The consequences of atheism


While atheism is not a philosophy as such, the reasons that one has for being one (mainly, the rejection of those beliefs for which there is no evidence) necessarily lead to certain consequences. Collected together, this set of results may look like a philosophy, but is not really. It is merely the playing out of the consequences of a scientific approach to every aspect of life.

For example, the same arguments that atheists use to reject the existence of god also lead them to the rejection of an afterlife. This has profound consequences for the way one lives and how one relates to others. For me, the fact that this life is all there is makes more imperative the importance of everyone being able to make the best of the one life they have. There is no heavenly compensation to satisfy the yearnings of people who are suffering here and now. All people have a right to, at minimum, adequate food, shelter, clothing, and health care, and there is no excuse for societies not being structured to provide them with those necessities.

Similarly, all people have a right to seek happiness wherever they can and with whomever they wish as long as they are not harming others. Hence gays, lesbians, and transgendered people are entitled to every right enjoyed by others, and atheists oppose objections to their behavior based on reasons like “god considers such acts sinful and they will go to hell” or because some religious text forbids it. (It is only such kinds of reasoning that is rejected. There may be atheists who disapprove of homosexuality on other grounds, such as that it is ‘not natural’ (whatever that may mean), but that is a different issue not involving religion.)

The same reasons that lead atheists to reject god also lead them to reject the idea of an independent soul that can survive the body. The problems of reconciling the idea of a non-material soul (or mind) interacting with the material brain and body are just as great as trying to figure out how a non-material god interacts with the material world. So I would argue that another corollary of being an atheist is to reject the idea of having a soul that can exist independently of the body. One can retain a concept of a ‘soul’ as long as it is merely a euphemism for the mind, a creature of the brain that ceases to exist when a person dies.

The idea that there is no god out there setting the standards of ethical and moral behavior also means that, rather than fighting to see which version of religious morality and behavior should prevail, atheists believe that we have to figure out what are the common bases on which we can live with one another in peace and justice in the world.

So in other words, the fact that atheism correlates with rejection of an afterlife and souls and religious text-based moral and ethical values means that the whole package has the trappings of a philosophy. But actually they are the almost independent consequences of having a philosophical naturalism philosophy that uses a scientific approach (empirical evidence and logical reasoning) to determine which beliefs are worthy of acceptance and which are not.

POST SCRIPT: Michael Moore on Oprah

The video of Oprah Winfrey interviewing Michael Moore on her show about his new film Sicko seems to suggest that she is going to take up the cause of a a single-payer universal health care system. (See the Post Script to this post for a preview and a clip from the film.)

If she does so, this could be a big step towards establishing such a system because the platform she has gives her a formidable ability to mobilize public opinion.

Comments

  1. Audrey says

    A bit tangential to this topic, but I would add to the list “All people have a right to, at minimum, adequate food, shelter, clothing, and health care,” that another basic right should be education (or job training). In many countries, this is taken for granted. But in others, like South Africa (where I am now), all but the poorest children have to pay school fees each year for primary and secondary education at public schools!

  2. says

    I agree, wholeheartedly, with what you have written above. So many times, I hear/read the ridiculous opinion that atheism is an empty, morbid way of life. But in reality, it’s invigorating and adds a great deal of value to the day to day. And the thought of an immaterial soul somehow interacting with a material body has always puzzled me.

  3. Thought Shaman says

    Mano,

    Here’s another formulation to extend this essay. The content already exists in this, and your prior writings. However, different representations can help in communicating a concept.

    Atheism is an outcome of a process rather than an instigator for behavior. Atheism is void of any conforming principles or directives for behavior. In other words atheism is a label rather than a state of being. Unlike some adherents of say, a Christian religion who ask “What does it mean to be Christian?” atheists do not ask “What does it mean to be an atheist?”

    To illustrate, I recently heard a 12 year old say something like “I eat meat because I’m an omnivore.” I gently explained to him that he was an omnivore because he ate meat in addition to plant based products. The label itself does not cause him to eat meat. He had the causality backwards.

    People, when referring to the philosophy of atheism mistake it to be a state of being (or an “identity” if one prefers), complete with constraints and directives, and thus attempt to figure out its philosophy.

  4. says

    Audrey,

    You are correct, I should have included education in the list.

    Thought Shaman,

    That is a very good point, nicely stated. Thanks!

  5. says

    Mano and Audrey,

    “All people have a right to, at minimum, adequate food, shelter, clothing, and health care, and there is no excuse for societies not being structured to provide them with those necessities” and add the additions of Audrey as well. I have a question about such rights which come as a consequence of being an atheist. On what basis so you think it is a right?

    Jim

  6. says

    Jim,

    Those rights are among those listed (in articles 25 and 26) in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 without dissent.

