credulity one was to be damned for all eternity. But faith was rewarded to the believer by being sent, after death, to an ill defined heaven. This system had nothing to do with nobler and more thoughtful reasoning or care and consideration for others. As Carrier expressed it: The good judge others by their character, not their beliefs and punish deeds, not thoughts and punish only to teach, not to torture. End quote. The Bible’s silence on human progress and innovation; technology and scientific pursuit is deafening while its wild tales of demonic possession, angels, talking animals and bushes and faith healing, speaking in tongues and the Sun halting in the sky, and all other forms of nonsense is shot throughout its pages.
Realizing that hundreds of millions of people were basing their lives and hopes for an outcome beyond death upon these strange fables and barbaric practices, motivated our speaker to set out on a quest to learn more about the matter. He began reading more broadly, absorbing the thinking of writers and philosophers and those promoting different brands of Christianity; apologists and others, steeping himself in various religious and non-religious worldviews. This caused him to no longer self identify as exclusively a Taoist or as a person of any one specific philosophy solely. As to Christianity itself, he observed that while the more fundamentalist end of the spectrum engendered a relationship with the world and view of natural life that was untenable and unacceptable, liberal Christians had no text, but rather relied upon their own interpretations and even bold-faced speculation. At least most Christian fundamentalists were logically (if that term may be sensibly applied) consistent, even if the book they were supposedly basing their worldview upon was itself inconsistent and self-contradictory.
It was his growing yearning for the company of like-minded people that pushed him to, as he wrote: state my case and publish as much as I could. And so I wrote to help others like me, and to defeat the nonsense and lies that I saw spread everywhere, and to answer the constant barrage of redundant questions I had faced ever since I allowed the Christian public to know I’m an atheist. End quote. And thus he began his crusade to accomplish the things listed in the introductory remarks in this write up.
In discussing epistemological issues he wrote of philosophy and the importance of shaping one’s own worldview based upon facts and rational explorations. He said of philosophy: It should be our first if not our only religion: a religion wherein worship is replaced with curiosity, devotion with diligence, holiness with sincerity, ritual with study, and scripture with the whole world and the whole of human learning. The philosopher regards it as tantamount to a religious duty to question all things, and to ground her faith in what is well- investigated and well- proved, rather than what is merely well- asserted or well- liked. Instead of keeping her nose ever in one book, she reads widely and constantly. Instead of aligning herself with this or that view and keeping only like-minded company, she mingles and discusses all views with everyone. And above all, she commits herself to the constant study and application of language, logic, and method, and seeks always to perfect, by testing and correcting, her total view of all things. End quote.
In his book, Sense and Goodness Without God, Carrier examines in more depth, the various components laid out in that last sentence, regarding logic, language, interpretation of meaning and the methodological approach to testing truth claims and getting ever closer to established fact and the most apt basis for learning about the world. He also stresses flexibility in thought, avoiding the cognitive ossification seen in the more dogmatic forms of religious belief. Too, in both in his book and his oral presentation to us, he spoke in a big way about the importance of establishing one’s worldview. Carrier described it as: your complete philosophy of life, what exists, who we are, why we are, how we should behave- everything. Everyone has a worldview whether they are conscious of it or not. If you are unaware of this, if you cannot articulate your worldview, then you probably have a poorly- reasoned one, mostly borrowed from your surroundings, your peers, and random experiences, rather than from careful thought and observation. End quote.
From there he went on to such heady concepts as the nature and origin of the universe. Whether critically examining something minor or something all- encompassing, the same sort of approach may be used: that which is the most plausible explanation is that which has the greatest explanatory scope and power. He also warned of explanations that require an abundance of ad hoc assumptions to explain away the contradictions in the given premise. The god hypothesis is one that requires many such ad hoc assumptions. It begins with an entity outside of time and space that has no causal premise behind its own existence. Everything after the emergence of spacetime has shown itself to be vulnerable to scientific scrutiny and all that there is connects to natural forces with not a scintilla of purposeful design to be detected behind the entirety of cosmic evolution. Because supernatural assumptions make no use of evidence, generate no data, create nothing to observe and study and have no connectivity to the natural forces of the universe, they become an unnecessary overlay, yielding no information and giving nothing to our always growing body of knowledge. Because everything that has been observed that has been successfully explained has required no superfluous non-testable, non-repeatable, supernatural add- ons, but has been resolved via naturalistic study, there is quite simply no sound reason to go beyond or apart from the fruitful approach of science- based naturalism.
The sentient omnipotent creator concept, fraught with ad hoc assumptions, is fine enough for pre-scientific tribal groups for whom the universe was a very small place and where they saw themselves as the obvious center of all of creation. But these human- centric notions have no relation to the staggering immensity of even just our own galaxy and the billions of years of cosmic unfolding throughout the universe. To employ Carrier’s own words on this: What does God need a Big Bang for? That’s a terribly slow, messy, complicated way to create a universe, much less people. Why the long, complex process of condensation from energy to matter to stars to galaxies? Why the vast expanse of the end result? You would think a god would create the whole universe at once, or much more quickly at least, and only make it as large as would suit us. There would be no need of long drawn out processes, nor of planets or galaxies, much less all the subatomic particles we know of. End quote. I personally have often found it strange that most people (of the monotheistic persuasion anyway) believe in a personal deity that listens to prayers and cares about every little petty concern of every person—even who wins a football game, apparently—yet is at the head of an irrefutably impersonal universe and the blind natural forces driving it.
Before leaving this portion of his work, I would like to bring up something I personally found fascinating and quite new. As with Dawkins’ gene’s eye view, this is also a paradigm- shifting idea: that is that the main business of the universe now appears to be to generate what are called, simply, black holes. These are the result of stars dying and crushing down further and further while increasing in gravitational power. By the time they become a black hole, even light itself may not escape its gravity well. It is the most inhospitable thing the universe could produce and yet that is its chief product of manufacture. What a strange thought that a god, whose most important creation is humankind, would fit them in a universe such as this. Carrier writes: Clearly we are not made for this universe. But black holes are right at home. “God did it” does not explain this. It doesn’t even make sense of it. God could have made the simple geocentric universe of ancient imagination with only four or five fundamental particles, and a cosmos no bigger than the solar system, filled with breathable air. Or any of an infinite array of universes much more hospitable to life, with far less needless baggage. Even if God had some strange reason [His mysterious ways] to make a universe that is almost entirely deadly to life, makes the arrival of life very rare and difficult, and its survival even harder, in a universe far larger than it needs to be, providing only a very narrow window of time in which life has a chance, and so on- even then there is no particular reason why a god would also make that universe tailor- made for black holes. End of quote.
