The Blind Man in the Cellar

Most people believe in God and are even prepared to declare very particular beliefs concerning him: he knows your future; has written a holy book; disapproves of shrimp eating, etc.

And God almost always swings a ding (is a dude).

In other words, many people say they’ve searched for God and actually found him. But I’m struck by this anonymous quote concerning philosophers:

A philosopher is a blind man in a dark cellar at midnight, looking around for a black cat that isn’t there.

This also applies, however confident they may appear to be, to theists. And atheists. After the death of God, the atheist is a blind man locked in a dark cellar at midnight. That dark cellar is an inescapable conclusion: “Might makes right.” The black cats that aren’t really there are named Equality and Brotherhood.

Or, as the apparently atheist–who knew?–John McCain recently put it at a roast for his retiring Orthodox Jewish senate colleague and friend, Joe Lieberman:

I had to put up all the[se] years with the bullshit of religion, I might as well convert.

What good is it, in other words, to go through the public motions of paying respect for religion without believing a word of it? And if atheism provides no guidance for action, why not just convert to God belief for the hell of it, as a kind of dicing game? God, after all, might give you three things: some external direction, feelings of forgiveness for past wrongdoing, and afterlife insurance.

So John McCain has hit on something. God belief is what you do to ground actions, get forgiveness, and secure an afterlife insurance policy. You suspect religion is bullshit, but long odds on guidance, forgiveness, and eternal life are better than no odds at all. You can’t win if you don’t play.

This is probably why so many 21st century people still profess belief in God: they’re outsourcing their moral compass, imagining themselves forgiven of past wrongs, and taking out afterlife insurance. With the possible exception of forgiveness, these are three things atheism simply cannot help one with.

Atheists, it is true, do often end up concluding that human beings are wholly determined by chemistry and physics–that is, they lack free will–and this can ease a guilty or regret-laden conscience. It may not give actions a larger meaning, but it does remove responsibility. Perhaps this is, in part, one reason atheists are attracted to the doctrine.

But the bottom line is this: most people are essentially atheists, living largely secular lives, not attending in their minds to God in a consistently serious way. But they’re cowards about it. They’re gaming the religious system like John McCain joked about doing.

Still, a lot of people aren’t gaming the religious system, but really believe what John McCain calls the bullshit. So my question is for those true believers: How often, in your heart of hearts, do you doubt what you think you know about God? And when you doubt, what do you doubt?

And if you’re an atheist, my question is this: Absent God, what grounds are there, really, for equality and brotherhood?

As to the blind man in the cellar, that would be me.


Here’s a song about a man who misperceives his world and situation quite utterly:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The Blind Man in the Cellar

  1. Like the moniker states, I’m an atheist, anti-theist, nihilist-materialist hybrid, and equalist. I do not claim to speak for others nor allow them to speak for me.

    Equality is, in my view, supporting a state of affairs which I find most equitable for long term balance and peace, where peace is a major benefit to myself in the over-all state of the society in which I find myself. It is the highest level of easily sustainable safety and offers the highest level of easily sustainable opportunity. The word equality can be approached in many ways and you have not defined it well here. Just the same, that is my view.

    Brotherhood is also not well defined so let me use my own definition. Brotherhood, like peace, offers the highest easily sustainable levels of opportunity for all concerned and cooperative behaviors offer balance in effort and reward. A rising tide raises all boats. Further, it is really only through shared experience and shared knowledge that we can attain comfort in knowing what we know is right. Without brotherhood we lose that and thus lose an important part of how we make choices in life. Such benefits drive commercialism, charity, learning and more.

    I do not subscribe to the lack of free will with the likes of Harris. We do have free will, and our exercise of it allows us to create equality and brotherhood… for what turns out to be our own selfish interests. Even chimps and gorillas, dogs and grazing animals and fish use brotherhood for selfish reasons. A good turn as some call it turns out to be fungible in ways that material goods just cannot match.

