Is It Legitimate to Use the Phrase “Fundamentalist Atheist”?

In support of the claim that “fundamentalist atheist” has at least some descriptive value, it should be noted that Stephen Gould used a similar phrase in his early disputes with evolutionary psychologists who imagined a reductive Darwinian “just so” story accounting for each and every human behavior and mental property. Gould called his opponents “Darwinian fundamentalists.”

So I suppose that when people have a reductive formula for “explaining” and measuring all phenomena (whether it is the Bible or materialist reduction or natural selection) and use it as a kind of “universal acid,” a one size fits all tool that substitutes for thought, then we might call it a kind of fundamentalist mentality. Hitler, for example, wasn’t a religious fundamentalist adhering to the strict dictates of a religious book, but he did have obsessive simplifying “formulas” in his head that reduced his problem-solving to thought-substituting equations (Aryan advancement via struggle, the “law” of survival of the fittest, eugenics, Jews as parasites on the Aryan body). Hitler, if anybody was, was an early “Darwinian fundamentalist”. His intellectual instruments made no distinctions and applied globally. And so a “fundamentalist atheist” is someone who might have in his head a reductive formula (or small list of formulas) for quickly explaining and thinking away complex issues, which is very like fundamentalism. Thus, we see formulaics in atheist phrases like these:

  • “Religion poisons everything.”
  • “Religion is the root of all evil.”
  • “Religion is a viral meme.”
  • “All properties of mind, existence, and origins can be reduced to physics and chemistry.”
  • “Natural selection accounts for all biological and human mental phenomena.”
  • “Evolution by natural selection is a universal acid.”

Such statements can (and have) functioned in ways akin to quoting Bible verses. They are used as global reductive dogmas that go very far beyond what the evidence warrants, and that are substitutes for complexity, thought, and nuance. They are expressions of faith and ideology, and they are very blunt intellectual instruments.

I think, for example, that one of the very great errors of the contemporary neo-atheist movement is its general failure to make distinctions between different religious practices and thought, lumping religious people together as a collective “evil.” Thus Evangelical Francis Collins, who accepts that the earth is old and that plants and animals have changed over time, is nevertheless often treated at atheist blogs with an indistinguishable vehemence from that dished upon young earth creationists. And in the threads of some of these blogs, even I, as an agnostic, am seen as a “creationist” because I’m merely open to the possibility that there might be mind (or telos) prior to matter—that it is not a closed issue for me. The very fact that I keep my mind open to the possibility that there might be a non-material (teleological) explanation for some aspects of existence, mind, or origins is sufficient to brand me a “supernaturalist.” To say “I don’t know” constitutes a secret and sinister commitment.

Another example: At atheist biologist Jerry Coyne’s blog, I notice a repeated habit on the part of some atheist posters to equate God-belief with fairy-belief. Again, there is no subtlety or nuance to such thinking. There is no attempt to make epistemic distinctions. It is just a bludgeon.

In short, distinctions and qualifications matter. And when you stop making them, you’re heading for reductive fundamentalism, and so the phrase “fundamentalist atheist” seems properly descriptive.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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23 Responses to Is It Legitimate to Use the Phrase “Fundamentalist Atheist”?

  1. morsec0de says:

    “I notice a repeated habit on the part of some atheist posters to equate God-belief with fairy-belief. Again, there is no subtlety or nuance to such thinking.”

    Perhaps, but it isn’t inaccurate.

    I prefer to use leprechauns.

  2. Qohelet says:

    Good points, but I still feel uneasy using the term “fundamentalist atheist”. Gould is like a prophet to me but I think we should be cognizant of his excessive polemicism. Perhaps “reductionist” or “atomist” atheists would be better terms.

  3. Pingback: John Gray’s Phrase for Missionary Atheism: “Enlightenment Fundamentalism” « Prometheus Unbound

  4. santitafarella says:


    I’m uneasy with the phrase also, but I have met more than my share of really extreme atheists who would fit in well with fundamentalist religious groups. Is it an authoritarian impulse?

    I know that Dawkins is sometimes called “Darwin’s rotweiler”, but some of his followers are so feral I’m at a loss to know what to call them. Darwin’s rabid badgers?


  5. hkyson says:

    If there is “mind” before “matter” how could it possibly “think”?

    Harleigh Kyson Jr.

  6. santitafarella says:


    Your question only makes sense (at least to me) if you start with the assumption that all properties of the universe must, necessarily, reduce to matter. In other words, you are trying to prove naturalism by presuming naturalism.