He goes on to compare our existence to that of a flea dwelling in a tiny bubble at the bottom of the ocean, filled with unimaginable depths of deadliness, with the flea’s fragile and minute existence preposterously occurring in such a state. Does it make sense, he asks, to think that the sea god Neptune made the sea for the flea? And even if it is perfectly adapted to life amid the hair shafts of a canine, the master only intends to feed the dog. I would add too that not only is there an incomprehensible enormity beyond us, but there is likewise such a depth of life and forces beyond our ken (unaided by the tools and techniques of science) right beneath our feet and surrounding us. The biomass of life- forms thriving in extreme conditions- around thermal vents on the ocean floor as an example- or forever out of sight in the depths beneath the Earth’s crust—is thought to exceed that of all surface dwelling, and more complex life. Whose benefit is all this for? Dr. Dawkins has also noted that there appears to be a bacterial form that lives on, and is adapted perfectly to, only German beer mats. Is this part of the ultimate Plan of the creator of the universe? And is this the same all-knowing, all-loving Being that sends homosexuals and heretics to roast in eternal damnation and torture?
After surveying First Cause arguments and the theory of multiverses, etc., Carrier moves onto the mainstay fuel of philosophical wranglings and discourse: issues relating to freedom of will and determinism. He goes on from there to examining the very fabric of existence—dealing with matter-energy, space-time, and the physical laws that undergird the entirety of the mindless processes of the universe. As with all the other things that he wrote about; in his hands, even such mind-bending/expanding constructs as these became accessible and even a joy to read.
Not stopping here, Carrier competently continues in his examination of the stuff of existence by discussing the nature of mind. What the theists call the soul (again something that cannot be examined, tested, makes no predictive hypotheses and must be supported by a fleet of ad hoc assertions in lieu of evidence and reference to natural reality) he calls the mind. The locus for the mind, he maintains, is in the cerebral cortex, which he describes as the most complex biological organ in the world, and probably (as far as we know) in the whole universe. He writes: Once a brain has one, and can perceive itself with it, that brain acquires an unprecedented feedback loop: its self- perceptions generate entirely new kinds of information that, in turn, like all information, affects the behavior of the whole being, changes that are in turn perceived. And so on. That is a mind. End quote.
The process generates what Carrier described as a virtual reality of the world in a way that uses, in addition to the environmental cues that all creatures make use of, internal data from the brain’s own operations, to construct a practical representation of a unified and centralized person. The notion of the soul, becomes yet again an unnecessary and unfruitful add-on, with no explanatory power or connectivity to reality. Just as mutations can instruct us about the correct functioning of an unimpaired genome, brain injury shows that nothing outside of- or apart from- the mind continues on unscathed by such insult to the material brain and how the brain works to produce the mind and the personhood of the human being when intact. When the brain ceases to function entirely- resulting in brain death- the person too ceases to exist. Yet so long as the body soldiers on with the help of external devices, the theists would tell us, the soul still remains tethered somehow, to the body on Earth. If it contributes nothing of personhood, cognition, or volition, what exactly is the soul supposed to be doing with its time encased in the wetware and meat of the human body? As Carrier had it: When people report remembering something, there is always corresponding electrical and chemical activity in what we know to be the location where such memories are stored. No exceptions have ever been observed. [...] nothing mental happens without something physical happening. So if there is no brain in which these essential physical processes can occur, there can be no mind, and thus no you. End of quote.
Additionally, I personally- even as a child- thought it was a hare-brained notion that the non-material soul was what went to another realm composed of non-matter (and we now know that matter is inseparable from energy and that these affect- and are affected by- space and time—so without one, all others fall away as well) yet still somehow dragged along all the material aspects of a living, corporeal organism. In Hell there were teeth to gnash, vocal chords to emit agonized wails, a nervous system to endure excruciating pain, even undying annelids lived there (Talk about extremophiles! This isn’t some mere thermal vent!) and a centrally organized brain to interpret the horrors and so on. The same for Heaven—how could a body having nothing to do with nature or matter experience bliss? Theistic thought is all about disconnect, while nature shows us that all is ultimately connected. For the theist, everything is separate from everything else. There is no spectrum or nuanced changes through time or connectivity of one thing with another. Therefore, all other animals, in the theist’s conception, have no soul, but humans uniquely do. What science demonstrates is that there is a direct correlation between the mental powers of a being and its brain complexity. When a being develops its mental capacities further, this is always matched by the development of neurons and synaptic junctures in the brain. Every real world environmental action alters the brain’s architecture slightly and this alteration causes the organism to function in and interpret the environment differently to just that same degree. Minds—what actually ARE, instead of souls—fall along a spectrum with some animals possessing nothing that can be regarded as such, while others have rudimentary ones and others still have more developed ones and these are directly related to the brain development of the being (even within species.) This is not an either- or idea. Carrier goes on to debunk the life after death scheme and NDE (near death experience) reports that misinterpret the evidence to support the religious ideation of immortality beyond brain-body death.
Not even half way through his book, Carrier tackles the ultimate Big Question: The meaning of life. Oftentimes, religious folk treat the view espoused by their non-religious bretheren- that of death with no escape clause written into it—as one that is hollow and bleak. Carrier’s rejoinder to this is: So when we die, we cease to exist. Does this mean life is meaningless because it is only temporary? Not really. Most valuable and meaningful things are only temporary. We do not regard a joyous occasion as pointless because it lasts only a day. Yet our very lives are a joyous occasion. By existing, and making of ourselves something good, we give ourselves and each other value, we create purpose and meaning. Neither existing by accident nor existing only a short while changes anything about the value of existing, the value of getting to be, to behold and to know the universe, to create something.
Nor do we need to be some superbeing’s creation for our lives to have value. After all, believers seem comfortable with the fact that God was not created, yet his life has value. End of quote. Later he notes that our ability to love and study the universe gives it meaning, not the other way around and that love itself, as has been said for all of humankind’s existence, is the key to it all. He writes that love—of ideals, others, learning, doing, one’s country, cause or anything and everything is the foundation of meaning. Furthermore, quoting directly here: If we lacked that, we would certainly be miserable and our lives pointless, even if we lived forever. Indeed, even if we droned on with praises for a supreme being in heaven for all eternity, our existence would be superficial, trite, unsatisfying, and ultimately a torture. Thus the key lies in finding your loves and pursuing them, manifesting that love in defiance of a universe that won’t. End of quote. I, too, for the very brief moments in my life that I held that there may be some validity to the existence of a heavenly realm, held this thought in terror and dread. All in the natural world that gave my young (at the time) life meaning would be shorn from me should I have the misfortune to lapse into heaven. The wind in my hair, the scent of beaches, the love of family and comraderie of friends; the joy of discovery, of nature and life, the thrill of muscles singing in exertion and the blissfulness of rest after running and playing hard, making pictures and reading. Even experiencing the death of a pet or beloved grandparent was powerful and poignant. The desire to learn and grow and mature, to pursue goals and dreams, as I made my way through a changing environment that caused me to change as well, was an exhilarating prospect. Heaven to me, especially as an eternal contract, was the real Hell—the lack of everything I held dear and derived pleasure from (and this was before experiencing true romantic love and sex)...an endless, changeless, grey nothingness was what it seemed to me to be.
