Question from :
I’m currently taking Psychology 20 in school and would like to ask you a few questions about atheism for a project on spirituality if you have the time. The questions are:
1. How does your faith or understanding of the world shape your worldview?
2. How do you justify your actions (good and bad) for your belief system?
3.What gives you meaning and purpose?
4.What are ways you express yourself and why?
5. How do you view the idea of the soul and/or the afterlife?
Hoping for a quick response and thank you for taking the time to answer.
Answer by SmartLX:
Not my quickest response ever, but not bad. Here we go.
1. My view of the world is that it’s shaped and influenced by natural forces, which are powerful but undirected and certainly not worth pleading with. I’m acutely aware that many do not feel this way, so I see what appears to be a great deal of effort wasted because it’s spent trying to please gods that I don’t think are there.
2. I care for myself, and as a social animal I care for the people around me. My awareness of the world beyond my immediate surroundings extends that expression of care to all the people of the world, generally speaking. I justify my actions in terms of the benefit and harm they do to myself and other people, not necessarily in that order, with a view to maximising benefit and minimising harm. The exact meanings of those two quantities I often re-evaluate based on the situation, so that I’m not thinking in a way that doesn’t apply to the circumstances at hand.
3. I choose what my purposes are. From personal achievements to the welfare of selected others (that is, not all purposes are selfish), I devote myself to realising those things I want to bring to fruition. This gives my life meaning to me, and to many others, though not to everyone. This is enough, because whether my life matters to all strangers is not something I worry about.
4. I speak, I write, I sing, I draw, I work, I dance, I play, I struggle, I love. I do these things because I can.
5. The soul does not appear to exist, because identity and consciousness are products of the brain and are damaged or destroyed when the brain is. After the death of the brain there is nothing left of a person to experience any kind of afterlife.
Question from Dominic:
How do you deal with senseless suffering–like heartless cruelty imposed on innocent animals? There is such a thing as crush videos where women, mostly in high heels, enjoy crushing small animals on the floor in a gruesome, lengthy process to provide sexual satisfaction for the viewer. Those who produce it say it is allowable because of free speech and also because the dark web has no censorship unlike the surface web. Isn’t it true that without absolutes in the moral area everything is permissible?
Answer by SmartLX:
Yes, I know about crushing videos. There’s room for debate over whether the women who participate enjoy it, or are simply doing what the punters will pay to see as in other kinds of pornography, but animals are tortured and killed regardless.
Just because everything is “permissible” in a high philosophical sense doesn’t mean everything is actually permitted in a practical sense. Cruelty to animals is illegal in most countries and the makers of these videos are prosecuted if caught, for cruelty to animals if not for the videos themselves. No one argues in court that killing the animals for pleasure is fine, only that once the videos are made they’re protected by free speech. They do the killing in ways that make it hard to attribute to anyone. (The “dark web” makes the videos easier to produce and distribute but doesn’t affect their morality, so it’s irrelevant.)
Regarding the free speech aspect, in the United States the videos were outlawed in 1999 after they came to light. The ban was struck down as unconstitutional, but only because it was too broad and mistakenly encompassed all kinds of non-fetish videos involving wildlife and livestock. There was another law in 2010 that did what it could in the circumstances, banning interstate commerce of the videos. The issue was badly handled overall but the government and the courts have done what they thought would protect the animals and punish their tormentors at every stage.
To focus on your main point, if an absolute basis for morals were needed to create an ethical society a secular legal system would be impossible, because the only moral absolutes are those asserted by religions on behalf of their gods, and those are dependent on a shared assumption that the gods not only exist but have the same morals claimed by the religions. Fortunately, it’s possible to have an objective basis for morals and ethics using a more reasonable assumption, such as that the needless suffering of helpless animals should be prevented where possible. This isn’t backed up by any moral imperative baked into the universe (indeed nature completely disregards it and wolves happily eat bunnies) but it has such a near-universal consensus (far more reliable than a simple majority) among humans that those who like to cause or watch the suffering can be justifiably classified as aberrant. We feel quite comfortable calling the videos “wrong” without a hypothetical ethereal lawgiver to tell us we’re right, and while philosophical discussions might poke holes in the word they don’t change how we feel, and importantly how we act.
