Monday Meslier: 178 – An Atheist Has More Motives for Acting Uprightly, More Conscience Than a Religious Person

It is asked what motives has an atheist for doing right.

Jean Meslier Portrait

Your host, Jean Meslier

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.

Can an atheist have conscience? What are his motives for abstaining from secret vices and crimes of which other men are ignorant, and which are beyond the reach of laws? He can be assured by constant experience that there is no vice which, in the nature of things, does not bring its own punishment. If he wishes to preserve himself, he will avoid all those excesses which can be injurious to his health; he would not desire to live and linger, thus becoming a burden to himself and others. In regard to secret crimes, he would avoid them through fear of being ashamed of himself, from whom he can not hide. If he has reason, he will know the price of the esteem that an honest man should have for himself. He will know, besides, that unexpected circumstances can unveil to the eyes of others the conduct which he feels interested in concealing. The other world gives no motive for doing well to him who finds no motive for it here.

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When I read Meslier, I am often reminded of arguments that Christopher Hitchens used to make; it makes me wonder whether Hitch read Meslier or came up with them on his own or from elsewhere. If one had a good enough memory and didn’t mind simply lifting someone else’s work, they could be a Famous Atheist if they learned all of Meslier and recited it at the faithful, in a sort of atheistic Gish Gallop.

Personally, I don’t like the question of “conscience” because I don’t think it is “a thing” other than a set of learned behaviors. We don’t steal because we have been taught not to steal. Religion, to me, other than being a mechanism for social control, fails to have a purpose other than to answer the question “why?” – it’s a bullshit answer, of course, but it’s an answer for some, anyway.

I like the idea that we learn our ideas of “right” and “wrong” from society; that that’s what society is and does – it offers some hope that humankind could learn a society in which sharing and caring were “right” and endless greed was recognized as the fail-move that it is.


  1. says

    Personally, I don’t like the question of “conscience” because I don’t think it is “a thing” other than a set of learned behaviors. We don’t steal because we have been taught not to steal.

    I’d say there are multiple reasons why most people don’t steal and don’t commit other crimes most of the time.

    As a child I was taught to steal whenever an opportunity presents itself. Stealing from family members wasn’t allowed, but everybody else was a fair game. (Yes, some of my family members were interesting people with unusual attitudes about life.) On top of that, due to my limited ability to feel certain emotions, words like “conscience,” “empathy,” or “remorse” are nothing but theoretical concepts for me. I have no personal experience with the thing called “conscience,” so I only know the theory from written texts. The idea is that after hurting somebody else or doing something bad a person would feel sad and miserable; hence people are motivated not to do anything bad in the first place so that they don’t have to feel guilty afterwards. In my opinion, this sounds like a reasonable motivation why somebody might want to abstain from committing crimes. However, this whole conscience thing obviously doesn’t work for every person—some people, like me, just are unable to feel this thing.

    Still, I don’t steal and don’t do anything illegal. Why? Because the cost/benefit analysis I have done in my head suggests that stealing is not beneficial for me.

    Petty theft is, literally, not worth the effort. You have to invest your time and effort into stealing. Then there’s also the risk of getting caught and being punished. The reward? A few dollars. It’s simply not worth it. Getting a legal job is simpler.

    Mistreating people I know doesn’t seem beneficial either. People have a tendency to treat me well if I also treat them nicely. In my opinion, that’s a pretty good reason why I should treat others well. On top of that, if I want to enjoy the company of some person, I’d rather not do anything that could make them upset or sad or angry. If I go for a dinner with somebody and this person’s wallet goes missing, I’m not going to enjoy the dinner, because the other person will be upset about the missing wallet. Lying to people is also a huge hassle. For that I’d have to memorize each lie I have told to each person, I’d also have to invent credible lies; all that’s such a hassle that I prefer not to do it.

    The textbook sociopath has a tendency to manipulate people and drain their resources. For example, you befriend somebody, convince them to lend you money, and disappear with the money afterwards. Such schemes are a huge pain, so I’d definitely not try pulling off something like this. For it to succeed, you’d need to act, lie, pretend. It’s not like I have no acting skills at all, it’s just that I perceive acting as exhausting. I don’t even like being around people unless I can arrange for the social interaction to happen on my terms in a way that’s comfortable for me. My current job is such that I can be alone and have little interaction with my clients. I like that. I prefer drawing fluffy cats rather than try scamming people out of their money.

    Ultimately, I don’t steal only because I don’t perceive it as beneficial for me. If an opportunity arose and I could easily steal lots of money with little effort and no risk, there would be nothing to really hold me back from stealing. (Incidentally, I have stolen in past. Years ago. I didn’t feel guilty. I didn’t feel a thing, really.)

  2. consciousness razor says

    Personally, I don’t like the question of “conscience” because I don’t think it is “a thing” other than a set of learned behaviors.

    You quoted Meslier describing it as based on our knowledge of people and “the sentiments which our actions must awaken in them.” (Reminds me a lot of Hume, although this was written a few decades earlier.) It’s fairly clear that he thinks this knowledge is gained through ordinary, real-world experience — that is, it’s empirical — not from other sources like revelation which he finds incredible.

    Anyway, if you want to characterize it this way, I’d say that’s alright. I don’t know what you think is significant about saying it’s a set of learned behaviors (rather than not a set of learned behaviors, whatever that entails), but sure, have at it.

    However, (1) that is a thing even if it’s nothing other than a thing of that sort. It’s an odd statement of yours, to try to suggest it’s not a thing but also that it belongs in a particular category of things. Also, (2) experiences are exactly the sorts of things which are learned throughout the course of our lives, whether they’re about ourselves, others, the likely consequences of our actions, or what have you. So, it doesn’t look like you’re actually disagreeing with Meslier on this particular point, just using different terminology.

    We don’t steal because we have been taught not to steal.

    This may be where you start to disagree with Meslier. Or at any rate, he wasn’t claiming in that passage that it’s all taught by someone. That wouldn’t follow from merely having “learned” it. For example, you can learn the sky is blue by seeing it for yourself, and you need no authorities (or any other sort of person) to teach you such things. What’s needed is just your own experience that the world is a certain way, rather than some other way.

    Similarly, you come to learn the value of your property in your life, that other people are no different, that stealing would obviously deprive them of this, and so forth. Among other things, you can also learn that you depend a great deal on other people and care about them. All these things come very naturally to us, at least for normal people and not sociopaths, etc., given enough time and an appropriate environment to have the relevant experiences.

    Granted, I’m putting more emphasis on empiricism (or saying it more explicitly) compared to Meslier; but I think it’d be very difficult to understand what he is saying, if we should interpret him as being opposed to that.

  3. consciousness razor says

    (Reminds me a lot of Hume, although this was written a few decades earlier.)

    Actually, now that I’m looking at the dates…. Meslier died in 1729, and the Testament was published posthumously. Hume’s Treatise was first published in 1738. So, roughly one decade between publications, not a few. (Of course I have no idea how much earlier it may have been written, before Meslier died.)

  4. cvoinescu says

    We don’t steal because we have been taught not to steal.

    I think it’s actually way more interesting than that. I’m pretty sure it’s been proven that even human babies and some animals have a concept of fairness, so there might be more to the “no stealing” bit than learned behavior. How that instinct for fairness interacts with other context, learning, and indoctrination is complicated, and I’m sure it can be steered into “it’s not fair to steal”, or “it’s fair to steal because they got their stuff unfairly”, or any number of more complex ideas. I’m sure you can consciously override that instinct, but it’s there — it’s not all down to what you’re taught.

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