    Mind may not be reducible to atoms rustling in the void, or neurons dancing in the head. Scientists are very far from achieving a one-to-one correspondance between brain states and mind states, and if you have free will (or believe that you do) then mind must be curiously influencing matter, and not the other way around. When you decide to crook your arm, do you disrupt the way that atoms were going before your decision, or not? If you say no, then you must add to your strict naturalism also determinism.

    Are you a determinist? Is free will illusion for you?


    • hkyson says:

      Mind, I am convinced, cannot exist in a vacuum. It is an epiphenomenon of neuronal activity in the brain.

      If you yourself think otherwise, then you are obliged to explain how something as complicated as mind can exist in the vacuum of space.

      I don’t think you or anyone else can do this without appealing to the supernatural, whose existence can be neither verified nor falsified and is therefore meaningless.

      I believe that free will is largely an illusion. A strong indication that it is comes from the modern treatment of mental illness. Schizophrenics and many other people who are mentally ill, for example, cannot will themselves to become mentally healthier. On the other hand, many of them can be helped considerably through medication.

      Also, it has been shown that mystical states can be induced in the living brain through drugs (such as LSD) or even through magnetic stimulation. Since these states can be turned on and off at will through this kind of intervention, then we have a very strong indication that they are also an epiphenomenon of the electrochemical activity in the brain.


  7. santitafarella says:


    Mind doesn’t have parts, so it’s not necessarily complicated. You’re again presuming what is in need of proof. And you can’t locate the mind in time and space. You can’t, for example, point to mind as located in a particular part of the brain. Further, it is clear that mind (or consciousness) has a very definite impact on matter with regard to quantum experiments and (if not an illusion) via free will.

    Three indications that mind may be independent of matter and precede it are the following: First, the universe appears to have started with laws and information present with matter. Second, the first cell, with its enormous amounts of information, would seem to be in need of mind to put it there (and there were no brains yet, right?). Third, our minds have properties that are correlated with brain states, but also influence matter (as in free will and quantum experiments).

    My point is that presuming that matter is primary, and all phenomena that we experience are reducible to it, may not take into account the very real possiblity that mind has always been coexistent with matter or preceded matter, and thus cannot be reducible to matter.

    Your view has things going for it, no doubt. But it is, like the telos view, one that exceeds the empirical in inference, and so functions as a faith.


  8. hkyson says:

    Language was a useful invention when we were in the hunting-and-gathering stage. It enabled us to gather food more efficiently and, in time, to gather and transmit other useful cultural information.

    The effectiveness of language breaks down, however, on abstract levels when we speak of things like “mind,” “the Absolute,” and “substance” in the philosophical sense.

    With millions of years of experimentation, random processes are enough to produce living cells from non-living chemical components. “Mind” is not necessary to explain this process.

    Much of philosophy, especially metaphysics, is based on vacuous reifications. People forget that even though we can easily coin new terms, we are not necessarily creating new realities as we do this.

    If, for example, we speak of “aliens from the Andromeda galaxy that are building green-cheese factories on the far side of the moon,” we can easily verify or falsify their existence through careful observation.

    When, however, we speak of “mind” having a hand in the creation of the first living cells, we are discussing something whose existence can be neither verified or falsified and which, in the final analysis, is an utterly meaningless concept.

    Harleigh Kyson Jr.

  9. santitafarella says:


    You offer above a plausible narrative for your atheism—a story—that explains away the anomolies that don’t quite fit atheist expectations.

    In short, it is not only the UFOlogist or theist who constructs (metaphorically and in story telling) “green cheese factories on the far side of the moon.” Atheist do also. For example, matter’s eternal existence or self creation (from information and laws that are themselves inexplicably eternal or self created as bare ontological facts) is as resistant to proof, and invites every bit as much question begging, as the notion that mind precedes nature and does not reduce to matter.

    And the inconvenient facts that mind affects quantum experiments and that we evidently have real free will can be explained away, and might be by you, but these explanations would simply have to presume what you are pretending to prove. Empirically, we have raw facts in need of explanations that are still forthcoming: mind, free will, and matter. The assumption that these reduce to matter is, at this point in history, a faith. That faith is called atheism.

    As for the first cell, you said: “Random processes are enough to produce living cells from non-living chemical components.” This too is a statement of faith; you are pretending that raw time is “proof” for something that you cannot demonstrate. It is more dark side of the moon talk from you.

