I Get Mail – Tim Bo

Tim Bo has the rather nice honour of being one of the nicest people to ask a question. And he deserves an answer. The other place was getting bogged down in distraction so he gets a decent one here.

You’ve answered all those questions about morals, but yours and all atheist morals still confuse me quite a bit. To be honest with you I can’t fathom on any level why, if you honestly, genuinely believe that this is the only existence you will ever have, if this is the only thing you will ever do, ever be conscious of, ever experience, why wouldn’t every atheist live the most hedonistic life possible?

And there are some who do think that way. That’s their path.

You only get time on this planet and then you simply stop. You cease to exist. Human beings are a social animal, it is our strength. We are individuals but we are not alone because we associate with each other.

We CAN be hedonistic, but that’s not all there is to life. People see value in different things.

To a young teenager at 3:00 PM on a Friday Afternoon? That 60 minutes cannot go fast enough. To me writing an exam? That one hour goes too fast! A child on Christmas eve would do anything to throw away those hours between bedtime and presents. But if his mother lay dying then even a single second would be beyond value. And that’s just time! A method by which we time our lives and arguably our deaths.

There is simply more to living than pleasure. Pain and suffering defines us too you know. Experiences make you who you are and that includes the bad.

I would not be who I am without all the pain and suffering. I have learnt compassion because I suffered.

You come to life empty handed and what you take through is from your experiences and what you learn from others. Different people will teach you different things. In seeking only pleasure and not learning what you can achieve you shut yourself off from experience. There are different kinds of pleasure out there. The rush of a kiss is pleasure, so is the taste of a well cooked meal and so is the feeling of achievement.

Why wouldn’t you consume every moment possible with whatever sexual experiences you can have, take whatever drugs make you feel good, take money from any person you wish, “get rid” of anyone who bothers you, etc…

Well despite all rumours to the contrary, even I need a break in the middle of my sexual sextravaganzas.

You could live a self destructive life, but as I said. There are nuances to pleasure. Some people can have this sort of life. It isn’t what I want though. I found pleasure in a loving girlfriend and indeed (and not to blow my own trumpet here) there are many sexual experiences there in addition to the love and companionship. Just because you love each other doesn’t mean you can’t have an exciting sex life. One doesn’t have to be bedding random people every night in order to have excitement you know!

You could live such a life, but then people stop talking to you and men in blue uniforms with shiny badges come to take you away for being a rather horrid person.

And then your life stops being fun. That’s the stick.

The carrot is to remember that if everyone thought like this we would be in an anarchy. We would not have a society. It is society that lets us live this life. And through society we have found other forms of pleasure. We need wealth to live after all so we acquire it by working. Some of us are lucky enough to work in jobs we enjoy we can find pleasure in that. Some of us find pleasure in the people around us. Some of us have experiences and most of us mix all of the pleasures we can find. So there are atheists who do responsible things but enjoy marijuana and sex too you know.

You can be good and still enjoy the fruits of hedonism. It’s just that people think that sex and drugs somehow provides some ultimate happiness that boring old living cannot match. You find happiness in many things in life and indeed the thing is to try and have experiences rather than simply kill time.

Living is the experience is it not?

Why would you ever work a day in your life? If you genuinely and whole heartedly believe there is nothing at the end of it all, isn’t hard work just a giant waste of this experience?

Because some of us find work rewarding and in order to exist in society we require to trade work for wealth that we can exchange for the things that let us live safely and indeed make us happy.

Why not take what you want, enjoy your experience, and screw those who are affected by it? After all, that might be a crappy attitude to have, but it’s your life and you ought you get as much out of it in the short time you’re here.

On a sensible note? I put it down to risk. It is not in our interest to screw the rules. Oh you can dress it up in fancy gods and the like but honestly in a survival situation do you think a group of people working together is better than one guy?

That one guy screwing over the group may make it big immediately but on the long term he has effectively ruined his good credit and will be shunned “at best” and at worst be effectively removed from society either through ostracisation, prison, execution or banishment.

It’s the same thing we see in online discussion. If you were rude we would not have responded to your question. There would be no discussion. If you were rude enough we may have banned you. A website ban is just an annoyance compared to a ban from society.

It is in our interest to curtail our hedonism to only affect our person rather than others.

You’re really only wasting time worrying about other people’s experience right? Now, before you blow me off as being sarcastic or writing to the extreme I ask you to consider this question carefully. You yourself made the point that your morality is based in treating others the way you wish to be treated (Something Jesus taught us actually). But this stands in stark contrast with the implications of your declared stance. So the question remains, if your morality is not inherent, is not based on your belief system, and actually stands in contrast to it, where does it come from and why do you choose to follow a code of morality that stands in contrast to your belief system?

