The Reach of Original Sin

Question from Tim:
LX, I’m interested in your thoughts about something:

I’ve been thinking about crime and punishment lately for separate reasons from religion, but a related religious connotation entered my mind recently that I think needs exploring, and I’d like your thoughts on it.

As it relates to Christianity (and many other religions as well in some form or another) humanity has to suffer on planet Earth because a god was disobeyed by a young couple in a garden. The price of their disobedience was that they became “fallen”. Different definitions of what exactly that means abound, but the basic premise is that they went from a perfect state to the current state of existence that all humans currently find themselves in. That existence is definitely less that perfect, and involves all manner of things like sickness, disease, pain, suffering, heartbreak, bad luck, etc. If you are really unlucky you might have been born Jewish and killed in the holocaust, or born gay and thrown off a high rise in Iran. But no one escapes the wrath of this god, everyone has some kind of bad thing befall them from time to time.

And all of it is due to, from we are told, a couple of young people eating a piece of fruit off of a forbidden tree.

So I can’t help but wonder, in the midst of all this suffering throughout the history of humanity, how much longer people who had nothing to do with the decision of Adam and Eve will be made to pay for the choice of those two back in the day. In other words, when will the punishment fit the “crime”?

Answer by SmartLX:
Ah, the good old Problem of Evil. Trying to wrap my head around the continued existence of evil in a world with an all-powerful, all-knowing and entirely good deity is a major reason for my atheism. I didn’t simply renounce my faith because of the apparent conflict, though; the complexity of the problem caused my tween self to give up thinking about religion at all, and I had other things to focus on. This self-enforced sabbatical from theology went on for enough years that my emotional connections to faith faded completely. When I finally did come back to the subject, faith did not appear justified on an intellectual level, so there was nothing left to support it.

The story of Adam and Eve attempts to shift the responsibility for everything that’s wrong with our lives from God to the imperfect nature of humanity. Though you and I didn’t eat the apple, we’re marked with Original Sin as a result of the act itself, just so that God sees a reminder in all of us. Also, it could be reasoned (within the hypothesis of an actual Adam and Eve) that we’re of the same race as Adam so we are similarly flawed, and therefore liable to do something just as bad. God sees into people’s hearts, we’re told, so uncommitted crimes still count against us.

In a separate discussion over whether an eternity in Hell is justified for any possible sin, one Christian defense of God’s “policy” was that offending an infinitely powerful entity like God carries a punishment proportional to the entity, not the crime, and the punishment is therefore infinite. Whether or not this bit of logic is pure assertion, a Christian might apply this to Adam: as a finite being Adam could not absorb an infinite punishment, so it had to be extended to his descendants ad infinitum.

Speaking practically, Christianity will never allow humanity a clean slate. A large part of its pull is the idea that we all have work to do in order to redeem ourselves, and a relationship with Jesus is the only way to get that done. The threat of Hell is always there, even if Hell is seldom or never mentioned.

From Morality to Politics in 17 Words

Question from Ted:
Why do atheists have now morals and why do they vote for a crooks like Hillery Clintons ?

Answer by SmartLX:
I normally apply some proofreading to questions, but the density of mistakes in such a short question was so remarkable that I’ve preserved it as-is.

Atheists have morals, they just don’t get them from the Bible. Actually, some of them do, because many moral statements in the Bible are perfectly sensible even if the God taking credit for them isn’t real. Besides that there are all kinds of philosophical bases for a system of ethics, and people not tied to a particular scripture are free to use any or all of them.

According to the Pew Research Center the religiously unaffiliated (which includes but is not limited to atheists) voted for Clinton over Trump 68 to 28. That said, the Hispanic Catholic vote was within one percentage point of that, Jews voted even more strongly for Clinton and the other faiths combined went very much the same way. Trump appears to have appealed to white Christians and almost no one else. It’s hard to convince people who don’t believe in the Christian God that Trump is His chosen candidate, and even if you do believe but you’re in a minority it’s hard to accept that God would choose such a flagrant enabler of bigotry.

Psychology 20 Questionnaire

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.

A Common Question Done Quick

Question from James:
Quick question. How can you say something is bad without some sense of morals? Where did said morals come from?

Answer by SmartLX:
The quickest answer is that we’ve answered this a lot. This link searches the site for articles on the same subject, and finds four pages’ worth of titles. Read a few and see if you get the idea.

