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« Are Christians (like Francis Collins) Fatalists? | Main | George Bush and Extreme Altruism »

Christian Fatalism, Continued

I sent PZ Myers, the University of Minnesota biologist who writes the popular blog Pharyngula, an email about my post on Christian fatalism. PZ in turn posted this, and someone named Colugo offered the following comment:

Should we be optimistic about the prospects for people treating each other better than they have in the past? Behavioral ecology, particularly as informed by life history theory, is a more useful approach than the old debates ('Do most people need God in order to be good?'; 'Was Hitler a Christian?'; 'Who killed more - the religious or atheists?' and so on). Violence is reduced as its costs are increased and its benefits are decreased. Under what conditions does this occur? Here are some big ones.
1. Resource flows become larger and more predictable and mortality and morbidity are reduced and more predictable, promoting a risk-averse strategy (JS Chisholm, many others).
2. Parents and other adults make larger investment in offspring because of greater payoff; increased embodied and extrasomatic capital (H Kaplan, Hill and others).
3. People become embedded in ever-larger social networks beyond the immediate kin group, circle of altruism widens (from insider-outsider to more and more people brought into the group of insiders). Reiterated transactions and information storage makes 'cheater detection' and mechanisms of enforcement more effective.
4. The state and other powerful institutions become more humane and conducive to liberty (facilitated by the above and their consequences - increasing social trust, civil society, valuation of human life, living standards, and a deeply embedded social contract.)

At the risk of being accused of being a Pollyanna, let me review some actual long-term historical trends:
Reductions in mortality and morbidity due to hygiene and other technological advances, increased standard of living due to increased energy utilization (White), markets, (Sen), social services and safety nets, and transnational cultural, medical, and economic networks. Increased democratization and human and civil rights.

Admittedly, there has been less progress made in some categories than others, and many cases of stops and starts as well as severe regression, and for complex reasons different regions of the world have not progressed in this direction equally (note: not due to genetic differences). And the historical trends which give credence to optimism could collapse in a thermonuclear instant.

Intelligent, informed comments like this redeem blogging.


mike cook

Please don't use the term fatalism too loosely to imply that monotheistic religions both (1) encourage humans to feel shame about their natural urges to seek pleasure and (2) then manage to convince these now-miserable converts that the next world will be a lot better.

That's the straw-man version of Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition that has selectively remembered the worst aspects of the major monotheistic traditions and either conveniently or deliberately forgotten the positive aspects.

Islam certainly embraces a fairly encompassing acceptance of predestination as expressed in the term "Inshallah." The ancient Hebrews could see that history moved in cycles and they tried their best to make some sense of the alternation of good times and bad times by ascribing these conditions to the moral and ethical environment prevailing in the land, both in the people as a whole and in their kings, when they had kings.

Christianity after World War Two certainly has been in a bit of a funk because so very much happened in such a short time. In the 1930's the church authorities were challenged by the obvious moral drama of the Great Depression, which could lead neighbors to plan violence against each other based on idealism for either fascist or communist economic programs.

But by the 1950's times were relatively good in the U.S.A. and we had a lot of new things to think about. For one, we had just witnessed the genocide of six million Jews in one of the most technically advanced nations of Europe. For another, Soviet communism (officially atheistic) had also apparently been carrying on quite a genocidal little program of its own against class enemies and German P.O.W.'s, not to mention millions of its own citizens who were denounced and slowly starved to death over trifles and malicious rumors. The leader of the U.S.S.R, President Krushchev, appeared in New York City to bang his shoe on the table at the U.N. and to renew an old red pledge to bury us.

More upsetting than all that, nuclear bombs had been invented, the Soviets had acquired a lot of them (we thought) very quickly, and it turns out the Nazis had invented rockets which were great ways to deliver nuclear bombs.

