Should atheists have children? – Part 3

What is our purpose in life?

Richard Taylor, in his book Good and Evil, A New Direction, addresses the question of meaning in life. To address meaningless existence, Taylor recalls the ancient myth of Sisyphus [Richard Taylor, Good and Evil, A New Direction, London, England: Collier-Macmillan Ltd, 1970, pg 256-268.]. Sisyphus, after angering the Gods, is condemned to roll a stone to the top of a hill, where it immediately falls rolls back down. Sisyphus then proceeds to roll the stone back up the hill, where it again falls back down. Sisyphus is doomed to repeat this meaningless sequence forever! Taylor uses this story to outline the meaninglessness with which humans pursue life. Looking at this from the outside, Sisyphus is stuck in an endless, miserable loop. His task appears to be meaningless. Consider the engineer who is responsible for building great structures. Are this person’s feats of construction not victims of the same meaninglessness, given sufficient time? Will today’s superstructures degrade to the point of nothingness in 2000 or 4000 years? It can’t be denied that today’s feats of engineering will eventually disappear. How is this any different than Sisyphus and his unenviable task?

Next, Taylor provides a second, slightly different scenario. What if Sisyphus contained within himself an urge to roll stones? What if, by some strange quirk within his mind, Sisyphus felt that his goal in life was stone rolling? In that case, Sisyphus would suddenly have meaning in life. Sisyphus would have internal meaning, as a result of what many would argue would be a misguided desire to roll stones. Regardless of the motivation, if Sisyphus contained within himself the desire to roll stones, then he would be achieving his purpose in life.

Thus, we can see two ways of looking at one’s purpose. To an outsider, the monotonous job of rolling the stone up the hill for eternity is seen as a meaningless task. From an insider’s perspective, life could obtain meaning and purpose. Erik Wielenberg summarizes Taylor’s argument as “creating your own meaning” [Erik J. Wielenberg, Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe, New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005, pg 18.]. Wielenberg offers a couple of additional answers to meaning in life without God, including “Peter Singer’s Way Out: Meaning Through Eliminating Pain”[Wielenberg, pg 23] and “Aristotle’s Way Out: Intrinsically Good Activity”[Wielenberg, pg 31]. Wielenberg’s arguments, while compelling, do not offer the same comfort that meaning from God provides. Wielenberg’s arguments, as listed above, are all internal definitions of meaning.

Different people can interpret elimination of pain and intrinsically good activity differently. I argue that the elimination of pain and intrinsically good activity arguments are similar to Taylor’s “creating your own meaning”. The elimination of pain argument suggests that one could fashion an existence based on eliminating pain and suffering from the lives of others. The intrinsically good activity argument holds that some activities are intrinsically good and should be followed no matter what. Attempting to live according to either of these arguments appears, at first glance to be worthwhile ventures. I don’t mean to detract from them, but like Taylor’s “creating your own meaning” argument, these two arguments are both very subjective in nature. With many ethical discussions, there are circumstances when the eliminating pain argument becomes difficult to support. For example, consider a sick person suffering from a horrible illness. The patient requests your assistance in committing suicide. Do you comply? This case has two equally compelling conclusions, both of which could be argued to be morally or ethically correct, depending on one’s perspective. Similarly, the intrinsically good activity argument is quickly deconstructed when two people debate the ranking of intrinsically good activities. What constitutes an Intrinsically good activity, and which activities are better than others, is debatable. We can see that both of these examples, the elimination of pain argument and the intrinsically good activity argument, fall under the same “creating your own meaning” argument that Taylor laid out.

Thus, in Wielenberg’s examples, there is no absolute standard of purpose. With God, we know the absolute meaning or purpose to life. It is well documented. Different religions may have different descriptions of what that purpose is, but within a religious worldview, there is consistency in meaning and a clear purpose of existence. To the atheist, it is this lack of empirical meaning that is difficult to comprehend.

Based on this understanding, the life of the atheist is a blank slate. It is an existence that is based on internal definition. At what point in the atheist’s life does the atheist become aware of this self-direction? It is possible, for the masses, to get through life without reflecting much on one’s purpose. Considering Socrates: “an unexamined life is not worth living”[ Plato, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, trans. F. J. Church, New York, New York: Macmillian, 1948, pg 45.]. I think that Socrates was right, but unfortunately, I also think that the masses tend to avoid examining their own lives.

Next post: What options are available to the atheist?

