A good idea

A good idea, which is to say, an idea that makes your daily activities easier / better / more intelligible, usually finds its twelve apostles. These evangelists, not satisfied with having been improved by that good idea, perceive some sense of duty in promulgating the idea to others, so that more lives may be enriched in the manner of their own. So runs the argument from altruism.

In my workaday labours as a software inventor at Inventive Labs, one such good idea is Ruby, which is a programming language. I have been a professional programmer both without and with Ruby, and I inordinately prefer the latter.

An aside: this isn't a post about a programming language. Even if you are not a programmer, stick around. None of us, least of all me, knows where this is going – but at least you can see how long the scrollbar is.

Ruby, as anyone in this field will surely tell you, has its fair share of evangelists. I can't give you an exact number, but it is probably somewhere between twelve and 27,900. I don't think all of them are altruists. Many preach Ruby from their bloggerly pulpits because they find relief in the sensation of being participants; because if they are doing it, they'd rather not do it alone. Actually I wonder if it's a species of benign schadenfreude, that would be real schadenfreude if not for their belief that the good idea was, in fact, good. It's kind of hard to explain. This link may be relevant.

People attempt to convert other people to ideas they believe 'good' not so much for a private beatitude, or to receive gratitude, as for intellectual creature comfort. It's not unreasonable to extend an evolutionary argument from this. There is also a matter of pride, and obviously 'being among the first' becomes statistically more assertable as the corpus of converts grows larger.

It is within this context that I would like to affix the much-observed and somewhat sudden phenomenon of atheist literature. There's a useful summary of it here. A loose band of heretics, often scientists railing against intelligent design, but sometimes politicos hoping to wet-blanket the so-called clash of civilisations, are arguing against the existence of any knowable higher power. I must admit that I am curious to read them. But peevishly I haven't; their enterprise bothers me. It seems like they want to convert the religiousi.

I have been an atheist since shortly after I realised I was not the Second Coming. Laugh, because that's amusing and only mildly true. Actually, though I descend from a line of devout Catholics, disbelief is something that came relatively easily to me. The agonism of atheism largely befell my parents' generation, and though I bear some grievances against the Baby Boomers, I have to respect them for this. The worst my atheism has had to endure is this perpetual recidivism into superstition; the challenge not to hope for something beyond, not to believe in something inexplicable that explains a lot of things, to reject a prophesied good that subsumes the weighty problems of my everyday. I strongly believe it is important too, as one of those lucky enough not to have suffered any great injustice, that I do not blow up these little things that get me down, that – and this really is the crux of it – that I choose to operate in a certain, certainly problematic this world rather than an uncertain, retributive promise of the next.

In short, atheism is, for me, a good idea. By forsaking any next world, my agency in this world is greater. I act now, because even less than oblivion confronts me. I will be good, at least as good as I can be, because to be good makes me feel like a better person, and that somewhat assuages my existential doubts. Only I determine what is good, ultimately, and it doesn't trouble me that the only real measure of my life will accompany me to my grave. A generous obit wouldn't go astray, don't get me wrong. But in fact, another aspect of my atheism that I am still learning is that it needn't be morbid.

There's a lot more I could say about my belieflessness, and if you buy me a beer I will, but other than to strongly deny that my life is meaningless, I won't go any further right now. And this is the point: I'm not trying to convert you. If you believe in one or many deities, I am fascinated by you and would love to compare notes. I don't scorn you, you are my equal, and what's more, strange to me. Perhaps there's something you know, or suspect, that I don't. Understand that I'm going to argue with you vigourously, but if you're converted, I'll be immensely disappointed.

Here is where the good idea gets skewed; the evangelists deny this position. They seem to try to prevent our conversation, for their own craven desire to be not alone. Ah, may they rot in hell.

Joseph | 23 Apr 2007

Tue 24 Apr 2007, 1:27AM Andrew


I may be borrowing an argument here, but isn't it the point of Enlightenment to push reason at the expense of religion? Although I'm partially swayed by the cries of heartlessness directed towards Dawkins et al, "Converting the religiousi" by invoking reason and logic is possible more integral to belieflessness than mere "conversation" between conflicted subjectivities. To the opinion pages!


Tue 24 Apr 2007, 10:56AM Joseph

Hmm, well perhaps 200-odd years ago there were people willing to be rescued from their religion. Are there so many now? Moreover, wouldn't the life of an atheist who has been converted by logical argument be just a bit miserable?

