Chatting Atheism

By Sean Carroll | August 19, 2012 9:27 am

I took part in a conversation about contemporary atheism, which appeared on The Point, which is a web series spin-off of The Young Turks, which itself is both a web series and a show broadcast on Current TV. (Got all that?) My co-panelists were Michael Shermer of the Skeptics Society and Edward Falzon, author of the (satirical!) book Being Gay is Disgusting, and it was hosted by Cara Santa Maria, science correspondent for the Huffington Post.

The format of the show is that we hear three very brief pre-recorded “points,” to which the panelists then respond. In this case, all the points and all the panelists were already confirmed atheists, so we could put aside for the moment the endless arguments about whether God exists and focus on the very interesting questions of what to do about the fact that he doesn’t. The points we heard were from James Randi, PZ Myers, and AJ Johnson of American Atheists. I wasn’t familiar with AJ before this event, but her video was very strong; I think (hope) we’ll be hearing a lot more from her in the future.

It was a great talk, although it did reinforce my conviction that while we atheists are mostly right on the metaphysics, we need to really raise our game when it comes to epistemology and metaethics.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Religion, Top Posts
  • Jay

    I don’t think Cara quite understood the implications of your response when she said, “Nobody really knows what happens when we die,” and you said, “I know. I can tell you if you want to know.”

  • Michael Turner

    Infinity exists or it doesn’t. That is really what the big questions are all about. Either there is infinite energy and infinite time or the nature of existence eventually dies. Yet the in your face paradox won’t be changed… The universe has to be a perpetual motion machine of energy production in order to exist forever and continue to use energy.  So to have a universe with rules, the rules have to be broken, most fundamentally. The paradox is atheism fails without God. – C. Michael Turner

    In a universe build only in three dimensions with consistent laws based upon the interactions of total energy, particles and waves there is a new and historically renewed insight to understanding. All mass and energy decay into monopole gravitational waves as an energy transfer and the wave to wave contact force action creates a reaction called gravity. “the Ghost Wave Theory”.
    Singularity=100% particle
    Three forms of decending potential energy Matter
    Mass – mostly particle with some wave properties – three forces
    Energy – Particle/wave duality-Photons/ electromagnetic fields
    Space – 100% wave with no particle properties
    Fundamental particles even decay onto gravitational waves.

  • Peter

    Do you even know what the Young Turks were? They were the biggest butchers of 20th century after Hitler. The are responsible for the Armenian genocide and for the slaughter of other minorities in Turkey. It is a shame for a web series to have such name and for you to appear there. Would you appear in a web-series called “the Nazis”?

  • Random Rambler

    The recent “Great Debate” at Caltech was far superior, in my opinion. This video was superficial and cliche-ridden. I had hoped you would engage religion and the related philosophy more seriously. Just laugh off theism?… I’ve recommended the Caltech video to religious friends to help them understand the atheist/secularist position but I cannot do that with this video. I think it would reinforce the view that many of these friends have that today’s popular atheism is a superficial ideological movement that can be ridiculed and “laughed off” just as well.
    And I’m irked by the way atheism/secularism is so often conflated with current liberal moral sensibilities. Being non-religious is not the same as agreeing with abortion-on-demand, same-sex marriage, and the like. Believe it or not. It is possible to have a rational point of view on ethics without marching in step with the herd. —end rant

  • Jay

    @Random Rambler: What are the non-religious arguments against same-sex marriage?

  • Eva

    I think the show was a bit watered down by Cara Santa Maria. However I liked your input and agree with your position on all raised topics.

    Except the one on morality.

    The way you put it and discussed it was as if we have to come up with our moral starting from scratch as opposed to them actually having a book. My point is that there is no difference between the origin of our morality and theirs. The people that contributed to the bible during the ages came up with the moralities in the bible the same way as we did – from evolution. The only difference is that contemporary christians follow a moral codex established by and valid for societies 2000 years old and our codex is contemporary and ever changing. (That said, as mentioned in the show, theirs is changing as well and only a few things are left, noone is stoning anyone to death today in the western society no matter how good a catholic he is.)

    Nevertheless, I’m glad you took part in the show, I’m from Europe and here we don’t really feel the need to discuss religion but in America scientist really need to do something to have their voice heard and hopefully change something. Things look scary over there. Especially with respect to education in some states.