As mentioned before, that there are a trillion useless galaxies augers well for the naturalistic conception—a divine creator making the universe with us in mind was squandering a great deal of time and energy in spinning these out. Carrier wrote of how once our minds gained the necessary complexity and we had language and ever more advanced forms of communication and storage- retrieval systems, there arose, along with biological evolution, mimetic evolution. This allowed for the advent of an evolving culture that could eventually produce philosophy, science and technology. As Carrier puts it (quote): This is our story, our Book of Genesis. Carrier lays out, in his next section, the elements for having a basic understanding of biological evolution and why it is factual. One of the things he mentions is imperfection, where he included so-called junk DNA (a strange thing for the Creator to insert into us.) The bodies of organisms in no way show optimal (let alone intelligent) design or even the best use of materials. Our basic body plans contain the same homeotic genetic layout as is found in our most distant ancestors; just new uses for the same protein expression potential. We are not even imbued with a spectacularly large number of genes relative to our self-importance in the scheme of life; the lowly nematode has some 19,00 genes to our 30,000. Whole structures did not spring into being by some magical divine fiat but were grown from existing ones that were adapted to a different environment and ways of life. Every body contains the genetic book of life and book of all that came before us that survived long enough to pass on their genes. The natural creation story is writ within each of us and one that is infinitely more interesting and exciting than the theistic version: God did it—poof-zing! There it is. Sorry, we’re not taking any questions—all inquisitive minds need not apply.
Richard Carrier next argues for reason and why we should put our trust in it. The fruits of reason may be checked for error or accuracy and it is a universal skill which may be applied to any kind of knowledge. It works. It generates successful conclusions and allows us to build toward the pinnacle of understanding about something: the scientific theory (the term theory used as it is in science—examples being germ, cell, heliocentrism and evolution among others). The utility of reason is ubiquitous and made manifest in every meaningful endeavor we embark upon. When reason and superstitious or supernatural beliefs are seen in tandem, the latter become an unnecessary overlay for the former. The tribesman may use reason and the scientific approach to knowing what plants are useful medicinally or for food and which are poisonous, or he may discern a good deal of information from a bent twig or animal footprint. He may also insert gods or useless rituals or inefficacious potions into his environment, but these add no knowledge about the natural world he exists in, though it will often have side benefits relating to cultural and societal cohesion, etc.
Emotion and reason are often arranged in opposition to each other in the popular construct., but Carrier notes: Reason is a tool, not a motivator. One must have the motivation to employ the reasoning process and what it is applied to, depending upon one’s goals, which are themselves the result of one’s motives, and motives (Carrier continues) are the product of desires. And desires are the outcome of emotions. We now understand that nature isn’t at war with nurture but both work in concert; the same is true with emotion and reason. We may have an emotional response to what nature shows us and cultivate a reasoning process to inform that emotional response and therefore deepen it. This is why the scientific investigation of a natural phenomenon leads to wonder, despite the all too common notion held by those who have little appetite to search, but instead want pat answers, that science drains the wonder out of life. Love, possibly the most important emotion we possess, is seen in other animals to lesser or greater extents but as Carrier points out, humans have the cognitive potential to add understanding to our impulse for love, giving it an added potency. Perhaps, I would add, our knowledge of our own mortality bolsters its power as well. Again, using the heaven construct—what motivation would there be to praise a god in heaven in song and prayer- for all eternity, knowing that both It and you will always be around? Would it not soon become tedious and pointless? In the real world, that which is finite and ephemeral is more cherished since that which invokes our affection, we know, will not always be there. One imagines heaven too as changeless and unvaried. Nature abhors this and provides us with great variation and environmental change over time, which fosters life’s own changes in adaptation. On an aesthetic level, variation increases our enjoyment of life.
The spiritual response to life is one Carrier describes as containing most of the same features as the secular philosopher’s response. Some of these shared experiences that he lists are: awe, inner peace, enlightenment culminating in a reverence for life and nature, and a sincere self- reflection about these things and oneself. Carrier explains that his life is an examined one where he cares deeply about his beliefs and cares more about his ideals than material things. Some non-theistic people, he notes, who exemplified a naturalistic spiritualism were Carl Sagan, Corliss Lamont and Robert Ingersoll. Carrier quotes the late astronomer and science popularizer, Sagan, in this regard: Science is not only compatible with spirituality, it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combines, is surely spiritual. End of quote. Carrier also mentions meditation as a practice that can be done without reference to anything non-(or super) natural. The scientific exploration of nature and the cosmos sparks the realization of how tiny and insignificant we are, yet how wonderful we are despite this.
Next, in his book, Carrier compares and contrasts the scientific method for interpreting reality with supernatural explanations. After showing us the man behind the curtain with regards to supernatural suppositions, he delineates what he refers to as the three step process that science uses: adduction, deduction, induction. He writes: In general, we identify a problem, gather relevant data, formulate an hypothesis (usually an explanatory model of what is really going on), and test the predictions entailed by that hypothesis- looking for whatever would have to be the case, and whatever could not be the case, if our model were correct. In other words, we creatively adduce an hypothesis from some collection of data and questions about that data, then we logically deduce what new facts an hypothesis must entail if it is true, and then we employ any of a variety of empirical (inductive) methods to test that hypothesis by seeing if these new predictions hold up. End of quote. Notice the use of the word creatively and how an unbridled sense of curiosity about the world and its workings drive science. Those who denounce science often declare it to be a dry and detached endeavor, but this could scarcely be further from the truth. Contrast the provisional quality of scientific findings and the ingenious tests used to get closer to better answers with greater explanatory power, building toward theory—with that of dogmatic theism which declares untestable Truths and invites no scrutiny or dissent. The latter says: It just happened. The former explores how, utilizing a creative approach that stimulates more and better and deeper questions to pursue. It utilizes a system of doubt and skepticism that evokes change and the push for better explanations. When there is the slightest whiff of a brow-furrowing problem in a theist’s scheme, he resorts to babbling about mysterious ways, some undetermined energy, a gap filled by insertion of a miracle, etc. This is simply mental laziness and an incurious approach to life. This last sentiment is mine and should not be associated with our presenter.
