What does atheism offer? Part 2.

Welcome back; I’d hoped to see you again.

You may recall last time we discussed how atheism no more leads inevitably toward nihilism nor amorality, than does not owning a 6-string acoustic guitar make you not a musician. (There’s a reason why my grad school mentor told me to never use analogies.) Not believing in gods (and let’s get down to brass tax — the believer accusing the atheist of having no ethical foundation is not referring to belief in any god or theism, but specifically their particular god) says nothing about where one gets their ethical standards; and, in fact, the believer more often than not has a higher ethical standard themself that runs counter and in opposition to the one prescribed by their deity.

Now, I know, some may say that I oversimplified the ethics question, and I agree. The subject of ethics can get quite complex. There’s a reason why people can get college and post-graduate degrees in ethics. Even so, the bottom line of what is ethical behavior often comes down to how actor and writer Wil Wheaton put’s it: “Don’t be a dick.”

Today we will address atheism and that even slipperier subject:  values, meaning and purpose in life.

Actually, half my response comes down to the fact that, like ethics, all people of all beliefs (and none) generally derive their core values from the same place: evolution. Do you love your family? Your spouse or partner(s)? Care for them, enjoy being with them, hope to spend the rest of your life with them? Do you love your children? Do you desire to see them be successful and you sacrifice in order to provide for them? These feelings and drives which we confer the label “values” upon, are selected for in our species as a means to encourage reproduction and the care and raising of offspring into maturity, with the help of a cooperative and labor-sharing “family unit” (however you define “family”). It promotes successful continuation of the species.

“Whoa, Mr. Science-Worshiping Evil Man! What a cold, calculated, emotionless assessment.” Yes, yes it is. But whether it’s a warm and fuzzy description or not, it’s the truth (as best as we humans understand it thus far). Truth doesn’t care if you find it cozy or not, it just is.

However, if anyone is still with me, I want to assert to you that understanding a thing does not (despite the cries of the person who clings tooth and nail to the idea that life must have mystery for it to be interesting) rob the thing of it’s beauty or wonder, or even awe! The love and adoration I feel for my daughter is not any less of a real, powerful, and motivating force in my reality because I know that its source is a soup of brain chemicals alchemied by natural selection. If anything, the knowledge that nature can “design” (and I use that term very loosely) such powerful and sublime complex feelings only enhances the experience of it and adds to it an entirely new dimension of wonder of it.

It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works—that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it. ~ Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot (1994), pg. 130

Or, as deceptively wise scifi author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams, said: “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?” How much less imaginative, incredible, and interesting, is it to say that some suspiciously human-like deity simply willed emotion and love and attachment into ephemeral minds, than to see that these qualities which make us feel alive and connected to our fellow humans, came about in gooshy gray matter from natural processes? The end result is unchanged, but the understanding of the origin and source of the result only multiplies the wonder!

But, of course, not all we are is bundles of emotional goo for our mates and offspring; most of us have additional sources of inspiration, value, and purpose to our lives. What of those? How can our life’s meaning not come from God?

And so I ask you, list the things that you find give meaning to your life. We’ve already established love and family, but what else? Perhaps your desire to work toward and get that dream job? Maybe getting an education that helps you get that dream job is itself a purpose in your life? Writing that book. Maybe learning another language. Visiting every major-league ballpark. Watching the sun set on a beach. Doing what you can to fight poverty. Helping the politician you believe will change-or-restore things get elected. Being a role model to a kid who has none. Collecting every Pokémon. There are so many things we value in our lives, so many different goals we set, so many ways we measure our life’s purpose and fulfillment. We don’t get these things from any deity, any dogma, any religion, as evidenced by the fact that every of the billions of people on this planet have, from wildly different to astonishingly similar, purposes and meanings in our lives regardless of if we believe in Yahweh, Buddhism, Xenu, or no gods. We derive our own meaning and purpose in our lives — subjectively, individually. We choose what is important to us and we strive to experience or accomplish or maintain those goals and values. We do it.

For some unfathomable reason, many believers find this idea dreary and depressing. That, somehow, believing that a sky daddy has somehow instilled within you vegetable-gardening skills from which you derive happiness, or a love of finding the perfect Saturday morning antiquing deal, saving puppies from abandonment, is more valuable and fulfilling than the idea that you developed these joys, meanings, and purposes on your own. It doesn’t make any sense to me. Once again, we have an end result that is no different: our lives have value and meaning; yet, the believer attributes it to a hidden being while the non-believer accepts the power and responsibility of finding for yourself what gives life meaning. Perhaps having such awesome autonomy scares some people?