A quick actual answer is that the definition of “bad” and “moral” in general can be constructed in objective and practical terms using different things as the “object”. For example a simplistic approach might be that something is “bad” if it hurts people unnecessarily, but on that alone you get a long way towards doing what most people would consider “good” by preventing “bad” actions.

Claiming an absolute basis for your morality is all well and good, but if your basis is a god that might not even exist you’re on shaky ground. That’s just a way of concentrating all the uncertainty into one point so you can defend that massively uncertain point like a bulldog and keep things simple for yourself.

Crushed by Suffering

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.

Have They Got It Coming?

Question from Shanoon:
Do you really believe the people like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Poy, Mao and all those terrorists, Rapists, killers, and suicide bombers are considered to be criminals and as such should be judged and punished one day?

1- If the answer is NO, then they are innocent. ( and they are not only supporters but promoters of these kinds of innocent (!) evils.)
2- If the answer is YES then how?

Answer by SmartLX:
Some of those you list have been punished, some haven’t, and some won’t be punished ever in their lives for certain things (for instance, way too many rapists get away with it). Without going into horrible detail regarding their crimes, I’ll simply agree with you that there are people in the world who deserve to be punished. Religious and secular ethics frequently agree on cases like these, because the same conclusion is reached multiple ways.

Therefore, if there is no God or Hell then some people who deserve to be punished will never be punished at all, no matter how hard we try to enact justice. This isn’t a happy thought, but if it’s true then there’s nothing we can do about it, except to work to ensure justice is served whenever it IS possible. But the fact that the implications of a state of affairs are unfortunate does not support the argument that it’s not the case, and the alternative isn’t true just because it would be better (objectively or otherwise). An argument from consequences is essentially an unsupported argument, and the only reason to accept it is that it makes you feel better.

Some Things Never Change

Question from Caleb:
In an atheistic worldview why are there laws of logic, uniformity of nature, and absolute morality?

Answer by SmartLX:
If you search the site for the above terms you’ll find quite a few relevant pieces already written, and some very long discussions in the comments. These subjects crop up often because many theists think they have the authority on each. This time I’ll try to answer as straightforwardly as possible; if you look through the rest of the material and think I haven’t covered something, do let me know.

There do appear to be many types of total consistency in the universe, primarily physical and logical. The laws of each don’t seem to change, so we have the kind of stable universe where beings like us can develop over billions of years and create civilisations without everything spontaneously collapsing in on itself every few minutes, or turning into chocolate pudding and back.

None of us know why this is. Some think they know, because if they believe the universe was created by an intelligent god then it sounds sensible that this god would make the universe stable enough to support life and eventually cognition, as most worshipped gods have apparently created humanity for some unknown purpose. To one who has not already accepted the existence of such a being (which hypothetically is more exotic and incredible than anything the universe has to offer, and is thus a dismal working assumption for the purpose of explanation) it seems more likely that, somewhat in the manner of Newton’s first law, there is simply no influence upon the universe causing it to change its fundamental qualities and therefore it doesn’t. The absence of a god does not make the reality impossible, merely unexplained. To go any further is to commit the all-too-common fallacy of an argument from ignorance, or else to claim omniscience.

Absolute morality is different from the other two because we don’t know whether it exists in the first place. Morality is disputed all the time, so any absolute morality makes up a very small part of it. Anything we might think of as a moral absolute might just be something the entire human race agrees upon, but is wrong. Any such supposed absolute might also be regarded with the total opposite of its implication for humans when considered from the perspective of other animals, for example ants. Texts like the Bible declare moral absolutes on the authority of a being whose existence is itself in question. This last point is important, because when you’re using the existence of absolute morality to argue for the existence of a god, you can’t use the latter to argue for the former first.

Evolution and the Holocaust

Question from James:
Hey thanks for reading this. If evolution is survival of the fittest then why was Hitler considered evil? If he could overcome the Jews then Germans must be better then Jews. In fact racism shouldn’t be a bad thing if you truly believe your race is better. Also why does it matter is animals go extinct? I get cows and animals we use, but who cares about obscure fish and bugs?

Answer by SmartLX:
Your initial question about Hitler is like asking, “If the atomic number of boron is 5, why did two different actors play Darrin on Bewitched?” The first part is true and so is the second, but the two are unrelated.