    Brotherhood and equality are often enough fueled by empathy. This little program idling in our brains is the driver to protect the young and the weak and those in need. It is not necessary that we all give the same importance to this program’s output, but we all but a small group have some level of it. It seems to me that equality fuels empathy in others and this is what we call friends.

    All of this I base firmly on the law of reciprocity. It is the guiding program for we mechanical atheists, meat robots, whatever you might call us hairless apes.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Once you’ve abandoned God and replaced him with the evolutionary cosmos, what you’ve replaced human equality, dignity, and justice with is power. What you hope will keep the airplane of moral regard from crashing into the brush is collective power through cooperation: what’s good for you is good for me.

      But cooperation is not the only way that power can be exercised, and my concern is that the rules of the game cannot be set. Let’s say that the world becomes atheist. In an atheist world, it’s just as likely to devolve into a Nietzschean/Darwinian situation as one that retains the ghosts of religion via Utilitarianism and Enlightenment humanism.

      Once the spells of human dignity and equality are broken by the Darwinian insight, do you really think non-cooperators won’t notice? How does one stop nihilists from taking advantage of the global system–and taking it over?

      Do you suppose the bankers on Wall Street are religious people? Do you suppose the leaders of China have any compunction about starting a 21st century eugenics program? What do atheist humanists who believe in free will (not really a coherent position, by the way) have in retort?

      The answer of course is power: they can force the non-cooperators to cooperate, which means war and some sort of ideology that supports, intellectually, dignity and equality. But the ground for that ideology is absent.

      Power gathers; equality scatters. In an atheist world, why would a group ever scatter power out to others or increase their circle of concern beyond what is strictly required for their own benefit?

      As we go forward, what will prevent (to echo Jefferson) most men from becoming horses that the others ride?

      Maybe technology will make the world so prosperous that the zero-sum game ends. I guess that could be a pragmatic hope. I still think a eugenics race is not too far out in the human future, and that human beings–as we know them as a species–could be literally outcompeted into extinction, replaced by enhanced human beings–cyborgs.


      • What you’ve said here has some serious problems.

        “Once you’ve abandoned God and replaced him with the evolutionary cosmos, what you’ve replaced human equality, dignity, and justice with is power.”

        That statement is a big ugly thing; human dignity, equality, and justice DO NOT depend on any god. Monotheist gods demand that humans have no such things, rather telling humans that such qualities come from the god, not humans. When power is evenly distributed (more or less) society allows for the greatest amount of human dignity, equality, and justice.

        The rules of the game as you say, are not set now by religion or belief, but by cooperation and working to keep people honest. Beware the military industrial complex we were warned. The power of fascism wear religion on its sleeves. Trust me when I say that the dangers of power that you worry about are very real dangers no matter what religion the politicians claim.

        Society without religion is not likely to devolve. Where religion is forcibly ripped from society by government it is always replaced with something more incidious. Where religion is abandoned by citizens en mass, it is replaced generally by reason as seen in several countries today. You seem to want to unfairly mis-characterize nihilism and Darwin. It was not religion that forced the King to sign the Magna Carta, nor religion that wrote the US Constitution.

        That power exists today and while you might _think_ it is guided by those that believe, monotheism gives the power to a select few and does not distribute it thus easily eclipses those human qualities you worry about. Gods kill blasphemers and gays, punishes ‘sinners’ in heavy handed ways.

        If you worry for the gods of deism, they aren’t controlling anything are they?

        Lets talk about non-cooperators: Spanish Inquisition anyone? How about the church calling for the killing of gays through the guise of government?

        All your worries have been realized for millenia and the power funelled through the church.

        You mention bankers and China. If China had a religion they might come up with the Inquisition. You conflate religion and moral goodness. The two are NOT synonymous and often appear to be strangers. Morally good behavior does not come from religions or gods. It comes from humans, period. You don’t seem ready or able to understand this.

        Jefferson’s concerns were mostly addressed in the writing of the Constitution and its amendments. Remember that it was enlightenment and not religion that abolished slavery.

