Friday, January 20, 2012

Truth, Justice, and the Atheist Way

My talk with Dr. Daniel Fincke had me thinking about Nietzsche, truth, justice and Superman.

Superman was one of my favorite heroes when I was a little kid. I had Superman pajames, and I mean the good kind: the kind that look like Superman’s costume, not the kind that just have pictures of Superman on them. I really internalized his tagline: “fighting for truth, justice, and the American way.” I never much understood what “the American way” was, and I’m still not sure I know, but I have always been more interested in truth and justice.

Atheists seem to love truth, or at least get very offended by the misuse of the term. I see a lot of criticism coming from atheists about how religion is inaccurate, nonfactual, mythical, unverified, full of lies, and basically wrong. I suppose this is fair, but it doesn’t much matter to religious people. Still, the veracity of a statement is very important to a lot of atheists… just not me.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against truth, but there is a fundamental difference between truth and justice. Truth is essentially a matter of knowledge, but justice is a matter of action. If I were forced to pick one over the other, I would pick justice every time. I know that what drove me away from religion was not that it was untrue, but that it was unfair.

Unlike truth, justice is something we are all capable of determining. Truth is tricky; the truth is a narrow road, the narrowest imaginable. It is like a two dimensional line, and it has no leeway. The truth is subject to an unforgiving paradox: anything you add to the truth will also subtract from it.

Justice, however, is very forgiving. Justice has a lot of leeway. Justice can be defined any way we choose, and each of us has our own slightly nuanced view. Justice is a concept malleable enough to be purely subjective, and yet we all acknowledge its existence. It’s very similar to beauty, in this respect.

In fact, we’re all born with an innate sense of justice. Every little kid has whined, “That’s not fair,” usually because they wanted something. Luckily, most of us develop beyond this simplistic, egotistical view of justice.

I personally believe all laws, morality, and religion derive from our innate desire for justice. Even when the actual application of this concept results in laws, morals or religions that are clearly unjust, one can be sure that it seemed fair to someone for some reason at some point.

This is sort of where truth comes in. By my estimation, justice is often impossible without the truth. Then again, truth is often pointless without justice. In some ways, justice is truth in action.

If truth is the god of atheism, then justice would be the religion. But truth makes for a horrible god. For one thing… truth exists. Sure, we can’t always detect it, or even feel it there, but we know that logically, there must be truth, because truth is little more than what is. Truth doesn’t care about us, nor does it feel anything for us. And despite what you’ve heard, the truth will not set you free, nor will it save you (really, the truth can only reveal the chains that bind you; truth merely reveals the extent to which you are not free, and it is up to you to free yourself).

Justice makes a much better god. Justice sort of resides in each one of us, and we all know justice differently. Justice concerns itself with the activities of the gods, like judgment and doing what is right. People have faith in justice. Justice makes us feel good (unless you’re on the receiving end). When was the last time the truth made you feel good?

Justice makes for a much better god, or if you would prefer not to use the term “god,” pick one of the following: spirit, idol, goal, ideal, principle, imperative, or ethos. Justice should be at the center of everything we do, even when we don’t have the whole truth.

Sometimes, the only just thing for us to do is admit we don’t have the truth. In many ways, I value doubt more than truth. I would obviously much rather have truth than doubt, but I would rather have doubt than be wrong.

I can’t say I see many atheists talking about truth itself, at least in the affirmative. On a great many things, I can find a literal army of atheists willing to attack certain things as being untrue, but trying to find consensus among atheists is futile. Atheists have not come together under truth, but under doubt.

If you never studied Nietzsche, you’re not alone. I mean… I have, but I know there are a lot of you unread philistines out there who have “lives” and “friends.” Perhaps one of the most recognized ideas of Nietzsche (besides the idea that “God is dead”) is that of the Superman, or Übermensch.

Quite unlike the comic book Superman, the Übermensch doesn’t come from a distant planet. The Übermensch comes from us, and is the realization of our potential as human beings to surpass humanity. The Übermensch is not held back by traditional human failings, and is a sort of romanticized ideal which has yet to be achieved.

The concept of the Übermensch has a very religious path through history. Like any good religion, it was taken out of context and used to justify horrible atrocities. The eugenic practices of the Nazis were influenced by the philosophy of Nietzsche.

Even the original comic depiction was sinister. The first mention of Superman was as a villain in 1933’s “The Reign of the Superman.” Even when the character was re-imagined as a hero, he had questionable morals. Over time, he evolved into the paragon of morality we know today. I think Nietzsche would have been proud.

One of the more strange questions I get quite frequently from theists pertains to how I can live without believing in something greater than myself. The truth is, I believe in many things greater than myself…

I believe in truth. I believe in justice, which is even more important than truth. But most importantly, I believe in humanity. Certainly not all of it, but I’d like to think I believe in enough of it, and I most certainly believe in our collective potential to do great things.

To me, that’s the atheist way, because there’s no God to judge us and set everything right after we die. We can’t blame god and demons as atheists; we have to assume responsibility. Superman isn’t going to save the day. It’s up to us to be the heroes we need.


  1. Must be nice not to have to get up and go to work every morning (I get up at 4AM) and have all that time to compose blog posts. I'm so tired after getting home from working all goddamn day that I almost fall asleep before I get a chance to even post a video or two. Oh well. I guess the key to writing long "original" posts is being unemployed.

    1. You must like it, based on the economic policies you advocate.

  2. Oh, and Superman was a fucking fascist!


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