Then, if all that ominous historical novelty dumping on us all of a sudden weren't enough, in 1947 the state of Israel gets created. More than that, ancient scrolls were unearthed at the Dead Sea and at a place in Gaza called Nag Hamadi that seemed to speak to both Old and New Testament portions in the Hebrew Bible.

Capping off all that hub-bub is the fact that the New Testament parts of the Christian Bible are really unlike the Old Testament books except for the very last book in the Bible, Revelations, which hearkens back to an old idea that history despite all appearances really isn't cyclical, it is linear.

By the way, the correct way to read Genesis never was to assume that Adam and Eve were the very first examples of human physical form (because Genesis admits other humans from the land of Nod co-existed with Adam and Eve and married their offspring) but Adam and Eve WERE the first humans to have conscious appreciation of a number of higher things, like the knowledge of good and evil.

Not incoincidentally, the Biblical account of Eden coincides almost exactly with humans in the fertile crescent figuring out how to express their thoughts and traditions in written form.

Revelations, written by an aged prisoner on the quarry island of Patmos, is only half dark and terrible. The other half promises light and wonderful, unearned salvation. This is our future, coming at us like a runaway locomotive. Some people worry a lot about "stopping" global warming (which will be quite a trick if humans don't cause it) but they don't believe in that onrushing locomotive whose throttle was tied down thousands of years ago.

The post-modern secular scientist certainly has their own pessimistic analysis of the future of the universe, one that is starkly linear. Worse yet, on the track between a Big Bang that had no cause at all, it just banged, and the Heat Death of the universe followed maybe by all matter evaporating, the middle history of the universe is all totally meaningless, unplanned, and unwanted by any higher power.

We are the chroniclers of that middle history, It sure seems like a whole lot of stuff is going on for no reason whatsoever, especially of late. If we begin to discern the headlamp of a locomotive emerging out of the gloom ahead, I pray for a little time to sum up all this intricate, colorful contemporary history nicely.

Tige Gibson

Christians aren't pessimistic when they desire the end of the world. It will be Glorious! The fact that atheists fear the consequences of Christians carrying out this desire that drives the conflict, but that does not mean atheists succumb to pessimism either. The Middle East today is a beaker for formulating the ultimate expression of Biblical Armageddon. The Christians take this responsibility upon themselves even though it should be the Anti-Christ, but that guy just can`t be relied upon to show up fast enough for them it seems. This effort, misplaced as it may be, makes it clear that they are not fatalistic, but believe their vote can bring about the outcome to the world that they desire.

Robert DuWors

Fatalism or absolutism?

The worst conflict is not between "good" and "evil" but the one between two "goods" - these create severe conflict and wars, e.g. the "monotheism" of Christianity (which is a stretch for a religion so full of multiple divine entities) and that of Islam, or capitalism versus communism. So the dividing line comes between those who believe that "evil" has an inherent absolute standard (although they might disagree who gets to determine it) and those who wonder if "evil" is really a self selecting perception. If we choose it, no surprise that we have both sides of the coin. German Nazis did terrible things, but the real horror is that we could under the right circumstances do the same (all due respect to Sinclair Lewis). In this case we have met the devil and he is us. Is this because we suffer under a god's curse of original sin or we are a species driven by conflicting forces? If humanity sucks, do we choose to behave in nasty ways? Did humanity with 5,000 to 6,000 years of civilization under its belt, have no sense of morality before the advent of writing (alphabetic writing at that) in the 2nd millennium BCE? Somehow I think this might come as a surprise to the Indus River civilization. The patently political editing of the religious record ("books" and "bibles") is hardly uplifting history - although arguably there may be a divine plan unknown or unknowable to us what makes this apparently chaotic process more coherent. Maybe.