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    @ Peter:

    “Young Turk
    1. A member of a Turkish reformist and nationalist political party active in the early 20th century.
    2. also young Turk
    a. A young progressive or insurgent member of an institution, movement, or political party.
    b. A young person who rebels against authority or societal expectations.”

    “Na·zi (näts, nt-)
    n. pl. Na·zis
    1. A member of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, founded in Germany in 1919 and brought to power in 1933 under Adolf Hitler.
    2. often nazi An adherent or advocate of policies characteristic of Nazism; a fascist.
    Of, relating to, controlled by, or typical of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party.”

    [Free Online Dictionary]

  • Trevor

    I agree with Eva on the common origin of morality. Although I doubt whether, at least for atheists, morality is changing. Rather, fresh problems are judged against a constant standard.
    As an atheist, I “know” that God doesn’t exist, and can use Occam’s razor as a justification.
    Religious people “know” that God does exist, and have a host of justifications.
    Rational discussion between these two points of view invariably leads nowhere, as the conviction on both sides springs from a prior, and unshakeable, “knowledge”.
    And (in my, perhaps biased, view) religious people “can’t handle the truth”, so it is kinder not to disturb their convictions.
    In my view, the bleak purity of an atheist’s vision leaves no need, at least on an individual level, for metaphysics or epistemology, which are only relevant to a religious interpretation.
    And finally, “agnostics” are inherently religious, if only in the sense that a genuine atheist has the same intellectual quarrel with an agnostic as with any religious person.

  • Ray Gunn

    #6 @Eva: I is from Texas and gots advansed decree. Their is no problem wiht education hear.

  • vince w.

    I guess I am a closet atheist, or at any rate an agnostic. I find a similar apology for theism às for ‘intelligent design’ (an oxymoron if ever there was one). However, a part of my personal ethic system is THINK AND LET THINK or BELIEVE AND LET BELIEVE — neither position can be scientific. Inasmuch as one cannot prove God, neither can one prove a negative.

    To many people, much of their chance for coping is tangled up in wanting the reality of a God. I don’t fault them for that; and would appreciate reciprocation for my irrevocable doubt. However, I also understand that for some, that reciprocation comes with the level of depression and confusion I refuse to bestow. My professional background has been in the theater as an actor/director. I can act the part that can give someone solace and much needed comfort. I feel better treating others with that kindness.

  • Distemper

    I found this page by the person who first reported about the George Bush Sr. quote. There is a link here to all of the Library of Congress entries relevant to him and atheism. This quote is mentioned in these documents and is not refuted by his surrogates answering letters.

  • Richard

    Sean, how do you know God doesn’t exist? Maybe God does exist. Does science answer the question? If so, how? Just curious. I’m an agnostic. For me, science deals with explanations of things which can be testable. Since we only have access to the physical world of the Standard Model, etc., because we are made up of Standard Model particles, the only testable ideas and explanations are those that have the Standard Model as their basis (i.e. “natural causes”, “materialism”, etc.). But we don’t know if this aspect of reality is the only one. Hence my agnostic views.


  • Bob F.

    Richard: you don’t need to test physical properties (e.g. spin of quarks vs. spin of tenticles of noodly goodness) to learn if claims about gods are correct. You can simply ask the question “Do the claims work as described?”

    So for example, if praying for sick people routinely makes them recover at a rate significantly higher than random chance and higher than *not* praying, then you know prayer works, even if you can’t know what the mechanism is. So far, the answer to these questions is a resounding No. You can also be certain that if the answer were Yes, we would never hear the end of it.

  • R Michael Newton

    I am an agnostic, but emotionally atheism appeals to me. However i feel that atheism is just as much as a”belief ” as a belief in god, wheres agnostiscism merely states, ” I don’t know whether there is a god or not”, and I would suggest ” I don’t care”.

  • Natalie

    I cannot be anything but and atheist, but I do think that were are part of the universe here and at all times. Maybe you can call the Universe God therefore we are God. I do like John A Gowan theories since I read him I am not afraid of dying since I know I will be always.

  • Eva

    @ Trevor

    “Rather, fresh problems are judged against a constant standard.” Yes, that is what I meant really.

