On the internet today, someone that I know said that, even though she wasn’t an atheist, she thought we all deserved a better atheism than Richard Dawkins gives us. I am an atheist, and I’m inclined to agree — I think Dawkins (et all those guys — Hitchens, Harris, &c) did an important service by making atheism a reasonable subject of conversation in the national discourse. But they also did it in sort of the only way that you CAN do that in the national discourse in America, which was by being huge fucking pricks about it. This is kind of not their fault, I guess — Richard Dawkins didn’t decide that the way that we all ought to communicate our ideas is by having our individual platforms and then yelling at people from them. And it’s important that SOMEONE carved out the space, but it’s also misleading to let these guys define what atheism is for everyone.
This is especially because “atheism” isn’t really a tradition or a philosophy; it’s a broad category of many different traditions and philosophies, unified only by a single characteristic that they share in common. “Atheism” is as, or more, diverse than “theism”, and only some terrible prick would insist that all theists believe the same things.
Anyway, this got me thinking that maybe I ought to write down my own ideas about my own kind of atheism in a systematic way. I’ve had a lot of occasion to think really long and hard about what I believe and why. A lot of this is because of my challenges with depression and alcoholism — you know, I think a lot of us can get by pretty well without having thought rigorously about our (for lack of a better term) LIFE PHILOSOPHY (our own individual theories about “how we should be in the world”), but when you go through some of the emotional and psychological challenges that this kind of philosophy specifically provides a bulwark against, you end up putting a lot of work into it.
A lot of people find religion, or find a philosophy to help them get through rough times. I went through rough times, but I mostly just made mine up. This is it; I figure if I write it down, maybe someone else who’s having a rough time might find something useful in it. It’s what you might call Religious, but Not Spiritual. There isn’t a name for it so far as I know, but it technically breaks down as Atheistic Materialist Zen Mysticism.
I will now elaborate.
I have always, except for a brief period in high school, been an atheist. Practically speaking, my experience is that in all fields except for one fairly important one, the actual existence or not of a deity is largely immaterial. Let’s say that you’re a Young Earth creationist, and you believe that God created the universe in seven days, and he did in such a way that it looks like it’s much older — i.e., starlight from millions of light years away is created in mid-transit, so that it has time to reach us even though the earth is only six thousand years old. Well, that’s fine. The fact of the matter is unless you are a geologist or a paleontologist, then whether the earth is six thousand years old for six billion years old has almost precisely zero impact on your day-to-day life. And, in fact, even if you ARE a geologist, there’s no real conflict here — Science says, “This is what the earth looks like — the stuff we’ve got suggests that it’s four and a half billion years old”, and Creationism says, “Yeah, god created it to look that way,” then science’s answer is pretty much, “sure, whatever.”
Who cares? Science is the study of the universe as it is now; whatever the universe may have been before it was the universe is unknowable, and therefore immaterial to science.
Similarly, when we talk about the notion of a universally good omnipotent omniscient entity guiding the events of this world, this is also a largely moot question. God is infinitely knowledgeable and powerful and complex, and it is necessarily impossible for us to know what his plan for the universe is, and impossible for us to understand it even if we did know. Well, practically speaking, there’s no way to tell the difference between a universe that is subject to an incomprehensible plan and a universe subject to no plan.
This is like the question of Free Will — personally, I don’t actually believe that we have free will. I think we just don’t have it in a way that’s so complicated that we may as well have it. The universe I think is deterministic, but also incomprehensible, and this makes the question of its determinism moot. On the other hand, since the universe is incomprehensible, I’d never be able to prove that it’s deterministic, which means we very well might have free will. I don’t care about the answer to this question, because I don’t believe we’ll ever find it.
So, God or not is generally not a huge deal, except in one major area, and that is the area of morality. I know a lot of ink’s been spilled on this subject, but I want to go over a couple of key points.