As an aside, I fail to see why a self assembling universe has to be "meaningless" or "purposeless" unless it has a chief architect. Meaning itself arises with the advent of consciousness that includes an awareness of the universe itself aka intelligence. Even a cursory familiarity with the evolutionary theory reveals a process that is anything but random in the main. If such were the case, cells would simply fall apart and fail to replicate. Life is counter entropic. Evolution is about the transmission of information (self assembling life) through long periods of time with many interactions of that life message in many different manifestation of individual insistences and species. There are relatively few, but critical, random changes. This process can be seen every generation, by definition. Sex does not require a master designer, in fact it would be weird in such a case. At least, sex is a problem for male dominated religions that have triumphed in modern times.

Thus, the absolutists must have a deeply pessimistic expectation of human behavior or why would their belief control system (emphasis on control) be necessary? The system's theory (theology, ideology, or philosphy) may claim to have an ultimately beneficial end (such as Christian Resurrection) or final burn out such as the Norse end of the world motif. Modern astrophysics seems to align more with Norse view, but astrophysics also evolves, so who knows what the "end state" will be in another generation? Personally, I take the current astrophysical explanation of the origin of the universe to be the creation mythology du jure. Horganism is a false religion, we can't even imagine the weirdness of science to come (anybody want 11 dimensions or maybe 21?).

But until the end comes, the absolutist assumption must be pessimistic. This is equally true even if the final stage has a happy ending, because that perfection will take an unprecedented intervention of a superior (usually divine) force. So as long as the universe exists, it must be a place full of darkness and hopelessness in itself. Only its end can promise relief.

P.S. I would like to end this posting with my son's favorite joke: "There are ten kinds of people in this world - those who understand binary and those who don't".


that binary joke is hilarious 1's and 0's ten lol

Ryan J.H.

Where does the soul begin in the chain of evolution?
In a fish? in a rat? in a cat? in a Monkey? Do these life forms get "souls"?
When a life is born (a newborn baby for example) when does it obtain it's "soul"?
Does it develop over time or instantly inside the life form?
If the unborn dies, how does it's "soul" go about in the next life? In the form of a newborn, or, are all souls the same form?
Imagine eternity, it's forever! It's almost impossible to imagine a place where you can exist forever.
What can you possibly do forever without physical attributes (hand, legs) to interact, or a brain to think?
The "soul" must be made of something (matter) in order for it to exist.
But, everything in existence as we know eventually dies out and turns to "dust" and no longer becomes as is.
I find myself optimistic and pessimistic at random times.
We are here in existence for only a trillionth of a nano-second compare to the eternal time span of the universe itself, and that seems random enough to me.
The universe and life itself, certainly is the most bizarre thing ever in existence.

Sam Taylor

The last time I looked, there were some 6.5 billion people in the world. Most of this has happened in the last 50 years. Global death rates from all causes, including murder and war, have plummeted even as the absolute numbers have undoubtedly grown because there are more people to die.

With no thanks to any of the Abrahamic religions, women in many societies are now assumed to be human with legal rights equal to men. This looks like an idea that might spread despite the best efforts of Catholic, Islamic, Mormon and much Protestant orthodox dogma. It will be interesting to see how the Chinese deal with their interesting emerging dilemma.

Despite recent experiencies (or maybe reinforced by it) starting wars for religious reasons is no longer considered good taste.

Helping people find food and shelter and the opportunity to a decent life is considered a good idea, even as we haven't gotten good enough at executing it yet.

For most people (more than 1/2) the world is a much safer place than it was 500 years ago, much less 5000.

I am certainly no pollyanna. Too many people still drink the religious kool aide and the number of psychotics in various stages of delusion with potential access to enormous destructive capabilities has to be at an all time high.

But our species has survived plagues before. I suspect we will continue to muddle through.

S. A.

I can honestly say that as a student of Science, that there is alot we do not know, and never will. We will never learn anything important if we do not work together. It grieves me to see that Christians are considered clueless beings that only ruin others lives with their pushiness. That goes for any other religion as well. I can honestly say that the only reason man is being held back is the prejudiced against everything unlike themselves.

