What About Ecclesiastes?

Logismous Kathairountes, in commenting on my atheistic ethic series said
"You've read the book of Ecclesiastes, right? That book is a negative apologetic against the very thing you've just put forward. The author didn't accept your axiom that worldly goods (money, sex, good looks, power, etc.) lead to happiness, and so he set out to test them to see if they really did lead to happiness. In essense, he had the things that you say bring happiness, as much as anybody in the world at that time had them. He discovered that worldly goods don't lead to happiness.That book is the record of an experiment undertaken with the goal of testing the exact assumptions that you make here. I'll add that my own experience matches up with that of the author of Ecclesiastes."
Let me briefly comment:

In the first place, I noticed you didn't say Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes, even though it's obvious that if we believe what this book says about the author it must be Solomon. Yet most all scholars claim Solomon did not write it--many conservative scholars do not think so either. I find this odd, since the whole argument is about the personal experiences of Solomon. If these were not his experiences, and if this book is what we'd call today a "sock-puppet" for Solomon, then by who's authority should I believe what the author writes?

In the second place, the phrase "under the sun" is used repeatedly in this book to refer to life without God. Life "under the sun" is "vanity," says the author. Notice here the superstitious and pre-scientific cosmology of the world according to this author. According to him, as well as with all of the Biblical writers, God resided above the firmament which was held in place by the mountains along the edges of the earth, in which were hung the sun, moon, and stars and from which water was released to send floods and to water the crops. No wonder they felt closer to God when praying, worshipping or seeking God's guidance on a mountaintop (cf., Baalam, Moses, Jesus, and so forth); that's where God lived. So why should I care what the author says when he is wrong about cosmology? Maybe he's just a superstitious person? Maybe I should take what he says with a grain of salt (or a whole saltshaker full of it)?

Lastly, the message itself is only partly true; only part of the story--a half truth. Yes, it is true that we will die and so there is no ultimate meaning to anything we do in this life. Our life is ultimately in vain. Nothing we do in this life will ultimately satisfy the longing for eternal significance, and in that sense we cannot find complete happiness without such an assurance. "All is vanity" in that respect. This I admit. That's the truth--the half truth.

But this fact has little to do with how I should live my life on earth. I should still seek to be happy, even if what I do in this life will not be remembered when human life and this whole universe dies a future heat death.

Christians talk as if they would commit murder, theft, rape and suicide if there wasn't a God. However, they should consider the evidence of the many former Christians who continue to lead happy productive lives even after rejecting the existence of God. Why do you suppose this is true? Think about it. We don't do these things because they're not rational and they don't bring us happiness. (As I am explaining).

My argument is that people who live as if there is an afterlife, along with a judgment before God who will send us to heaven or to hell, are living a delusionary life. I'd much rather live with my feet planted firmly on the ground, than live a delusion.

More later...


Anonymous said...

"Christians talk as if they would commit murder, theft, rape and suicide if there wasn't a God."

I'm sorry but only a complete idiot would make such am idiotic comment. You used to be a minister. Minister of what? Cow Crap? Come on man! I thought you were the real deal, but your just another hokey man.

John W. Loftus said...

Thanks, anon, I guess with your comment Christians won't be saying those things here! ;-)

In case you just arrived on the web, I hear this from most of them, although some of them are much more sophisticated when they express the same thought. While some will say they would kill, steal, and rape, others like William Lane Craig argue that only the belief in God and Immortality keeps people from doing these cruel things. However, if Craig is correct, then what if someone doesn't believe these things? Nothing stands in the way of doing these cruel things. And if nothing stands in the way of killing, then people will kill when they want to do so. My argument is that there are plenty of good solid reasons based upon who we are as people and what we want out of life that keeps us from doing cruel acts.

J. K. Jones said...

"I should still seek to be happy, even if what I do in this life will not be remembered when human life and this whole universe dies a future heat death."

Why should I be happy? Why is it better for me to be happy than for me not to be happy?

John W. Loftus said...

J.K, You cannot rationally want anything else. It’s impossible for rational people not to want to be happy.

Matthew said...

The comment about being horrible sinners is simply that. Without God we are nothing more than sinners. When the bible talks about doing good it is required to place it in context. That context is the objective truth (good and evil) that God lays down.

What you try to put forward as being better, and in fact ethical is nothing but a subjective truth that is grounded in nothing more than the ego of John W. Loftus. Thus there is no grounding to it and you are in fact free falling all the way to hell.

With respect to your isogesis of Ecclesiastes it is nothing more than that. You spout crap and make claims without evidence. If you want to retort with 'but I do claim evidence' then I will show you from your own writings that that evidence is nothing else than your own ego.

In all honesty, thanks for the good laugh. It is hard to find people that make me laugh so much these days.

God bless,

Jason said...

I think part of the meaning of the book is being left out of this discussion. Does the author say that all is vanity? Yes. Does he still recommend that we seek happiness/fullfillment? Yes. Look at Ecclesiastes 9:7-9,

"Go , eat your bread in joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going."

Also take note of the authors view of death. He does not turn to a belief in the afterlife as a means of solving the problem of lifes meaning.

The book reminds me a lot of what existentialists say.


Logismous Kathairountes said...

The author of Ecclesiastes does recommend that we seek happiness - But not in perishable worldly goods. See:

Ecclesiastes 2:24-25 "A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?"

Far from encouraging us to gather worldly goods in order to obtain happiness, or telling us not to seek happiness, he says that happiness comes from God and nowhere else.