Further, regarding the elements of creativity and surprise in science, Carrier writes: When a scientific theory predicts a fact no one has ever seen before, or no one even believed before, then it is an increasingly good bet it’s right. You can’t get a better proof than that. No one can claim scientists are just seeing what they want to see, or making up any old explanations that just fit, if their explanations of existing facts turn up, and explain, totally new facts. When you see that repeated again and again, only the universe itself could be at work. End of quote. Science, too, is not only about testing facts for truth but about testing methods for accuracy, thus making it the best method for ascertaining the truth. Our speaker contrasted this to metaphysics which has no room or means for testing different methods for accuracy, and if it ever started producing surprising predictive successes it would become science!
A scientific theory is said to be more robust as it explains more and as more lines of evidence support it. This, then explains and make sense of more and more findings in other disciplines and stands the test of time. The mechanisms of natural and sexual selection that Darwin supplied to the long-known fact of evolution, explained the process. Afterwards, when we learned about genetics, this new knowledge intertwined elegantly with what he gave us. Every subsequent fossil find added to evolutionary theory with none detracting from it (though it is falsifiable—should one find a human skeletal bone in the same strata of earth as a dinosaur bone, the entire system would crash); findings in radioactivity, geology, cosmology, chemistry, etc., etc. all stream into the ocean of evolutionary theory—as it enhances all those (and other) disciplines. All areas of knowledge, therefore, may potentially build upon all other ones as everything is ultimately connected.
Carrier writes: ...scientists throughout history have found that what we call natural explanations keep working, unlike supernatural explanations: the stars and planets actually followed predictable routines that had nothing to do with human events, tested drugs cured the sick more often than spells, agriculture flourished under scientific care but floundered under prayers and magic. Then scientists found that atomic and other naturalistic explanations for every phenomenon had a much wider explanatory power than supernatural theories, predicting more things, more successfully. Thus, they correctly guessed they were on to something, and stopped accepting supernatural explanations because they constantly failed and never had any evidence to sustain them. End of quote. Also mentioned was the burden of proof and how it falls on the claimant for supernatural or other extraordinary events and agents. Those claims which are grounded in fewer established facts have more explaining to do to be convincing—especially if it means overturning an extremely well founded and well supported scientific theory. So far, as Carrier noted, believers in supernatural happenings have never even come close to meeting that burden and when scientific scrutiny is used to test the claims (some are vulnerable to this—weeping statues, the efficacy of prayer for specific outcomes, etc.—others are not—the existence of gods, invisible guardian angles that emit no heat signature, etc.), there is always nothing to support the claims. When scientists make extraordinary claims, they are expected to supply evidence well beyond ordinary demands. Failing this, they tend to be disbelieved (especially when the outcome can not be repeated using the same methodology in other labs.)
After discussing Occam’s Razor and other tools used in determining truth claims, Carrier wrote of the ancient milieu and its influence upon the people’s understanding of the world in those times. Miracles were more everyday occurrences then. There was a lot that could not be explained in those times before science and naturalistic reasoning took hold and there was open hostility to cherished beliefs being debunked by critical thinking. Carrier employs, next, the modern investigative approach to the gospels. Three criteria must be met for there to be cause for believability. Succinct versions of these are: the writer of an allegedly historical (real) event will show in his writing a critical awareness of problems with his sources or with the intrinsic believability of an event. Next, he will engage in logical historical argument addressing various forms of evidence and assessing their merit. Lastly, because he is an historian, and a good one, if he writes enough, eventually we will find him correct not only on many matters of fact (for even bad historians get get some things right), but on notable or difficult historical questions. The Gospels meet none of these criteria. Carrier notes that in all of human history no record supporting a supernatural miracle meets all three of these criteria; most meet none.
The author of Goodness Without God next outlines several good reasons to be godless. In a highly abbreviated summary they are: everything we have learned about the world so far has come out of naturalistic study. Naturalism, therefore is probably true, and that means there is no god, no miracles, no infallible scriptures, etc., but instead only a blind mechanical universe. Next, god beliefs have not been produced by the actual evidence for a god, but by interests and circumstances unrelated to solid evidence and sound argument. Carrier supports this argument at length but I will leave it as is for this treatment. Next, carrier explains that religion wins only by not playing fair. This, I will quote at greater length: No religion, in the history of its development and success, shows any sort of divine backing. Rather, every single one shows a fallible, human, and often brutal history. As a virus impairs or kills its host, a vital meme impairs or kills your mind, your power of reason. Even those whose minds survive it act as carriers. So [...] it is easy to see how the ultimate mimetic equivalent of a virus has noting to do with things as harsh and difficult as the truth, but everything to do with silencing competing memes, preying upon our fallible intuitions, our ignorance and our intellectual laziness, and stirring purely emotional attachment to the viral memes, which, sometimes play to one’s selfish ego- like memes that tell a man he has the authority of the Truth behind his every desire, and is the center of the universe, the purpose for which the whole cosmos was made, and that he will get everything he wants later if he plays the sheep now- or, other times, play upon one’s fears- like memes that tell a man he will never really die, or that there really is no senseless chaos, but every boon and every misfortune is the intended outcome of Other Beings who can’t be blamed, thanked, or bribed. End of quote.
Religion provides comforting and easy answers to problems and requires nothing except blind, passive faith from the believer. Investigating the truth claims and how they change through time as societies evolve and as pagan or secular ideas are co-opted show the tenets to be the works of man, not of divine thought. Next, dissent is checked at the door. Critical thinking and investigation of the basis for religious truth claims is strongly discouraged. Besides the threats of Hell and the promised rewards of Heaven, religious indoctrination begins long before the child has the skills or knowledge of how to lay what she is being taught against other perceived facts in the world and this indoctrination is institutionalized and all pervasive. Also, enormous peer pressure works against one who might otherwise have questioned the dogma presented to her. But critical thinking and healthy skepticism is a good thing and its development being retarded is an odious thing. Another point made by the author is that religions are full of bad ideas that engender a fanaticism and bigotry in favor of those unsupported ideas, which is unhealthy. Instead of putting all one’s beliefs in one particular text, the atheist is free to examine the holy texts critically but also all other philosophies and concepts from all throughout human history. Other reasons in support of atheism that Carrier treats fully but I will simply list here: The nature of the world is manifestly dispassionate and blind, exhibiting no value laden behavior or message of any kind. Most god concepts are illogical. There is too much needless cruelty and misery. There is not sufficient goodness to support the notion of a god. Ways of getting around these arguments are always unnecessarily ad hoc and absurd, highlighting the paucity of cogent argument to support theistic belief.