Evolution is an explanation of what has happened, over the entire history of life on earth, to change it from a single population of similar single-celled organisms to the vast complexity and diversity we see today. “Survival of the fittest” is still an apt simplification, because at all times those organisms which are more fit for survival and procreation are the ones that pass on the most genes. Some kill members of their own species to get along, some don’t have to. Even Darwin thought it was pretty brutal, writing that “nature is red in tooth and claw,” but human morality is difficult or impossible to apply to non-human animals. They’re just doing what their instincts tell them.

Evil on the other hand is a label we apply to actions and people who go against our morals and ethics. Hitler’s genocide violates the morality of such a huge majority of us that society as a whole can label him evil without fear of being challenged. That the act was intended to benefit Hitler’s chosen race does not make it good or ambiguous just because this sounds vaguely evolutionary, because there is no morality to evolution. Evolution is just what happened, take it or leave it, and our morals as applied to Hitler come from other sources.

The Holocaust comparison fails on other levels. Here are two.
– Despite the claims of Nazi propaganda which tried to dehumanise the Jews, the Holocaust boils down to a single species attacking itself en masse, which isn’t good for any population. So does any act of ethnic cleansing, which is why racism is unsupportable by evolutionary theory. If anything the Holocaust could be seen as an act of “social Darwinism“, which borrows the terminology of evolution but has little in common with it.
– The six million Jews were murdered in an act of artificial selection, not natural selection. Evolution has no will and no goals, but Hitler decided those Jews should die. This deliberate culling has far more in common with techniques that have been used in animal breeding for centuries, long before Darwin.

Moving on, we actually don’t care very much about fish and bugs, do we? The former we catch live, kill painfully and eat with relish, and the latter we crush on our forearms without a second thought. Fish and insects are alien to us, so it’s hard to empathise with them – especially the insects, as we can’t really look them in the eyes. Once you get to mammals like cows and pigs, we’re still happy to eat them but we start to care whether they are treated humanely on the farm and in the abbatoir. We perceive cats, dogs, apes and monkeys as so like us in behaviour and attitude that most of us wouldn’t even consider killing one, let alone eating it. This empathy is where we get the urge to protect animals and treat them well, rather than some platitude about them all being “God’s creatures”, but there is a sliding scale of how strongly it applies.

That wasn’t really your point though. If you want an evolutionary rationale of why we should prevent obscure species from going extinct, animals that wipe out other animals or plants completely usually do themselves a terrible disservice in terms of survival. They deprive themselves of a food source, or a crucial nutrient is lost which leaves them susceptible to disease, or they allow a new poisonous species to flourish, or they put themselves at war with some other animal that was dependent on the late species. All of the above might apply to us, but additionally human science and medicine might have all sorts of uses for species of any type. Finally, although we can’t muster much empathy for alien-like species while they suck our blood or whatever, the fact that they’re just trying to survive too does engender a broad sense of solidarity with all living things.

The Benefits of Irrationality?

Question from Ariel:
Hello,

I am interested in your perspective as an atheist on a few things. I am not an atheist, nor am I a theist. I am certainly not an agnostic. As a bit of background: I grew up in an entirely atheistic, secular environment and have only begun exploring religious and spiritual traditions recently. I believe that within all mainstream belief structures that I’ve thus far encountered (predominantly atheist and Christian branches), there arises at some point or another – in some structures it is more hidden and deeply buried than in others – some sort of intellectual dishonesty. In most Christian traditions this dishonesty manifests in a relatively evident form of cognitive dissonance. Obviously very few Christians fully cognize the implications of their beliefs or else they would not be able to function in our pluralistic society. To honestly believe that 3/4 of the people I encounter are going to be punished eternally would put a strain on my existence that would become unbearable. The dishonesty I feel I encounter with atheism is that it cannot provide an answer for the qualitative aspects of our human experience. Answers to questions of beauty, morality, meaning, etc cannot be answered within a materialistic paradigm. Science deals with quantifiable evidence in a horizontal plane of existence while religion deals with qualitative evidence in a vertical plane of existence. It’s been often stated that science deals with the How while religion deals with the Why.

Of course that’s not entirely true. Science can begin to explain Why a particular organism behaves in a certain way by referring to various hypotheses within evolutionary science or psychology or what have you. But any answer to a why in a strictly causal, materialistic paradigm leads to another why, and you end up with an infinite regression. The big questions remain mysteries. When a religious person asks: how does your life have meaning without a God? What do you base your morality on? – those are very valid questions, as much as skeptics seem to want to scoff at them. The answers that often arise are answers of common sense: you make your own meaning, of course! You are moral by treating others kindly and valuing their lives, of course! But none of these answers warrant ‘of course’s.