  • Julian Penrod

    I may already be banned from this blog as with others, but there are a number of points that could be made.
    If you posit that there is no God and you haven’t proved it, then you are violating the very laws of “science” the atheists pretend to obey so scrupulously. They used to use the “argument”, “You can’t prove a negative”; then they said, “It’s too big a thing to do and we want to act like it’s true so we’re allowed to claim it true even though we haven’t proved it”. Now, they say, “I don’t have to prove there is no God, you have to prove there is!” All of them weasly ways to dodge around the issue.
    And, by hosting this blog, Discover Magazine is essentially asserting that it is a “scientifically” provable fact that there is no God.

  • Random Rambler

    @Jay: I don’t know any such arguments off the top of my head and in retrospect I think gay marriage was a bad example. Good call. I picked it as an example because it is charged; but it’s admittedly an issue I’m not very well versed in.
    The thing that bothers me is the impression of an *atheist* morality. I know atheists who insist that all out eugenics is a good idea, and I know atheists who argue that all human cloning, IVF, and abortion-on-demand are unethical. Similarly, atheists can have many different takes on religion. I don’t like the sense of pop-atheism as indistinguishable from a brand of secularist ideology. This is precisely what my religious friends who engage in apologetics contra Dawkins et al. believe and it allows the issues to be polarized and reduced to “right wing” vs “left wing” psychology. This is my limited experience, for what it’s worth.

  • Uranium Willy

    The universe can not have a creator, the creator would have to be the creator of itself. Religion simply say some part of the universe come from another part, big deal. If I was to tell you there was a shoebox on Mount Everest, and asked you to have a debate about its contents, you would say I don’t known, but the fact is you have an infinitely much better chance of guessing the contents of the box than you do of the correct configuration the supernatural takes. The box has to have real things in it, some things are more likely than others, there is no such information for the supernatural, it is completely unknowable. There is a infinite number of configurations that the supernatural can take, there is no way to rule any configurations out, there is no way to determine which configurations are more likely than any other, therefore there is nothing anybody can say about the supernatural.

  • Andrew

    I’m an atheist, and I’d say that the statement at the beginning of the video along the lines of “atheists all hold certain truths to be self-evident” (paraphrasing) is totally false. I disagreed with some of the content in this video, but I am definitely not a theistic guy.

    You guys (those featured in the video) are on the extreme end of the atheistic spectrum. I agreed with much of the content featured, but I also disagreed with much of it. There isn’t one definitive atheist, like there isn’t one definitive believer. Some are bat s*** crazy but some are calm and educated.

  • Blake

    You might be interested to know that, in philosophy (i.e. the peer reviewed literature on the subject), these terms have consistent meanings.[1] The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy is the only academic source I could find that mentions the popular layman “lack of belief” meaning, and it does so only to say it’s not standard: “atheism (from Greek a-, ‘not’, and theos, ‘god’), the view that there are no gods. A widely used sense denotes merely not believing in God and is consistent with agnosticism. A stricter sense denotes a belief that there is no God; this use has become the standard one.” And then, “In contrast, an agnostic maintains that it is not known or cannot be known whether there is a God”.[2] A person wanting to say he “lacks belief” in God simply calls himself a “non-theist”. Nobody uses terms like “agnostic-theists”; that’s just confused. Theists and atheist can hold their belief with varying degrees of confidence, so if you want to say you are absolutely sure that atheism/theism is true, then you just say you are “certain”, or you hold your belief with “certainty”.[3]

    Some theists do complain that atheists have no way of discerning the right/wrong, but the typical argument theists are alluding is radically different. Normally, they are saying objective moral values and duties exist, and that atheism can’t accommodate this fact. Consequently, atheism must be false. So even if atheists can know the right from the wrong, it doesn’t follow that their worldview can account for the reality of objective moral values and duties (if these things exist; most people strongly intuit that they do).

    This was the most disappointing part of all, imo. All four atheists were laying into Christians for ignoring the Sabbath and eating shrimp/pork etc., but how could they be so embarrassingly naive about basic Christian doctrine? This is akin to four creationists confidently laughing at evolution on TV because there are no modern humans giving birth to monkeys. Google “New Covenant”. I’m not saying its true, but the reason the OT laws aren’t obeyed is explained again and again throughout their New Testament (particularly Paul’s letters, and Hebrews, where its explained why Christ followers are no longer “under the law”).