Wed 16 May 2007, 10:38AM Vincent

I've never liked the word 'atheist': it doesn't give enough credit to the people who use it to describe themselves. To define one's philosophy solely by indicating the lack or absence of a deity/dieties in one's belief system is, surely, only half the story at the very least. It disguises the incredible plurality, divergence and sometimes conflict of thought amongst even the 'secular' or 'atheistic' about all that MOL stuff.

It's kind of like using the word 'religiousi' to cover Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, etc., etc. And that's before you get to the Sunni/Shia/Sufi/Catholic/Orthodox/Lutheran/Presbyterian/Methodist/Baptist/Mormon/Therevada/Mahayana/Vaishnavism/Shaivism etc., etc., denominations, most of which I will admit to knowing nothing about, and to feeling all the more ignorant for it. And there are finer divisions still. But isn't learning about and coming to grips with these differences is really what 'comparing notes', as you say, is all about?

So what's your atheistic denomination, Joe? Do you agree that there is such a thing?

Wed 16 May 2007, 10:49AM Joseph

I most certainly don't have one, and I hope to god that there's no such thing.

That's my point.

Wed 16 May 2007, 12:57PM Vincent

What's so wrong about recognising that there are as many secular tribes as there are religious ones? I realise that you're distancing yourself against the scientific evangelism of Dawkins etc., but does that make you a black box of principles, actions and judgment? In my political science department, we're told that it is essential to articulate our own normative preferences - to recognise the ontologies and epistemologies that we are closest to - when we write about any subject. Does announcing our dispositions mean we're subscribing to groupthink, or some creepy desire to proselytise everyone in sight? No, I think it's just being more intellectually honest.

Wed 16 May 2007, 1:07PM Joseph

There are whole oceans between Influence and Allegiance tho, Vince.

Of course people confuse the two — sometimes they go on to create religions, or at least denominations. But belief (or unbelief) doesn't have to entail membership, does it?

Wed 16 May 2007, 9:10PM Vincent

It depends on what you mean by 'membership'. If you're saying that belonging to a religious denomination means Allegiance with a capital A, loyalties lying 'elsewhere', unquestioning devotion to dogma and an impermeable, unalterable view of the world, then I'm not sure you really understand how most religious people actually live their lives. 'Influence' is a truer description than 'Allegiance' for the way in which most people lay claim to a religious denomination. When I pencilled in 'Catholic' on the Census, it didn't mean that I pledged loyalty to the Pope over Australia. More to the point, it doesn't mean that I am bound to hold the same opinions and attitudes as anyone else who pencilled in the same box. Why should this be any different for a secular denomination? Why, therefore, would it be so scary to subscribe to or invent one?

Belonging to a denomination doesn't have to define the totality of your existence. I don't introduce myself as a 'Catholic' when I meet people for the first time. I don't introduce myself as a 'humanist', or an 'evolutionist', or a 'republican', either. But these are all denominations in the sense that they designate a class of ideas and beliefs that influence my words and deeds. And to me, it's important to recognise them and give them names, so that I might know myself a little better. There is a power to giving things a name.

I'm sounding a little bit shrill, so I'll return to my main point: I don't think that the name, denomination, label, however you want to put it, of 'Atheism' has enough substance to it for me to understand what Influences you. To me, the word is just classification through a negative, describing yourself as something that you are not. That's fine, but then how about giving us more about what you are? For me to have that conversation with you, even before the evangelists set upon the two of us, I'd need something more than belieflessness - tell us more about your literary humanism, say, or your patriotism. However, if you could just write another one of those beautiful poems, that'd be good enough for me to have that beer and start yakking.

Fri 18 May 2007, 9:13AM Joseph

Hum, well, thank-you for the compliments. I think you might have taken 'allegiance' too literally, though — of course I wasn't just talking about fealty and obedience. Ah, this shit always ends up semantic.

The point is that atheism is, for want of a better expression, a personal trajectory, without gurus, signposts or obvious demarcations. You know, Vasco Pyjama on the high seas and all that. Other people might have different approaches, of course, which is cool. Weird, but cool.

Fri 18 May 2007, 5:19PM Vincent

I always feel cranky-weird after talking shit about religion or any subject near to it. You're right, the semantics aren't any fun.

I like, and am a little jealous of, the way you've just described your take on atheism. I can only speak for myself when by saying that it just seems as if gurus, signposts and obvious demarcations are too difficult to escape.

I will studiously avoid this subject on Saturday night.

Fri 18 May 2007, 5:25PM Joseph

Amen to that, brother.

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