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    Where Are The Honest Atheists?
    By Sascha Vongehr | March 13th 2013 03:31 AM | 20 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Sascha

    Dr. Sascha Vongehr [风洒沙] studied phil/math/chem/phys in Germany, obtained a BSc in theoretical physics (electro-mag) & MSc (stringtheory)...

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    Damon Linker at theweek.com laments yet another new atheist manifesto, this time by British “philosopher” Grayling with his forthcoming book “The God Argument”.  Damon is looking for me it seems, the title of his article asking:  Where are the honest atheists?

     

    Damon’s article hits on many big names to get attention and fill volume; the gist is:

     

    1) New atheists do not admit that illusions are fundamental to human wellbeing.

    2) They again and again and over again write just the stuff that sells well in order to sell well.

     

    Damon is correct and correct, and he even mentions the connection between these two at some point rather too late:

     

    “That godlessness might be both true and terrible is something that the new atheists refuse to entertain, no doubt in part because they want to sell books — and greeting cards do a brisk business.”

     

    In my view, honest thinkers admit that after sufficient dis-illusioning, any jumping to the support of other dogmas is a sell-out.  The frustration of our desire to have fundamental certainty and meaning, the insight of that such is always illusion, and the unavoidable suffering without hope are all real, though little else is real but the absurdity of it all.  However, if you want to sell books or make it in academia, you cannot admit such.  You must sell out to the democratic doctrine in power.  It is politically correct to demand “freedom of XYZ” (here gods), while hiding that you replace XYZ with something that has the same functions, but is in your own interest instead.  New atheists want ill-defined humanism stabilized by naïve scientism, because they are the priests and Jesuits belonging to that modern cult.  Honest thinkers are not as naïve as it takes to support such gods without strong misgivings.

     

    How should we answer “Where are the honest atheists?”  Damon, the honest atheists are honest, meaning they tell their contemporaries the very parts not well received, what you do not want to hear, and that may be why you find them only in the past among the old atheists, which you so dearly miss.  On one hand, you don’t hear from the honest ones, because they are selected out of the publishing process, regardless academia or homogenizing internet or wherever.  But then there is also the power this has not only over you but through you and what you write.  Let’s review what you wrote lately and list the current honest atheists you made a topic:  Nothing but your article that very prominently promotes the book of a new atheist – in fact, that is the biggest thing on your whole article!  A troll who thinks you may actually get paid for this.

     

    Well, I won’t search no further.  Surely, if you knew an honest atheist, you would have mentioned her and linked and anyways not asked “Where are the honest atheists?”, thus let me just tell you where there is one (see his links to honest articles related to atheism below):  Hellooooo, over here, hi there!

     

    Not interested?  I didn’t think so.  Never mind.  Because, actually Damon knows the one honest guy around.  He tells you so as the very first item on his own webpage:

    “Damon Linker is one of the most arresting and honest writers of his generation on the subjects of faith and politics.”

     

    Ohhhh – and he sells books!  What a surprise, Damon, what a surprise, I am speechless.

    Comments

    rychardemanne
    Nice punchline, Sascha - you forgot to put the gloves on.

    But atheist puff pieces are nothing new; marketing matters. Fideists do it all the time too.

    The one big hole in the atheist position is the lack of acceptance of altered and mystical states (unless it is to deride them). I tried to get a book published on this area and failed. And sitting in a part of the world that is predominently Buddhist or Taoist (sometimes both), the noise of theists and atheists seems like a distant side-show. What both camps don't want to see is the enlightened infidel.
    "The one big hole in the atheist position is the lack of acceptance of altered and mystical states"

    "the one big hole" ? "the atheist position" ? Singular?

    There are about as many atheist positions as there are atheists, and many (or most) of us accept the reality of the subjective experience of altered and mystical states.

    Certainly my reading of the 'new atheists' (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris) suggests that they accept the reality of these experiences, but assign chemical and/or psychological causes rather than supernatural ones.

    vongehr
    A book?  Look - if you have something to say, you don't write a book.  The year is 2013, I never read books.  You have a column here.  Review what you have regarding its scientific relevance (a different sort of adding sex with Lady Gaga to content), and tell us.
    Hank
    Well, books pay a lot better than blogging.  And Lady Gaga will go nowhere these days.  He needs to make a Gangnam-style video to go with his article.
    vongehr
    I assume he desires to communicate relatively uncorrupted to a potentially appreciative target audience, as the issue here is honesty etc.  If the discussion were about money, writing books is not exactly the most efficient either.
    Hank
    Right, 'ransom notes' likely have the highest rate of return.
    MikeCrow
    Damon Linker is one of the most arresting and honest

    I think the key word is most, it's all relative, even snake bellies are higher up than gutter slime.
    Never is a long time.
    John Hasenkam
    If you're looking for an honest atheist try your street. They are out there quietly going about their lives. You won't find them on soap boxes, you won't find them writing books and unlike the Dawkins et al they are not on a crusade. 
    I'm not sure that Linker understands what Camus is on about in The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus was arguing against those atheists who replaced one dogma with another. He recognised the limits of our reasoning, he recognised that the point is to live, not endlessly ponder upon the purpose of living, he recognised that reason alone is not a reason enough for living. 

