Friday, July 5, 2013

Looking at Whitney Houston's Death through Atheist Eyes - a Rebuttal

This is a refutation of an article at CARM (Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry). If you would like to spend 15 minutes of your valuable time reading my article instead, I've included a brief explanation.

Background: The author describes a conversation on message boards between a Christian and an atheist. The atheist says that Whitney Houston’s death is a “tragedy.” The author takes offense to this, providing religious-based arguments to support the assumption that atheists can't find human life valuable, so Whitney Houston's death cannot be a "tragedy" seen through the lens of atheism. Basically, this is one Christian trying to make sense of all atheists from the replies of one atheist on a message board, commenting on the death of a celebrity. 

I would also like to note that the title to this article is more than a little misleading. It should read something like: “Whitney Houston’s death in an Atheist’s eyes – from a Christian perspective.”  This article is written from a Christian’s view of what an Atheist must feel/believe. The tone of the article is quite hostile throughout, as if just the thought of atheism angers the author, or puts him/her on the defensive. I don’t even really want to get into the author telling people what they SHOULD believe based on his/her interpretation of “atheist belief;” I'll just leave that little tidbit right there for you to ponder all on your lonesome. Unlike the author of that piece, I’ll acknowledge that atheists (like Christians) come from different countries, are different races, and have different socioeconomic backgrounds. We are a varied lot; pigeonholing atheists is (to use a tired old cliché) like trying to herd cats.

To make this post a bit more organized, I’ll use various quotes from the article throughout this post (bolded), and refute them, one by one.

Ready? Let’s go!

“If someone wants to define Whitney Houston’s death as “tragic,” then he is going to need a couple of things. First, he’ll need to show that she possessed some innate worth that was marred by the lifestyle that eventually took her life. Second, he must show that the way her life ended was in stark contrast to a far different standard, which instead describes how things ought to be.”

First of all, let’s find both ‘tragedy’ and ‘tragic’ in the dictionary (relevant passages have been italicized):

trag·e·dy noun \ˈtra-jə-dē\
a : a medieval narrative poem or tale typically describing the downfall of a great man
b : a serious drama typically describing a conflict between the protagonist and a superior force (as destiny) and having a sorrowful or disastrous conclusion that elicits pity or terror
c : the literary genre of tragic dramas
a : a disastrous event : calamity
b : misfortune
3: tragic quality or element

trag·ic adjective \ˈtra-jik\
1: of, marked by, or expressive of tragedy
a : dealing with or treated in tragedy
b : appropriate to or typical of tragedy
a : regrettably serious or unpleasant : deplorable, lamentable
b : marked by a sense of tragedy

Now, neither definition states the need for ‘innate worth’ to qualify an event as tragic. But, let me play Devil’s Advocate, and assume that there is need for worth or value. Who says that atheists do not place value on human (and other) life? As an atheist, I believe that life is much more precious, simply because there is no afterlife. There won’t be a second round or an instant replay. This time on earth is all we have – and I spent 15 minutes of it (time that I will never get back) reading a nonsensical article from a smug Christian, confident that his/her way is the only valid, righteous way to live one's life. Because I invested something that I value (my time) reading that article, does that give it innate worth? I’ll leave you to be the judge.

In both of these definitions, there is a simple meaning of “tragedy” – a disastrous event, calamity, or misfortune which is “deplorable, lamentable.” Most people that I know – regardless of their spirituality (or lack thereof) – would agree that this definition would fit the circumstances of Whitney Houston’s death. It was definitely lamentable and disastrous for her loved ones, friends, and fans. Regardless of her faults, Whitney Houston was a human being – someone who was suffering through addiction and emotional pain. Anyone who believes that atheists assign little or no value to the life of a living, breathing, sentient being understands us little. We aren't monsters. We just don’t believe in the ephemeral, ethereal definition of “worth” or “value” that most spiritual people ascribe to.

“Here’s the thing: an atheist who takes his/her faith and philosophy seriously, and drives it to its end conclusion, will be at a loss to provide an answer for either.”