While it’s beside the point you were making, there’s still that first question of how to emotionally deal with the suffering of animals. It’s not as complex for atheists because we don’t have to wonder why a loving god would allow it. It happens, it’s awful, we feel their pain, we do what we can to prevent it, we give the animals in our lives enjoyment by playing with them, and so on. We accept that some things about the world suck, but not everything, so there’s still joy to be found and good to be done so we look for that. Boom, a high-level work-in-progress guide to living in the real world.
Question from Adam:
Without God, is there right and wrong?
Answer by SmartLX:
Even with a hypothetical god around, would there be there right and wrong?
If God decides what is right and wrong, they are His opinions only, and subject to change. And change they apparently have, because there are all sorts of holy rules in the old Mosaic Law that had been superceded or forgotten as early as the first century AD (or CE). Shellfish, mixed fabrics, working on Sundays, that sort of thing. Therefore God’s sense of right and wrong is arbitrary, and useless to us except in the sense of trying to keep up with the whims of a tyrant to save our necks. That’s if we think He’s there at all.
Without a God imbuing the entire universe with an ethereal sense of right and wrong, there is only what we humans decide, as no other animal has ever set down a code of ethics or morality. (Some groups of apes and monkeys have developed simple moral systems, but purely in practical terms rather than the abstract.) The consensual ethics agreed upon by large groups of people are far less arbitrary than the will of an all-powerful, invincible being, because the way we want to be treated – and therefore the way we treat people – has a comprehensible effect on our wellbeing. For example, a general aversion to killing (except in some extraordinary cases) potentially prolongs everyone’s lives.
So we say that certain things are right and others are wrong, and if these judgements eventually show themselves to be flawed we change them. Regulated slavery was right and good for a very long time, but now we find it reprehensible. We’re entitled to admit mistakes and change our positions when new information comes to light, because we’re only human and we’re doing the best we can. A god has no such excuse; if He ever had to correct himself, He’s not much of a god.
Question from Sam:
Where do humans get their moral standards and conscience from?
Answer by SmartLX:
The short answer is, from each other, from their own instincts and from a long line of social ancestors.
My earlier piece on right and wrong answers your question in much greater detail. There’s also a short piece on the foundations of morality.
The question, and where you’re asking it, implies that God’s instructions via some sacred text would be the usual answer. Well, every sacred text has a lot of instructions even most religious people don’t use anymore, like killing people for eating shellfish or working on the wrong day. Those who use these texts as a moral guide are choosing which parts to use – but that means they’re judging the text based on some independent moral standard. Therefore, even believers are getting at least some of their ethics from the simple experience of being a human among humans.
Question from Sophia:
I don’t know how many atheists have been Christians before, but I have questions as a Christian. The idea that a God is there for forgiveness, mercy, and justice is very comforting to me. There are certain things humans are unable to do. For instance, law enforcement may fail, but our free will brings it’s own consequences and has its own justice. Let me make it clear now that I don’t believe in hell. Humans make their own hell. We live in one already, full of war and hate, but our responsibilities include keeping the beautiful things alive.
Moving on… I have specific questions. Feel free to answer any or all of these questions.
1. When someone fails you, like a parent, spouse, or even yourself, what gives you comfort?
2. I’m sure most atheists think that “doing the right thing” is important, but why are some things right and others wrong if these precedents aren’t set by a higher authority, but by our own twisted judgment?
3. If you were once part of a different religion and then turned to atheism, why? Please go further than saying that “Christians still do bad things, what’s the point.” (I get that too often. If that’s your viewpoint, that’s fine, just explain further.)
Answer by SmartLX:
At least half of all atheists in the Western world were once members of a religion, and many still are in an official sense even though their faith is gone. I was raised as a Catholic myself.
