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!