Saturday, December 31, 2005

Why Should Atheists be Good?

Cathy Seipp has a piece mainly about the counter-productive effects of teen professions of intent to remain chaste. Nothing to argue with there. Unlike most of her commentators, I got irked by the following:

"Anyway, Amy, who's a devout atheist, presented her case quite well. Although at one point, when she argued that freedom and other inalienable rights weren't granted by a Creator, and people have reason to expect these rights and are obliged to behave ethically even in a universe without God, one of the professors, sounding slightly exasperated, asked, "Why?" To her credit, Amy responded, "Uh...that's a really good question. I don't have an answer yet."

I am not so convinced that this was really to Amy's credit. If she hasn't given a little thought to the question of why she bothers to function in a Godless universe, she hasn't given much thought to her atheistic values at all. Admittedly the prof's question is somewhat vague, but we can probably guess that he was asking why atheists should be motivated and/or inspired to behave well.

Amy could have answered these questions with just a little thought. First off, atheists are motivated to behave well because they may take the well-being of the human race seriously. Incidentally, the "how" they do this is not difficult. They address the facts of the matter and seek explanations as to how humans would best be served by these facts. They then ascribe values to the various behaviours that would seem to produce the various outcomes. They do not, in other words, need divine instruction in order to devise a moral code.

The question of inspiration may seemingly be the more difficult one, however. Why bother when you know that you are about to end up as dust? Well there is a point to be made first off, that whilst it is highly likely that we ourselves will end up as dust, that there is no way of predicting for certain that humans in the future will do so, and seeing as we are not sure that we will, it is worth working towards an improvement in the human condition. Frank Tipler's discussion of how humans may have evolved to cope with the Big Crunch is just but one thought experiment in a big open question.

But is this sufficient to the task of being inspired to act well: is the knowledge that good behaviour is rational and that by doing so, we may create living conditions for humans that are way superior to those we experience today, is this knowledge sufficient to the task of everyday inspiration? A Christian, for example, will derive strength, comfort, inspiration and motivation from the thought of the presence of God, but atheists will lack for this exterior source of comfort and motivation.

And this is where an atheist needs to tap into a little known reserve, something that is rarely discussed outside of the context of the religious experience of God. There is such a thing as a sense of extraordinary rightness and awe, a sense that the whole world is somehow in the right place and the right time. It is a moment outside time, a proper appreciation of the wonder of the world, which has no need a God. This may happen infrequently, but it is worth seeking these moments for this can inform the sense of value required to behave well.

There's no need to pity fully functioning atheists. They are inspired without placebo and they think freely, for themselves, without any deferral of responsibility.


Becky said...

I agree, Carlotta. Talk about letting down the side...

This is actually a subject I've reconsidered often since having children, especially once the children began to be old enough to have discussions on the subject of religion, morality, as well as religion and morality, not to mention religion without morality and vice versa : ).

Carlotta said...

On the matter of rethinking the subject since having too! It does seem to underpin and inform almost everything else we do, and it does crop up on conversations with the kids. And I also do put all the options on the table, and cannot work out whether the older child's evident preference for humanism is a matter of my obvious bias, considered free choice, or some kind of genetic similarity!

Very Happy New Year to you and yours.

cool_stuff_or_not said...

It's good to see people that can still feel a sense of rightness without religion !

Anonymous said...

Are you really an atheist or a transhumanist? Believing in humans as future gods is still a somewhat religious belief - or at least a strongly ideological one that is externally motivated (out of your present time and present experience).

I do not really care for future humans for the simple reason they will not care about me either. :)

I care for the people that co-exist with me now. I think there is no need of other reason (or there is a better reason) to be good but out of respect for the people that co-exist with you. People now are important enough.

Carlotta said...

Great to hear that you find this a sufficient source of inspiration.

Definitions are tricky aren't they!
I'd say I was an atheist and humanist by dint of the fact that I believe that the nature of God is somehow transcendent, removed from rational explanation, cannot be explained by the normal human powers of understanding. This for me simply means that the concept is not credible.

If humans ever are to become vastly different, improved and more powerful, they would not become Gods as such, since they would appear to be in and of this world.

Therefore I think I could also describe myself as a religious atheist. I like the daily does of special sense of rightness and optimism that is usually described as a religious experience, but this comes without the anxiety of having to compel myself to try to believe in something incredible.