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The problem for the atheist: an unrealistic optimism or unlivable pessimism?

July 28, 2015

I was recently reading a book of Christian doctrine where the authors claim to outline a problem for the atheist. The authors (Phillip Jensen and Tony Payne in The Blueprint) are commenting about ‘who is in control?

I’m always intrigued about questions for the atheist and so I thought I’d pose the scenario here and see if this really is a problem for atheists. And if it is, how atheists overcome it.

Jensen and Payne pose a scenario which I believe all atheists would agree:

For the atheist, standing along on his hill, the world spread out below him is under no-one’s control. There is no great Architect, let along a great Executive Director.

I don’t think any atheist would dispute this? That there is no-one in control of the universe – we are the result of mindless unguided forces.

Then I think Jensen and Payne make a controversial claim and I’d be keen for comment,

He [the atheist] can accept, therefore, with pessimism the irrationality, hostility, and absurdity that he sees. Alternatively, he can take upon himself the responsibility of trying to run the world.

I think they are trying to say that the atheist recognises that there are enigmas and frustrations in the world, e.g. poverty, hunger, abuse etc which we reluctantly accept because this is just the way things are. What do you think of that? Can the atheist accept with pessimism the frustrations of the world because that’s the way it is?

Jensen and Payne go on,

Most people, even atheists, realise that they cannot personally run the world. However, some feel that by corporate endeavour, humanity can and will bring the world under control.

How do atheists feel about this? Is this fair? Do atheists believe that we can control the world? If so, how do we do that?

Jensen and Payne try to show how this is impossible,

This belies the facts. Humanity has tremendous trouble ruling itself, especially when trying to work out which part of humanity should do the ruling.

This is a challenging point and something my post on the Hunger Games and Sam Harris was trying to bring out. Who determines the good?

Jensen and Payne then conclude with the problem for the atheist:

The atheist is caught between an unrealistic optimism (expressed in the Humanist Party) and a bewildering and unlivable pessimism (expressed in existentialism).

So, what do you think? Is this really a problem for the atheist? Is there a tension between optimism about the improvement of the world or the pessimism about the nature of humanity. Is there a way forward?

Jensen and Payne then go on to say that belief in a sovereign God does remove us from some of the terrible tensions of atheism because this gives purpose and meaning.

I’d be keen to hear responses.

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From → Comment, Ethics

3 Comments
  1. Hi Rob,
    Assuming you’ve captured an accurate representation of Jensen and Payne, the conclusions of tension and pessimism in atheism are just non-sequiturs.
    Atheists would generally agree that there is no “architect” (for the universe – assuming this is indeed the context), but that doesn’t mean that humanity is incapable of controlling aspects of our world.

    Furthermore, where do these assertions of “pessimism, irrationality, hostility and absurdity” come from?
    At a stretch, an atheist might describe the universe as “hostile” to humanity, but only in the poetic sense that we recognise that life can be tough sometimes. “Irrationality” and “absurdity” are attributes that apply to people (or groups), but not to the universe and existence in general (except again, in the poetic sense).

    But why pessimism? (And a “bewildering and unlivable” pessimism at that!) The conclusion makes no sense.
    The atheist does indeed have purpose and meaning in their life. It is a purpose and meaning that is discovered and defined by each individual.
    On the other hand, the theist has purpose and meaning defined for them, in the ancient teachings of ignorant and superstitious peoples.

    • Hey Paul – great to hear from you and I was keen to hear your thoughts on this one.

      I have accurately represented what they said, I took two paragraphs verbatim. I’m glad we can agree that there is ‘no architect’ for the universe in atheism.

      Good question for where assertions of ‘pessimism, irrationality, hostility and absurdity’ come from. They may feel that they can justify them with more time, but you’re right, they do sound like relatively extreme concepts coming without a huge amount of justification.

      In terms of pessimism. as I said in the post, I think that Jensen and Payne are attempting to say that there are frustrations in the world which we can’t control (I agree with you that there are aspects of the world we can control, but not all!). It would be good to clarify that (and I’m glad you’re pointing out the weaknesses in their argument).

      In terms of meaning – I do think about this a bit. It’s going a little beyond the post, but just wondering if you can help me think this through…

      Would an atheist say, ‘There is no ultimate meaning in the universe – i.e. the universe has no purpose’? I think that’s a reasonable conclusion.

      Then the atheist has ‘purpose and meaning’ in their lives – whatever they define it as.

      So how does this ‘purpose and meaning’ discovered by the atheist fit within an ultimately meaningless place?

      Thanks again for your thoughts. Really appreciate them and look forward to hearing from you again soon. Rob

      • On the pessimism thing, one angle could be if the theist projects their own world view onto the atheist’s acceptance that there is no controller. I could see a believer appreciating that position with a feeling of utter hopelessness and desolation. It evokes something Nietzsche-esque.
        (As an aside, I note that Nietsche seems to be the philosophical theists’ favourite atheist, perhaps because of this view.)
        However, no thoughtful atheist that I know of sees the ‘no designer/controller’ scenario as one of hopeless pessimism. Most of us instead are either indifferent, or even feel somewhat inspired or even liberated by that knowledge. The universe is, ultimately, what we ourselves can make of it.

        The same point of course applies to the idea of meaning and purpose. Of course there is no meaning or purpose to something that isn’t designed. Again, if we want to talk about meaning and purpose on some grand scale, like our lives, or humanity, or the whole universe, it ONLY makes sense to consider these things from the perspective of human reality. We make our own purpose – both individually and collectively – because we are the only ‘agents’ in existence for which meaning and purpose actually have any meaning! (Notwithstanding of course the possibility of other conscious mortal beings other than humans capable of reflecting on these things.)

        Let me turn the question around to a theist. Assuming God is real, supreme, omnipresent, omnipotent, exists outside of space and time, is indivisible and has no attributes, then what possible purpose could he have in creating us?
        It makes no sense whatsoever, in the context of a single God that has no requirements, to ascribe ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ to anything. They are human constructs only.

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