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    [1]Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God.”
    [2]The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (8 volumes, reprint): According to the most usual definition, an “atheist” is a person who maintains that there is no God, that is, that the sentence “God exists” expresses a false proposition. In contrast, an agnostic maintains that it is not known or cannot be known whether there is a God, that is, whether the sentence “God exists” expresses a true preposition.
    [3]Another small Phil 101 point: Contra Sean’s comment, in philosophy (epistemology) “knowing that p” and “being certain that p” are sharply distinguished. Philosophers disagree over what constitutes knowledge, but it usually startes with the canonical “justified, true, belief” (then the project is to add a fourth condition which accounts for infamous “Gettier counterexamples”).

  • Julian Penrod

    This may cause me to be banned, but, in fact, evidence foe the presence of God is obtainable. A problem is that it requires certain qualities in a person. “Science” devotees would decry certain qualities being required to see evidence of God, but, at the same time, they would have no problem with saying you need an electron microscope to view things under a nanometer in size. To receive evidence of God, among other things, you have to earn it and deserve it. Acting to improve the world because you know it’s right, not because you want to see proof of God. Not giving in gratuitously to vain displays of craven nature. Not denying the presence of God because He did not give you the car you asked for. Seeking improvement in the world and yourself. Not embracing ulterior motives in what you do. Any who engaged in true acts of decency and nobility would see evidence of God. Those who didn’t see evidence of God never acted decently and nobly. And, by attacking what I say, they are saying that they don’t intend ever to act that way. The evidence is there.

  • Gary

    I’m atheist, by individual reason. I don’t require validation by others.

    “I took part in a conversation about contemporary atheism, which appeared on The Point, which is a web series spin-off of The Young Turks, which itself is both a web series and a show broadcast on Current TV. (Got all that?) My co-panelists were Michael Shermer of the Skeptics Society and Edward Falzon, author of the (satirical!) book Being Gay is Disgusting, and it was hosted by Cara Santa Maria, science corresponded for the Huffington Post. ”

    Organized anarchists are just as pointless.

  • Random Rambler

    @Julian Penrod, If you are banned for simply sharing your opinion on the God question I would un-bookmark this blog and never look back. I see no reason why that would happen though.
    I would even say that I sympathize with what you’re saying. I can remember reading Kierkegaard, Marcel, Buber, and others in my youth and coming to see the world in essentially religious terms. The human existential situation is rich and in the face of peak experiences nihilistic/atheistic points of view can seem rather hollow and irrelevant.

  • Kel

    “It was a great talk, although it did reinforce my conviction that while we atheists are mostly right on the metaphysics, we need to really raise our game when it comes to epistemology and metaethics.”
    My impression from listening to critics of atheism is that we’ve got the epistemology (mostly) right, but it’s our metaphysics that’s lacking.

    Agreed on the metaethics.

  • Richard

    I guess Sean isn’t interested in answering my question. He has more important things to do, like figuring out when his next appearance on The Colbert Report will be, as well as other media-related projects that benefit his hungry ego and help establish his fame and importance in the world.

  • AI

    Jay: “What are the non-religious arguments against same-sex marriage?”

    No offspring.

    It can be argued that the sole purpose of marriage is to provide for pregnant female and offspring.

  • Mephane

    @AI: But the idea that the sole purpose of marriage is procreation by itself is an originally religious concept, and falls apart when you remove religion from your considerations.

  • AI

    @Mephane: I disagree, mariage is clearly a concept rooted in biology, there are plenty of examples of behavior which can be seen as an archetype of marriage in animal kingdom. Birds pairing and nesting together to rise offspring for example.

    It’s a consequence of the fact that when the effort needed to give birth to and raise successful offspring is very high it makes evolutionary sense for both parents to cooperate.

    Both religion and other meanings imputed to marriage came later.

  • David Evans

    “Sean, how do you know God doesn’t exist?”

    Richard, how do I know Superman doesn’t exist?

    Answer: because there is no evidence that he does the feats attributed to him, and because the documents attesting his existence are internally inconsistent and contradict much of our other knowledge.

  • Ray Gedaly

    #22 @Julian: Please use a spell checker. You keep leaving the second “o” out of “Good.”