    As an agnostic, I find both theism and atheism to function as faiths that invite question begging and inferential leaps in excess of the empirical. I’m not picking on you as an atheist. I’m merely trying to suggest that atheism, like theism, is an imaginitive leap onto the dark side of the moon (if you will).


  10. hkyson says:

    It seems that to maintain that “mind can exist in the absence of matter” and that “mind can exist only as an epiphenomenon of matter (the nervous system)” are both instances of the meaningless syntactic manipulation of sentences involving the abstract terms “mind” and “matter,” which are too abstract to mean anything, so both statements are meaningless and are things that, as Wittengenstein might have maintained at one stage of his career, we cannot talk about at all and should keep quiet about.

    You say that you are an agnostic. Yet, I really doubt that you are as a practical matter. At this point I would like to copy for you an article I elaborated awhile ago about science and religion:

    Science is different from religion. It does not pretend that it knows everything. There are even now deep questions about the origins of the universe that we don’t have answers to now though it is possible we may be able to answer some of them in the future.

    But the inability of science to provide answers to these questions does not prove that religious faith, tradition, or an ancient holy text has the ability to answer them. Science cannot prove that God does not exist, but this in no way establishes that God exists. There are millions of things whose lack of existence cannot be established.

    The philosopher Bertrand Russell had an analogy. Imagine that there is a teapot in orbit around the sun. It is impossible to prove that the teapot does not exist because it is too small to be detected by our telescopes. Nobody but a crazy person would say, “Well, I’m prepared to believe in the teapot because I cannot establish that it doesn’t exist.” This means that maybe we have to be technically agnostics, but really we are all atheists about teapots with orbits around the sun.

    But now let us suppose that everybody in our society including our teachers and the sages of our tribes all had faith in a teapot that orbits the sun. Let us also suppose that stories of the teapot have come down to us for many generations as one of the traditions of our own society and there are ancient holy texts about the teapot. In this case people would say that a person who did not believe in the teapot is eccentric or mad.

    There are infinite numbers of things like celestial teapots whose lack of existence we are unable to establish. There are fairies, for example, and there are unicorns and goblins. We cannot prove that any of these creatures of the imagination do not exist in reality. But we don’t believe they exist, just as we don’t believe that the gods of the Scandinavians, for example, have any true existence.

    We are all atheists about almost all of the gods created by societies in the past. Some of us, however, take the ultimate step of believing that the god of the Jews and the Christians, like the gods of the Greeks and the Egyptians, also does not exist.

    Harleigh Kyson Jr

  11. santitafarella says:


    Here’s the atheist teapot: We see mind, free will, and matter operating in the universe. Each of these things have properties discreet to them. We know that mind is not just an epiphenomenon of matter because mind influences quantum experiments. We know that matter does not just follow along its determinate paths because our free will disrupts these paths every day. But the atheist claims that, absent any evidence whatsoever, that two of the three things operating in the universe are, in fact, delusional epiphenomena of blind matter, not really real, and these two things—mind and free will—must be reduced to matter (to physics and chemistry).

    The atheist, in other words, says that matter must simply “be” but that neither free will nor mind can have equivelent, non-reducible ontological statuses. They HAVE TO reduce to matter.

    And what about the laws of physics? Are they the product of mind or telos? NO. They HAVE TO be ontologically primary. Period. This is the atheist position.

    And the evidence for these arbitrary assumptions? Nothing. It’s a faith that responds to every objection with self enclosed and circular reasoning, just like the teapot believer. It’s why I’m an agnostic (and not a theist or an atheist). I don’t know how, without inviting question begging, one decides which of these three things (mind, free will, matter) should be “sui generis” and ontologically irreducible, or whether mind and free will should be reducible to matter, or matter to mind, or whether they are all co-dependent upon one another in such a way that one cannot be separated from the other.

    The confident atheist and the confident theist are both, in my view, playing with themselves. They are pretending to resolve a total mystery with a presumption ahead of any facts that can be appealed to that might resolve the dilemmas. And their arguments are circular and invite question begging, as with the teapot argument.

    Mind, free will, and matter, and the perplexities attendent upon their existences, cannot just be hand-waved away or obscured by blowing Bertrand Russell’s not very helpful blue pipe smoke “teapot” into the air as a proper analogy. The perplexities are real, and to jump to the atheist conclusion is not just premature, but wildly premature.


  12. hkyson says:

    You have studied philosophy well beyond the point where it is useful. This does not necessarily mean that you won’t have a brilliant academic career, but the usefulness of your future writings will be highly questionable.