        Human kind has all that it needs in the brain to be rational, reasoning, logical, kind, and prosperous. The dogma and delusion of religion and superstition have thus far thwarted us from becoming all that we can be. It permeates our politics and leaders to the point that they openly deny scientific fact.

        With religion in charge society will plummet head first into the first century. People in general are good without gods. To think that god or religion stop people from being murderous, genocidal, rapists and thieves is ludicrous.

        I get the feeling that you have no idea what a society with equality and no gods could actually look like. Your fears are unfounded, in fact, proven false.
        Don’t tell me about Germany or China et al, those citizens were not free to act on their own understandings, rather they had to comply with the government more tightly than even religion dares seek. Look instead to the countries where citizens are free to act on their world views but few if any choose gods.

        After millenia of trying religion and gods have failed to stop morally wrong behavior and for the most part of fostered morally wrong behavior around the globe.

        If I cannot show how living without gods and religion would be better, consider that we’ve had religion this long and see what trouble it has gotten us? Isn’t it time we tried something new?

      • Alan says:

        m-a-l: There is nothing new or un-tried about atheism. It is by millions of years the founding tradition of humanity.

        Start on the simplest of terms: For all its colors and styles, there are two fundamental forms of religion – basic among the traditional peoples and organized religion that we are so familiar with. Anthropology tells us that basic religion appears to be universal among the surviving human population, so called modern humans. Virtually all human groups lacking religion (modern behavior) went extinct by 30,000 years ago. What we can all see through history is that no human community was ever able to develop civilization, so-called complex communities, without first developing organized religion (priests and temples). Bringing this forward into the present and recent past, it is the states which have most abandoned their once great competitive positions, that is Japan and Europe (disbanding their armies for foreign ‘protection’ and giving up their overseas colonies) that have the most pronounced spontaneous atheist conversions. Additionally, they face demographic demise, and support their economies with immigrants.

        In the face of competition from religious states, atheism does not appear viable.

  2. First and foremost, there is no God anywhere telling us this-or-that. What there are are men claiming to be speaking in God’s behalf, telling us this-or-that Each one a very different this-or-that from each other, and without giving any reasonable criteria to tell one from the other. Why, religiously speaking, may I chose, let’s say the Dalai Lama over William Craig, or Pope Ratzinger? I have no compelling reason really, in strictly religious grounds, to prefer any one. As all of them can’t be right at the same time, which one is telling the true ‘word of God’? How can one tell? What if none of them are telling God’s words after all? But as there is no God but men telling us this-or-that, and we have no compelling reason to believe any particular this-or-that is more true than others, then we have no compelling reason to believe morality is given to us by any God. What seems more reasonable is that morality is a human product as any. A need that come from our social behaviour. Weren’t we social animal we wouldn’t need any morals at all. Moral have to do with rules, what is permissible and what is not. But rules are needed only because we live in society. A man or woman living alone in a cave have no need for morals.
    it seems though that religion cames into play not as a real source for moral rules, but as a post hoc justification for them.

  3. Myrealname says:

    “I’m an atheist, anti-theist, nihilist-materialist hybrid, and equalist.”

    A nihilist! So says the guy who proceeds to write 16 paragraphs stating what he believes.

    • The term nihilism is applied in several ways, epistemology is only one area. Nihilism does not necessarily mean that you have no world view or understanding of the world or existence we find ourselves in today.

      • Myrealname says:

        I was thinking of moral nihilism… as in no inherent values… which lends itself to a tidy might is right position. How are you using it?

        If there is no God then your 16 paragraphs are just a bunch of words. Rational, reasoning, logical, kind, and prosperous? Words, words, words and more words. Laws of reciprocity? More words still. Equality, justice and brotherhoods? Too many damn words.

        You sound like a painter who paints a landscape and then mistakes it for reality.

  4. There are no inherent _objective_ moral values. I know you have a thing about words but that one is pretty important. No, it might lend itself to might is right but it does not follow that this is the only position it can lead to.

    Did you read the original post? Equality, justice, and brotherhood were not my words. One of those paragraphs you counted was a quote from the original post.

    They are words with or without a god. I get it, you don’t like words.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s