There’s an argument going around that says something to the effect of “Without God, what’s good becomes what’s beautiful” (or pretty, or “what I prefer”, &c.). The idea is that only with a belief in God can we have a foundational morality, and everything without God is just a matter of personal preference. It’s one of those pithy, simplistic notions that you see turning up now and then and which then, because it’s easy to grasp, gets propagated faster than any refutation of it. I think that’s unfortunate, because I find this to be a really shallow, embarrassing argument, and it makes me ashamed on behalf of anyone who tries to use it.
There are two basic questions that come in to play when we ask what happens without a universal sense of morality. One is a question about the practical, social consequences of living in a world without one; the other is what happens at a personal level without one.
The question of the social good of morality is something along the lines of “how are we supposed to make laws and craft policies if we can’t agree on what’s right and wrong,” and it conjures up all manner of dystopian hellscapes in which everyone is able to do just whatever they want (always the worst possible things — raping, murdering, stealing, &c). This despite the fact that there’s basically no atheist anywhere who thinks that we SHOULD just be allowed to rape and murder however we like; a weird thing, that, that people can believe in different gods or no god, but still also share a large portion of their morality in common.
Still, though, rather than posit a secret universal morality that all human beings know about, I’d argue instead that we should be reconsidering the nature of government and civilization in this case. That, in fact, the point of laws is not to make us behave morally, but rather to make us behave harmoniously. When we create laws for our civilization, we do it with the intention of achieving practical, verifiable effects — a social stability in which human beings are able to flourish. And we, different moralities and all, compromise on what we’ll make into a law based on what it’s verifiable consequences are.
Murder, for example, is plainly immoral — but that’s not why it’s illegal. It’s illegal because none of us thinks it’s a good idea to live in a society in which it IS legal; the fact that our own moral codes also condemn it is a coincidence. Similarly, there are many things we think of as being morally wrong (maybe, for example, you think it’s immoral to eat meat), but are not illegal — this is because we haven’t found it necessary, in order to create a stable society, to prohibit it. Likewise, there are things that aren’t specifically immoral, but are still illegal — if you drive much faster than the speed limit on the highway, and there’s no one else around, it’s a hard argument to make that you’re behaving specifically immorally. Certainly, you’re not behaving immorally according to Old or New Testaments, which have little to say about acceptable speed limits; this is still against the law, though, and it’s because as a society we agreed that it’s worth it for the social good to discourage people from driving in a reckless way, even when no one is specifically harmed or threatened by that behavior.
Well, look, we can debate whether or not it SHOULD be illegal, but it’s pretty plain that legality and morality only line up a part of the time, and if we specifically say, “look, it’s not the government’s job to make people good people, but to encourage them to behave in ways that are not harmful to others”, then the question of where morality comes from isn’t specifically relevant. How do we decided what kind of laws we should have? Well, the same way we decide anything else in society — we look at the question, we consider the consequences, we vote. If it turns out we were wrong, then we change the laws.
It doesn’t, in other words, matter where I get my morality from; I’m here, I’m a citizen, we’ve got to take it into account when we make our laws, and for that reason it’s best not to think of laws as a tool to prevent sin, and instead to think of laws as tools to prevent harm to others.
I therefore disregard this concern as moot.
The second way that it matters is on a personal level, where do I get my OWN morality from? If there’s no God, how do I know that my morality is correct? What’s to stop it from changing? Well, in fact, my own morality HAS changed, but I’d argue that my ability to adapt my morality as I grow older and begin to understand more about the universe is a good thing; I’ve come to think that more behaviors which I’d have never thought twice about are actually morally consequential, I’ve come to worry less about other behaviors, and I’ve generally simplified my moral approach to the universe as I’ve seen more of it. But this isn’t fundamentally different from anyone with a sense of religious morality — even if you’ve got a strict, God-given sense of morality, you’re constantly asking questions about which things fit into it, and where. The Ten Commandments, for example, don’t really cover securities fraud — maybe there’s a time in your life where you thought that this was a moral behavior because it wasn’t mentioned by name; maybe later on you came to interpret “Thou Shalt Not Steal” more broadly and felt that it WAS covered. Even with a God-given moral code, your own personal sense of morality can change.