    Harleigh Kyson Jr.

  13. Chris says:


    Impressive posts. You display a thorough understanding of the mind/matter/free will issue.

    I must ask though, how you conclude that the theist and atheist positions are likewise on the same field in terms of logical validity/invalidity.

    I see no room for admitting – for being anything *other than* agnostic – about the origins of the laws of the universe if one is not a theist. I don’t see how an atheist could assume them a priori and then criticize a theist for “having faith” in the supernatural.

    Neither do I see how a strict naturalist could be anything other than a determinist, although I have heard of naturalists who are, but they simply say that they think that it is “not necessarily impossible for something meaningless in regards to things that are true/good/beautiful to construct an organism that has the ability to either fabricate or appregend these qualities. I don’t know how such empirical, deductive thinkers suddenly admit something on the basis of it being “not necessarily impossible”. Again, I don’t see how anybody but theists can be anything but agnostic concerning these questions.

    After all, if the universe truly is meaningless, how could it produce a mind/brain which conceives of “things” (goodness, truth, beauty, etc) that the universe itself does not even have to begin with? It is a sort of creation ex nihilo. C.S. Lewis said “How can something (the universe) which only functions via ground/consequent relationships or laws (i.e. the ‘laws’ of the universe – nevermind how they got there) produce a truth/falsity relationship? How can something a-rational (not irrational, which is very different) produce something rational? We can’t say the universe is irrational, as if it performed a sum incorrectly, because that assumes that there is some true, correct way to do the sum. It must be, from a naturalist perspective, a-rational. It must not even contain any notion of truth/falsehood whatsoever. How, then, could it produce something that it doesn’t even contain? How could life evolve by following only ground/consequents relationships to become something that follows truth/falsity relationships?

    The above couple paragraphs are just a digression and rant directed toward the naturalists who are not really thorough naturalists. I’m not saying I think it impossible for something a rational to produce something rational. I’m only saying that the burden of proof would be on the naturalist to demonstrate how this could in fact happen. The way it looks to me is that it can’t happen.

    With this all in mind, how do you conclude that the atheist and theist are on even ground? Sure, the theist must appeal to the supernatural, but I think that is where all the evidence points. To conclude otherwise would be less reasonable. I think that there is far less evidence supporting the idea that there is no supernatural.

    Isn’t it more reasonable to assume that the natural universe was created – it is not eternal and it had a beginning – by “something” supernatural?…. that truth/beauty/goodness are not illusions but are actual objective things, either created by that supernatural or are somehow eternal and are part of its being?…. that the human race is does not exist by some blind, 1 in 1 trillion trillion chance of our planet aligning itself just so, with the most delicate accuracy to develop life?… that reason produced reason, instead of non reason producing reason?

  14. santitafarella says:


    You make some strong points, and you’re trying to get me off the fence, which I appreciate. But I think that atheism’s reduction of mind and free will to products of matter might have a shot at being true if we live in an evolving multiverse. If the dice rolls are to be had only in a 13.7 billion year time frame, and in this universe alone, then I think you are most likely correct, but if the dice rolls are 13.7 billion multiplied by a gazillion universes with different properties, then I suppose that chance can do literally everything sooner or later. There’s still a lot of question begging involved here, whatever you find reasonable, but I think that we should admit to ourselves how little we know, and either stay on the fence or take a leap into some form of theism or atheism as a lifestyle (ala Kierkegaard). I think that confidence and triumphalism—either atheist or theist—is just playing with yourself. What’s that Bible verse: Do justly, love mercy, walk HUMBLY with thy (maybe) God.


  15. santitafarella says:


    I find it very interesting, by the way, intellectually, to treat mind, free will, and matter as ontologically equal existents, not reducible to the terms of the others. The reductionist move may be a phantom goose chase.


  16. Chris says:

    Points well taken. But about multiverses… doesn’t this concept create the same dilemma as if only our one known universe existed? We would still have to be unbelievably lucky to be in the 1 in 1 gazillion universe we are in. Or maybe I don’t fully understand. I admit, cosmology is not a forte of mine, but the way I currently understand multiverse theory does not make us more likely to be here, but less.

    I’ve never been comfortable with equating what I believe to be the Christian virtue faith with what Kierkegaard proposed. Abraham had the great advantage of hearing the voice of God and seeing an angel (many times I might add) in regards to sacrificing his son. Thus, I do not see his action as being a “leap” of faith into the illogical.