Jesus was not the first person to bring that concept up. Historically most cultures valued those who behaved like that. In fact treating humans equally is the basis of all social progress in civilisation. The Buddha predates Jesus and the laws of Hinduism predate even Judaism and value such kindness through it’s heroes.

This principle is intrinsic to the development of society. Altruism is a survival trait. Oh in the past it was because altruists were more popular and thus more likely to survive in a group but that’s the thing.

Our survival is linked to the group. Any concept that divides us on a social level harms us. Imagine how much better the USA would have been off if it didn’t spend all that money fighting black rights and for slavery?

I mean this is like suggesting that before the Bible came up with “Thou Shalt Not Kill” everyone went around murdering each other! Which is laughable! Even the anarchy that is kids playing eventually nets them with “laws” in the form of rules of a game. People make laws because laws help people live together by providing a method of dispute resolution.

Now initially the laws didn’t matter. What mattered was everyone following them. So the Aztec’s human sacrifice while wrong to us probably kept everyone on the same page and got society working together. Likewise the whole anti-GLBT stance of Christianity. But we do recognise that all these laws are actually secular in origin and represent the thinking of the time period.

Even recently discovered stone age tribes have rules against murder within the tribe. It’s fine to go off and kill some other dude but NOT within the tribe. Why? Because it reduces survival.

Even the Bible’s thou shalt not kill was not about not killing but about not killing each other. It was perfectly fine to go off and kill some unbeliever or some other tribe.

So the problem here is you are assuming that the ideal moral code comes from a divine source rather than the moral code coming from a secular and logical source and religion merely adopting the local variants at the time.


  1. Scott says

    People who have no love, concern, compassion or respect for others probably do live the most hedonistic life possible.

    However, as an atheist who has a genuine concern, compassion and respect for others, I live the most hedonistic life that I can possibly live while at the same time remaining genuinely concerned, compassionate and respectful towards others. That entails limiting my hedonistic choices from time to time, sacrificing in the here and now to have a better , more pleasurable experience of life in the future and so on, but it does not entail living a life of misery and total self deprecation.

    In short, the questions framed by the inquiring believer are framed in the context of learning a skewed version of what it means to live a life free of dogma, religion and woo.

  2. brucegee1962 says

    For many years, I hung onto theism because of this question: if there isn’t any god, then why does morality look so similar in every human society?

    When I read a book about memes and altruism, though, the answer became blindingly clear: because of evolution. Societies have evolutionary pressure just like species do. Societies that don’t value altruism simply become extinct — the altruistic societies can outcompete them for resources, and they conquer or absorb the cultures where everyone is a hedonist.

    That was it for the god hypothesis as far as I was concerned.

  3. doublereed says

    I simply would ask the same question in response. Do you want to have sex with random strangers and take a bunch of dangerous drugs?

    Is the only reason you don’t do these things is because of religion? Because that seems pretty unrealistic to me.

    I really don’t understand the appeal of having sex with strangers. The first sex with someone is usually the lamest.

  4. leftwingfox says

    The evolutionary tendency towards empathy and social structures is a basis, but what that basis has built gives us so much more.

    One of the most humbling experiences is to look at anything in a technological world, and realize just how much is involved in creating it; all the experience, knowledge, and global resources that come together to make even the most simple things.

    Even the humble french fry/chip requires a massive investment in tools, knowledge experience and time that would make it virtually impossible for an individual to develop from scratch, but becomes a cheap staple in a modern society.

    None of that would be possible without a basic morality that encourages cohabitation and the free exchange of information, ideas, and services. The short-term benefits of theft, rape and murder pale in comparison to the massive benefits of a society where goods are affordable and plentiful, sex is relatively safe and mutually enjoyable, and safety of social interaction is virtually taken for granted.

  5. maudell says

    I find this question puzzling. It seems to me that there is a divide between people who were raised religious and people who were raised atheist (just an observation, but I may be wrong). I see no inconsistency between being moral and being atheist (I was raised atheist).

    However, I think Tim and I might have a different definition of morality. I do not think having a lot of consensual unattached sex in a respectful manner is immoral. I don’t think having fun is immoral. I think drugs are wrong inasmuch as they fund immoral gangs, and can threaten the well-being of the user and hir loved ones. Instant gratification only goes so far. There’s a reason why ex-addicts usually talk about how terrible their life was. Moderation is beneficial to maximize enjoyment. People figured that out way before scribes attributed words to Jesus.

    In any case, what really puzzles me is how subjective Christian morality is. If one is to agree that morality is objective and unchanging, with a clear ‘right or wrong’ answer, why do Christians disagree about it so much? Why did the Old and New Testament got the easiest moral questions wrong (owning other human beings (slaves and women), rape and mass murder of other tribes, or murder of children who made fun of an important man’s bald head, or stoning disobedient children to death)? What makes Tim read it and find it so immoral that he rationalizes what it means (unless he believes murder, rape and slavery are moral, but I doubt it)? What makes Tim know God’s nature, but other Christians miss this information? Why are there bazillions of denominations, with different takes on morality? How does Tim know his God is not evil, and has put evil morality in his heart?