It doesn't seem to me that it matters very much who the author was and what his cosmology was. Do you not trust that he actually was as dissatisfied with worldly goods as he said he was? It doesn't seem like it would invalidate his point if it was actually King Uzziah or whoever who wrote it.

The question of happiness is very subjective. If you say you're perfectly happy with the worldly goods you've listed, if they seem to you to have led you to happiness, then there's nothing I can say to convince you otherwise.

Anyway, if I don't agree to your axioms, I can't accept the system of ethics you base on them.

Anonymous said...

What William Lane Craig says is if there is no God and life after death then ultimately in the end it makes no difference how you lived your life. Since the ultimate goal for the human race is eternal death in the end it makes not one bit of difference. All of our energy put into loving and helping others makes no difference at all. It's pointless.

david ellis said...

All due respect to William Lane Craig but it does not logically follow that if something is temporary it is without value.

That is a perspective which issues, at least so it appears to me, from a weak-kneed response to death.

It seems to me that the more mature response to death is to see life as all the more poignantly precious for its impermanence and fragility.....but hey, I'm a "glass is half full" sort of atheist.

J. K. Jones said...

John Loftus,

I agree that we all seek happiness. We always do what we want. That is rational.

You miss my question. The idea is why is it better for people to be happy than it is for them not to be happy? Why should I value another's happiness over mine?

John W. Loftus said...

Dr. William Lane Craig quotes with approval Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s character Ivan Karmazov, who said, “If God doesn’t exist, everything is permissible.” He wrote, “If life ends at the grave, then it makes no difference whether one has lived as a Stalin or as a saint….On this basis, a writer like Ayn Rand is absolutely correct to praise the virtues of selfishness. Live totally for self; no one holds you accountable! Indeed, it would be foolish to do anything else, for life is too short to jeopardize it by acting out of anything but pure self-interest. Sacrifice for another person would be stupid.” “In a world without God, who is to say which values are right and which are wrong? Who is to judge that the values of Adolf Hitler are inferior to those of a saint? The concept of morality loses all meaning in a universe without God. There can be no right and wrong. This means that it is impossible to condemn war, oppression, or crime as evil. Nor can one praise brotherhood, equality, and love as good. For in a universe without God, good and evil do not exist—there is only the bare valueless fact of existence, and there is no one to say you are right and I am wrong.” Craig again: “The world was horrified when it learned that at camps like Dachau the Nazis had used prisoners for medical experiments on living humans. But why not? If God does not exist, there can be no objection to using people as human guinea pigs.”

John W. Loftus said...

J.K. Now you're asking a different question (the last one) that I am going to try to answer later.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Loftus,
I appreciate, and have great interest in, your effort to create an "atheist ethic." I can see that your "happiness list" is a preliminary step, and that the real issues of ethics will come in when you begin to discuss appropriate and effective means for personal realization of the items on the list.

One question (for now) has puzzled me regarding the subject of altruism. Surely acts of altruism can be seen as a means leading toward many of the items on your list - friendship, self-esteem, etc. But a sense of altruism is such a powerful thing that I wonder if it isn't an end in itself, that is, should it appear on your initial list of happiness factors?

Thank you for your book and this blog. Both provide excellent information.
(I'm going to figure out how to get a google account so I can use my name here.)

Anonymous said...

Well, I guess I have two questions.

The profound human inclination to be part of things larger than ones own individual circumstances - a family, community, nation, ideology, a movement, etc.
This also seems in itself to produce a lot of satisfaction for people.
Is it merely a means or an end?

John W. Loftus said...

al·tru·ism [áltroo ìzzəm]
1. selflessness: an attitude or way of behaving marked by unselfish concern for the welfare of others
2. belief in acting for others' good: the belief that acting for the benefit of others is right and good.

The only goal I can think of for human action is human happiness. It is valued in and of itself, for itself. It is not a means to an end. It is the end, the telos, the goal of all human action.

Does altruism, as defined above, lead to that goal? Yes, both for the individual who acts and for the ones he helps. But I think this can be defended based upon rational self-interest. So is it really altruistic if what a person does is because of rational self-interest? I think so, but such an idea needs further clarification.

Anonymous said...

The ultimate goal for human beings on your worldview is death. The goal for human happiness ultimately comes to nothing and you realize it was for nothing. You won't remember your happiness when you die and nobody else will when the whole universe dies. Everything will come to nothing.
It was all for nothing. But you delude yourself into thinking your life counts for something when in reality it doesn't.

Bill said...

"The ultimate goal for human beings on your worldview is death. The goal for human happiness ultimately comes to nothing and you realize it was for nothing. You won't remember your happiness when you die and nobody else will when the whole universe dies. Everything will come to nothing.
It was all for nothing. But you delude yourself into thinking your life counts for something when in reality it doesn't."

The goal in life is not death. Life is the here and now, that is when people live out their lives. Also, we can discover how we can make life better now, and while we ourselves will not experience this, we should not resent bringing reward to our posterity.

So, part of life is about our own happiness, but because there is nothing everlasting about our own life we should seek to also improve how we can make life better for the future. I will say we should not feel the need to slave ourselves through this life to make future lives better. People need to both labor and enjoy.

The thing about our existence, is there is aparently no end game at all, and I think that is the hope. Of course humanity will likely die out, but without perseverence in recognizing our value and the value of future generations we won't even have the chance to survive and live better.

So in a very awkward way. Life is about recieving and death is about giving. We inherit what our forefathers (and mothers) give to us. But, we also need to remember that we do die and it is important to leave something for our children. So while death is certainly not the goal in life, it is one of the altruistic motivators.

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Warm Regards from the Other Side of the Moon.
Bijoy Cletus - Kerala, India