    I do not think theistic (Christian) faith really is totally about blindly leaping into the illogical. Belief is certainly involved, belief even in the teeth of evidence, but this is to be expected at the outset. And one should come to the “belief in belief” (if you will) through good reasons, although this is not the case with a majority of people.

    It’s complicated to state in a general way. Saying “faith is not about believing against good reasons, but it really is only faith when you do believe amidst doubt” no doubt sounds like a great paradoxical contradiction. But, what I’m trying to say is that I came to have faith in a supreme being on good reasons – objectivity, the fact that science shows the universe to be begun, historicity of the gospels, examples of happy people in my life who were theists, etc. And when I came to this belief, I came to it with the knowledge that it involved a personal being, and one that wanted a certain relationship – that is, one that wanted trust. It also wanted me to grow, and I found I could only grow as a person by going through things that were difficult. This being wasn’t going to zap me with virtue to make me a stronger person. If I wanted to be stronger, he would make me stronger by refining me through a sort of fire. And I believe that process is continual.

    But the most imporant thing I want to say about what I think “faith” is about is this. Most of the time, what I find assaults my mind and gives me doubt, are not logical reasons, but feelings. I get mad that such a thing is “allowed” to happen – either to me or to another – or I get depressed and hopeless (for no good reason at all, but as sort of a mental illness). But these things are mostly feelings, not reasons, and to go on believing and acting as you think you should *amidst these feelings* is also a big part of what the Christian faith is about.

    With that said, I make no triumphant claim about solving the problem of evil and suffering in the world. I sometimes regard my own meager pains as evils too great for a good God to allow. I shudder to imagine some of the horrors that others have endured. That is something I cannot, with an honest heart and mind, justify by some “God respects the free will of his creatures and so allows these atrocities to go on” argument. I can only say that I believe (and I think this comes after trying to develop a trust-faith based off experience) that perhaps some greater glory is worked out through our earthly sufferings; some glory that would not be possible otherwise.

  17. Chris says:

    One more thing.

    I do not think there is demonstrable proof – like a mathematical proof – that a divine being exists. But I do think there are sufficient reasons to draw that conclusion.

    What if the divine being was not so interested in a necessary consent to his existence? What if he desired to be “found out”?

    As Milton says what if we were made “sufficient to have stood, though free to fall”? And “not free, what proof would they have given sincere of true allegiance, constant faith, or love? Where only, what they needs must do, appeared, not what they would: what praise could they receive? What pleasure I from such obedience paid? When will and reason, (reason also is choice) useless and vain, of freedom both despoiled, made passive both, had served necessity, not me?”

  18. santitafarella says:


    You should listen to your feelings. I don’t say that flippantly, but just as a general appeal to wisdom. When you’re “splitting” and compartmentalizing you know that you’re probably heading for trouble. There are very good reasons (intellectually and emotionally) to doubt God’s existence. There are also very good reasons (intellectually and emotionally) to doubt atheism. But doubt is always telling us something (if we’ll listen). We need to reality test and not press full steam ahead against all circumstances. I think it is very scary to hear glib “faith advice” like this little piece you quoted: “faith is not about believing against good reasons, but it really is only faith when you do believe amidst doubt”. This idea that we stick with the program come hell or high water is a not-so-subtle invitation to self deception and a breaking from reality. Let doubt speak, and let doubt give you real pause.

    To me, faith is more like a hunch. The atheist and the theist act on a hunch. They just think the universe, on balance, makes more sense when thought about in atheist (or theist) terms, and they go with that hunch until the hunch changes. I don’t think that there is any crime in changing your hunch at various times in your life. And if God exists, I can’t imagine God minding either.

    An analogy: a person gets a PhD in planetary science and is invited to join a research project to discover whether there is life on Mars. She has a hunch that there is, and she wants to devote her life to its pursuit. She may be wrong, but she’s made a commitment to move in a particular direction, and she lives her life in constant questioning of her own premises, and may even decide, at some point in her life that there is no life on Mars, and to switch gears. The point is that she doesn’t know, but day to day she moves on her hunch, and makes her commitments, and sizes up things, and is always thinking with eyes and heart wide open. Atheist or theist, that’s the way I think life should be approached.


  19. Chris says:

    I’m not one to “push full steam ahead” by any means, so you must have misunderstood the entire gist of my post. Neither did I offer “glib” faith advice. It’s something I’ve thought very hard and long about, and – I hope you don’t take offence to this and instead consider that it may be true – judging from your response I don’t think you completely understand what I’m talking about.