  • bill puka

    There likely is no way to prove that god does not exist if people are willing to define god in very abstract ways–as giant forces with sentience. But those depictions make god so different than god in a personal conception that I doubt they are God. Protein could be god, or bozons plus the four forces, but it makes little sense to pray to them. THe word atheist is ill-conceived. Not only does it mean either against theism or not-theism, but against God or disbelieving in God. It’s like vegetarianism that can seem to concern vegetables, which it doesn’t, simply not killing sentient animals or eating mutilated and rotting animal cadavers. Are people aunicornists if they don;t believe in unicorns and afairiyists, if not fairyists? Atheists are better understood as people who do not believe in what is not there, god among other things. But where believers thing God is especially crucial to believe in, they make God a focus. Atheists or agnostics simply don’t. God does not matter to anything for them. I am a Catholic, buddhist, UU Jew, and belief in God has nothing to do with that either.

  • Faizan sarwar

    God and ghosts are creation of human mind.Actually,man doesn’t want to end his life like other animals.He thinks that he must live always.
    So, human mind creats god.And,as he believes in god he thinks about another side that is ghost,and he always tries to relate himself with these supernatural things.
    But, a mentally disturbed person or animals who are brainly poor never thinks about god or ghost.This proves that god and ghost is only our imagination

  • Jay

    @27: Yeah, which is why the law only permits women to marry before menopause. FAIL

  • Red

    Sean, thank you for offering both helpful clarifications and depth to this conversation. I appreciated that you not only pointed out why theism is irrational, but also that you took seriously the ways the atheistic position is underdeveloped. Near the end of the video you asked an excellent question that was never really addressed: “What is the fundamental reason for saying some behavior is good and some behavior is bad?”

    The religious community gives an answer that question that you don’t accept, and you’ve given some good reasons why you think their argument is not sufficient. What work is being done to provide an answer to that question from an atheistic viewpoint? As you said in the video, this is a difficult question to answer, but do you have any ideas about what the beginning of an answer might look like?

    • Sean Carroll

      Red– I have ideas, but nothing so well-developed that I would claim it is worth other people’s time to think about. My starting point would be the understanding that the universe itself (1) is all that exists and happens, and (2) doesn’t pass any judgment at all about right or wrong. It has to be a human construction from start to finish. But we’re not blank slates; we possess inclinations and preferences. The subject of morality has to be about systematizing what we think of as the best of those preferences.

  • Walter

    I am an atheist, and I completely hate it. I find atheism to be nihilistic, depressing, and makes life utterly meaningless and pointless, and please do not give me any of this “you have to find your own meaning” crap. I believe atheists who are comfortable with the pointlessness of it all suffer from some kind of autism. I find atheists to be emotionally cold and distant, but what is worse is that they do not realize how cold and distant they really are. I saw my father, a religious person, die of cancer. The atheist in me wanted to scream out, “there is no god dad.” But when I saw him praying and dying with dignity, hope, and meaning I had to keep my mouth shut. What was I supposed to say? “No dad, you will die and putrefy in the ground, all the pain and chemo you are going through means absolutely nothing, just suffer and die.” What is to be gained by making people aware of the pointlessness of it all? Truth is overrated. Once again, the only people who are not depress by atheism are autistic like individuals. That is why I dislike the modern atheist, not because the are wrong, but because they believe the rest of humanity can deal with the nihilism atheism brings.

  • Darth Imperius

    Nice thoughts Walter. It seems that you have advanced past naive atheism to “late atheism” — aka “nihilism” or “cosmicism”. But why do you think this mental cul-de-sac is the end of your journey? What makes you feel beholden to “objective reality” at all? Maybe this is where origins of all religions lie: in the disillusioned minds of nihilists, who conjure new illusions from somewhere deep within their psyches, saving themselves and future generations from total despair?

  • AI

    @Jay: Yes, the argument also obviously works against marriage of infertile couples, I don’t see your point though. You wanted non-religious argument against same sex marriage so I gave you one, law has nothing to do with it.

  • Jay

    I meant a good argument, obviously.

  • AI

    Walter: “I am an atheist, and I completely hate it. I find atheism to be nihilistic, depressing, and makes life utterly meaningless and pointless…”

    While, atheism may be depressing it’s certainly not atheism that makes life utterly meaningless and pointless, life simply IS that way, atheism is just seeing it as it is as opposed to deluding yourself. Also while the truth about life’s meaninglessness is indeed depressing I still think concepts like eternal damnation in hell are infinitely more depressing if one truly believes in them.

    And while some atheists may indeed be “emotionally cold and distant,” myself included, it’s much better then the zeal of religious fanaticism which drives people to commit mass murder in the name of their delusions.

