As an atheist, when you tell somebody that you don’t believe in Jesus, God or Thor, one of the first things you hear is that your life is now meaningless. Soon after you are accused of being incapable of morality and asked what stops you from going on a murder and rape rampage now that God is no longer there to punish you. In this fourth, and final, instalment of my Losing your religion series, I hope to address these statements and hopefully get you thinking about what morality and meaning actually is.
No God? Dude, your life is meaningless!
I’m not sure why people jump to this conclusion, or why they imagine that their own lives would feel meaningless without God. Does your life only hold meaning if you’re threatened with eternal suffering or promised eternal bliss? Why is that? Personally, since becoming atheist my life has had more meaning, not less. I know that this is my only life, and so I try to live it in a way that would leave me with the least amount of regrets on my death bed one day. I try to create memories that I can cherish, and I try different things to see if I’m missing out on anything that life has to offer. I spend time with my family, because I know that this is the only time I have with them. I try to be a kind and helpful person, because I want to be remembered as a good person and because it brings me joy to do so.
The world is a beautiful place, filled with wonder. That wonder does not disappear without God, it is enhanced. Douglas Adams said it best when he wrote, “isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?” Life is a set of experiences and I don’t see how the experience is improved by the introduction of the supernatural or how the supernatural makes your experiences more valid or meaningful than mine. Or is it the fact that you don’t feel special if you don’t believe you were created? Is your personality and your life worth any less if you weren’t individually chiselled from stardust by the hand of an invisible deity? Is there any good thing that you could do because you believe, that I could not do because I lack it?
Since I honestly don’t understand this way of thinking, and I really want to understand why people think this way, perhaps I should throw it to the audience: why do you find life meaningless unless it is eternal? How does the promise of reward make your life more meaningful? If a god did not personally create you, how does that change your sense of self worth? And why?
Why be moral without Jesus?
Firstly, as far as moral frameworks go, the one provided by the Christian Bible is a pretty bad one. Most of the people reading this could instantly improve the 10 commandments. Most of the people reading this could also improve the Bible historically, geographically, scientifically and morally. The Old Testament provides pages and pages of instructions for slaughtering animals and how to keep slaves, but nothing about child molestation or racism. The first four commandments don’t even relate to morality, they just speak to God’s ego. Any moral person can think of four better commandments to replace them.
Secondly, do you really mean to tell me that if some undeniable proof was found tomorrow that completely destroyed your faith in God, that you would wake up the following day and start raping and pillaging? Would you turn into an instant psychopath? Of course not. The world would be unchanged. Good people would still be good and do good things, and bad people would still be bad and do bad things. You should be doing good because you’re a good person, not because you’re afraid of God. You shouldn’t murder because you’re not a murderer, not because God said “hey, by the way, planting an axe in a person’s skull is bad, mkay?”
By and large our moral values are rooted in the fact that we are thinking creatures. Our brains allow us to feel empathy for others. Because I can imagine your pain and suffering it makes me uncomfortable. When our species was in its infancy it was harder to survive than it is now. We had to work together or die. We soon learned that helping others was a better long term survival strategy for ourselves and our society than harming them. If I harm others then nobody wants to be around me, and that leads to my social isolation and makes it harder to propagate my genes. Our empathy springs from this underlying biological morality and our ethics spring from both.
As a thinking, feeling being biologically skewed towards empathy, it makes me uncomfortable and unhappy to harm you, even if there is no Jesus or God. The opposite is true of helping you. There is a cognitive payoff, it makes me feel good. In fact chemicals like oxytocin are released in our brains if we are generous to others. No god is needed to explain this behaviour or to sustain it. Enter objective morality. Is it really wrong, without God to murder and steal? If there is no moral law giver, why is it REALLY wrong?
The answer is there is a moral law giver. It’s just not an invisible deity. We are it. Society agrees on moral law. Morality changes as society changes. It was perfectly acceptable to own slaves and burn witches not that long ago, but society has since changed its mind. Even animal blood sport, once enjoyed by many, is taboo now in most civilised countries. This is exactly what we would expect to see if the law giver was man and not god. Many of the laws in the Bible are now obsolete for that exact reason. And yet, as our consciousness shifts, we realise that some things are wrong to all of us because of our biological evolution towards empathy. This creates the illusion of an objective moral law, when in fact objective moral law is no more than a social contract based on subjective empathy shared by the majority.
Why does that scare people? Why does it scare people that something is wrong because we’ve figured out that it’s bad for society, or because our brain chemistry enforces it, as opposed to some divine dictator commanding it to be wrong? And why don’t they find it equally scary that if this divine dictator declared something bad (genocide and slavery for example) to be good, that we would have to accept that as good? Humanity is still coming to its own, and our morality will continue to shift until we have found one that best suits ourselves and the needs of humanity as a whole through discourse and social contract.
At religion’s end
I hope that this four part series has at least lifted a few eyebrows. Even if only one or two people questioned their own belief systems because of them I would be happy. In the end what I hope to promote is free though, and asking yourself what you believe and why is part of that process. For too long people have simply accepted what others tell them, especially with regards to religious matters. Ask yourself why you imagine your beliefs are better than those of others. Ask yourself if there is more evidence for your beliefs than those of any other gods, and if not, be honest about it.
If you end up discovering that your beliefs are not all they were cracked up to be, realise that it changes nothing with regards to the meaning of your life or your moral position. It doesn’t make the world uglier, or your life meaningless, it does the opposite.
Till next time! May the tomato sauce laden tentacles of the Flying Spaghetti Monster stroke your cheek. RAmen.
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