He next turned to arguments made in favor of the belief in god and showed their weaknesses. To merely list (rather than even summarize) them, we find The Argument from Mystery; The Free Will Defense Deployment Numbers One and Two; The Arrogance Defense Deployment Numbers One and Two; and The Great Deceiver Defense. As Carrier puts it—he faces these absurdities and calls them bunk. After that he pits Christian Theism against Secular Humanism. The latter he describes as any philosophy that holds to two basic doctrines: that the progress and welfare of all human beings is the greatest good, and that only secular solutions to achieving this end are credible, not supernatural ones. In this chapter he especially counters the thinking of Christian philosopher, J.P. Moreland. Many of the challenges raised against secular humanism are familiar ones to those of us who have lived as freethinkers, such as how can the godless still be moral. It doesn’t help Moreland’s case that he apparently believes in one’s salvation through the mechanism of faith rather than works. In the end, both the Christian believer and the secular humanist create their own set of ideals that they elect to follow, but only the former falsely believe that those ideals may be found in their chief holy source book. What secular humanists express about friends, family and the good society, the theist says about his conception of God. The former have actual, living, real-world beings that can be checked against the feelings about them, while the theists create their own idea of God and hasten to explain away all the references to Him in the Bible that put him in an unflattering light, by contemporary standards.
Carrier also refutes the notion of the good old days where people were more moral. The ideals we follow now are ones borne of enlightenment thinking and secular goals for the here and now. When and where religion was in ascendancy, bigotry, intolerance, wanton cruelty and ignorance was the rule. In America, we are governed by a godless Constitution that is of, by, and for We the People, not spirits and deities and is a granter and guarantor of rights, eschewing special privilege and support for any religion. Crime rates have fallen and in past centuries kidnapping, piracy and murder skyrocketed in comparison to modern times. Children, Carrier notes, were legally beaten and very often exploited or abused; the rights of women and minorities, not to mention the incarcerated or mentally ill were all but nonexistent, and slavery was defended as God’s Will. War crimes and workplace safety were incomprehensible phrases. Salem, Jim Crow, Wounded Knee, McCarthy—were these people and places signs of a more moral time? The most outspoken self-appointed representatives of religious morality these days in this country are those who wish to turn the clocks back to greater inequality, the diminution of rights for minorities, gays, women and those who speak out for progress and change. Carrier writes: We must observe that, historically, Christianity even at its height, in the Middle Ages or the American Colonial Era, has always failed to produce a moral or enlightened society. End of quote.
Churches and religious indoctrination are not curative places or measures, as they diminish clear and unshackled thought and look to a future realm rather than working for a better society in this one. Carrier wrote: Every Sunday, believers go to be preached to in silence, not to actively discuss and debate the important issues of philosophy or policy. No one is being given the tools to think analytically about life and morality, or to critically examine and make an informed choice about spiritual direction, and no one is being encouraged to practice these skills. End of quote. Secular humanists, by contrast, call for for a universal education in the skills of freethought and the value of self- examination, which seems a much better prescription for an improved society. Carrier’s protagonist in this dispute- Moreland- makes the same tired and poorly reasoned argument that makes evolution- or Darwinism, as detractors of refer to it- the whipping boy for all of society’s ills. Carrier ably refutes this but most secularists already know there is no merit or worth to this silly assertion. I will, however quote one pithy pair of lines from Carrier on this: Evolution does not take anything away. It merely explains where it came from. End of quote.
Carrier describes the term value as a latent, ever- present desire, to be distinguished from fleeting, momentary, or incidental desires. Normative values come from desires that everyone ought to possess for something. He posits that there is really only one core value which is a desire for happiness. This, he believes, is the sun source of values, from which all others are derived. All actions either decrease or increase the potential for attaining and maintaining happiness. In his presentation, Carrier showed us oppositional columns with such experiences as loneliness, fear, purposelessness, destruction, misery, insanity, chronic anxiety and stress on one side, and experiences such as love, good friendship, security, purposefulness, creation, joy, sanity and peace, on the other side. Behavior that increases the likelihood of one set of experiences, decreases the likelihood of the other. One thing I personally got out of Carrier’s talk on this issue was the idea that we become as we do. When one practices and lives the life of a well- adjusted, creative, compassionate and winsome individual, committed to positively impacting the lives of those around one, cultivating friendships and networks of mutual support and care—then one more readily attracts positive experiences and is more able to generate those outward as well. The converse is also true.
What he calls the Goal Theory of Moral Value encompasses all conventions regarding what is moral or immoral. He cites the Christian moralist’s view of homosexuality as immoral (a sin), whereas coming from Carrier’s Goal Theory of morality, it is decidedly not immoral for the simple reason that it hinders no one else’s happiness, while suppression of one’s true nature has been clinically shown to harm the person whose free expression is being suppressed. This is the immoral act, not homosexuality. Many Christian theists feel that a retributive form of punishment is just (witness the support of capital punishment and corporal punishment among devout Christians) while the standpoint that Carrier espouses sees such as pointless, cruel and barbaric. Moreland, for instance, supports (in his own writings) his reasons for thinking punishment that does not rehabilitate, repair, protect, or deter, is nevertheless morally good.
Undertaking an immoral life leads to more anxiety and fear, loss of respect and affiliation, and will ultimately leave one without lasting value and love in life. The moral life, besides, is easier, more satisfying and more healthful for the practitioner and lays the groundwork for long lasting, abiding wellsprings of goodness and peace, whereas the individual leading the immoral life must constantly shore up his facade of lies and futile endeavors, in order to maintain short term gains. By valuing others one derives more of a sense of self worth as well. Kant understood that that a strong sense of self worth is not possible for the immoral person, but a matter of course for the moral one.
We are attracted to and admire those who create happiness rather than misery; we love the very type of person who embodies the good. Carrier writes: Because of this natural, acquired human sentiment, whenever we act like those we hate, we will be faced with a psychological dilemma: we will be forced, on some level of our being, to hate ourselves. End of quote. He notes how this negative self appraisal negates or at least vastly impedes us in our quest for happiness. He writes further on this: Self hatred, self- defeating hypocrisy, perpetual dissatisfaction and disappointment with the world and ourselves, even outright madness can creep upon us… End of quote. When we attempt to live a moral life on the surface but harbor secret violations of it, we will not elude our own conscience, which will always convict us.
Carrier’s views fly in the face of conventional wisdom that science has little or nothing to say about values. While it cannot be the sole provider of such values, it can inform and give evidence for certain ways of behavior over other ones. We can also explain, Carrier tells us, how values physically exist and come about: Just like memories or character traits, they are chemically and mechanically represented in the structure of the human brain, physically arranged to generate certain emotional and emotive responses and behavioral tendencies [...]. They are both coded genetically and modified by physical interaction with the environment and internal brain activity. And the capacity for all this was developed through billions of years of neural evolution [...]. End of quote.