    I agree with Richard that atheists, generally, ignore the mystical. I have long been fascinated by the "conversion experience", how mystical experiences or near death experiences can fundamentally alter a person's attitude to life. I think this deserves more investigation and cannot be dismissed at a neurological level. To simply argue it is about some aberrant neurophysiological state ignores the fact that these experiences can have profoundly beneficial aspects for some individuals. Contrariwise though these experiences can also mess people up big time, possibly because they were messed up to begin with and sought these experiences as a cure. 

    I prefer Bertrand Russell's attitude: logically we are agnostic practically we are atheists. If there is a supernatural I'll find out when I get to the other side. For the time being I'll be content with focusing on conundrums which are tractable. 

    Sascha you are an entertaining thinker. I wish I could follow your QM posts more closely but I'm too ignorant for that. 

    vongehr
    Camus was arguing against those atheists who replaced one dogma with another.
    Precisely, so "new atheists" and people like Linker do not understand Camus (That evolutionblog Jason Rosenhouse on SB even calls citations to Camus pseudointellectual in his partyline toeing response).
    I wish I could follow your QM posts more closely but I'm too ignorant for that.
    You are always welcome to tell me where I fail to take you along.  QM is a simple linear theory and naturally expected from modal realism, so the problem is largely bad presentation.  I don't need to sell books, so I have no inhibition toward improving the presentation toward actual understanding.
    MikeCrow
    I've mentioned this before, I too don't really put the time in that I should, but when I get to the end, I'm not always sure I understood what you're were trying to tell me.
    I learned a long time ago when give demo's of complicated tools, tell them what they're going to see, show it to them, then tell them what they saw.
    I know you write for 5th graders, but those are some damn sharp 5th graders.

    But, my advise is finish with a summary of what you told me.

    The idiosyncratic language I attribute to you being multilingual. I only speak and write English, and I don't do that all that well. But a question I've asked other multilingual people is what language do you think in?
    Never is a long time.
    what language do you think in?
    I feel I should point out that one of Sascha's big things at the moment is language itself. It would be ironic if his more difficult ideas were self-evident in German but impossible to express at all in English :)
     
    You are always welcome to tell me where I fail to take you along. QM is a simple linear theory and naturally expected from modal realism, so the problem is largely bad presentation. 
    Yeah, that's where you fail to take me along too. The precise way the Schrodinger equation follows from existential tautology continues to elude me. 
    vongehr
    I only mean that QM correlation (as "many worldly") can be embedded and is also naturally expected in TMR, but I do not have a way to derive, for example, the sin(delta) dependence of the amount of Bell violation in EPR. Perhaps the mere consistency of finite resolution (quantized at some level) with having to give rise to a classical macroscopic world is all we get as the reason for why QM correlations are as they are, which would be somehow unsatisfying.
    rychardemanne
    "I agree with Richard that atheists, generally, ignore the mystical. I have long been fascinated by the "conversion experience", how mystical experiences or near death experiences can fundamentally alter a person's attitude to life. I think this deserves more investigation and cannot be dismissed at a neurological level. To simply argue it is about some aberrant neurophysiological state ignores the fact that these experiences can have profoundly beneficial aspects for some individuals. Contrariwise though these experiences can also mess people up big time, possibly because they were messed up to begin with and sought these experiences as a cure. "

    That reminds me of some exchanges I had - many moons ago on a forum now defunct - about those tipping points; in both directions, believer<-->disbeliever. the thread tended to be trolled by people who had no experience of this and trotted out the usual line that subjective experiences are not scientific. The whole program on the neurological correlates of consciousness relies heavily on such subjective experiences, so that position will soon change. Anyway, the exchanges ended up going private, with some interesting information.

    One of the prevailing feelings was that having mystical/religious experiences while professing to be an atheist had a detrimental effect on the person. So that rather than learning to deal with such experiences, transforming them, and the person, and thereby gaining knowledge about one's possible states of consciousness, most people tended to push them away as if they were a form of possession. In a fairly classic Jungian analysis, those experiences gained more potency by being ignored rather than integrated. The fear was of turning into something they had despised - the believer. What these people lacked was a way of handling such altered states that was independent of belief or dibelief.