    I agree that we should always listen to our feelings, but I think we ought also to remember that they *are* feelings. Sometimes they change completely at random. I don’t think “feelings” ought to have full reign over your actions or beliefs either. Otherwise one day, when I’m feeling happy, I’ll believe the world is a good place and life is worth living and there is a God and he is good and loving. And the next day, maybe I’m in a bad mood, and all that turns upside down. Trusting your feelings or “letting them guide you” is, in my opinion, a grave error.

    Neither can feelings tell us about truth. When I was a kid I really thought and “felt” that Santa was real, but, alas, my feelings toward him didn’t change that fact one bit. Feelings can tell us about ourself and how we ought to interact with reality, but they cannot tell us about that reality. Only reason can tell us about that.

    Also, I guess I didn’t clearly define the two types of faith I was speaking of: faith A being an educated guess (sort of like a hunch I guess), and faith B which is a dynamic and interactive effort toward molding oneself in a certain way.

  20. santitafarella says:


    I’m trying not to misunderstand you. Maybe I’m not clear on the role of emotions in my own life (because I don’t make myself believe anything—I just go with my hunches). I never really feel like I have this “faith B” commitment that I’ve made and that I have to ride both positive and negative emotions through. That feels too much like other things in my life (like work). It’s the kind of thing you do when you commit yourself to a particular person or job.

    I suppose you might say that you’ve committed yourself to being the Bride of Christ. I understand the logic of your position, but there’s something about what you said at the end of your comment that nags at me as not quite right: Exercising “a dynamic and interactive effort toward molding oneself in a certain way.” This sounds to me like self-persuasion. I’m not sure I’d want to be in a position where I was subjecting myself to confirmation bias because I had made a previous commitment to bring my thought and life, in broad terms, to a particular destination. But then, people have to choose some way to live based on incomplete information, right?

    I guess I’m just questioning, as an agnostic, the virtue of faith qua faith. To me, it feels like doubt is more of a virtue than faith. I think it was more than reasonable (for example) for Jews during WWII to look at their bad circumstances and emotions and doubt God’s existence. To not doubt God’s existence in the jaws of the Holocaust would seem to me the height of emotional splitting. But now we’re in the Book of Job, and I’m sounding like Job’s wife.

    I’d also like to add that to look into the starry heavens as an atheist and not doubt your certainties about atheism is also a form of emotional splitting. It depends on how you look at the world—do you see, metaphorically, a vase or a face?


  21. Chris says:

    I understand what you mean. I don’t think we should ever ignore our emotions, particularly doubt. Ignoring things seems only to make them worse to me anyway. I like to put it all out on the table and organize my thoughts as best I can.

    Faith B would be something that came to you after you had “made your hunch” as you call it. But are you sure you do not ever have anything like Faith B? If you’re having a bad day, does your idea of the world change? Do you think life is worth living, or are you a optimist, or do you believe those you love love you back? And what if you get a bad “feeling” about any of these things… does that feeling change your mind?

    One day I could be presented with a certain stimulus and it would make me “feel good”. Another day I could be presented with the exact same stimulus and, for whatever reason, it would make me “feel bad.” Do you admit feelings can be whimsical like this? If so, what does that say about our feelings?

    I guess what I’m asking is: do you believe our feelings can tell us anything about the world outside us – about reality?

  22. santitafarella says:


    Wittgenstein said that the optimist and the pessimist live in separate worlds.

    I do think that is the crux of faith. Theists look at the world and say, “Against appearances, such as the Holocaust, I still think there is some telos in the universe, and I’m moving towards that.” Atheists are, essentially, pessimistic Eyores or Charlie Browns in thier first intellectual move: “Things are as bad as they appear. Give up the search for larger meaning, and just be content with your smaller meanings.”

    Agnostics like me blow with the emotional winds. Sometimes I look at my daughters and say viscerally to myself: “There must be a god,” and other days I read about the Holocaust and say: “No way.”

    I do think that emotions can be highly intelligent. You just have to test them with reason. I also think you should test reason with your emotions as well. If you have a relentlessly logical syllogism in your head that leads you to nihilism or to flying planes into buildings, or harming another, you better listen to that emotional part of yourself that resists your seemingly impervious reasoning. Kant, on learning that one of Liebnitz’s theodicy arguments would countenance the death of a child, replied thus: “My heart rejects it!” I think that is sometimes the right answer.


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