  • Johanna

    Non-religious arguments against same-sex marriage:

    “I (a heterosexual man) view women to whom I’m sexually attracted as something less than fully human. I’m terrified of the possibility that some gay men might view *me* that way. Therefore I find gay men icky, so I don’t want them to have any cookies, such as the right to marry. Gay women remind me too much of gay men, so I don’t want them to get married either.”

    Or this one:

    “I define marriage not as an equal partnership between two people who happen to be a man and a woman, but as an inherently gendered relationship with a (superior) male role and a (inferior) female role. (That definition isn’t rooted in religion any more than any other definition of marriage is.) Allowing a man to marry a man or a woman to marry a woman would mean changing that definition of marriage, which I don’t favor.”

    I didn’t say they were *good* arguments, and I (not a heterosexual man) don’t subscribe to them myself. But religion doesn’t have a monopoly on bigotry.

  • Walter

    Ai, with all due respect, I believe you are failing to understand the argument. I think many atheist do, I know I used to. If you believe that knowing the truth has some intrinsic value then I can see atheism as a good thing, but as an atheist I do not believe that anything has any intrinsic value, including truth. So, truth can, and is, overrated. We in our modern world believe that we rather know the truth even if that means suffering through existential crisis. I ask, what for? There is no god, there is no value, there is no meaning, and there is no point. We are just walking meat waiting to die, living in a universe headed for a frozen dark end. So, why not value delusion? The fact that people are willing to die for their faith speaks to the power and meaning faith can offer. And what are we atheist hoping to replace that with? Of course you have to be emotionally detached to endure being an atheist, but most people lack the stamina and constitution to accept the implication of atheism. I would not wish atheism on a loved one, which is why I sometimes fake belief around family.

  • AI

    Well, truth does have value to me, but in a sense similar to how food has value to me – my mind simply demands truth, just as my body demands food. I don’t tolerate nonsense, even though it may make others happy it would never work for me and there is nothing I can do about it. So there really is no option other then atheism for me.

    But I tend to agree that if people are happy with their current beliefs, however absurd they may seem to me, as long as they are not harming anyone else atheism or any other doctrine should not be forced upon them.

  • Random Rambler

    Walter, I can relate. Experiencing the death of a loved one really nails it. I also remember being at the dead bed of an old lady who was visited by no family or friends and who had no religion. She couldn’t move but her facial expressions and few words said it all. Anger, despair, terror. Contrast that experience with the death of a devout loved one, suffering but still giving off peace. Oh, guess what, I think your beliefs are silly… I wish there was something deeper that I could truly believe in.

  • Walter13

    Random. I think if we looked closer we would find at least a mild correlation between atheism and autism. This is not a criticism of atheists, but an acknowledgment of my own envy of militant atheist. I wish I could reengineer my brain as to be capable of emotional detachment, to see the world in purely mathematical terms and accept it for what it is, rather than having my primitive brain throw tantrums at what cannot be changed. But I cannot remake my brain any more than the rest of humanity can. Atheist would help themselves more if they were to acknowledge that most of humanity does not function as they do.

  • Richard


    How do you know God doesn’t exist? Maybe God does exist. Does science answer the question? If so, how? Just curious. I’m an agnostic. For me, science deals with explanations of things which can be testable. Since we only have access to the physical world of the Standard Model, etc., because we are made up of Standard Model particles, the only testable ideas and explanations are those that have the Standard Model as their basis (i.e. “natural causes”, “materialism”, etc.). But we don’t know if this aspect of reality is the only one. Hence my agnostic views.

  • martenvandijk

    The best way to promote atheism is to promote democracy and excellent public education.

  • sjn

    Walter, I’m an atheist and I completely disagree with your nihilism view. My wife died of cancer at the age of 39 and she did not believe in god or an afterlife, and she wasn’t tormented about the “pointlessness of it all” as you seem to be. And I guarantee she was not autistic. You denigrate the idea of “finding one’s own meaning,” but I also think you’re wrong here. The fallacy in this point of view is that you think meaning can only come if life goes on indefinitely (e.g., in an afterlife) and that “meaning” is derived externally (from “God” or some other agency). This nihilistic view seems to be a consequence of the inability to live life in the present, to find value (and meaning) now, at this moment, and not 100 years from now when you’re gone. Do you not think your dad found moments of joy (and meaning) in his life, or do you think those moments would somehow evaporate if he were reminded that he wouldn’t be around forever? I doubt it.