    Interestingly, the same tipping point happened to believers turned non-believers. the period just before their moment of clarity was one of feverish religious intensity, as if trying to be ultra-faithful would somehow hold back the imminent disintegration of their whole belief structure. Both tipping points were preceded by a period of chaos followed by a relaxed calm, as if the pieces fit together again albeit in a different pattern.

    Jung's advice was that people undergoing such transformations should at some point return to the faith they were brought up in; his main argument seems to be that the imagery is so powerfully ingrained that it is futile to fight it. I disagree on this point because it is precisely the conscious experience of going beyond the images and seeing the raw mental state that is taught in, for example, Dzogchen. All the statues and tangkas and mandalas in Tibetan Buddhism are just the props used to dress different functions of the mind. In the end, and if one can, those props should be removed so that the scaffolding no longer appears to be holding up the building - it never did.

    I think that progress can be made only if we separate the mystical/religious experience from the religion from which the imagery comes from. The reason why mystical sects from different religions look more similar to each other than to their own religion, is surely because at some level our states of mind have a very similar structure. The crime of theology is to make people believe the images - a fideist brand loyalty - and not look beyond them. From my discussions, many atheists seem to have the same brand loyalty, and they too have not looked beyond it. Those that do, seem to have little support. There is a real need for a mystical no-brand.

    (There are a few centres doing research in this area.)
    vongehr
    The fear was of turning into something they had despised - the believer.
    Also those who seem on the slippery slope are treated as traitors, for example the postmodern enlightenment about the limits of naive empirical scientism and relativity of descriptions is vehemently fought as anti-scientific rather than a welcome contribution toward science maturing.
    Jung's advice was that people undergoing such transformations should at some point return to the faith they were brought up in; his main argument seems to be that the imagery is so powerfully ingrained that it is futile to fight it.
    That could mean for me personally to go back to the physics of a conserved ontological substance and its production of its single future through the dynamics of physical laws.  Well, I can see this as something that must be assumed in some sense for a higher level description involving causality or choice to be meaningful, but can I ever effectively un-see the shortcommings of that version?
    atheists seem to have the same brand loyalty
    Reliability is necessary for sustainability and thus very important for visibility in the meme struggle, haha.
    John Hasenkam
    Jung's advice was that people undergoing such transformations should at some point return to the faith they were brought up in; his main argument seems to be that the imagery is so powerfully ingrained that it is futile to fight it.
    Keep in mind that people going to Jung were already struggling psychologically, they were seeking the help of an authority figure, precisely what created the problem for them in the first place. I suspect Jung was generalising here, that for some people it is better to break on through because once doubt reaches a certain level trying to return to certainty is very  problematic. The challenge is to know which people to keep on pushing. I prefer not to challenge peoples' beliefs until such time as they start expressing sufficiently deep doubts, if only because without that prior state challenging peoples' beliefs is typically futile. 

    All the statues and tangkas and mandalas in Tibetan Buddhism are just the props used to dress different functions of the mind. In the end, and if one can, those props should be removed so that the scaffolding no longer appears to be holding up the building - it never did.
    If I correctly recall there is a sutra about Bodhidharma burning all the scriptures. There is a wonderful tale about Hakuin in that regard. One day he was teaching a young girl a particularly difficult sutra. After he finished she asked, "please, can you explain that again." As he commenced to do so she stood up and walked out of the room. Hakuin exclaimed, "I've been made a fool of by this girl!" 



    Another story is about a disciple who came to his master all excited about a "big dream" or some like experience. Each time the disciple did this the master advised: just keep meditating. The master was trying to push the disciple beyond these experiences to a deeper apprehension. Long ago I had a like encounter with a meditation group. We met at this beautiful little Buddhist temple in East Brisbane, Australia and would meditate there then have a chat afterwards. During one of those chats various members began talking about their big dreams and other so-called mystical experiences. I didn't want to play that game, I thought it extremely counter productive. I never returned after that because I felt the members of this group had completely missed the point. Perhaps I was being too judgemental but for myself it was not about climbing some ladder. 


    I love Mayahana - Zen themes, for myself the stuff is wonderful. But I would never be a formal buddhist and do not go around calling myself a Zen Buddhist. I consider that to be falling into the same trap. 
    Interestingly, the same tipping point happened to believers turned non-believers.
    I suspect this happens to many believers at some point but most stay with the faith. An old friend of mine who was a church youth worker completely lost his faith and once said to me that for about a year he struggled to find  his way. He found his existential feet again but only after a long hard struggle. 

    Both tipping points were preceded by a period of chaos followed by a relaxed calm, as if the pieces fit together again albeit in a different pattern.
    That reminds me of what I used to say to people freaking out on acid - Don't worry, it is just the drug. The centre may not hold at this point but it is fun watching the pieces come back together. 