Law enforcement may well fail to punish the guilty for their crimes. Human nature endows us with empathy and therefore usually a measure of guilt for our malicious actions, regardless of whether we’re caught, but it’s still a fact that some crimes and awful deeds go completely unpunished. It does not follow that there must be an afterlife and an ultimate judge in order to catch those who escape justice. Justice is an ideal we strive for, not a necessary physical component of the universe. If there’s no judgement after death, it’s up to us humans to give as many people their just deserts while they’re alive, because no one else will, and that’s that. A thing is not made true simply because it would be better if it were true, or bad or unthinkable if it were false. (Few things described as “unthinkable” really are unthinkable; most of them are just unpleasant.)
To your specific questions, then.
1. Sometimes the same person who’s “failed me” or caused me trouble or harm is the one who gives me comfort afterwards; that’s what it means to apologise, and to atone. Aside from that, I’m not a complete misanthrope, because the entire human race never lets me down all at once. There’s always some good in someone somewhere.
2. Our collective sense of right and wrong has changed over time. Slavery has been declared more and more unambiguously wrong, for instance, while different forms of personal freedom have gradually achieved the status of universal human rights. That alone is a very good indicator that right and wrong are not determined by some ultimate authority and then irreversibly fixed. That said, our judgement as a society has had a very long time to un-twist itself, as we constantly strive for ethical and legal standards with the greatest benefit. What we call “right” and “wrong” is relatively stable these days and helps us get along pretty well, though they’re still making changes to laws and so on. If we don’t assume our morality is absolute, we can always improve it.
3. I didn’t declare myself an atheist because I thought Christians were bad. I realised that I didn’t believe in any gods anymore, let alone the Christian one. It was that simple. (Incidentally, while bad Christians don’t indicate the lack of a god, neither do good Christians indicate the presence of one.)
“If the only reason you currently act “moral” were because you’ll go to heaven if you do and hell if you don’t, you would resent God for forcing you into this behaviour.”
Question from Darron:
If there is no God, and there is no judgment. Why would anyone want to follow any kind of moral code of conduct.
I know if we didn’t of course, everything would fall apart. But most of us barley live to see 90. If your not born well off, why bother with hard work to get to the top. Why not lie, cheat, steal, kill, or sleep your way to the top.
Because lying, cheating and stealing doesn’t usually work in the long term, and because most people don’t actually like to do these things.
God’s isn’t the only judgement you need to worry about. If there isn’t a God or an afterlife, you have just this one short life available to you, and getting a reputation as a crook (let alone being convicted as one) can ruin that life and snuff out your potential. That’s a considerable risk you’re taking if you abandon ethics altogether.
You have an unspoken contract with those around you. Keep to the morals of your society as laid out and agreed upon, and others are expected to respect your moral fibre and be nice to you. People can’t see into your very being and determine what kind of man you are; your words and your actions are all they have to go on. If you genuinely behave like a “good person”, it makes no practical difference whether you really are one or not. And the world likes “good people”.
Another reason you want to follow a code of conduct is that you actually want to help people and make them happy. If the only reason you currently act “moral” were because you’ll go to heaven if you do and hell if you don’t, you would resent that God pushes you into this behaviour by way of a carrot and a stick. But you don’t, do you? It’s gratifying to treat people right, isn’t it?
This is something moral absolutists don’t often consider: human nature, however it may have formed, actually tends toward what we think of as moral behaviour a great deal of the time without any coercion whatsoever. So the religious are happy that God commands them to behave the way they prefer to behave anyway.
“The idea that we are punished for all our bad deeds after death requires the existence of an afterlife, and atheists generally don’t believe in an afterlife.”
Question from Louis:
Does an atheist believe in the concept of sin? Do they believe they can be punished for sin?
The idea that we are punished for all our bad deeds after death requires the existence of an afterlife, and atheists generally don’t believe in an afterlife.
The competing idea that our bad deeds follow us around ethereally in life and cause misfortune requires the existence of either an interventionist god or an unknown and purposeful energy, which ancient Indian religions named karma, and atheists generally don’t believe in that either.
This doesn’t mean that atheists think bad deeds go entirely unpunished. That’s what the law is for, to begin with. Besides judicial punishment for illegal deeds, other selfish and destructive acts turn other people against us, and provoke revenge and grudges. They also make us feel guilty and want to atone.
That’s why we don’t need a god to enforce our morals. We have other people, and we have ourselves.