What do you do if you’re a secularist blogger who has too few commenters to generate controversy, and too few good ideas to generate comments?

Simple: You track down one of your religious friends, deliberately bait them into leaving oppositional comments, and then simply post your response as a new blog entry.

I know, I know—I’m a bad person. Truth is, I like debating Mark because he’s a good guy with completely different beliefs, he articulates them well, and these debates let me get in some basic workouts in “Explaining Atheism.” So, here goes.

Mark writes:

Yes, Martin Luther did say “Reason is the devil’s whore.” But you there are guilty of taking that quote of context! Luther wasn’t just talking about reason in general; actually, in defending the 95 Theses, he appealed to reason. The problem with reason is very similar to the problem of emotion, although they are polar opposites – they can lie to you. Reason tells us that there is no way our virtue is sufficient to bridge our gap to God. Reason tells us if God doesn’t exist, ultimately, life has no meaning. Conscience tells us to do good, and reason tells us good deeds are superfluous. Nietzsche saw this, and went crazy. Kierkegaard saw this and clung to his faith. […]

In that sermon, Luther is condemning reason as telling us that we cannot be saved; that since we are not worthy of being saved, there is no feasible reason why God would sacrifice what he loved most for creatures that spat in his face.

Let’s take these point-by-point.

Right off the bat, I should point out that the quote in context doesn’t hold much meaning different from that which it holds out of context. Luther is still making the same point—our powers of reasoning will frequently run counter to what the Bible, and what Christian dogma, teach us. These seems consistent with what to me seems like an arbitrary bottom line in theology—our reasons are our greatest tools, except in cases where they contradict the Bible, dogma, or the existence of God. One is forced to assume and then reason from there. This is not true reasoning, but selective reasoning. This is, incidentally, one of the main reasons most of us find the truly detailed theologies to be useless—because they rely on basic assumptions.

Reason tells us that there is no way our virtue is sufficient to bridge our gap to God.

Not really. Reason tells you that, but that’s because you’re coming into it with received assumptions. Firstly, you assume a God. Secondly, you assume a creator who is concerned with morality. Thirdly, you assume that we are not virtuous, that we are stained with original sin. Reason only tells us what you think it tells us if we assume that the central tenets of Christian dogma are true. If one reasons this way without questioning those foundations of Christianity, one is never truly reasoning from scratch.

There are plenty of other assumptions here—that there is one God, that that God is the Judeo-Christian God, that there is a gap between the creator and the created, that the book of Genesis is true and that we are created from dirt, that bridging that gap would be in our best interests…I could go on. Where did you get these initial assumptions, and on what do you base them?

Reason tells us if God doesn’t exist, ultimately, life has no meaning.

Again, you’re operating under a basic assumption: God provides meaning. How does God provide meaning? I’ve found little scriptural enlightenment in this sense, except that I think that our original purpose was to keep God company and entertain him, and then after we misbehaved our purpose became “believe in me and do good while on Earth so that you can hang out with me and my peeps in Heaven.” Somewhere along the line pork and shellfish entered the picture, but by then I’d given up altogether.

How do you define “meaning”? Do you mean purpose, or do you mean significance? I’ll admit, I think that individual human lives aren’t very significant compared to the vastness and wonder of the universe, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying my own life and the company of others. Looking up at the stars and knowing that I’m a speck on a small planet surrounding a small sun in a backwards corner of a galaxy that is in a remote corner of the universe doesn’t make me value life less; it doesn’t make me less motivated in the pursuit of my goals; it doesn’t make me love less. The fact that I have the power, while I’m here, to impact at least a single life is motivation enough for me to do good work, even in the absence of an afterlife, a prescribed purpose, and a supernatural arbiter of absolute morality. The possibility that I could perhaps improve my tiny spot in the universe provides significance enough for me.

If by meaning you mean purpose, again, I don’t see why reasoning would lead us to believe that a Godless existence is a purposeless existence. There is, firstly, the biological imperative—reproduce and ensure the survival of our genes, which actually sounds suspiciously like God’s Old Testament plans for us (”be full of fruit and solve algorithms,” or something like that). I don’t really care much for the biological imperative (I like the sex part, though)—just because I accept the fact of gravity doesn’t mean I want to fall down, and the same can go for the mechanisms of evolution.

We can define our own purposes individually. My own purpose falls somewhere in between enjoying life and attempting to leave the world and our species slightly more well off than it was when I first got here. In any given day, I can fulfill this purpose by eating a slice of cake, by giving to charity, by making love, by playing a song that other people enjoy…I could go on, and I’m sure with the same criteria you could come up with quite a list yourself.

Conscience tells us to do good, and reason tells us good deeds are superfluous.

By what path does reason say that good works are superfluous? We are hard-wired as primates for warmth and social behavior, and to comfort one another. Our reasoning empathy allows us to understand moral situations and to put ourselves in another’s shoes in times when our interests may be at odds with the interests of others, but we are mostly already programmed to enjoy helping others simply because it has proven beneficial to the species for us to evolve this way. (I won’t go too far into the literature on this, but Dawkins summarizes the research into the evolution of morality in much of his work, and surely you can find many sources online.)

Which leads us to: if we’re hard-wired to enjoy doing good work, why would reason lead us to do something we would not enjoy? Only the truly sociopathic or deluded among us would truly enjoy murdering another human being enough to make it worth the effort. And the existence of sociopaths would seem to me to be more of an argument against God than for God, especially if he has instilled in us a yardstick of morality like a conscience, whereas the evolution of beneficial traits such as compassion in social behavior allows for variations such as a sociopathic individual would possess.

Reason reveals that I’d make better money if I trained in law instead of music. But I enjoy music, and I can reason that happiness is a better deal. Most of us are happier when we are doing good works. Why should our reasons deny us happiness?

Anyhow, ole’ Friedrich did go crazy, but most of us atheists have considered the options and haven’t gone crazy. We’ve found that relying on reasoning doesn’t sap the fun out of life, doesn’t sap the meaning out of life, and doesn’t make us go out and kill people (although during the last season of American Idol, the temptation was very strong).

So, my questions would be:
1) Why would you think that reason without faith leads us to immorality, insanity, and purposelessness?
2) Why is faith in the supernatural required for morality, sanity, and purposefulness?
3) On what do you base your statements regarding God, purpose, and the virtue of man?

Until we meet again (cue outro music).