David Mathews

Unfortunately, the optimistic views expressed are a result of not looking at the entire Earth:

In the last five hundred years humans have destroyed ecosystems, driven numerous species to extinction, polluted the entire globe, and modified the climate in an unpredictable and dangerous manner.

Things are not getting better on the Earth "for all life" (i.e., Nature), nor for that matter "for all humanity" (i.e., the entire Earth's population of 6.5 billion humans). Things have gotten better for a minority of humans at th expense of the rest of humankind and Nature itself.

Needless to say, humankind has entered into the most dangerous and tragic phase of our species' history: The terminal phase.

You might wonder, when does humankind's terminal phase end? When the species becomes extinct.

Because humankind is on the path to extinction. The exuberance of this present age (overpopulation and unprecedently prosperity and luxury for a minority of humans) will be followed by the deprivement of future generations.

Humans are busy consuming all of the Earth's nonrenewable resources (oil, coal, natural gas) and transforming these into pollution. At some point these resources will become exhausted and humans will have no choice except to face the ravages of Nature without any of the protections of our technological crutches.

Humans have also consumed the renewable resources (forests and fisheries) at such a reckless pace that these have also become nonrenewable. Needless to say, driving all of your local food sources to extinction is a minor inconvenience when there still remains grocery stores. But when there are no longer any grocery stores, the exhaustion of local food sources becomes a catastrophe.

Finally, I don't believe that the problem of human violence is solved. At least not yet. Plenty of people are dying in Iraq every day. There's a significant amount of personal violence in the United States of America. Americans own 200 million guns. There's lots of stress and anger in the world.

Needless to say, human civilization at the present moment is a powder keg. Only one little spark is necessary to blow human civilization up. A bad day in the Middle East could provide that spark, or rising stress between the world's two greatest polluters (eh, two greatest economies) China & the United States of America.

The future prospects of humankind grow dimmer with each passing day. I doubt that there is any sort of utopia in our future.

Have you heard that Mexico's oil production is collapsing? There's a catastrophe looming to our South, approaching quickly right now. The United States of America will probably have more problems than it can handle by 2010 or 2012.

Humankind has burned away its future. Peace will come to the Earth once humankind has become extinct and not one day beforehand. Too bad for humankind but life on Earth will continue on very well for at least another billion years after we are gone.

mike cook

Wow, David Mathews sure took on a big dose of "blame humanity for everything" poison from some polluted intellectual source. Sorry, David, but you are flat-out wrong on every count, especially the antiquated enviro idea that nature is fragile, delicate, and pure and that man has been the worst challenge that Mommy Nature has ever faced. I guess you must think that near extinction events like asteroids and mega-volcanoes don't count.

Utopia is on track, even ahead of schedule, there will be plenty of fossil fuel left after we have ceased to consume the stuff because it is completely out of date, and, yes, humanity is about to take a big leap into outer space.

Of course, we might have an extremely violent World War Three before much longer, but that will not slow down technological progress--it will accelerate it. You bring up the climate, which has never been stable or predictable and claim that man has REALLY messed that up.

I realize that a lot of your sort take it as an article of faith that man is to blame for the present climate change. Let's check back on that one in a decade or so, because humans will not cut carbon dioxide emission much if at all in that time, but nature is always likely to shift the course of climate change on its own.

I now, I am just an idiot in a state of denial, but we will see how stupid I am in January of 2017 (if we survive the furious war that is coming.)

David Mathews

Hello Mike,

I am not a believer in the idea that "nature is fragile, delicate, and pure". On the contrary, I am certain that Nature is powerful, harsh and powerful enough to eradicate Homo sapiens from the Earth.

Nature is powerful, humankind is weak. Nature has endured for four billion years against catastrophes of all sorts, humankind has only existed for several hundred thousand years and the species cannot survive without technology.

But this is an argument which time itself will resolve. I am confident that Nature will win and the Homo sapiens will go extinct. We will just have to wait and see.

The comments to this entry are closed.

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