    These rights are not a consequnce of atheism (as I said, atheism is not a philosophy) but the importance that people enjoy rights on Earth becomes emphasized when there is no heaven to compensate them for hardships here.

  7. says

    Mano,

    Isn’t it just as likely that I say, “I have a right to food, shelter, clothing, & health care, even if it comes at the expense of others?”

    I can see how you arrived at your conclusion; it’s not, however, the only logical conclusion. Instead, I’d argue that they arise from a general empathy towards others (and common decency).

    It really seems like a false dichotomy to me: it’s possible for both religious & non-religious people to come to the conclusion that the suffering in the world is an awful thing. Conversely, it’s just as likely that they come to the conclusion that really, it’s not that bad as long as I’m not hungry.

  8. says

    Mano,

    That is impressive that it passed the UN without dissent although I guess voting against it would have been like taking a position that is anti-puppy or anti-baby. Too bad many of the nations that voted for it do not actually extend many of these rights to their own citizens. Do you think such human rights increased as a result of this vote? My thoughts are that certainly in some places where the UN has stepped in it has made some difference but overall I doubt that human rights have increased worldwide since 1948 when everyone agreed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Not really my question though.

    On what basis do you think these are rights?

    To be fair I agree with you that they are rights (everything you listed and that Audrey added) and the basis upon which I think this is in an absolute sense and my justification is, as you might expect, outside of myself (God). I was not trying to trick you or anything like that-I was just wondering your thoughts because you said that as a consequence of atheism one would have a heightened sense of this position. Many religions would have these rights as core values in an absolute sense which I cannot see being trumped. That was the reason for my question.

    Jim

  9. Thought Shaman says

    Jim,

    I know you asked Mano for his views, but here is my take.

    We live in a collective of moral beings. By reflecting upon the dynamic relation between this collective and its members, their relationship to other living beings and the environment, an individual can generate a collection of morals, principles, and values (metrics) to facilitate their interaction with the same. Over time, such abstractions undergo a process of refinement through practice, further analysis, observation, and contributions from others, which leads to a “shared understanding” within the collective. The collective may subsequently codify the results of this shared understanding as laws, rights, etc.

    The important point is that rights, principles, morals, values, etc. are all derivable from within the collective of moral beings. To address your specific question about the “basis” – the basis is the collective of interacting moral beings (more precisely, it is the dynamic relation between an individual and the collective).

    For some nontheists a deity, if one exists, is another moral being among all others to whom they have a duty. To them, the answer to the existence/non-existence of a deity is irrelevant, as it is unlikely to affect their principles.

  10. says

    Thanks, Thought Shaman, you have articulated much better than I could the basis on which communities of people arrive at a shared sense of what constitutes rights.

    Over a year ago, I wrote a post on morality that is related to this.

  11. says

    Thought Shaman,

    Thanks for the reply. So the basis is your opinion as tempered by your interaction with the collective. So are they rights because you say they are (as part of the collective) or are they rights because the collective says they are (so that it would be so even if you disagreed)?

    I suppose these collectives are localized and that what is a right to one collective may not be to another (for instance slavery or abortion)? Also, the concept of what is acceptable evolve over time for any one collective as well so that what may have been right once (slavery in America in the 18th and 19th centuries for instance) may be deemed later as wrong (and go back the other way again if the collective decides it is necessary or advantageous to it in some way).

    Mano, I enjoyed the post on morality as well-thanks. I love the stuff that Peter Singer comes up with. I really wonder if he really believes this stuff or if he does it just to see what the response will be-probably some of both I expect.

    Jim

  12. says

    Mano and Thought Shaman,

    I think my answer to that question is somewhat predictable. As I wrote above “To be fair I agree with you that they are rights (everything you listed and that Audrey added) and the basis upon which I think this is in an absolute sense and my justification is, as you might expect, outside of myself (God).”

    The source of the rights is rooted in the immutable character of God and as such you do not have to believe in God or even agree with the statement that they are rights for the statement to be true. The statement that they are rights is true in an absolute sense and thus does not depend upon consensus or a collective of some kind. The supposed contradictions to this view that your ‘post on morality’ argues for (Pennock I believe you cited who argues the supposed dilemma of Euthyphro) are not contradictions at all because the dilemma is false in the first place (there is a third option). Of course if Pennock (and many others over the years) gets to limit my options to those of his liking he can create an inescapable trap but that is really playing dirty pool in my opinion.

    I do think that morality and right and wrong evolve over time but only in a relative sense. That is to say for example, slavery (as it was practiced in the US in the 19th century) was wrong at the time it was practiced and it is still wrong today and it will be wrong forever even if our collective eventually thinks it is right to practice it again based upon some advantage to it (whatever that might be).

    Jim

  13. Thought Shaman says

    Jim,

    You posted that you believe that God is the basis for rights. I think Mano’s question relates to the process. Anyone can claim that a particular right derives from God. However, how do you decide whether that claim is valid?