I end with the words of Paul Kurtz, founder of the Council for Secular Humanism:

Each and every person needs to create the conditions that will enable him [or her] to live richly and joyously. [...] Generation upon generation of human beings in the past have found life rewarding, and generation upon generation no doubt will continue to do so in the future. We need not escape to nirvana or seek salvation elsewhere — which is actually an escape to nowhere. The acts of creative living, including the sharing of life with others, is the summum bonsum of the human condition. That is the response the humanist gives to the theist. There is nothing ultimate or absolute beyond the living of life fully: it is its own reward. ~ Paul Kurtz, Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Secularism (2008), pg. 306

Hmm, what does atheism offer? Maybe it’s nothing different than what you already have, except the added bonus of the knowledge that you are to thank for all the good in your life — and what a wonderful and precious thing your life is!

  • Pingback: What does atheism offer? On ethics, values, and meaning to life.

  • Dan

    The problem is that if morals are the result of evolution, biological or social, then they are ultimately subjective. They change as we change. And if morals are merely evolved, then they are not real. There is nothing *really* wrong with lying or cheating or murder. Our brains have evolved to make us believe certain actions are "right" and others "wrong," But we're just following our neurophysiology. Objective morals require an objective standard. God provides that objective standard. Atheism does not.

    Meaning or purpose is similar. As you say, most people derive meaning and purpose for their lives. They find things that make them happy. But on atheism, those things have no real meaning in the end. It doesn't matter whether you devote your life to feeding the hungry or collecting all the Pokemon. Being happy or not makes no difference to the fate of the individual. Helping others ultimately makes no difference. I will die. You will die. The people we help or ignore will die. The sun will run out of fuel, the earth will die, and the universe will continue to expand, eventually becoming a cold, dark void. This will happen whether you are a philanthropist or serial killer; whether you and those around you are happy or miserable. It makes no difference. The logical outcome of atheism is nihilism. Most atheists don't have the courage to allow their thinking to go that far.

    On atheism, both morals and meaning are purely subjective and ultimately meaningless.

  • http://www.celticbear.com Liam

    Firstly, thank you for your reply. I appreciate people who take the time, AND can spell and use proper punctuation! (It’s the small things that make me happy.) Now to your points….

    “The problem is that if morals are the result of evolution, biological or social, then they are ultimately subjective. They change as we change. And if morals are merely evolved, then they are not real.”

    Yes, they are subjective. They always have been subjective, including “God’s” morality… but more on that later. But being subjective doesn’t make them any less “real” (whatever THAT’S supposed to mean). I assume you love a significant other, maybe? Or have? How would you react if I said your live wasn’t “real”? After all, what is love? How can it be measured or quantified? This person you love isn’t loved the same way, or even at all, by most people they meet, so the love YOU feel is certainly very subjective. So is your love not “real”?

    If the only things we find value in are things that are somehow written in the laws of physics or something, then nearly every product of human thought, art, philosophy, politics, ect., can be discounted. Democracy? A very subjective concept, not real? Capitalism, as slippery and mailable as any concept of morality, also not real?

    “There is nothing *really* wrong with lying or cheating or murder. Our brains have evolved to make us believe certain actions are "right" and others "wrong," But we're just following our neurophysiology.  Objective morals require an objective standard. God provides that objective standard. Atheism does not. ”

    But in actuality, there is an “objective” standard that’s far more universal and unchanging than anything found in the Bible, and that’s the concept of harm. We HAVE been evolutionarily wired to avoid harm, and feel empathy toward those who are harmed. This semi-objective measure that underlies morality is at the basis of all the morality codified in all cultures since long before the semetic cultures even existed. It’s why all cultures with enormously divergent gods and theologies have some variation of “do unto others,” and basic prohibitions against murder and theft. Except for sociopaths who are biologically incapable of feeling empathy or remorse, evolutionary empathy is good enough of an objective morality-drive to underly the further evolution of social ethics. 

    As for God’s “objective” morality: is what he says is moral, moral because it’s truly objective regardless of him? Or is it moral simply because he says so? If the former, then why do we need God as a middle-man? If the latter, then morality is ultimately subjective WITH God anyway. 

