Living Without God

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.)

One thought on “Living Without God”

  1. The idea that a God is there for forgiveness, mercy, and justice was very comforting to me too as a child. The idea that there was a God and yet terrible things happened in the real world was a source of immense mental anguish to me as a teenager and young undergrad. I tried all sorts of twisted logic to make science, rationality and god fit together so that it would all make sense somehow. But intellectual honesty was one thing I was not willing to abandon – and all solutions I had devised failed to satisfy me.

    You say that our responsibilities include keeping beautiful things alive – and I fully agree with that. But that does not require one to believe in old fairy tales written in ancient parchments made by people who did not know better. And things have improved in general over time as SmartLX points out above.
    Most of the improvements have been due to rational thinking, not due to better understanding of religion. Religion was well understood all the time – our increased understanding of the real world, of our own natures, of our origins as a species, of our psychological makeup etc has helped us understand our lives in the collective better and improve/ adjust our rules, laws regulations accordingly.

    When someone fails me, what gives me comfort is my own strength and ability as well as an idea of the insignificance of the said “failure” in the broader scheme of things. Life’s too big and too dynamic, complex, full of possibilities for one to take such things too seriously.

    Most atheists i have talked to seem to have a stronger moral compass that most theists. The thing is, rational thinking tends to make you moral as you start seeing that in your enlightened self interest, you must do certain things (and should refrain from certain things). And that enlightened self interest, when you think about it deeply, leads you to actions which are considered to be “the right thing to do” in most situations.

    I was born in a Hindu household. Hinduism is basically pantheistic , though the core texts that preach the vedantic philosophy prescribe a trinity and ultimately a single godhead (one of them even goes on to say in some verses that maybe even god does not know how the universe got created …).
    I liked vedantic philosophy when I read it on my own as an undergrad – its pretty broad. But on reflection it appeared to me to be entirely metaphysics – speculations on the nature of reality without experimentation or direct objective evidence.

    I came to be atheist by experiment – I thought i would try not believing in god for a bit (it became to tiring to believe in one). I felt the best I had ever felt mentally when I started not believing and relied only on rationality and science to explain things I saw around me. It was exhilarating, as if I had dropped a dead weight I had been carrying around. Everything seemed to be clear and explainable (and still seems so). And then I read Dawkin’s “The God Delusion” – that sealed the deal for me.

    Frankly, I’ve never been more at peace with myself in my life than now (as an atheist).
    I do sometimes experience a sadness about the wrongs that still exist in the world – we are far from being truly civilized, though we may have got most of our laws right (in some areas of the world at-least). But then … at-least I can explain why we are far, based on history, human psychological tendencies, evolutionary theory, economic theory and politics (esp of the “us vs. them” variety) etc.

    Before this I used to look to the skies (or delve into religious books) for answers … boy, was that a really frustrating time. The most unproductive time of my life, I’d say. Years thrown to waste thinking of something that actually deserves no more thought than why Snow White ate the poisoned apple or why Cinderella waited till the last minute to exit the ball and lost her glass slipper in the hurry (and hey shouldn’t the glass slipper have changed to a rubber one at midnight?) !!

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