    It’s that little evolved computer you have inside your skull. Same as I have. It doesn’t mean that suddenly, everything is relative. It does mean that the world is full of nuances though.

    In any case, I hope that Tim does not live a moral life for self-gratification in front of his God or in a future life. That would surely defeat the purpose of morality…

    Because of my upbringing, I don’t understand how people can think this way. In fact, that is what brought to think of these questions, a genuine curiosity to understand how people can *actually*, for real, believe in God. It still blows my brain. Not in a demeaning way, I am just unable to comprehend it. And the fact that most discussions about Gods end up in some ‘where does morality come from’ debate is even more weird to me (I am not sure if this is the case with Hinduism). I don’t understand the ‘come from’ part. I don’t understand why morality requires totalitarian submission. I don’t know how biblical morality can solve any of the actual moral conundrums of modern philosophy (it can’t, because those are actual difficult questions without clear right and wrong answers).

  6. Al Dente says

    Why would you ever work a day in your life? If you genuinely and whole heartedly believe there is nothing at the end of it all, isn’t hard work just a giant waste of this experience?

    I work because I have several expensive addictions I need to maintain. Things like eating and sleeping under a roof and wearing clean clothes. If you’d like, I can explain the concept of “capitalism” to you, but to put it shortly, I work to get money so I can provide my family and me with all the necessities and a few of the luxuries.

    Honestly, this is a silly question. Why do you work, Tim? Do you work for “the greater glory of God” or because you want to live a reasonably pleasant life? Why do you think atheists are any different?

  7. Al Dente says

    I have a really simple question for Tim and any other goddist who wonders about atheists’ morality. If you were convinced that gods do not exist, would you immediately become a sex-crazed, drug-addled, serial murderer? If not, why not?

  8. Rich Woods says

    I once thought that I could happily lead a hedonistic lifestyle, but then I grew up. Or to put it a little less bluntly, whatever the appeal of a sex’n’drugs’n’rock’n’roll lifestyle might have been when I was a teenager who wasn’t getting much of any of that, it was soon outweighed by the sheer pleasure which comes time and again from watching the sun rise, from lying alongside a lover on a silent morning, or simply from reading a good book. Some people may want to spend their lives snorting coke out of the navels of hookers, but I don’t think that describes many of us (atheist or otherwise).

  9. brucegee1962 says

    Yes to everyone so far. Tonight I’m going to help my daughter with her math homework while sipping some white wine, play a game or two on my computer, then go to sleep beside the woman I love. Each of those things is a thousand times more satisfying than the hedonist’s ideal of getting wasted, then trying to hook up with another wasted human for meaningless sex. There’s just no comparison.

  10. Ysanne says

    Gee, I’m starting to understand why this whole “rational actors” type of economic theory stuff doesn’t really work. People – including Tim – seem to be incapable of proper long-term evaluation of costs and rewards.

    Why would you ever work a day in your life? If you genuinely and whole heartedly believe there is nothing at the end of it all, isn’t hard work just a giant waste of this experience?
    Why not take what you want, enjoy your experience, and screw those who are affected by it? After all, that might be a crappy attitude to have, but it’s your life and you ought you get as much out of it in the short time you’re here.

    Maybe because this “short time” is about 70 years these days, so you’d want a long-term strategy to maximise enjoyment instead of one of instant gratification for 1 second that fucks up most of the rest of your life? As in “if I don’t work a day in my life I won’t have the money I need to do the stuff I enjoy, starting with eating regular meals and living in a nice house”.
    And as Avi rightly points out, for social animals with a shred of empathy, screwing people over tends to spoil the fun of whatever you get out of it, whereas making others feel good is actually enjoyable.

  11. Alex says

    I’ll just repeat what I said in the other post,
    although I have been an atheist for 20 years, just don’t feel like living the way you describe. I could have, mind you. I do the work that I do mainly because of my passion for science and the desire to make a living and be accepted in society. Making a living at the expense of others as a thief or so would not make me happy, I would not enjoy the riches thus obtained.

    Tim I am sure if you look at yourself and your motivations without prejudice, you will find that much of the same the above commenters say is also true for you. You probably (hopefully) wouldn’t go on a hedonistic killing spree if tomorrow you found out that your God probably does not exist. It is tempting to exaggerate a little bit in the beginning with the hedonism, i.e. when people move out of their parent’s house for the first time, but for most it will not provide long term satisfaction.