    In any case, God’s supposedly objective morality is oddly as subjective as any and every culture’s evolving morality. According to him, genocide was once a-ok. So was slavery. Rape and murder was ok too, if it’s against another tribe. Selling your daughter to her rapist? God’s seal of approval! Killing your children for being unruly? God says “you bet!” The Pentateuch is chock full of divine morality that is absolutely abhorrent and detestable today, leading religious leaders having to perform all kinds of mental gymnastics to try to explain. 

    Bottom line is, the morality of ancient Hebrews were in keeping with the standards of morality for 2500 years ago, and their god simply reflected their tribal, primitive morality. Human morality HAS evolved since then, and while that’s a troublesome thing for the religious person who needs to apologize for the barbarity of their God’s early morals — it’s actually a wonderful thing! Our sense of morality, as a species, has evolved from tribal morality, to national, to increasingly global — thinking of the whole human race (and the environment) as our tribe. Our biological empathy is growing in scope, and that’s far superior than the bloodthirsty and horrific morality of Yahweh.

    “Meaning or purpose is similar. As you say, most people derive meaning and purpose for their lives. They find things that make them happy. But on atheism, those things have no real meaning in the end. It doesn't matter whether you devote your life to feeding the hungry or collecting all the Pokemon. Being happy or not makes no difference to the fate of the individual.”

    It doesn’t? Well, that’s news to me! Here I thought that gaining friends and doing good things, making myself and others happy, had an effect on my life. So, you’re saying that if I do harmful things, shun family, have no friends, spread hate, I’ll have the same quality of life? I’ll have taken the same path or journey in my life? 

    Sure, if your entire life is focused on death, I guess you could see everything as inconsequential. How sad. Some of us have like 80 or so (hopefully) years of life to live before getting there. That’s a REALLY long time of supposed inconsequence. 

    “Helping others ultimately makes no difference. I will die. You will die. The people we help or ignore will die. The sun will run out of fuel, the earth will die, and the universe will continue to expand, eventually becoming a cold, dark void. This will happen whether you are a philanthropist or serial killer; whether you and those around you are happy or miserable. It makes no difference.”

    Try telling the person with the starving child that helping them makes no difference. Tell the people who love and care about you that their feelings for you make no difference. Tell the person who lost everything in a natural disaster that there’s no point in helping them rebuild because it’s pointless. Tell my daughter that my efforts to try to make a better world for her to live HER 80+ years in is meaningless. If you get a horrible and painful disease, how would you feel if no one gave you medical care or came and comforted you because, after all, it’s all ultimately pointless?

    If you worship death, then yeah, everything in life is pointless, I guess. But here’s what I find literally laughable: You’re trying to tell me, the godless atheist, that the value I find in life and in living it, should hold no value to me? You’re trying to tell me I should be a nihilist? That I’m somehow doing it wrong because I find value in people and experience and love and the world of the here and now?

     I don’t know, but it sounds to me like you’re just frustrated and upset that the godless aren’t wallowing in self-pity and despair. That we love life, and aren’t jealous of how much fun and joy you Christians are having.

    “The logical outcome of atheism is nihilism. Most atheists don't have the courage to allow their thinking to go that far.”

    That’s hilarious, really truly hilarious. You’re saying, then, that every good thing you do, every laugh you have, every love you experience, it’s all with “God’s glory” in mind? Every movie you watch, every orgasm you have (or give), every person who you make smile with a compliment, every friend you help move, every frisbee you get off the roof for a kid, every person you send clothes to, everything you do aside from sleep that makes life worth living and makes you feel good, you wouldn’t do if you didn’t think there was a god watching you do it?

    And you’re trying to tell me I should feel sad and pathetic.

    Well, shux, I better go get the word out and tell all the other atheists who I enjoy the company of, who I’ve had drinks with, who I’ve discussed books with, who have children I’ve shared stories with, who have lovers I’ve met, that they haven’t thought it all through! We all need to sit down and think about how wrong we are and that we shouldn’t find meaning in anything and we should just be sad and depressed. Thanks for setting us straight; none of us have ever thought about it that deeply before!

    “On atheism, both morals and meaning are purely subjective and ultimately meaningless.”

    I’m sorry, you seem nice and you can spell, but this is truly hilarious. :)
    …except, what if YOU are a sociopath who is incapable of empathy or love, and the only value in life you see is a myth of an afterlife and you literally can’t comprehend how others can live morally without being told by an authority figure, and can love life for its own sake. Is that the case? If so, that makes me sad. 
    :(