    Now, I will get back to the question you raise.

    Since your focus is now on my interpretation of a process, I will attempt to give you my perspective. The word “opinion” is overloaded, and can cover many meanings including “belief based on insufficient evidence,” as well as statements that expound a decision based on law. I prefer to use the conjecture (hunch) -> hypothesis -> position approach, wherein any position I take results from an attempt to eliminate positions with insufficient evidence. Hence, opinion is an inappropriate term.

    I would also not use the word “tempered” as it indicates a softening of a harsh position by something that is at the very least neutral. Rather, the interaction with the collective helps me formalize or refine a conjecture as a hypothesis or position (it is possible to skip the hypothesis phase) if I find no evidence to invalidate the same.

    From my perspective as an individual the morals, values, and positions I hold may appear to hold the status of laws insofar as they do not negatively affect others. However, the use of the word law is inappropriate as I do not view them as something to follow, nor do I prescribe any punishment for not following them. It simply means that they embody the results of my understanding, and thereby guide, if not determine, my actions (Think inside out, rather than outside in).

    With the above background, the collective may codify certain morals (including rights), principles, as laws or rights for all members of the collective. The laws may or may not embody my views, hence, my use of the phrase “dynamic relation between the individual and the collective.” I tend to work to change positions, laws, rights, etc. within the collective that I deem inappropriate.

    As far as the variance of laws and rights among collectives, your observations hold. In fact, in the cases of slavery, and ethnic segregation in America, some religious people used their scriptures to uphold these institutions. I hope that the human civilization does not ever enforce such institutions again, but yes, such capability still exists within the collective.

  14. says

    Jim,

    I largely concur with Thought Shaman’s comments.

    It is one thing to say that rights come from god. But how do you determine what god’s views are on such matters?

  15. says

    Thought Shaman and Mano,

    To your first point:

    Fair enough, you’re both right my answer was incomplete in this regard but first a point of clarification and precision as we seem to be having a conversation where the precision of the words we use are very important something that is not really my strong suit (obviously). The rights are not rights because God says they are rights lest I fall into the false dilemma that some philosophers have created and that have been quoted repeatedly by many (including on this blog) as an attempt to show the self-defeating nature of theism as the source of morality. So it is not God’s ‘view’ on the matter that is important but rather it is his very character (subtle point but meaningful to me). So how do I know his character/nature which I claim to be the source of the morals I profess? Another way to ask it is (and you guys are really gonna love this for a stereotypical phrase), How is this truth revealed to me?

    There is really nothing complex about my answer (I am confident Mano saw this again and again in the research he did in writing his first book). First, I have a moral intuition much like you guys do that tells me if something is right or wrong. This intuition is shaped by the culture I live in, the family I grew up in and the media and people I interact with on a regular basis. This intuition is not perfect and can be wrong (and often is-just ask my wife as she will vouch for this I am sure). In this sense up to this point, I think we share some commonality but of course the big difference is that I believe this intuition is imprinted upon me by God himself (God created man in his own image…..you know the drill) whereas an atheist would obviously reject this notion insisting instead to relate it to nurture and natural causes only which does have very real and significant consequences as we all would agree. So first, I know what is right and wrong based upon the moral intuition that God bestowed upon me when I was created. Secondly, I know God’s nature and thus what is right and wrong from his written revelation in the form of the Bible. I believe that the Bible is God’s revelation of himself to man (among other things). Now I understand this really opens me up to some pretty serious questions, criticisms and accusations (I have read Mano’s scathing critique of the Bible written in his normal whimsical and hilarious manner that makes him so appealing to me-if you haven’t read it you should even if you already agree with him because it is truly written in a fun way-and that is an endorsement from a Christian who disagrees with 95% of the stuff in those posts) but that is my honest and unapologetic answer. I do not claim to know everything that is right and wrong-my knowledge is incomplete but some things are main and plain to me (just as I am sure they are to you but seemingly coming from a completely different direction).

    As to your second point:

    Thought Shaman thanks for your reply. I apologize for the imprecise nature of my written reflection of your thoughts. I do agree with you that your answer conveyed much more information than I gave credit for. It was not intentional but rather a result of my lack of attention to detail only (I was busy setting up and working up reactions and writing reports-I am sure you are in the same boat). It is interesting to me how far you guys take the philosophical naturalism-I would bet that less than 5% of the population looks for evidence in every single thing they think and do as you describe.

    The only thing I was trying to get at was what you actually included in your response which was that you believe your morality is not anchored to anything (other than the collective) and is justified by man himself (man is his own justification and thus right and wrong are relative and can change over time). At the time I was not sure what your position would be and thus my question.

