What does atheism offer? Part 1.

I am on occasion asked . . . well, challenged, more like, to tell what atheism has to offer: just what does atheism provide the emotional center, the sense of morality, the value and meaning to life? Well, here, as my inaugural post on Atheism Resource, I shall present the answer to the question of what atheism has to offer the soul that demands chicken soup! The answer . . .

Nothing.

That’s right — atheism offers nothing to inform ethics, to provide meaning, to offer a positive message of hope. Show’s over. Move along, citizens.

Oh, you’re still here? That’s an unfulfilling answer, you say? Well, I can’t refund your nickel, so I suppose I need to explain a little further.

Here’s the deal: atheism isn’t a religion, it’s not a faith, it’s not an ideology, it’s not even a philosophy. Technically, semantically, it is a belief — but only in the sense that it’s a lack of belief in a thing or things. The lack of a belief is as much a source for inspiration, values, meaning, as a lack of an interest in stamp collecting is a source for fun and excitement. To try to decry atheism as a poor, or failed, source for such fulfillment is like arguing a frigerator is a poor appliance for making toast. You’d be right, but you’d also be dismissed as having no idea what you’re talking about.

“A-ha!” the Believer in Something may exclaim. “You admit atheism leads to nihilism and moral bankruptcy and no one who’s an atheist can have any ethics!” Well, maybe — in the same way having a toaster inherently leads to someone having sundried tomato bagel. An atheist could be a nihilist, but it’s not very likely. Being an atheist only says something about what you believe, in regards to a single question: “What is your position on the existence of god(s)?” Answer: “No, sir. I don’t like it one bit!” What does it not say anything on? Quite literally everything else about what you think, feel, believe, value, desire, despise, etc. etc.

Essentially, whenever a religious believer makes the challenge that an atheist has no source for ethics, no guiding morals, sees no meaning or value in life, it’s a straw man argument big enough to burn a hundred Nicolas Cages in. (Oops; spoiler warning.) The atheist, unless they do happen to be that rare nihilist (they’re not even as common in Germany as you may think), has all the ethics and values anyone else has; and (this may totally freak your stuff, man), he or she gets them from the same place the believer does, they just don’t deflect credit to an imaginary friend for them! Allow me to explain….

If you are a believer (and, considering the average demographics of people who visit atheist Web sites — you’re not a believer, but go with me here), why don’t you just kill people indiscriminately? What’s stopping you? And, c’mon, let’s be honest here and provide real, sincere answers and don’t just say “God says not to!” out of reflex or because you feel on the defense. Think about it, and be intellectually honest. I hazard there are two things stopping you from seriously considering beating the snot out of someone, killing at whim, stealing old ladies’ pocketbooks: a “gut reaction” to not want to cause harm to another person (unless you’re that rare sociopath), and a healthy fear of retaliation by other people (often in the form of the law and its representative enforcers). If these two reasons are anywhere in your analysis of why you don’t just do whatever unethical thing you want, then you know exactly why atheists also don’t do those things: it’s because of the feelings of empathy we have evolved to have, as well as adherence to a social contract to our fellow tribe members to not be a predator among our own kind.

At one time “our own kind” meant our kin and our actual, immediate tribe. As we evolved socially to group into towns and villages, our sense of “tribe” expanded, as well as the reach and opportunity of harm we could inflict upon others by our actions. Laws began to spring up in order to help codify and elucidate the proper and accepted behavior among the group of people who see themselves as belonging to the same social order. Laws did not come from nowhere to prescribe behavior and proscribe offenses — they emerged from the accepted behavior that naturally evolved from people working together in a cooperative society.

We can see normative ethics translated into similar foundational laws all over the world, from all cultures, in all time periods. The Hebrew laws against murder, theft, lying, weren’t anything new; the Code of Hammurabi, and the older Laws of Eshnunna, are ancient sets of laws with very similar  restrictions. But more significant than that, ancient texts older and far-reaching than the Hebrew Laws of Moses also codified shared, positive, ethical behavior, such as The Maxims of Ptahhotep from the 25th century Egypt, B.C.E., and the rules of “model behavior” that sprang from 11th century B.C.E. China and King Wu, and eventually Confucius.

But I’m getting bogged in the weeds, as they say. The bottom line is that there is ample evidence throughout all history and all over the world, that humans follow internally derived behaviors to not indiscriminately harm others, create guides to help define the scope of these behaviors in the shades-of-gray reality we live in, and set socially acceptable punishments for breaking the social contract.

We, as humans, as primates, as social animals, generally abhor the idea of harming another, have an empathetic drive to avoid harming others, because we evolved to understand that, as a species, we thrive when we cooperate and have social peace and order. A tribe can’t have peace, order, and cooperation if we’re always busy looking over our shoulder at our fellow tribesperson, waiting for a surprise rock to the skull. This is actually old news to anthropologists, but researchers of other close-cousin primates are seeing the same conclusions. (See: “Morals Without God?“)

So, we atheists get our ethics, our concepts of right and wrong, from the same place the believer does: from evolution (which can arguably be considered “objective” — at least, Sam Harris is certainly arguing for that), and from socially prescribed concepts of behavior which keeps peace and dissuades disorder. Ethics certainly don’t come from any god. After all, believer, it says in the Bible to kill your daughter if she’s raped, God will stab you in the face with bears if you tease a prophet — even if you’re a child, has followers who sing praises of bashing infant heads against rocks, tells his followers to commit genocide and keep virgins as spoils of war, etc. ad nauseam. Now, if you as a believer, find these actions by your god as immoral or cruel, then you have a higher evolved, better sense of morality than your deity. If you have to figure out how to rationalize such behavior, such horrific rules and commands, by trying to justify it either as “it was a different era,” or “he’s God; whatever he does — even if it’s horrible, must by deffinition be ‘good’,” then you understand innately that such behavior is unethical or else the cognitive dissonance wouldn’t be sending you to find a way to square the circle. Your, and my, ethics are your own, they’re society’s, they’re evolution’s — they’re not God’s.

But what about values? Priorities? Life’s meaning? Where do you get these things without a god to hand them to you?

CONTINUE TO PART 2

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  • Jim

    Sigh….so when you say believers you actually mean Christians (that’s the only religion you gave specific references to) and you cited a theory (evolution) that is not concerned with final causes as the reason for morality. Something that did happen is not the same as something that ought to happen. Evolution has shown indifference to countless numbers of species so to use it as a basis for morality is completely illogical. Darwin himself said his theory was not concerned with final causes so unfortunately you don’t have that luxury.