Gods and snakes

I have noticed recently that religious believers no longer try to argue that belief in god is justified in itself but have settled for trying to put religion on a par with disbelief, as purely a matter of choice.

For example, religious believers who are disturbed by the argument made by atheists that belief in god is irrational sometimes respond by saying that since we cannot prove that there is no god, then atheism involves as much a ‘belief’ religion, and thus both are equally rational or irrational. Ricky Gervais provides a good response to that by pointing out that “Atheism isn’t a belief system. I have a belief system but it’s not “based on” atheism, it’s just not based on the existence of a god. I make none of my moral, social, or artistic decisions based on any god or superstitions. Saying atheism is a belief system is like saying not going skiing is a hobby. I’ve never been skiing. It’s my biggest hobby. I literally do it all the time.”

He is right but I want to expand on that idea a bit in my more pedestrian style.

Atheism does not automatically provide one with a philosophy or a system of ethics or morals. But that does not mean that atheists have none of those things or that there are no behavioral consequences for being an atheist. They just come from sources other than a belief in a god.

Here is an example. Suppose someone moves into a house and for whatever reason believes that there is a poisonous snake somewhere in it that has somehow managed to evade all attempts to detect, locate, or remove it. Such people will consciously adopt a lifestyle that takes the possible existence of a snake into account. They will turn on the lights in the room before going in, will look down as they walk, they will open cupboards, drawers, and closets gingerly and be ready to jump back if they see a snake, they will examine their shoes and clothes before wearing them, and so on. They will look for signs of the snake’s presence and be alert for snake-like sounds. After awhile, these behaviors will become routine and done unthinkingly. Furthermore, the behavior of all people of who believe that there are snakes in their houses will be quite similar.

Now take someone who does not believe there are any poisonous snakes in the house. Such a person will behave quite differently from the believer, not doing any of the precautionary things that the snake-believer does. But unlike the snake-believer whose behavior is based on that belief, the behavior of the nonbeliever is not based on that nonbelief. She does not act as any part of a conscious or planned strategy based on the absence of snakes. She does not go around sticking her hands into sock drawers simply because no harm will come from doing so. The nonbeliever does not say to herself, “I will stick my hand into the sock drawer without looking first because I believe there is no snake there” or “I will put on my shoes without first checking inside because I believe there are no snakes.” Snakes simply do not enter her consciousness.

So while the behavior of a believer in the snake derives from that belief, the behavior of the non-believer does not derive from that non-belief, even though the behavior of the nonbeliever will be quite different from that of a believer. Non-belief does not prescribe behavior. As a result, there will be no consistent pattern of behavior among non-believers, unlike the much more uniform behavior of believers. Some non-believers may look down when they walk, others may not. There is no way of predicting.

The analogy with religion holds pretty closely. A person who believes in a god will behave in ways that are guided by their religious belief. On a practical level, if you are a Hindu, you are likely to not eat beef. If a Muslim or Jew you will avoid pork. But if you are an atheist, there is no predicting what you will eat. Atheists can be found in the entire spectrum of diets, from vegans to fast-food addicts. Those decisions will be idiosyncratic and depend on personal choices based on a multitude of sources since non-belief does not provide a unifying principle or idea.

More significantly, the idea that there is a god who can punish you with eternal hellfire if you disobey him or reward you with heaven if you do obey results in people trying to figure out what god wants from them and acting accordingly. Since their belief significantly influences their behavior, they make the mistake in thinking that non-belief drives atheists’ behavior. Religious people seem to think that atheists decide how to behave by reasoning along the lines of “Since there is no god to judge and punish me, I can lie and cheat and steal.”

This is false. If you don’t believe that god exists, you simply do not factor the absence of god into one’s behavior or one’s moral and ethical makeup, just the way the behavior of the non-believer in snakes is not driven by the absence of snakes.

It must be hard for believers in god, for whom that belief is so important, to appreciate that we atheists simply do not factor it into our daily lives. The absence of god is simply taken for granted.


  1. Henry says

    Imagine the discussion trying to convince the snake believer there is no snake.

    Have you ever seen a snake?


    Heard a snake?


    Seen dead skin or any other evidence?


    Can’t you see… Most likely there is no snake.

    But I know there is.

    Watch. I’ll walk right in that room without making any noise and see if I can see one.


    You realize that if you accepted that there is most likely no snake your life would be better.

    No snake? If I believed that I would run around naked in the middle of the night with all the light off!

    Why would you do that?

    Because there is no snake!

  2. says

    Without verbal cues, it’s hard to tell, but I’m guessing that Henry is implying that running around naked in one’s house at night would be a silly reaction to the no-snake belief. But no particular state of activity or dress follows from the no-snake belief, so the judgment that naked enthusiasm is silly must depend on some additional moral awareness.