  • Walter

    Sjn. It’s nice to have exchanges without degenerating into insults, it is rare nowadays. So I am enjoying amiable this back and forth. I think you are right in a way. Many people do not seem to be troubled by atheism, and I envy them. Unfortunately that is not true for the majority. I am a firm believer that not all humans are “created” equal. It might well be that same people are just born with the capacity to face atheism without an existential crisis, but most of us do not. I do not mean to imply that those who are untroubled by it are fully autistic, but I do believe they are closer to functional autism than the rest. Autism is not black and white, is a spectrum. Atheists can play by double standards. People of faith are derided for not accepting the world for how it is, for twisting the facts in order to accommodate their superstitions, but atheists often do the same. Recognizing the nihilism of atheism is not conceding a point to the enemy, it is simply recognizing an uncomfortable fact of life, denying it will not make it go away, and a few cases of the happy atheist does not change the reality for the rest of humanity. So lets not ridicule those who cannot see reason when it conflicts with their beliefs, we atheist do the exact same when refusing to recognize that for most of us life without transcendental meaning is pretty futile and pointless.

  • sjn

    Walter, if you can’t be a happy atheist, perhaps you could try being a happy agnostic and think, gee, maybe there is a heaven (even if on a plausibility scale from 0 to 10 it’s about a 0.000001). Or alternatively you could believe in the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics in which on at least one of those worlds your dead dad (and my dead wife) are still alive. Regarding autism, I know it’s a spectrum, but if the panel in the video and moderator, Cara, are on that spectrum, they’re pretty far out there.

  • Random Rambler

    While I greatly sympathize with what Walter is saying, from my experience I would say that it is possible to experience the world in some kind of mystical, transcendent way from an atheist or agnostic worldview. I mean, to encounter some numinous aspect of reality that is inexplicably ennobling and fulfilling, and yet not coupled to mythologies and religious culture.
    I once genuinely believed in conventional religion and I think there are times when it hurts and is frustrating that we evidently do not become immortal superheroes in an eternal paradise when we die. I find myself making a pouty face and lashing out at reality for being so ’empty,’ unsatisfying, and cruel. I find another route is to embrace the beauty of contingency, and the coincidence of immanence and transcendence in ourselves and in the cosmos as a whole… Apologies for not making much sense. Articulating what I’d like to say is proving difficult.

  • Random Rambler

    @Sean Carroll: The follow-up video was pretty decent and I’m surprised you haven’t updated this post to include it. –All the best.

  • Walter

    Sjn at 51. Are you suggesting possibilianism? I thought it was derided more than theism. The many world hypotheses? I don’t know. I would have to contemplate a version of me voting Romney, too horrible, I rather take nihilism.

  • Temy

    I just watched the show and found all of it terrific. Have long admired Sean’ talks on physics and cosmology, but I wondered about the comment he made to the effect that he knows what happens when we die. I heartily applaud this and BEG, please do elaborate. I aruge with people all the time about this, and say, “How could any reasonable person possible NOT know what happens when we died?” It’s such a basic truth about life. When the brain stops functioning and producing consciousness, we (as conscious entities) cease to exist. What’s hard about that?

  • sjn

    Walter at 54: “The many world hypotheses? I don’t know. I would have to contemplate a version of me voting Romney, too horrible, I rather take nihilism.” I’ve got to agree.

  • Mark p

    Blake, I agree that an argument about obeying the OT laws displays a regrettable ignorance of the history of religion. A much better argument about the hypocrisy of modern Christianity is that virtually all modern Christians do not observe the teachings of their professed god, e.g. “if you do it to one of the least of these you do it to me.” Another example is the very popular Christian financial advisor Dave Ramsey. A quick skim of the NT yields Jesus’s spiritual/financial advice to a rich man: give away everything you have and come follow me. I don’t hear Dave offering that advice, much less following it.

  • Faizan sarwar

    When, we compare an atom with universe,it is negligible.But, the whole universe is made up of,if atoms not exist universe won’t exist.
    Like that, every human being is very very important for success of mankind.And, Mankind is equally important for universe, because he has the capability to change the flow of universe as he, much more intelligent person much more intelligent mankind.
    So,Instead of fear to die let us cheer our life.

