Friday, February 18, 2022

Too Hot to Handle: Atheists in Foxholes

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

David Rönnegard is 37. He has a PhD in philosophy from the London School of Economics, and is a researcher and teacher in corporate social responsibility in Stockholm. But far too soon David’s friends and family will be using “had” and “was” rather than “has” and “is” to describe him.

Dr. Rönnegard has stage four lung cancer.

He is also the author of an article in Philosophy Now entitled “Atheist in a Foxhole”, concerning which he says this:

“Religious people sometimes say that no-one is an atheist in a foxhole (presumably that applies to cancerburrows too) — the presumption being that ‘ye of little faith’ will grasp for solace through a supernatural belief system hitherto rejected because ye have now had a change of fortune. But if wishful thinking were so easy, and effective, I would simply wish the cancer to be gone — that would seem to be the straightforward wishful approach.”

Tom: Well, the issue is pretty straightforward here, isn’t it, Immanuel Can? As Dr. Rönnegard himself puts it, “From where does a faithless philosopher obtain consolation? What provides meaning for a life lived, and acceptance of a fate anticipated?”

Immanuel Can: I don’t think he can have any, actually.

Winking Out of Existence

Tom: I agree. And for all that he seems to wrestle with the issue in this article, I think that’s what he’d conclude too if he’s honest with himself. He seems to start candidly enough, by admitting to an obsession with what lies before him that “has hitherto been soothed by Socrates’ description of philosophy as the process by which one comes to accept one’s own death” (hence, perhaps, his pursuit of philosophy as a career), and then going on to add, “Now, confronted with the terminal nature of life at a young age, I wonder if I have sufficiently moved along this process of acceptance, which is invariably a very personal one.”

I guess my question would be, not to be unkind, but if he’s going to wink out of existence in a few months, does it really matter if he is able to achieve “acceptance” or not? I mean, dead is dead, in his view. The moment he ceases to exist, all his concerns about the process of acceptance become moot.

IC: Quite. It’s sad that there’s a real person behind this dismissive, shallow take on death. It’s a dying man. It’s a human being who’s setting himself up to face the ultimate price, and is still working on how to accept the idea that he’s about to cease to exist. And he thinks that’s the worst that can happen. And he thinks that his belief in the extinction of his soul will guarantee it will happen that way. And he thinks that it will matter one second after death what “acceptance” he has come to …

The Biggest Issue You Will Ever Confront

Tom: I’m glad you said it, because I was thinking it. It may seem insensitive to discuss the things that a dying atheist looks to for comfort and we don’t want to be frivolous or dismissive of his views. At the same time, we are all dying men and women. It’s just that most of us try not to think about it. And we should. It’s the biggest issue we will ever confront in this life.

IC: Right. As they say, “The mortality rate around here is 100%: everybody dies.” My time will come. I have no desire to be flippant. But neither do I think there’s any merit in not contradicting a man who wants to rationalize his trip to the Lake of Fire. I’d rather try to stop him. And the Lord says we’re to do that. He has “no pleasure in the death of the wicked” and is “not willing than any should perish, but that all should come to repentance”. So respect doesn’t extend to letting a man commit eternal spiritual suicide.

Not Entirely Faithless

Tom: Agreed. Let me point out one thing I thought was interesting. Dr. Rönnegard calls himself a “faithless philosopher”, but that is transparently inaccurate. If we insist on defining faith in some esoteric, pseudo-religious sense, sure, he may be “faithless”. But faith is really just a synonym for belief. And Dr. Rönnegard most surely believes. He believes in atheism, humanism and rationalism. He says he believes in “empirical evidence” (though most of what he believes he cannot possibly know empirically). He believes death is the end of conscious existence. We know this (assuming he is a truthful man and knows his own mind) because he says so.

So he has lots of faith. It’s just not faith in anything that can hold him up now. And one has to wonder, on what genuine authority are such concepts to be believed, lived for, and died for?

IC: You can’t “embrace” eternal oblivion. You can’t “come to grips” with the Abyss. You can’t “reconcile” with your end: the end doesn’t care. And yet atheists tend to talk as if they were doing something courageous — facing up to the truth, so to speak — and then turn around and play mental games with themselves, like “I’ll live on in the memory of others”, or “I’ll make my contribution”, or “I’ll leave a great legacy”, or whatever. None of these concepts mean anything to a person who is so utterly dead that infinity itself will never see any two of his atoms reassembled. And yet they embrace these false consolations — false by their own account — and do not face up to what is happening at all. Tell me of the courage of the atheist!

Tom: There’s some driving force there, but I’m not sure it’s courage. It sounds a lot like the man doubling down for the fourth straight time when the casino already has title to his home and is putting through the legal paperwork to garnishee his pay.

Here’s a telling comment from Dr. Rönnegard:

“Most philosophers I know don’t seem to spend much time pondering the meaning of their own lives either. And if the philosophers among us are not doing it, who is? It’s the elephant in the room of secular thought.”