    What is the basis for moral judgments for an atheist? Specifically, what is your moral code and how is it derived? There was an interesting discussion about this on NPR late last year called “Can Science Shape Human Values? And Should It?” During the discussion, Sam Harris noted that “at least it is conceivable that there are moralities not based on flourishing and suffering”. For example, “[t]here are alternative moralities that put a value on, say, harmony of nature, preservation of the species, glorification of the nation, following god’s commandments.” I think that morality (that is, a system for deciding whether actions are good or bad) is a chosen set of assumptions (heavily influenced by culture, of course) that individuals build upon to form their society. Would not a set of assumptions of this kind be a belief?

    Consider the source of our moral sense with respect to a number of common contemporary realities: nature, the Earth, life, death, humanity, suffering, human flourishing, one’s country (e.g. the United States), immigration, democracy, kleptocracy, capitalism, socialism, philanthropy, war, economic growth, property, freedom, pleasure, pain, health, education, ignorance, safety, risk, progress, science, innovation, technology, leisure, family, community, independence, travel, mobility, law, justice. To name a few. Even the deceptively common system of artificial modesty that requires nearly universal body coverings. What is the basis for our moral perspective on these facets of our existence? Does something uphold that moral perspective other than a belief?

    What does our society believe, in aggregate, about the morality of the above points as well as others? To what degree is that affected by a particular religious system? What else has affected that moral structure? What are the implications of that moral structure?

  3. Henry says

    I’m not sure what your point is John. But if you’re saying that ideas like democracy have a belief system behind them then I agree.

    However, there is a difference between a society deciding what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and a guy coming down from the mountain with a list.

    My comment above is based on my personal relationships with many ‘believers.’ I have heard many say that if there was no god they would be “drunkards” and “sinners.” It’s as if the belief in a god is keeping them in check. Kind of sad really. Even more so because one of the people who said that is a family member.

  4. says


    One chooses to live by certain principles and one can call them beliefs if one likes. These principles can be arrived at in many different ways and persuasiveness is the only power they have to becoming universally adopted.

    Religious texts could be one source of principles but they have to be universally adopted the same way that any secular set of principles would have to be, by being persuasive on their own merits. Saying that they come from a religious text should not automatically confer any advantage.

    Take for example the so-called golden rule. I think it is a good rule. Christians think it comes from Jesus but it is found in other religions that predate Christianity and in secular philosophies. The fact that Jesus said something along those lines does not give it any advantage nor should it disqualify it. It is just irrelevant. The point is whether the golden rule is something that we could build a community around and that is a judgment that can be made without religion.

  5. says

    The golden rule is a valuable example of a broadly understood moral principle. Does the golden rule play a significant role in how our society is structured? If not, what other moral principles form the basis for our society?

    From my list, Henry pulled out democracy. Is the golden rule the—or one of the—moral principles upon which democracy is structured? Do we (in general) believe in democracy as its own core moral principle?

    I ask these questions because I believe that understanding our sense of morality, and (as I asked earlier) the implications of that morality, are foundational to the work of justice.

  6. Henry says

    I’m still not clear on your point John. Are you saying that the belief in a god drives morality and that in turn drives justice?

  7. says

    I wasn’t really making an (ultimate) point; I was asking questions, because I want to elicit first a response and then a discussion. Maybe we could get together and discuss it over beer. Meanwhile, I stumbled across a pointed essay by Dmitry Orlov, Financial Totalitarianism that beautifully illustrates some examples of morality in an area that deeply concerns me.

    Most of us lack the ability to sever all ties with the financial realm, but, as with so many things, having the right attitude is very helpful. To that end, let me drop a Bible-bomb on you. (I do this as someone quite free of any religious sentiment; I just find the Bible to be an interesting and useful work of world literature, filled with highly quotable, pithy remarks.) Here’s a particularly nice quote from the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Never has a truer phrase been written. Many of the more recent self-styled or so-called “Christians” have attempted to distort it to mean that it doesn’t imply depriving yourself of any worldly goods, and that “poor in spirit” is a special, strictly spiritual sort of poverty. That is, of course, nonsense. You do not have to dig deep for the real meaning: “Poor” just means “poor,” and “in spirit” means “on purpose, not as a result of, say, injustice, misfortune, or being lazy, stupid or a gambler.” Oh, and “blessed” means “not damned.” Accordingly, Christian monks take the vow of non-acquisitiveness, which is a virtue, with the corresponding vices of stinginess (“what is mine is mine”) and greed (“what is yours is mine”). It is rather difficult to embrace such basic tenets while remaining within a culture that has elevated avariciousness and rapaciousness to the status of virtues. But here is a key insight: being poor on purpose is much easier than being poor as a result of suddenly having less than you are accustomed to having. Voluntary poverty is a hell of a lot easier than involuntary poverty.

    What are the contrasting moral principles that Dmitry describes? What do you think of them? How should we evaluate them (for example, for “persuasiveness”, as Mano suggests)?

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