  • JimV

    Replying to a previous comment, I define a theist as one who believes in a god, and an a-theist as one who is not a theist, i.e., one who lacks a belief in gods. This is consistent with symmetry and asymmetry, among other examples. (To say something has asymmetry does not mean it believes that symmetry does not exist.) If philosophers in their mithril towers disagree with me, that’s too bad, but in any case that is how I define my brand of atheism and know of many who feel the same way. Perhaps the word police can give me another word to use. It won’t be agnostic – most atheists, including Richard Dawkings, have some degree of agnosticism, along with their lack of belief in any of the gods which humans have invented so far.

    I am pretty darn sure that conscious is a brain function and therefore that when my brain ceases to function so will my consciousness. That doesn’t bother me (although the thought that probably my death will involve pain and unpleasantness does). The older I get, the more tired I get of the rat race and the thought of having to spend an eternity in it is more frightening to contemplate than simply ending. If I did find out I had to exist in some way forever and somebody asked me what I would do with all that time, I would answer as Jose Jimenez did, “Well, I plan to cry a lot.”

    Some naturalist said, “The male primate becomes morose and savage with age.” True, but there is a lot to be morose and savage about.

  • tim Rowledge

    Bah. Life has no meaning. *Your* life has all the meaning you can shoehorn into it. Do a good job and your life will have (had) meaning to others as well.
    Don’t anthropomorphise the universe; it hates that.

  • Andrew

    Liked the show, it’s hers, but did she talk too much ? More than all three panelists put together. Prefer to hear more from the elders.

  • Tony

    This pretty much devolved into an insipid discussion of biased politics. Denial is not just a river in Egypt. None of the panelists addressed the real cognitive behavioral basis of religion, and how atheism changes it, or relies on it. To think believers can’t act scientifically is just plain wrong.. Just ask any astronaut. It is also wrong to think that atheists’ brains and cognitive behavioral traits do not depend on the cultural religious traditions that imbue humanity. Humanistic beliefs, however informed, fly in the face of true evolution. Evolution does not care about what happens to us. What survives, survives. Analyze atheism with the same skepticism that you face other people’s religion with.

  • ohwilleke

    I am not worried about ill considered metaethics. Metaethics more often than not tend to be post hoc justifications for applied ethics that are developed and absorbed holistically by example in social context before we even know what we are doing.

    Likewise, the questions that philosophers talk about when the discuss epistemology often seem far removed from the practical issues that arise when one is conducting scientific research, formulating rules of evidence, or even addressing foundational questions of what is knowable in quantum physics.

    When I read modern academic papers by philosophy academics my reaction is mostly disgust at the thought that they so profoundly waste their talents obsfurcating and missing the point.

    Philosophers, generally, seem utterly incapable of figuring out what questions and level of analysis matter and make sense. The challenges involved in living life simply aren’t posed or resolved at that level of logical but sterile rigor. Put another way, mostly, philosophers (and the “points” to which the panelists reacted) are mostly cases of asking the wrong questions and therefore getting answers that aren’t helpful even when they are right.

    This is a damn shame because I don’t think that the discipline needs to be this way. There are all sorts of big picture fundamental questions that are relevant and worth thinking about, and instead academic philosophers are obsessed with retreading obsolete intellectual history without acknowledging that the are basically historians and not innovative thinkers.

    One of the reasons that I tend to prefer the moniker “secular humanism” to “atheism” is also that the term “secular humanism” makes more clear the notion that non-belief in god is not the foundhead of the overall worldview, ethics and life script that a typical American (or European) who doesn’t believe in god lives. One shouldn’t feel inadequate if the principles one lives one’s life based upon can’t be derived from first principles and philosophical logic alone. Meaning in life and morality and gathering knowledge to form a bigger picture aren’t top down enterprises.

  • JimmyDean Breakfastsausage

    “27. AI Says:
    August 20th, 2012 at 12:18 am

    Jay: “What are the non-religious arguments against same-sex marriage?”

    No offspring.

    It can be argued that the sole purpose of marriage is to provide for pregnant female and offspring.

    Actually with modern technology offspring is possible for both men and women. Even without modern technology, it’s easily possible for lesbians to get pregnant. Men just need to find a woman willing to give up their child.

    Many say the purpose of marriage is mutual support. Catholic church teaches no divorce, but baby making years is only a small part of the possible longevity of marriage.


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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