The big one, of course, is slavery — the Old Testament not only doesn’t condemn slavery, but sets out rules for conducting it appropriately. The New Testament is a little more ambivalent on the subject, providing both arguments for and against it — but that said, slavery was routinely practiced by Jews and Christians for many centuries, and is now almost universally-acknowledged as one of the worst and most abominable of institutional evils.
How can this be, though? If the point of a God-given morality is that it provides an unchanging and universal sense of right and wrong, how can people believe that slavery is acceptable for centuries, and then believe it’s evil?
Well, privilege of being an atheist, I don’t care, and I don’t have to. I don’t need to reconcile how you can have an evolving morality with a universal, god-given set of commandments, because I haven’t got a god-given set of commandments — but let me offer this up as evidence that belief in god actually doesn’t provide as solid a foundation for moral behavior and some folks would have us think.
Also, let me offer up one more point. When we talk about what it means to have commandments given to us by god, the chain of reasoning typically goes something like this: “I know this is wrong because the Bible provides the foundation of my morality, and I know that the Bible is true because it was given to us by God, and I know that this is true because of faith.” Well, we always get to faith at some point, and what is faith, exactly? I don’t know; I’d always assumed it was the belief in something that was axiomatic (i.e., it’s unprovable, but necessary to accept it as true in order to move on with the argument), but I’ve heard that this isn’t the case.
Let’s try another argument then, and say that “faith” is the personal experience of a truth; that is, I have faith in a thing because of something maybe inexplicable in the depths of my soul, as opposed to because I have either reasoned my way to it or seen direct, specific evidence of its truth. So if that’s the case then this line of reasoning goes:
It’s wrong to kill ==> because the Bible prohibits it ==> which was given to us by God ==> which I know because of my personal experience of the truth.
Ah. So, how is that any different, necessarily from:
It’s wrong to kill ==> which I know because of my personal experience of the truth
Except for the fact that the second involves fewer steps?
This is what I’ll say my morality is, which is a fundamentally atheistic morality (and let me be clear that I don’t accept agnosticism in the case of morality; while it’s reasonable to remain undecided about whether or not god created the universe because, as I mentioned, for the most part it doesn’t matter, at some point you’ve got to decide why you think some things are right and some are wrong. Atheism is always a statement about morality, because if you don’t believe that morality comes from god, then you must believe it comes from somewhere else).
It is compassion for the suffering of others.
That’s pretty much it; I know it sounds fairly Buddhist (and there are reasons I don’t identify as Buddhist, which I’ll get to later), and it seems deceptively simple, but I also don’t find that I need anything else in order to behave morally in this world. If there’s any merit to Occam’s Razor — that we shouldn’t add anything into a philosophy that we don’t specifically need — then the idea of a moral code that is as simple as possible is ideal.
Of course, it get’s complicated — what counts as suffering? How do we alleviate it? Is it better to alleviate some suffering in the short term, if it will yield more suffering in the long term? What counts as suffering? Who experiences it? How do we prioritize it? Then there are the questions that I alluded to before — if the government doesn’t exist to make people moral, but instead to delimit the instances of harm towards others, then how do we craft laws in ways that alleviate suffering? What kinds of suffering will we accept in order to alleviate which other kinds?
It’s a mess, there’s no question; but if you start from a position of trying to alleviate the suffering of others, and you keep that idea in the forefront of your mind when you decide what you’re doing, then everything else sort of falls into place. And honestly, what is the point of being here if it isn’t “making the world better for everyone?”
(I’ve got an economic theory that I’m working on, the Theory of Maximum Fun, that explains this better, but you’ll have to wait for that one.)
Anyway. In my opinion, atheism is not a detriment to my morality, but the heart of it — the universe does not provide us with particular laws, with meaning, it is not innately just, it is not innately merciful; if suffering should end, it will only end because we go out and end it.
This is all I’ll do for now; it’s going to get way weirder.
For further reading, please consider The Five Disappointments.