Todd Dow


Should atheists have children? – Part 2

We left off with some heady critiques of Christianity. Time to look at some defenses for the Christian position.

C.S. Lewis simplifies this metaphysical debate in his book Miracles. To Lewis, the debate regarding the existence of God is really a debate about borders. The naturalist claims that our reality can be explained within the boundaries of scientific explanation. The naturalist claims that miracles are either scientifically explained events that occur in nature, or else they are tricks of one’s senses. The supernaturalist claims that miracles are events that lie outside of the realm of scientific explanation. The line is easily blurred between the two, as science is not yet advanced enough to explain all of existence. Thus, Lewis argues that we are at an impasse, both sides pushing for the truth of their argument, while the philosopher sees that either view may be true. The jury is simply still out due to insufficient evidence.

The main problem, as I see it, with the atheistic worldview is the inability to explain existence. The following joke outlines this problem quite clearly:

“A scientist believes that he’s found the secret to life.

So, he goes to God and tells him, ‘God, we (humans) don’t need you anymore. I’ve found a way to create life. We’re self sufficient now. It’s time for you to leave.’

God thinks for a second, and then he says, ‘Well, before I go, maybe you should demonstrate how you create life… just in case there’s something wrong with your method… I might be able the help (God, always the humble guy!).

With that, the scientist bends down, picks up a handful of dirt and starts to pat it into a ball, saying ‘I take some dirt, and make it into a ball…’

God interrupts at this point and tells the scientist, ‘No no… get your own dirt.’”
– Author unknown

The point here is that scientific inquiry does have a lot of answers, but I don’t feel that science yet has a satisfactory answer to the origins of existence. And even if science is able to explain the origins of existence, how would we know if it is the correct answer? After all, aren’t these scientific explanations just theories? As with all theories, there are unlimited possibilities, but until we actually experience the truth, none of them has been proven. Think, for example of the early scientific arguments in support of a flat earth. It wasn’t until a more complete theory came along that this worldview was revised. Similarly, maybe we currently subscribe to a worldview that will be revised when a more complete explanation of reality arrives. With any theory of existence, it seems that there is a certain leap of faith required, even if the theory is scientific in nature.

Regardless, the goal here is not to answer whether God exists or not, but instead, it is to discuss the implications of a worldview that does not include God. To Russell, our reality is not very nice. The bad oranges prevail. Justice is missing from the world. There is no reason to be optimistic regarding justice in the world. Without God, we’re left to our own devices. Russell is referring to loneliness and desolation. Nietzsche explains desolation quite well with his outline of nihilism. To Nietzsche, nihilism means, “That the highest values devaluate themselves” The aim is lacking; ‘why?’ finds no answer.” [Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will To Power, New York, New York: Vintage Books, 1967, pg 9.] Nihilism argues that existence is meaningless. To the nihilist, there is no universal truth and there is no meaning to life. Similarly, atheists also struggle with a lack of meaning and a loss of universal truth. While many atheists will deny that they lack meaning in their lives, I suspect that they would be hard pressed to offer a reason for existence that is derived outside of themselves.

Next post: Sisyphus and the meaning of life.

Todd Dow


Should atheists have children?

Update: Sep 1 2011

I just realized that I never included a disclaimer on this post before I put it live. That would explain some of the nasty comments that were provided on this blog.

This essay was originally submitted as an undergrad paper when I was at the University of Toronto. It was a thought experiment and I was asked to answer the question, “Should Athiests have children?” This was my response. That being said, I would never consider imposing this on anyone in real life. It was a thought experiment. Nothing more.

I do still stand by my original logic on this topic, but I would never impose this on others or expect it to be applied in society.

In fact, out of all of the comments to this story, I am disappointed that nobody highlighted the main logic flaw with my argument (one that I knew when I wrote it, but realized that it could not be avoided). The flaw was that this same argument (of a purposeless existence) could easily be applied from the athiestic’s perspective towards a religious observer. The problem with this debate is that objective proof cannot be provided either way, which means that this debate will continue, with neither side able to completely substantiate their claims.

Regardless, for those that I have offended… relax. I’m not taking your babies away from you.

And, just an FYI that my creative juices are flowing again. I should have some new and original content on this site shortly.

Stay tuned!


In the next few posts, I will be asking the following question: Is it morally or ethically responsible for an atheist to bring children into the world, since that atheist subscribes to a worldview that is negative.