    Also, touché on your slavery comment at the end of your post. Nice jab you got in there about Christianity and well deserved on my part-I really left myself open on that. What you say is true, some Christians used their religion to justify a horrible abomination. Remember though, man’s rationale for acts does not make them right or wrong (at least not to me). Beliefs can be misused just like guns or kitchen utensils or anything else for that matter. As far as your wish at the end of your post goes I agree completely with you but unfortunately, I am afraid that if history is any guide that we will be repeating the mistakes of the past again and again as a civilization (heck, slavery is still practiced in the world today so it has really never left us).

    Jim

  16. says

    Jim,

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

    While I can appreciate your sources of moral intuition and the Bible, on a practical level, we know that others who rely on the same sources as you can come up with opposite conclusions. Even leaving aside major issues like slavery, even among the poeple who are much like you (in your church and even your family) there will be people who have different opinions of what is right to do on a whole host of things like the death penalty, health care, welfare, and gay rights.

    How do you reconcile your views of what are rights with the views of others who claim that they too are driven by their moral intuition and the Bible, but arrive at opposite conclusions?

  17. says

    Mano,

    Sorry, I guess you really have to drag stuff out of me sometimes-sorry, I am not purposely avoiding your question. “Opposite” conclusions? I don’t know that I would agree with that-I would have to see an example to be sure of what you are asking about (the only thing I can think of is the death penalty). Now “different” conclusions I can and do see all the time. Christians vigorously debate many, many issues and rarely agree on anything. Of course we also have our issues upon which there is no compromise (e.g. there is one God, manifested in three persons eternally distinct, murder is a moral wrong, etc.) but there are many more issues where there is considerable room for differences. So why the differences?

    I guess I submit that as human beings all Christians are different. The truth that God has revealed is absolute but man’s understanding of it is not perfect. Man brings with him his own biases, his own experience and his own pride. In addition, let us never forget that being a Christian does not insulate one from error-Christians are wrong about stuff just like everyone else. To me this is common sense. Remember, God is perfect but the human beings that make up the church (a man-made institution) are not. So on certain issues Christians may have a variety of views, which reflect individual differences and biases but at the core of it all is a common value system or set of truths.

    For instance, the Bible tells me to love my neighbor as myself. Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate the concept (I am sure you have read this part for sure). Universally Christians would accept that the main and plain message here is that Jesus wants us to show compassion and help those in need when we can regardless of nationality, race or personal feelings about politics, sexuality or whatever (I do not always live up to this standard by the way-in fact all Christians fall pathetically short of the standard they are called to). Out of compassion I ought to give my neighbor food, water, shelter, medical attention, etc. when I can or when he is in need. All Christians would agree with this statement but how we go about showing this compassion is a different story. I believe that one of the key ways to show such compassion is to make these “rights” and for the governments of the world to shoulder a significant part of the burden which puts me in a liberal camp (I believe in universal healthcare for instance) and opposed to many of my more conservative brothers in Christ who might argue that the best way to show such compassion is through charities or by some other mechanism (as you know Christian groups throughout the world show compassion in many different and creative ways and most often do so with absolutely no publicity-which is the way it ought to be in my opinion). The core value is the same but the manifestation is different. Opposite conclusions no but different conclusions yes.

    There would be similar arguments for gay rights, welfare, etc. Common values but different manifestations. So all Christians believe in the basic human rights you outlined in your original post and that Audrey added (because they are main and plain truths revealed by God) but they would disagree about the mechanisms by which they were manifested within our civilization (or of course they could be wrong).

    Jim

  18. says

    Jim,

    I think I understand your comment about being able to agree on rights but not on its manifestations but it is the manifestations that represent actual policy outcomes. For example, how do we resolve the different ways that Christians interpret the commandment to love others as one should love oneself?

    As you know, many Christians supported slavery for very long periods of time. Other Christians vehemently opposed slavery. So even a seemingly clear-cut issue like slavery cannot be one of the “plain truths revealed by God.”

    Nowadays many Christians are adamantly opposed to giving gay people the same rights as others. Yet others support equal rights for gays. How do Christians decide which is god’s preferred policy?

    In other words, I cannot see how the process of divining god’s will for specific policy matters and rights is different from the process that Thought Shaman outlined above in his discussion of how rights are arrived at by the secular collective, except that Christians add the Bible to the discussion, and Muslims add the Koran, etc.

  19. Nueslim says

    “…adequate food, shelter, clothing, and health care…”

    A “right” to these things is wrong. That would indicate stealing to gather these necessities is within anyone’s rights. Or that using a proxy thief is moral (i.e. government).

    The arguments for providing ‘basics’ to people as a right falls apart when you start to codify what “adequate” is, or what exactly constitutes the minimums for shelter, clothing, health care.

    bah… it surprises me that after hundreds of years of failed socialist experiments educated people still turn to government to solve all problems. This goes beyond reason and to me looks just as bad as blind faith in religion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>