We cannot look to the universe or some make believe divine superintendent of the cosmos for justice or to reward the virtuous over the villainous. As Carrier expressed it: [T]he universe exhibits zero value affinity; it operates exactly the same for everyone, the good and bad alike. It rewards and craps on both with total disregard. It behaves just like a cold and indifferent machine, not the creation of a loving engineer. The only place any sort of value effect is ever seen is in human thought and action, and only when humans are psychologically developed in a certain way. It thus stands to reason that values do not come from the design of the universe, but the adaptation of Homo sapiens to that universe- and in particular, to a social ecology. End of quote. We are shaped by blind, uncaring forces, yet these can and have resulted in an ability toward altruism and other behaviors that help maintain the cohesiveness of society. This social sense is an adaptation that has ensured our survival as a species, while our language and cognitive skills have helped codify and arrange the best of human ideals into philosophical fonts that may be perused for the edification of all at any time.
Carrier writes as to culture: It is thus human nature to be a cultural animal, and it is in the nature of culture to promote a certain way of life and thought. All cultures have language and morals, for example. [...] We can indeed base claims about human nature on biology- as well as culture. End of quote.
The theist will typically equate Metaphysical Naturalism- erroneously- with moral relativism. Carrier counters this by writing that: Goal Theory does not root moral value in popular sentiment or majority vote, or even current beliefs or attitudes, but in the actual facts, particularly in the sentiments that every person would have if they were both 1) fully informed of all the true facts about themselves and the universe, and 2) cognitively accurate in their analysis of these facts. End of quote.
We should model our morality on that which generates the most happiness in life. An individual’s dependence on a savior figure only works if the savior leads one by example toward this goal directly and unerringly. Jesus, as depicted in the Gospels, Carrier notes, would have us believe that letting people rob and beat us is moral or that surrendering ALL our wealth and time to succor the poor is moral. But we hold that these are at best supermoral, and that it is immoral to expect such behavior from anyone. It should also be noted that the morality of Jesus was not always clear and consistent and many of his dictates toward leading a good life were confused and difficult to fully comprehend. Carrier writes: Secular Humanists have always said that a practical, philosophical education and lifestyle, and a healthy family life, are essential to healing moral deficiencies in any society. This is entirely true. Believing on Christ has nothing to do with the matter, as history demonstrates. Some even argue that Christian Theism creates more problems for an ethical theory than it solves. End of quote.
Rounding out his book, Carrier writes on issues of beauty, perception, cultural values, the arts and the like, before addressing politics from the viewpoint of naturalistic morality. As to the last issue, Carrier writes that the most distinctive aspect of politics from a Metaphysical Naturalist perspective is dependence on evidence. The only sources of truth are, in order of authority: logic, science, experience, history, expert testimony, and plausible inference. This is what, Carrier declares, determines how a metaphysical naturalist will approach political issues. He then lays out, in his book, how to put this into practice in the real world.
In his presentation to our group, Carrier explained the secular foundations of morality and how the universe can be sensibly explored and made sense of, and how one may find goodness in life and give expression toward others of the good life without any reference to God or any other supernatural ideas or agents. Nature is all there is—if there is anything else no evidence has yet shown up to be examined and all we have learned and added to our growing body of knowledge has come from our study of the natural world by means of scientific methodology.
He contrasted the conservative Christian approach to the naturalistic one in their different views of various aspects of knowing and being in the world. Epistemology, from the conservative Christian perspective, is based on prayer, the Bible and holy spirit; science relates to creationism, souls and miracles; metaphysics is associated in their worldview with God, values, sin and salvation; ethics with what God wants and backed by the fear of Hell and hoped for eternal reward in Heaven; aesthetics relates to what God likes; and politics being referenced, again, to what God wants- that is, God’s will on Earth. In the Naturalist perspective this is altered to epistemology being informed via science, reason and utilizing a skeptical approach; science itself, dealing with evolution (cosmological, biological, etc.), brains (neurology) and the whole of the natural world governed by natural laws; metaphysics looks at godless stuff in spacetime (in Carrier’s everyday rendition); ethics is generated from the pursuit of happiness; aesthetics is derived from evolved and acquired responses to creative expression; and politics is concerned with the regulation of power over people. These contribute to one’s worldview and help define one’s approach to life; they must be worked out individually before working out others in a consistent fashion. These items deal with fundamental issues of what exists, how it all works, the underlying mechanisms, the accumulation of facts, a methodology for filling in gaps of knowledge (since theists too often shrug their shoulders over gaps in knowledge and give over ignorance passively to God or mystery, this method is called the God of the Gaps), exploring how the mind works- including human perception and cultural influence upon how we see the world and our place in it, looking at the world and how it functions on various levels—from geology to geo-political governance, and forming a solid approach to how one views oneself, others and the relationships and interactions between each other.
Since Carrier’s book and lecture dealt with a defense of metaphysical naturalism, he spoke of metaphysics as a rough sketch that fills in for areas that are not fully fleshed out in what we know or in areas that science has not yet fully assembled the facts on. We must strive to make our assumptions as sound as they can be, given what we are able to know.
As mentioned, there is no sound basis for looking to lucky charms, spirits, et al—and that such an approach would only annoy the gods if there were any. Most modern people in our country, especially, pay a lot of lip service to belief in supernatural ideas and agency (God, angels, etc.) yet do not argue with their doctors who use germ theory rather than demon possession to explain a physical malady. We also (most people- even in religion-saturated America), on some level, all recognize that what befalls us emanates from human activity or blind natural forces, rather than a Big Guy in the Sky calling the shots, yet most say prayers to such a being and believe in Its existence and ability to affect changes in the world.
We have to be careful not to allow our senses to be deceived. Our environment of evolutionary development as humans was one where the majority of existence was one of small, tribal, superstitious, pre-scientific bands. Those who survived and thrived to pass on their genes reacted to natural occurrences in their world as the acts of angered or pleased gods, or saw monsters in the shifting bush rather than a more prosaic explanation. Too, we are wired for two different pathways of neurological reaction to outside stimuli. One travels through the regions of brains that may more calmly and critically examine the occurrence. The other pathway is the quick- and- dirty one that bypasses the higher cognitive regions, going straight for the emotional fight or flight limbic area. When there is sudden danger, or we are startled, or frightened, the latter, more primitive, route dominates. The more terrifying or hugely inflated the imagined or real danger, the greater the response, which no doubt saved many of our more primitive ancestors but also left us with a legacy of seeing ghosts, demons, the actions of gods, terrifying beings, etc. in our reactions to happenings of the natural world. Critical thinking does not come naturally to us but unlike other things that are foreign to our evolved ways of thought (say, calculus for example), this is seldom taught in schools or at home- but like other matters that are difficult to fathom for our minds evolved to examine large, relatively slow moving things in a span of only a few lifespan’s time reference- we talking, culture-making apes may cultivate and develop these skills, nonetheless.
