I want to post a little bit more on my afternoon with Joshua and Niamh on Monday, and specifically our pub-based atheistic chat. The obvious immediate health warning is that people usually love nothing more than to talk to others who agree with themselves, and that self-reinforcing group psychology clearly has enourmous power. Nevertheless, the quality of ‘agreement conversation’ can vary massively: picking holes in the logic of Biblical stories may be fun, but is really rather futile, whereas I think this was genuinely more sophisticated. And after all, we’re not exactly shy about talking to those who disagree with us – it’s just that, as Niamh said perfectly, it’s immensely frustrating when people declare that such-and-such a subject must be considered ‘outside the realm of knowledge’ or ‘beyond evidence’ or whatever. I often wonder why theists seem to slip this in so casually, as if they were explaining that they used screw-in light bulbs rather than bayonets.
In addition, the comfort of talking to people who agree with you is partly that it illustrates that faith is not necessary. Plenty of people are convinced, for reasons I cannot entirely fathom, that religion is vital to human society. Usually this revolves around the observation that it has been around for ages, which makes me wonder whether they champion starvation, famine and poverty and in quite the same way for the same reasons. But we also get the insistance that people (or ‘most people’) need the sense of meaning and purpose implied by religious thought. So it’s always good to confirm that I’m not the only one who doesn’t struggle with nihilist nightmares. Joshua and Niamh both agreed that, at first glance, it is true that atheism could appear to imply ‘pointlessness’ on a grand scale. But it really doesn’t take much to get beyond this. Indeed, the more you think about it, the more you realise that relativism is actually necessary for anything to have any ‘point’ whatsoever.
I try to use the analogy of love and family. Your parents, your siblings, your children – typically they are all extremely important to you, but that it’s to you is the key point. Your love for them is not based on some kind of universal appraisal of the world’s people; it is specifically relational, and the fact that others don’t have the same love for your parents that you do is more relieving than troublesome. And it also matters. If you die, someone you loved doesn’t merely shrug in the belief that they are still objectively ‘lovable’. There is a very real loss.
Similarly, moral judgements of right and wrong are equally relational between you the judge and the thing being judged. The fact that others may disagree, and the fact that there is no ultimate moral arbitar, makes your own judgement more important, not less. After all, if it’s a simply measurable fact you’re talking about – say, that a stick is a metre long – then whether you’re around to believe it or not makes no difference. It simply is. But with morality you actually matter in a pretty fundamental way, because your determination helps to form part of a collective moral belief that defines ‘morality’ itself. You’re not just trying to second-guess what the ‘right’ (but hidden) moral answer actually is, but instead engaged in something creative. Luckily, the universe is not filled with things which are objectively ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, impervious to change. That’s the logical conclusion of all this talk of ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’, leaving your life with very little to do except to play its correct part (for a reward) or deviate from the set path (for punishment). This is real pointlessness: you have no effect on what is, but simply on your own and others’ ability to measure up.
But then, as Niamh also says, you don’t even need to go through all of this before accepting the very basic requirement that any view of what does objectively exist in the universe (god etc.) need not have any relationship to what you would personally like to exist. While theists continue to ruminate on just how amazing and true their faith is because it makes them feel so exceptionally loved by The Supreme Being Of Everything, atheists will still congregate in pubs to ask why on earth anyone believes this is good enough to explain the world as it is.