Monday Meslier: 178 – An Atheist Has More Motives For Acting Uprightly, More Conscious, Than A Religious Person


Jean Meslier Portrait

Jean Meslier

It is asked what motives has an atheist for doing right. He can have the motive of pleasing himself and his fellow-creatures; of living happily and tranquilly; of making himself loved and respected by men, whose existence and whose dispositions are better known than those of a being impossible to understand.

Can he who fears not the Gods, fear anything? He can fear men,  their contempt, their disrespect, and the punishments which the laws inflict; finally, he can fear himself; he can be afraid of the remorse that all those experience whose conscience reproaches them for having deserved the hatred of their fellow-beings. Conscience is the inward testimony which we render to ourselves for having acted in such a manner as to deserve the esteem or the censure of those with whom we associate. This conscience is based upon the knowledge which we have of men, and of the sentiments which our actions must awaken in them. A religious person’s conscience persuades him that he has pleased or displeased his God, of whom he has no idea, and whose obscure and doubtful intentions are explained to him only by suspicious men, who know no more of the essence of Divinity than he does, and who do not agree upon what can please or displease God. In a word, the conscience of a credulous man is guided by men whose own conscience is in error, or whose interest extinguishes intelligence.

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This is one of my all-time favorites of Meslier’s arguments. If we grant man limited ability to know the will of god, which we must since men disagree and make mistakes, then it’s impossible for a person to know that they are doing right or wrong in god’s eyes – barring the notable exceptions in the various versions of the ten commandments. Indeed, even the transcriptionists of the ten commandments couldn’t know what god thought was right or wrong, because they’re different between Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 – and different, still, from Cecil B. DeMille’s version that most Americans mistake for canon.

Given that people who believe they are following a divine morality are almost certainly mistaken to some degree or another, the atheist actually has to think about what is right and wrong, to them. And when the atheist transgresses, they are transgressing against their own values, their own decisions. As a moral nihilist I’ve long felt that it’s actually the most honest path: you must acknowledge that there is no reason to hold the values that you do, other than that you have chosen them – betraying them means violating your own world-view, or believing nothing at all. Note, I do not use the word “nihilist” to mean “someone with no beliefs” but rather “someone who is unconvinced of the basis for belief.” In that sense, our beliefs are our opinions and that makes mine extra-important to me, though I can’t blame you if you think they’re silly.

Meanwhile, the religious person has to confront and cope with the stream of contradictory and flatly immoral views promoted by faith, and has no ability to defend their opinions at all; they point a finger at god and say “what he said.” Which is sad because god hasn’t said anything for a very long time, if ever.

Comments

  1. Jessie Harban says

    As a moral nihilist I’ve long felt that it’s actually the most honest path: you must acknowledge that there is no reason to hold the values that you do, other than that you have chosen them – betraying them means violating your own world-view, or believing nothing at all.

    So what happens when you run into people who’ve chosen a worldview based on white supremacy? Or personal enrichment at other people’s expense? By denying morality any basis and reducing it to a personal opinion, you have no grounds to object to any atrocity— after all, the people who carried it out simply chose a different set of views (or believe nothing at all).

    You can’t even accuse them of violating their own beliefs because they’re free to change their beliefs on a moment’s notice, or to create a double standard where anything they do is acceptable under their beliefs.

    Meanwhile, the religious person has to confront and cope with the stream of contradictory and flatly immoral views promoted by faith

    Case in point, perhaps— just a paragraph after claiming moral views are opinions, you claim that the views promoted by faith are “immoral.” Under your own stated beliefs, they’re only immoral in your opinion; there’s no shortage of people who base their worldviews on them.

  2. Les Black says

    Jessie H., so if we as mere humans are not up to the task of establishing our own moral order, how do we go about deciding from which god to take instruction? You see, your concerns re our moral choices aren’t solved by picking a god to whom we must defer. WE still have to do the picking. Ultimately we are still left having to consult our own moral compass.
    Secondly, even if mankind isn’t capable of developing a consensus on an effective moral order (I in fact think we can), despairing about our fate is immaterial to the truth. Either we can do it or we can’t. If we can’t, no amount of fear or sorrow will change that. But people who say that we must therefore turn to a god for no other reason than we need one to make our choices for us, because otherwise things will be terrible, are making an argument from consequence – a logical fallacy.

  3. says

    Jessie Harban@#1:
    So what happens when you run into people who’ve chosen a worldview based on white supremacy? Or personal enrichment at other people’s expense? By denying morality any basis and reducing it to a personal opinion, you have no grounds to object to any atrocity— after all, the people who carried it out simply chose a different set of views (or believe nothing at all).You can’t even accuse them of violating their own beliefs because they’re free to change their beliefs on a moment’s notice, or to create a double standard where anything they do is acceptable under their beliefs.

    I do believe I can criticize someone for contradicting their stated opinions, if only because they’re wasting their time saying one thing while they believe another. Unless there’s some reason to lie (in which case, it’s my opinion that they are being weak or afraid, which is fine but doesn’t impress me much) then lying means telling oneself an untruth, which seems, again, to be counterproductive – but that’s my opinion based on my own ideas of efficiency and aesthetics. Shorter me: “why bother?”

    Case in point, perhaps— just a paragraph after claiming moral views are opinions, you claim that the views promoted by faith are “immoral.” Under your own stated beliefs, they’re only immoral in your opinion

    Correct! I can only speak my opinion. Isn’t that the case for all of us?

    I prefer not to junk up my writing by speaking as a pyrrhonian skeptic does: “it appears to me now that…” or “it would seem as though” etc. Like most people, I’m comfortable acting as though my opinion is the one that matters most. The difference is that I acknowledge it matters most to me and I’m comfortable giving you the wiggle room of dismissing it.

  4. says

    Jessie Harban@#1:
    By denying morality any basis and reducing it to a personal opinion, you have no grounds to object to any atrocity

    I object on the grounds that “I don’t like it.”

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