We look to what works and what doesn’t, not just to what is accepted on faith or believed without evidence. If we neglect one part of our naturalistic worldview, this weakened area may leak over into other ones, contaminating them as well. Because we kill and die for some ideas, we must ensure that those foundational ideas are supported by sound values and reasoning. Our philosophically- grounded speaker talked about ethical systems such as teleological ethics (Mill, etc.) where morality is related to the consequences of one’s acts; deontological ethics (Kant, etc.) which involves ethics predicated upon one’s duty toward the rights of others. The goodness of an act is embodied in the act itself. Virtue, Carrier summed up succinctly, is not about what you do so much as who you are (Aristotle.) He discussed error theory and examined true moral statements about how one ought to behave. You ought to do what you would most want to do if you were reasoning correctly and aware of all the facts. The person you become when you act a certain way creates one’s true moral character, so one no longer merely behaves a certain way—one IS that way. When you know how to think critically, you can see when you are reasoning fallaciously or realize your ignorance of certain pertinent facts and use this to alter your course of action toward a more well informed, well- reasoned approach.
We discussed how one will often hear from conservative Christians that without believe in God, they would have nothing to stop them from behaving immorally and assume that non-believers must, ergo, be immoral agents in life. Besides being very error- ridden from the outset, it says a lot about the believer’s sense of self- control/restraint or innate moral decency. Do they really think that belief in a mythic being is the only thing stopping them from raping and looting and going on killing sprees? The opposite has been shown to historically valid: all manner of horror and crime has been the direct outcome of religious ideology, whereas in the relatively rare cases where a perpetrator of societally bad acts is also a non-theist, these individuals are not acting negatively as a result of, or in keeping with the dictates of, their lack of religion. There are no freethought or atheist writings that are analogous to religious ones calling for Christian soldiers to conquer and convert others. There is no Dominionist wing in the non-believer camp. Instead, since they have no simplistic, unquestioned, unexamined dogma to fall back on, the freethinker must develop her own, and base them on thoughtful, well-read and knowledge- based ideals.
Even for those who are not of a scholarly bent, we find that people naturally are drawn toward cooperation and right acts within a society—that we have an innate sense of right and wrong and can experience how our acts impact others. The conservative Christian or fundamentalist of any religion, may falsely declare that those good impulses are derived from his own brand of religion while feeling justified toward violence, intolerance, etc. from certain cherry-picked language in his sole source book (Qur’an, Bible, etc.). But we are the survivors of ancestors who were successful enough as members of their society in maintaining order and rules of conduct so as to carry on those ideas into future generations. Societies that failed in this, came to a bad end. Right ideals show up in different places and times independent of each other—the Golden Rule, for example was formulated countless times and there are versions of it centuries before the Judeo-Christian construct, including the Confucian one 500 years prior. This negates the idea that only one culture or religion generates sound moral principles and to not accept one group or faith deprives an individual or group of living rightly.
Carrier spoke of the differences between the complex and simple salvation/damnation theories. The simple form makes blunt, rather thoughtless statements from authority such as that gays (fill in the blank for other targeted groups of people) will burn in Hell, or that one must believe in Jesus as one’s personal savior in order to go to Heaven; deny this (no matter how ethical and good a person you happen to be) and you will burn forever in Hell, and so on. But the more complex version leads to the same ends, just with the addition of another step or two midway. For example: Accept Christ and you will learn to live a moral life and therefore be fit to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Deny Him and you will be led toward evil and vile temptation and therefore pave your own way to ending up in Hell. This sort of view is not limited, Carrier noted, to even the monotheistic religions. Forms of some Eastern philosophy/religions, for example, believe in a state of nirvana as a reward or one of continual reincarnation until you get it right.
Besides the lack of thought or mature worldview development in the carrot and stick ideas of Heaven and Hell, this conception does not deal with those who may prefer Hell to Heaven. What if, Carrier said with wry humor, someone sees Hell as a place with tranquil beaches and good company? As I mentioned earlier, the version of Heaven given to me by my culture was one that I could only feel dread and horror toward. Hell—on the other hand, while not preferable, being an endless torture chamber, was inconceivable for me as the creation of a supposedly all- loving God who could, instead of banishing people to torment, simply engage them in intellectual dialogue. Even just showing up—saying: Here I Am…Now Go Forth And Do Good—would do the trick.
One should develop a verifiable and falsifiable hypothesis on such matters, otherwise all is equally valid or invalid. Suppose (Carrier continued in a humorous vein) one denies another’s belief in Zothar the Lizard God who wears a certain brand of pants—and is therefore banished to eternal torment. Why is belief in him better or worse (neither is more clearly reasoned) than belief or disbelief in Yahweh? There is that famous line that goes something like: Man, cannot create so much as an earthworm, yet he makes gods by the thousands. What is the basis for your beliefs? What tools and techniques do you employ to judge the relative validity of statements and beliefs? Are they supported by what we have learned over time about the natural world and its workings? Only if true consequences can be shown for not adhering to a certain belief system or, conversely, if the desirability can be shown conclusively for adopting a belief system, is there any reason to begin to accept the claims. Merely saying heaven= good and hell= bad (and how to gain one and avoid the other), because I say so as well as others who believe as I do without evidence or reasoning, is an intellectually impoverished way to make a claim.
Instead of following a certain faith group’s doctrines, one should examine what sorts of lifestyles and approaches are demonstrably shown to lead one to happiness. What behaviors genuinely lead us toward living an ethical life? Does spellcasting evoke positive, consistent results? Sift through the facts to make better judgment. Carrier said that unlike God, facts are not hiding from us. There is no testing of facts done by the true-believer. The only test for their ilk comes when their faith is tested when they encounter evidence of true facts that are in direct opposition to what their faith would have them believe, without reason or evidence.
In his intellectual journey, Carrier steeped himself in the philosophical concepts of various great thinkers. He compared and contrasted their views on how to achieve and maintain an ethically sound life and the underlying reasons to desire certain approaches in finding a sense of worth. At one point in this portion of his talk, where the philosophical arguments and counter arguments flowed thick and fast, someone behind me quipped, sotto voce: Boy, I’m glad now that I went into engineering! As I am not philosophically trained, I won’t try to reconstruct the details of what he said here myself. But the bottom line seemed to be that by cultivating certain traits and characteristics and purging others, with the goal of finding what works best and leads to happiness and developing a sound basis for one’s assumptions that can be tested against the real world, one becomes what one has cultivated within oneself. Just as someone who makes use of cruelty becomes a cruel person, embodying the approach of cruelty in his life; someone who makes use of sound ethical values will tend to embody a moral character in life.