    Recently I've had some email discussions concerning suicide. I came up with the idea that if I were diagnosed with an incurable disease and given only months to live instead of undergoing all those expensive and often futile treatments I would prefer if they just gave me a heap of good acid, peyote, magic mushrooms, a crate of Johnny Walker black label, some Breaking Bad quality Metha, 500 grams of premium marijuana, DMT, and Ibogaine. I would then cocktail, do an Aldous Huxley to the max(requested an acid trip for his death bed). Now such cocktailing may not kill me so I would also request one syringe and a lethal dose of morphine, just to make sure I could get the job done. I'd rather enjoy my final days playing psychonaut than be bedridden and in perpetual pain, having my relatives go through the torture of watching me die, and wasting somewhere in the vicinity of .25 million dollars(In Aus, in the USA probably closer to 1 million) in wasted medical treatment on me. I win, my relatives win, and society wins. The last month of life can cost up 90% of a person's life medical costs and what for - to squeeze out a few more agonising breaths. They can shove that. 
     From my discussions, many atheists seem to have the same brand loyalty, and they too have not looked beyond it. Those that do, seem to have little support. There is a real need for a mystical no-brand.
    Transpersonal psychology has attempted the same. I haven't followed it closely but I was pleased it emerged in the 1970's. It will never be popular, for reasons I do not  understand in my culture mysticism is generally frowned upon. Their loss, not mine. 


    John Hasenkam
    You are always welcome to tell me where I fail to take you along.
    Thanks Sascha. Will do. The failure is more with me, I don't give myself enough time(though your language is somewhat idiosyncratic). Your posts on modal realism are great. I have read a number of books on QM and too often being disappointed. Modal realism though hit me like a lightning strike, for myself it qualifies as a beautiful idea. Can't recall ever reading about modal realism in all those books. 

    vongehr
    According to a recent survey, the modal approach to QM (Lombardi et al, not quite modal realism) is the least favored by physicists.  Perhaps being forced into idiosyncratic language is part of it, but more likely evolved fears (responsible agency, free will, ...) and the preselection of physicists.  Interest in physics starts out with the desire to gain control by conquering an outside world that is reliably being dead out there.  So, physicists are the worst choice for researching QM.  Sadly, there are currently no good philosophers (visible) that work on QM - perhaps one should force Dennett to stop bashing religion and do for QM what he did for consciousness.  The Oxford school is preoccupied with the publish-or-perish game and adds paper after paper inflating vacuous terminology around the obvious without any progress over what Deutsch has already done in 1999, and Deutsch himself seems to be going nuts.
    Sascha, you have said in several blogs that you are an atheist, childless, married, financially poor, highly educated, currently employed as a Chinese University Assistant Professor who is publicly contemplating suicide in 2013, who can't see any reason for not committing suicide, aren't you just reaffirming what Damon Linker is pointing out? That 'if atheism is true, it is far from being good news. Learning that we're alone in the universe, that no one hears or answers our prayers, that humanity is entirely the product of random events, that we have no more intrinsic dignity than non-human and even non-animate clumps of matter, that we face certain annihilation in death, that our sufferings are ultimately pointless, that our lives and loves do not at all matter in a larger sense, that those who commit horrific evils and elude human punishment get away with their crimes scot free — all of this (and much more) is utterly tragic.'

    I, on the other hand, unlike you, am very proud to be an atheist alone in this multiverse and on this one of many worlds, happily alone with my own integrity and my immense love of life, nature and all that it embodies with beauty.

    The only religion or atheism that I need to make my life worthwhile is my own love of life and nature, but I can still understand that others may need a religion to love and believe in, whether it be Muhammad, Jesus, the Pope or whatever. Those atheists like you, that see no reason not to suicide are probably devoid of love because love in my experience always brings with it a natural sense of justice, optimism and happiness.

    vongehr
    aren't you just reaffirming what Damon Linker is pointing out?
    Indeed, my article is not yet another outright dismissal of Linker's post.  My articles are consciously never simply obeying the new atheist mainstream consensus.
    That 'if atheism is true, it is far from being good news.
    "good" for who or what?
    unlike you, am very proud ...
    I find pride most unhelpful when thinking about 'deep' questions.  That is a socially evolved emotion much involved in stabilization of dogma.
    devoid of love because love in my experience always brings with it a natural sense of justice, optimism and happiness.
    Natural sense of justice?  It shudders me to think what that is, but never mind, let's get to the other two.  You are how you are, but you should not dismiss that many people widely advertized as 'wise men' have rather been overcome by profound sadness instead when facing the suffering of what they cared about due to their love.  A Zen buddhist is not happy due to love and attachment, quite the opposite.  He may be content due to exercising contentness, and that is all.