  12. MaryL says

    As much as possible, I prefer to treat others as THEY prefer to be treated. It takes more effort but it provides better results for both of us. There is a healthy selfish aspect to this. My life can be better if the life of another is better. I don’t need a god for this, just a mind to apply a bit of logic.

    We’re all hedonistic. Humans prefer what feels good, is enjoyable, lacks horror and pain. Using that mind and logic mentioned in the previous paragraph, we can control ourselves and the what/how/etc. of our indulgences. We can exert ourselves for others.

    These screeds are always the same. They’re a bit scary because they reflect minds that can only see up or down. They’re blind to everything in between; that area doesn’t exist to them. Lately, I’ve begun to wonder: do the people who think and say these things have ANY understanding of what it is to be a human being? Are they afraid of what they really are? They sound terrified of that. Which makes it all sound like projection.

  13. mildlymagnificent says

    it’s your life and you ought you get as much out of it in the short time you’re here.

    So we love our children like crazy. We feed and clothe them and help with their homework and their music or sprts practice. If we’re really into getting as much out of it as possible, we’ll even go bonkers for birthday cakes … http://womensweeklybirthdaycakeblog.blogspot.com.au/2012/03/australian-womens-weekly-childrens_29.html . If Australian parents, atheist or otherwise, had a bible in the 80s and 90s, this was it.

    We enjoy the world around us. Love staring at clear or cloudy skies, have picnics at the park or go on exhausting hikes through bushland, find out about bridges and trains and planes and plants and insects and rivers and oceans and anything else that excites our interest. Join in all the choirs and clubs and sports that interest us as well as all the hobbies and pastimes and other activities we can fit in.

    We make our own surroundings as enjoyable, hedonistic?, as possible. So we love polishing our silver and glassware and an antique table or two and keeping our house clean and tidy for our own pleasure as well as ready for guests so we can indulge in bbqs and dinners and parties and games nights. We privately gaze on or proudly display our pantries filled with preserves and pickles we made from the fruit and veg we grew ourselves. We teach our children to enjoy good food and how to cook it for themselves.

    Most of it is pretty unremarkable from the outside even though it can be intensely interesting and enjoyable or exciting for the people concerned. What I don’t understand is why religious people’s notions of pleasure or indulgence or hedonism so often turn out to be so squalid.

  14. culuriel says

    Without religion, just what would Tim Bo do? Go on drug-fueled rape marathons and sleep under a bridge? He sounds scary.

  15. Carol Lynn says

    Why doesn’t TIm Bo go act all hedonistic, murderous, or pleasure seeking when he wants to? God has not, outside of some old books of tribal memories that are not very reliable, smote anyone for their behavior – and gos’s had plenty of opportunities to make his displeasure personal. Tim Bo can behave as immorally as he wants and simply go to his god for forgiveness and make it all like it never was any time he asks, right? What stops him from rampaging, hedonism, rape, and murder? I, as an atheist, don’t have that option of divine forgiveness for my behavior in the here and now. I live my life as a moral, caring, empathetic person all the time because that’s what I am.

  16. John Kruger says

    If one really believes that eternity is their reward, why care about the mortal life at all? Why not give away everything you have and spend your time praying and praising Jesus (or the god of your choice)? Doesn’t the Sermon on the Mount endorse just that, giving away everything and trusting in god to provide? What is a lifetime of poverty or a few years of starvation compared to eternity?

    Of course, most Christians are smarter than that, and realize that their life here does in fact matter. It is fairly easy to see what happens if you compare someone who does not steal with someone who just takes everything they want right off the shelves of the store without paying. One leads a fairly comfortable life contributing and benefiting from the society they are a part of, the other spends it in a cage. People live by rules for transparent reasons, no magic reason for compliance is required.

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  18. MaryL says

    mildlymagnificent – I like your point about people who apparently believe pleasures (to cover a lot of ground) are, or have to be, squalid. A little while ago, I petted my cat, something we both enjoyed. I have a fresh glass of iced tea at my side. I get a great deal of pleasure from petting the cat and drinking iced tea. Life is full of a multitude of such pleasures! We should revel a bit in each of them.

  19. leni says

    My idea of hedonism is pretty radical. It’s sleeping in on Saturdays and spending several hours communing with my couch, watching terrible movies, and snuggling with my wonderful cat (or a lover and the cat, that’s nice too). Drinking expensive coffee with loads of sugary stuff in it and pointedly ignoring all the less fun things I *should* be doing.

    And like others have mentioned, the price I pay for getting to do that is working 40+ hours a week at a job I don’t love.

    Poverty and addiction is a burden. It isn’t freeing to be homeless and constantly under the pressure to feed your addiction. Maybe not everyone would agree with me on that, but I certainly would not want to add “meth addiction” or “possibly freezing to death on the street” to my list of problems that need dealing with. Also, I enjoy having teeth and feeling safe.

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