Here’s the thing: no matter how much you say that atheism is a “faith,” it doesn't make it true. There are a few things in my life that Christians might say that I take on faith; two examples that I've heard used were that “you have faith that you will wake up every morning,” and “you have faith that your car will start when you turn the key.” In general usage, “faith” means believing something with no evidence. What I believe bears no resemblance to “faith” : I believe that I will get up in the morning because I've woken up hundreds of days before with no ill effects; I believe that my car will start, because in all the time that I've owned it, I've never had a problem with it starting. So, I take the evidence (years of me waking up in the morning, and a reliable car) – and come to a logical conclusion. There is nowhere in these scenarios where you can insert faith.

Now, atheism isn't a “philosophy” either. It simply means a lack of belief in the existence of a creator deity (I could go back to Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary, but I don't feel like being pedantic today). There are a few philosophies in which atheism is a definite part (take Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, for example, or like the author mentions, Nihilism). But not all atheists describe themselves using these philosophies. Just like there are different denominations of Christianity, there are different types of atheists, too. Sure, some atheists might also call themselves nihilists or objectivists, but certainly not all atheists ascribe to the same philosophy, or any organized philosophy at all. For instance, I am a Secular Buddhist. Buddhism being more of a philosophy than a religion, it is quite easy to be godless and Buddhist at the same time. I have determined, through my own good judgment, that many of Buddha’s teachings reflect a deep understanding of the realities of this world. Do I believe everything that Buddha taught? Probably not. But that’s okay, because he said:

“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense." ~Buddha

Buddha acknowledged that he was a man – an enlightened man – but still, a man. He recognized that there are many roads to enlightenment, and his was unique. In contrast, the Bible says:

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” ~Jesus

So, Jesus is essentially saying that the only way to make it to Heaven is to believe that he is the son of God, and what he says goes. Not Christian? You’re wrong. Born before his time? Too bad. Born into a tribal culture and never heard of Jesus or Yahweh? Sucks to be you! Hope you enjoy roasting in eternal hell-fire!
Now, do you see what I did there? I interpreted Jesus’ words from my own perspective – that of an atheist. I don’t claim to be something I’m not, nor do I claim to know the mind of the average (or not-so-average) Christian.  My words to the author:

Do not tell atheists what they should or shouldn't believe. You aren't one, and you have no authority to tell anyone what to do, or how or what to think. Your "interpretation" carries ZERO weight.

“The atheist philosophers who know their craft will tell you that there is no meaning in life, period.”

Let's ignore the patently obvious cherry-picking evaluation by a Christian of which atheist philosophers "know their craft," and just move on. Nobody likes a nitpicker! 
Now because the author is approaching this from the viewpoint of a Christian, s/he takes these "there is no meaning to life" types of statements at face value. For clarification: atheists do not believe that we are GIVEN a purpose or a meaning to life. That does NOT mean that we can’t make one for ourselves. We don’t have to wait for an edict from on high about what we, personally, are to dedicate our lives to. We have to do the hardest thing – we explore, try new things, read books, meet people, implement ideas, and seek out new experiences – to discover what really matters to us. We find out, through trial and error, what fills us with joy while helping (or at least avoiding harm to) others.

For me, this joy is found through helping others. I have embarked on a new career path in Library Science, because I enjoy facilitating access to information. I enjoy helping people and feeling useful. I enjoy being involved in my community – I volunteer my time and give money to causes that benefit others, such as: Pantene Beautiful Lengths, the Special Olympics, my local library, my local animal shelter – I've even crocheted hats and donated them to homeless people. If you made a blanket statement saying that all atheists are selfish and self-absorbed, and proceeded to describe me in this fashion, my friends, family, and acquaintances would wonder what person you’re talking about – because that isn't me.
Just because the author cannot fathom someone whose life purpose comes from within themselves and not from a god, in their eyes, all atheists believe that there is no meaning to life. This isn't truth. Put simply, this conclusion is the product of a lackluster imagination.
I have a saying that often makes people giggle: “The universe is honey badger.” In essence, it doesn't care. It doesn't give a shit. Some people accept this and move on with their lives. Some people refuse to accept this, and live in fear of the unknown. Still more people reject this philosophy, and choose to deal with the harsh realities of life using denial - by ascribing chance events to “God’s will.” The nature of the universe does not change – only our perspective does. If you choose to live in denial and take it on faith that there is some divine plan that encompasses all of life – this is fine. If this is how you deal with the unknown, terrific – I’m glad you have found something that works for you. Kudos. But don't try to tell me that it's the only right path - because it's not.