I will argue that the atheist is being morally and ethically irresponsible by bringing a child into the world since that same atheist subscribes to a worldview that lacks meaning, which I will argue is a terrible form of punishment. Thus, an atheist, by having children, is acting inappropriately by exposing children to not only the dangers of the world in which we live, but also with inadequate responses in the form of healthy worldviews that can be used to cope with these worldly dangers.

First, I will outline what it means to be an atheist, providing examples from Bertrand Russell and Friedrich Nietzsche. Next I will discuss the negative aspects of the atheistic worldview, thus pointing out the reasons that atheists are being reckless in bringing children into this reality in spite of their negative worldview. Third, I will explain what moral and ethical obligations an atheist has in the world. Finally, I will highlight the contradiction posed by the question of creating life in a meaningless existence. My paper will hinge upon adequately addressing the question of whether or not a life described by atheism is worth living.

Both Bertrand Russell and C.S. Lewis subscribed to similar definitions of atheism:

  • An atheist, like a Christian, holds that we can know whether or not there is a God. The Christian holds that we can know there is a God; the atheist, that we can know there is not.” – Bertrand Russell, What Is An Agnostic? pg 577
  • Some people believe that nothing exists except Nature; I call these people Naturalists. Others think that, besides Nature, there exists something else: I call them Supernaturalists.” – C.S. Lewis, Miracles, New York, New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1947, restored 1996, pg 5-6

Atheism claims that God, as divine creator, is a myth and that the natural world can be completely explained through natural means. Whether or not we, as humans, can comprehend the science behind those natural means is debatable, but regardless, atheists claim that God is not required in our existence.Russell, as an atheist, suggests that the world is generally bad. Russell argues that since, in his opinion, the world is lacking in justice, God must not exist.

  • Supposing you got a crate of oranges that you opened, and you found all the top layer of oranges bad, you would not argue: ‘The underneath ones must be good, so as to redress the balance,’ You would say: ‘Probably the whole lot is a bad consignment’; and that is really what a scientific person would argue about the universe. He would say: ‘Here we find in this world a great deal of injustice and so far as that goes that is a reason for supposing that justice does not rule in the world; and therefore so far as it goes it affords a moral argument against a deity and not in favour of one.’” – Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not A Christian, pg 591.

To Russell, God is an invention created by those that need God as a safety net: “Then I think that the next most powerful reason is the wish for safety, a sort of feeling that there is a big brother who will look after you. That plays a very profound part in influencing people’s desire for a belief in God.” [Russell, Christian, pg 591] As with other social critiques of religion, God exists solely to placate the practitioner into feeling comfort that justice will be served in a future life for perceived injustices that are experienced in this life. Using the concept of God, argues the atheist, is too convenience, especially considering the lack of scientific evidence to explain the existence of God. I counter that the scientific evidence is all around us to explain the existence of God.

Next post: C. S. Lewis to the rescue. Defense of the Christian worldview.

Todd Dow


The offensiveness of Sam Harris

This is likely to be the first of many posts in which I will criticize the atheistic worldview provided by Sam Harris. Harris is the author of two recent books:

Letter to a Christian Nation and End Of Faith

In a recent article in Newsweek, A Dissent: The Case Against Faith, Harris offers some interesting insights into Christianity.

He mocks the faith of Christian believers by questioning some of the prophecy offered in the Bible. He calls it embarrassing. And he refers to the Christianity of his targets as nihilistic. Although he doesn’t cite any specific ministers in his article, I am sure that he can find some examples of Christian representatives that could back up his opinion. But that’s about as far as I think he could go with that… I think he would be hard pressed to find many Christians that loathe their current lives and that are just sitting waiting to die. In fact, I see plenty of activity coming from Christian Churches to help people live a better life in the here and now. That certainly goes against Harris’ claim, which he makes sound like a generalization, that Christians can hardly wait for the end times. Harris argues, “It should be clear that this faith-based nihilism provides its adherents with absolutely no incentive to build a sustainable civilization—economically, environmentally or geopolitically.” Last time I checked, there are numerous Christian individuals, congregations and organizations that are dedicating their time to doing just what Harris says Christians aren’t doing… namely, helping the poor, the sick and the downtrodden. This equalization of the economic masses doesn’t necessarily follow the typical capitalistic ethic, but it does not sound like the actions of a nihilistic end-of-world fanatic to me.