I provided a list of approaches earlier in this write-up from Carrier’s book that he referenced in his talk. One may test these lists against the external world and see what the fruits of different actions are. The social consequences for actions from the negative list will likely result in social retaliation; personal consequences may result in loss of personal satisfaction and contentment in life; practical consequences may take the form of self destruction, while any benefits derived will show themselves to be short-lived—fleeting or trivial, while their costs will be long term and abiding. The reverse of this is the case if one chooses to embody the characteristics from the positive list. When one acts out of compassion one is rewarded by the actual act of being compassionate in the short term and by being this sort of person, consistently and reliably, one will tend to gain supporters and increase personal satisfaction and self worth in other areas of life. They will avoid causing harm to others because they feel the results too. As one learns to maximize the good and minimize the bad, this will establish itself in one’s life as a self-perpetuating feedback loop; actions that lead toward happiness and satisfaction will cause these traits to be manifest in the person behaving in this way, further increasing one’s happiness which emanates naturally, increasing the happiness around her/him. It also makes avoiding the path to negative actions easier and more desirable.
Since most other aspects of his lecture are covered in my survey of his book earlier in this write- up, I will turn now to how he concluded his presentation to us. He spoke a good deal about aesthetics and highlighted cinema as an outstanding representation of the arts, as it encompasses so many different art forms—writing, scene and set design, painting, photography, acting, lighting, sound design and musical scores, editing, etc. Carrier is especially interested in how film engages morality issues and deals with ethics and values. He selected for us three scenes from movies (Carrier is a self-declared movie fanatic and called film the opera of our century) to show how this synthesis of the arts emotionally communicates heroic values and challenges as it draws you in. It becomes an entertaining and moving way to think of philosophical ideas, he said. Truly great art of any sort communicates and combines values and aesthetics as it brings you into a new conceptual place.
The first scene was from the movie Blade Runner where a race of artificial men (androids, or Replicants, as they were called in the film) are created to work as slaves. As with real world systems of slavery, the masters know that knowledge is power and so are keen to keep their servile masses in as much ignorance as possible. In the case of the Replicants, they are programmed to die before they can gain too much knowledge, yet are formed as full grown adults who have the knowledge level of children. Realizing one’s own mortality is the curse of humankind but one that leads to religious constructs and other thoughts and actions. The Replicants, who are otherwise superhuman in strength and endurance, seek out their creator to try to extend their abbreviated existence. When they fail in this mission, they essentially kill their god (creator). The Replicants, not having the construct of an afterlife to look to, must face death as total oblivion.
The sole remaining android faces down the human agent sent to terminate him and his fellow beings. The human has slain all the others (everything and everyone the Replicant cares for) and in the end, the Replicant literally holds the life of the agent in his hands. He can choose to spare him or send him to his own death. He becomes a god over the other’s life and ends up selecting the option of sparing the human, thus embodying morality and compassion even as his own life slips away. He becomes an example of the preciousness of life (because it is short—for everyone) by not extinguishing it in the end, himself. The Replicant bestows upon his enemy what he himself could not have. But by embodying the virtues he came to understand, these values were not lost to the void—they rippled out beyond his own temporary life, adding to meaning in the universe. This is a very humanistic thought—having no heaven to go to and thus cheat death with—humanists strive to extend their life by giving meaning to it and adding to the world during the short time we have.
Another theme explored in this film involves the differences between artificial memories and genuine ones (the domesticated Replicants are kept unaware of being synthetic beings by being supplied with constructed memories of a childhood and past.) We regular humans create what Carrier referred to in his book as our own virtual reality experiences, containing our own mistaken perceptions, our own idiosyncratic memories, and even false recollections and stories we tell ourselves until it becomes real to us. The film also looked at what it means to be human, and had that well known theme of the creation turning on the creator, and other things to ponder.
The next scene we were shown was from the film Pulp Fiction. The moral philosopher may find this a brilliant film. Carrier said that a lot of people missed a major point of the movie when they believed it glorified drugs and violence. But when you critically examine it, you see that bad decisions lead to bad outcomes and ruined lives. He also spoke of the scene where the S.L. Jackson character’s life is changed after a near death experience, where his survival is interpreted by him as a miracle inferring a big message. But the scene shown to us itself revolved around the B. Willis character, a boxer named Butch who is being hunted down for a decision he made. He believes that a watch given to him is significant beyond any actual material value it may have because of what another went through to preserve it and pass it down to the father’s son (him.) This timepiece, however, was left behind at the very place the killers were expected to (and did) show up and he must decide if he will risk everything to reclaim it or cut his losses and run. His girlfriend discloses to him (a pugilist who makes his living by hitting others) that she neglected to get it. His anger and frustration escalates – he KNOWS he has made clear to her how significant this item is and what it will mean to try to get it back. It looks like he will lash out at her but in the end, he wills reason and reflection to take hold, and leaves her on a tender note. Carrier noted that while the exact circumstances of the scene were not part of most people’s lives, it still communicated an emotional reality that most could relate to and dealt with a basic real world emotional situation where the character displayed a positive moral choice and gained as a result (he ended up with the cash and the girl).
The last scene was from the movie Fearless, which Carrier highly recommended to us to be featured at some future Freethought Movie Night. The scene is one where a couple of survivors of a plane crash encounter each other. One of the survivors is a very devoutly religious women who lost one of her babies in the crash (the babe was pulled from her arms by the forces of the crash) while the other was saved by the other person in the scene. She is crushed by grief, of course, but also by overwhelming guilt, with religious overtones, because she could not save her baby and must be being punished by God for not being worthy. The man in the scene was an atheist who is refreshingly portrayed in a positive light and, furthermore, has no alteration in his atheistic worldview as a result of surviving the crash. Typically people who live through a near death experience, in real life, proclaim that God spared them for a special reason, never wondering why God harbored no special good will toward those who didn’t survive the same experience.) But the event did evoke change in his life: he became fearless (hence the title of the film) and makes the decision to lead a morally positive life. He does not even lie anymore, since he reasons that lies arise out of fear—something he no longer has. So he elects to enjoy life to its fullest, henceforth.
In the scene presented to us, the man recreates some of the aspects of the crash—using a speeding car that he drives with the woman holding an item to represent the baby. He crashes into a wall after telling her over and over to hold that baby tight—don’t let go—that’s your baby—you have to hold it tight—keep it safe… But the NATURAL forces of the crash overwhelm her again and she can’t keep hold of the surrogate baby. He uses this to demonstrate dramatically that no god directed her loss of the babe. No supernatural agency used the death of the innocent one to send her some mysterious message. It was a natural event and she had done everything she could to save her child. If there WERE a God, HE could have given her extra strength or magically protected the blameless infant of the devout woman. The irony was that her existential religious guilt had done more damage to her than the actual plane crash and he freed her of this by showing her (powerfully) that there was no reason for her guilt and shame.
We had a lively Q&A session following Carrier’s presentation but I will leave that for the video record to recreate.