Who knew? Secular thought has an elephant in the room …

Three Types of Atheists

IC: Yes, quite so. Atheists have a blind spot about ultimate meaning. I talk to a lot of them and, roughly speaking, I’ve found three types:

  1. The Nominal Nihilist — This is the guy who, like Christopher Hitchens, boldly declares, “There is no more, and I want no more.” However, Hitchens no longer says that, one way or the other. In my experience those who say it rarely mean it. What they are trying to do is strike a posture so bold that it will shut down conversation; they don’t actually seriously engage their own nihilism.
  2. The Split-Personality Atheist — This is the guy who talks skeptically about Christianity, but on his own behalf nourishes the most absurd and incredible consolations that somehow death won’t matter … because of progeny, legacy, present contentment, or the pride of being his own man … and so on.
  3. The Comatose Atheist — This is the guy who simply survives by not thinking about it at all. He has no answers, and copes by never seeking any, never thinking about his situation, and generally eating his brain. He focuses on being cynical about theists, and often has not even directed a single brain cell toward solving the problems his own worldview generates for him.

Type 3 is very, very common. You meet them most.

The Sentiments That Endure   

Tom: I work with them. Type 2 is the guy who tells you he expects to “live on” in the hearts of his loved ones and family …

IC: Yes, right. Or that he’ll have a nice plaque on the wall, or that all the “fun” people are in Hell having parties he can join, or that if there’s a God he’s bound to be nice and give everyone a pass anyway, and so on. Arrant nonsense, of course: but of course, he doesn’t really believe it anyway — at least, not with any depth of conviction. No sensible person could. It’s all just mildly “warming” for the moment, so he can buy enough time to stop thinking again.

Tom: Yeah, well Dr. Rönnegard is definitely not Type 3. The alarm bells are ringing for him. And he’s not Type 1: the ersatz bravado is all gone. He’s starting to rationalize. He asks, “What then remains of value to give the sensation of a life fully lived? What are the sentiments that endure?”

But of course a sentiment can’t endure. Surely he doesn’t mean his own sentiment, or he would be positing a reality beyond death, one he has already affirmed he doesn’t believe in. So what he’s asking, if I may render it in plain language, is “How may I best convince myself that someone will remember me fondly after I’m gone?” or something like that.

But why should he care one way or another? He’s gone forever, and soon those he loves will be joining him. Well, I suppose “joining” is not really the right verb, since neither party will be aware of it …

Living On in the Hearts of Others

IC: Right. You see, if you say, “I will live on in the hearts of others,” then what you mean is that not you, but some view of who you were will persist after you’re dead in the hearts of people who are just as certain to die and disappear as you are. So they’ve just bumped the key question back one generation, not solved it. And how long does memory last? Well, it’s both corruptible and brief. Most of us couldn’t even name all of our own great-grandparents accurately, let alone remember a thing about them.

In any event, the human race itself is doomed. Atheists are generally materialists (believers that physical matter and energy are all that exists) and materialism tells us that eventually, the earth, the solar system and the entire universe — all of it — will ultimately perish in heat death, and that will last forever and ever in total blackness and coldness. Nothing will ever happen again. No memory, no legacy, no love, nothing ever.

Now, please: where is the consolation there?

Tom: Well now, I’m trying very hard to see it from their perspective, and one line I’ve heard more than once is that at least atheists are realistic whereas Christians have this pie-in-the-sky fantasy they cling to. So I suppose the consolation is similar to that of the paranoid husband convinced that his wife is always cheating on him, and one day he finds out she is, and that he was right all along.

So that’s the consolation: “See, I was RIGHT!” Except the analogy doesn’t quite track, because a dead man can’t enjoy saying, “I told you so.”

Taking Pascal’s Wager

IC: It’s Blaise Pascal, the great mathematician, who is remembered for coming up with “Pascal’s Wager”. Essentially, he asked “Are we smarter to act as if God does exist, or as though he did not?” And he used a sort of mathematical way of finding out. You could put his argument into a two-by-two grid, and it’s very clear what makes sense in terms of your self-interest. It looks like this:



If God does not exist …

A happy, deluded Christian life, but death ends all

I can live as I want, but death ends all

If God does exist …

Eternity with Christ

Eternally lost

Look at the two ways things can go for a theist, and the two ways things can go for the atheist. Who’s ahead, then? But there’s one alternative you’d want to do anything you had to to avoid: so what’s the surest way of doing that? You do the math.

Tom: It’s certainly obvious what appears to be the safest course of action, but people are not always about prudence or self-preservation. Anyone who can do math should — theoretically at least — give the lotteries a wide berth. But that’s not the case, amazingly. I quoted author Phil Sandifer the other day saying, in so many words, “Maybe there is a God, and the idea of judgment makes me quite nervous. But even if there is I have no intention of bowing the knee to him.” If we believe what he says, asserting his independence of God is more important to him than escaping judgment.

IC: Pascal’s argument is prudential. But Sandifer’s gambit is so imprudent it’s wildly foolish. For his independence is something he most assuredly will not keep: long before he dies, the encroachments of aging will reduce his options, and eventually he will return to a totally dependent state — as we all will, if we live long enough. And after death, who could be so absurd as to suppose a value like “independence” has any meaning? On the other hand, the stake he’s putting up against that diminishing investment is nothing less than his own eternal soul. It reminds one of Jim Elliot’s famous dictum: “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

The Lord recognizes the truth implied by Pascal’s Wager. In fact, he personally encouraged us to consider it, did he not? He said, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?

You’re not going to get any better investment advice than that.

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