“…if you listen to the top spokesman for atheists, biologist Richard Dawkins: “Humans have always wondered about the meaning of has no higher purpose than to perpetuate the survival of has no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” Dawkins isn't alone in believing there is no purpose to life.”


“We could also listen to atheist biologist Eric Pianka tell us “We’re no better than bacteria!”

I want to make a note here. Richard Dawkins is a biologist. He is an expert in the field, and has extensive training in this area. He’s going to think like a biologist, which means – DNA, genes, and species survival. Ask a philosopher the meaning of life – heck, ask 10 of them – and you’ll get a different answer each time. Ask an atheist medical doctor the meaning of life. Ask 10 different atheists about the meaning of life. You’ll probably get completely different answers from that of Dawkins. Dawkins is a well-spoken, famous atheist – but he doesn't speak for us all, just like the Pope doesn't speak for all Christians.
As for Eric Pianka, I wonder what his answer would be if you asked him if bacteria were beautiful. As a biologist, he has dedicated his life to the study of living organisms – I wonder how he feels about them. If we knew how he felt about bacteria in the first place, we may be able to gauge how he feels about the human race – which, for the most part, does have much in common with bacteria. We have DNA. We are able to locomote (some bacteria move passively, by being carried by fluids, however). We reproduce (multiply). We are much more sophisticated than bacteria – I’m quite sure that Eric Pianka would agree with that – but our most base motives (finding energy/fuel, and multiplying) are similar, when stripped down to bare bones. Nature has a beauty and a symmetry that is independent of a spiritual interpretation. Just because I, Eric, or Richard don’t believe that God created a rainbow, it doesn't mean that we can’t appreciate its beauty and enjoy it.

“Unfortunately, for the true-to-the-faith atheist, Whitney Houston’s demise was not tragic. To classify it as such demands that she possessed intrinsic moral worth, and that there exists in life a way things ought to be. But making such claims implies design, and a creatorless universe has nothing in that department to offer.”

Again, atheism is not a faith. It is based on evidence, not the fervent hope that what my parents, friends, pastor, etc. told me was true - because of course, they would never, ever lie to me.

Yes,Whitney Houston's death was tragic. She, as a human being, had natural gifts that entertained and impressed us all. She suffered, needlessly. Through the eyes of a true, blue atheist – HER LIFE HAD VALUE. It had worth. If it must, as the author insists, be a moral worth, then let me tell you something: Morality does not belong solely to the religious. I described above some causes that I donate to on a regular basis. There are plenty of charities out there that are nonreligious in nature: Responsible Charity, Amnesty International, Goodwill, the ACLU, and Foundation Beyond Belief, just to name a few. Atheists - and those who firmly believe that morality does not require religious belief - support and champion these charities, which help people not only in our own backyard, but across the world. 
I believe that children all around the world should have access to nutritious food, clean water, adequate shelter, and education. I believe that women all around the world should have access to accurate information about their reproductive system, and access to a variety of methods to prevent unwanted pregnancy. I believe that all little girls should be able to go to school. I believe that all men should treat women with respect and dignity. I believe that everyone should have access to affordable medical care. I believe that everyone deserves a fair shake in this unfair world, despite their race, religion, nationality, size, gender, sexual orientation, or degree of ability or disability.
These beliefs, how I believe life ought to be, in no way imply design – they imply that I have empathy for others, and a desire to relieve their suffering.
I'm sure that for a devout Christian, the thought of a creatorless universe is scary. People cope with it in different ways. The conclusion that I have come to is this: The only thing that we can do is to do our best with what we have in the little time that we are lucky enough to have here. We all have to live together on this planet – and the least that we can do is be nice to one another.

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