Harris goes on to argue that “religious people will devote immense energy to so-called moral problems—such as gay marriage—where no real suffering is at issue, and they will happily contribute to the surplus of human misery if it serves their religious beliefs.” He then uses the example of stem cell research to back up his claim. His argument is frightening. In a nutshell, Harris diminishes the value of the beginning of human life, suggesting that early embryonic development does not necessarily constitute human life. His oversimplification of this debate is astounding. He criticizes Bush’s decision to veto stem cell research as a simple faith-based decision not to jeopardize the life of these early “souls”. Yet, Harris doesn’t feel the need to address the larger issue at all.

The bigger picture around this whole debate is around the value of human life in general and where one should draw the line when considering medical advances. One recent discussion I read (sorry… the source isn’t readily available to me, but I’m sure a quick google search would provide plenty of hits) tries to debate when a human fetus begins to feel pain and thus, which abortive techniques to use to minimize the suffering of a human fetus. Crazy… In this argument, there’s a clear recognition that a fetus does feel pain at some point, and that scientifically, it is important to determine the boundary around which that pain development occurs. Yet, no absolute method currently exists to identify when exactly a fetus does experience pain. Similarly, some have argued that a fetus can be aborted up until the point in time when it could be viable outside of the womb. That particular point in time is different for each fetus as well.

So the question becomes: at what point does a collection of cells become a human being. I don’t know about you, but I learned fairly early on that new life occurs when an egg is fertilized. I remember in elementary school watching a plant grow out of a small bean tucked against a glass with wet paper towel keeping it pressed against the glass. elementary school. Call me crazy, but would it have been ignorant or, to use Harris’ word, “embarrassing” to look at that sprouting bean and say it wasn’t a plant?
Would it be any less trivial to look at a newly fetus and say it wasn’t a person? Tell me Sam, at what point does a person not become a person? And how does that differ from a seed that has been germinated? The signs of new life are there, regardless of the current form.

Or maybe I’ve misunderstood… maybe it isn’t about this argument at all. Maybe it’s simply a utilitarian argument: we’ll use the weak for the betterment of society as a whole. In that case, how do you measure the worth of a newly germinated person, a fetus, a baby, a young child, a handicapped person, etc. against the worth of someone else in need of medical assistance? Are you suggesting that the murder of a few is worthwhile for the benefit of the many? In that case, would you be willing to sacrifice your life for “donate your body to science day” today so that the rest of society could benefit from the medical research that *might* result from your body? You’ve already told us that
Where do you draw the line, Mr Harris? And, who decides the worthy and the unworthy in this decision? I’m listening for your enlightened response, Mr Harris. Where is your “genuine wisdom and compassion” that you complain that religious dogmatism lacks?

The most curious part to me is the broad brush that Harris uses to paint Christianity. He generalizes, yet again, by arguing that Christians “safely enjoy a sacred genocide that will inaugurate the end of human history”. Yes, the Christian faith does look forward to the coming age of the Kingdom of God. But that doesn’t mean that we all look forward to fighting in the name of Jesus. Yes, some, maybe even many, Christians look to violence to solve their problems, but violence is far from the core message that Jesus offers in the New Testament. A better critique would be to suggest that Christians, in warfare, are going against Jesus’ expectations and that perhaps warfare should be reconsidered as an appropriate Christian response.

I find it as repulsive as Harris does that religion should lead to violence. But doing away with religion entirely will not get rid of the violence. If anything, trying to focus on the core message of Jesus (peace and love) would be a more appropriate response.

Consider Harris’ closing statement: “In a world brimming with increasingly destructive technology, our infatuation with religious myths now poses a tremendous danger. And it is not a danger for which more religious faith is a remedy.”

I agree with the increasingly destructive technology, but I do not agree with the solution offered. I think that religious faith can be an important tool for reconciliation and peace. Consider the work of Jimmy Carter, the Mennonite Church, Christian Peacemakers, etc. in trying to make a difference even in the face of great danger.

In any event… I’m sure I’ll have more to say later. I think I’ve said enough for one night. Don’t take my word for this though. Do read Sam Harris. And I’m sure you’ll come to the same conclusions I’ve drawn. His arguments are shallow, lacking in compassion and short on wisdom.

Todd Dow

Additional links pertaining to this entry:

Pro Sam Harris: The Atheist Manifestos I: Letter to a Christian Nation (2006)

Con Sam Harris: Letters: Morality and AIDS, Turkey and the EU, America’s vote

And I’m sure there are plenty of others… these are just two examples.