The way that I see it, atheists have internalized the moral foundations that have been developed in religious traditions and have secularized them without realizing that, in removing ‘God’ from the equation, the ‘foundation’ part of ‘moral foundation’ is eliminated. I believe it might be worth studying / engaging in religious traditions, as well as poetry, speculative philosophy, etc for hints at some sort of higher truth than cannot be captured by adamant rationalism. There is a hugely mysterious aspect to our human experience that should not be suppressed by strict adherence to a particular *method* of thinking, like rationalism, logic, empiricism, the scientific method. These are just that: methods. They are particular closed systems in which we have trained our brains to think according to established rules and patterns. The thing about the aforementioned disciplines of speculative philosophy, religion / theology, poetry and arts in general is that they may, in their most honest and non-dogmatic manifestations, experience a high level cognitive freedom that allows them to delve into the vertical plane of existence. It is in this freedom that we may learn to take the leaps of faith that provide us with the ‘meaning’ that we so desperately crave as human beings. Paul Tillich suggested that with the modern emphasis on rationalism, there has been a removal of ‘depth’ from our experiences. That’s why you see so many people falling victim to consumerism or substance abuse. We are trying to kill an eternal God and substitute him with fleeting things, and it’s not leaving us very fulfilled. It is actually also this rise of rationalism / atheism that has led religions to become as literalized as they are (think about the doctrine of biblical inerrancy established in the early 20th century). Religion feels that it has to move from the vertical to the horizontal in order to duke it out with science, which is why we are now seeing a much more explicit divide between atheist-theism than we may ever have seen in the past.

Anyway. I probably ranted. I am wondering whether you feel there is any space for non-rational thought and belief structures in the ideal future that you envision for humanity.

All the best.

Answer by SmartLX:
Hi Ariel.

Science and the associated rational way of thinking does not presume to have all the answers. This is a major difference from religious thinking, which does presume that the ultimate answer to every question is God. This becomes problematic when the questions themselves start to involve God, because it’s difficult for a thing to explain itself. More importantly, a believer can assert knowledge of an ultimate answer and therefore have an answer for everything, but what is the value of an answer if you don’t know whether it’s right?

While the “big questions” remain a mystery, science provides reliable answers for many of the “smaller” questions with practical applications for our daily lives. Because we know the rate at which the flu virus is evolving, we know how often a new flu vaccine must be created and distributed to ensure reasonable coverage (roughly every year). Because electricity applied to a magnetic coil in the right way can cause it to rotate, motors function. Because human beings have near-universal natural instincts towards not only self-preservation but living in social groups, we can develop laws and social contracts that will benefit us all. Meanwhile we keep working on the things we don’t know, so that we might actually discover the facts. (Incidentally, if you search this site for blanket terms like “morality” you’ll find that we’ve done far more than scoff at such questions.)

Rather than atheism secularising religious moral foundations, religions have claimed credit for ethical norms that existed long before they did; atheists simply tend to be the ones to point this out. For instance, the Commandment not to kill from the Book of Exodus was preceded by many entirely secular laws against killing, devised separately by civilisations the world over.

You can philosophise and go as “deep” as you like into any aspect of religion, but as soon as you take as a premise anything for which you have no evidence is true, you are in the realm of the hypothetical. You may experience profound realisations about your chosen topic, but as they may rely on false premises they are built on sand, and it may not be possible to translate your progress into anything which will be of practical help to anyone. This is the main problem with theology, from a non-believer’s perspective. Religion is often touted as another “way of knowing” besides science, but what is it that we “know” exclusively through religion that we actually do know? Comment if you have an example.

If I had to try to boil all of this down, I would return to my first point and say that while science cannot answer everything, religion has no more authority to answer anything and yet does it anyway. Which one you rely on for your worldview depends on whether you care more about having all the answers or being justifiably confident that the answers you have are correct.

Finally, there had better be room for non-rational thoughts and beliefs in the future, because no matter how hard people try to be rational they will always fall short at times. We’re all human, and no one’s always entirely rational. Fortunately, leaps of reasoning can indeed be achieved by taking seemingly illogical or irrational steps, though only if logic and rational analysis are applied to them afterwards. New ideas can come from anywhere, but you have to sift through them once you get them.

Right, Wrong, and God

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.